Posts Tagged ‘Social Sciences’

We Can’t All Be Math Nerds & Science Geeks

April 4, 2015

This is the title of a Outlook piece in the March 29th edition of the Washington Post. by Fareed Zakaria.  His article excoriates our obsession with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and argues that it will make it harder for America to innovate.  He quotes Florida governor Rick Scott’s rhetorical question “Is it vital to the state to have more anthropologists?” and supplied the governor’s answer, “I don’t think so.”  Well I would argue that many, if not most, of Florida’s problems involve people which implies the social sciences of which anthropology is one.  The failure to recognize that social science is science and that the study of the many areas of psychology provide an understanding of the many areas in which the scientific method is being applied is not generally understood  (enter “STEM” into the healthymemory blog search blog to find relevant posts).  Zakaria provides statements by Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg attesting to the importance of liberal arts in the tech world.  Although I, being a liberal arts major, strongly believes in the value of a liberal arts education, I do not agree with his conclusion that everything is hunky dory.  I think there are serious problems in the educational system and that some of them can be found in the hard sciences, engineering, and mathematics.

I am an applied cognitive psychologist who designs experiments and uses statistics.  I work intimately with hard scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.  Please understand that what I am going to write does not apply to all scientists, engineers, and mathematicians as many are brilliant scholars and read widely.  And due to their scholarship and wide reading they have covered up large holes in their formal training.  All scientists and engineers understand the data analyses of their research areas.  But there knowledge is specific to their research areas.  I view them more as technicians than as scientists.  Similarly with mathematicians.  I know mathematicians with a very deep knowledge of certain areas of mathematics, but who do not know the basics of experimental design or statistical analysis.  Zakaria extols education in critical thinking, and I strongly agree with him.  However, I have never seen a book on critical thinking that includes the general linear model (GLM).  The GLM is not some esoteric mathematical formula.  It can be understood by anyone who has had a course in high school algebra.  And it forms the basis of thinking about factors and how they interact.  It needs to be explicitly included in books and courses on critical thinking.

Moreover, I think it important that statistics be taught no later than high school.  Only students who go on to certain fields will need trigonometry or calculus, but every individual needs to have some fundamental understanding of statistics to be an effective citizens and to make informed decisions on their personal lives.  They need to understand both descriptive and inferential statistics.  I believe courses can be made simple enough so that all can have at least a rudimentary understanding of these important disciplines.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Everything is Obvious* How Common Sense Fails Us

July 20, 2014

The asterisk in the title points to “once you know the answer.” This is the title of an interesting and important book by Duncan J. Watts. Duncan majored in physics as an undergraduate and finished with a Ph.D, in engineering. His dissertation was on the mathematics of small-world networks. However, after finishing his formal education he came to the conclusion that most of the important problems that needed to be addressed were in the social sciences.

I certainly agree with Dr. Watts. In the past I’ve written how it was a mistake to exclude psychology from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines. Unfortunately when the sciences are mentioned people tend to think of the hard sciences and engineers wearing lab coats. Indeed in 2006 Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson proposed to cut the entire social science budget of the National Science Foundation. So she was, in effect, recommending that the NSF budget be cut where it is most needed.

Everything is Obvious is divided into two parts: Part One is titled “Common Sense,” Part Two is titled “Uncommon Sense.” One of the problems is that too many people think of the social sciences as dealing with problems that can be solved with common sense. Moreover, common sense has favorable connotations. Dr. Watts disabuses us of this notion, showing how common sense is often wrong, and that many problems remain unsolved because of mistaken notions regarding common sense. Dr. Watts elaborates on the difficulties of most important problems and the difficulties involved in making accurate predictions. Finally, he discusses approaches for dealing with these apparently intractable problems.

Everything is Obvious should be a must read not only for the sciences, but for anyone interested in any activity, be it politics, business, marketing, philanthropy, that involves understanding, predicting, changing, or responding to the behavior of people.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Happy Holidays from Healthymemory Blog!

December 24, 2011

The Healthymemory Blog will be taking a brief hiatus until 2012. Although there will be no new posts until 2012, there are 258 posts for your perusal. As its name implies, the Healthymemory Blog is devoted to the promotion of healthy memories. Posts are divided into three categories:

Human memory includes relevant posts regarding how memory works, its strengths and failures, as well as factors and practices that benefit memory.

Mnemonic techniques includes relevant posts on techniques that not only improve recall, but also provide beneficial brain and cognitive exercise.

Transactive memory includes posts on how to interact with fellow humans and to best use technology to promote cognitive growth.

The overall objective is to promote cognitive health throughout our lives, and not to just reduce or stop cognitive decline, but to continue to grow mentally as we age.


August 18, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain, we once thought that environment determines mental potential and that today we think that genes determine mental potential. Here I must take strong exception to Brave New Brain. There were some philosophical arguments that the mind began as a blank plate, tabula rasa, and that experience was written on that plate. The father of behaviorism, John Watson, argued that he could take an infant and raise it to be anything, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, a physician, a lawyer, another psychologist. For him the environment determined everything and that if the proper environments were provided a child could become anything.

Even before Mendel discovered genes, there was the notion of blood and royalty. Certain people were regarded as inherently superior to others. When genes were discovered, some thought that there might be a scientific basis for this superiority, and that genetics could account for individual differences. According to Brave New Brain, that is the current belief. This is certainly not the case. Early in the twentieth century intelligence tests were developed. Arguments as to know much intelligence is attributable to genetics and how much intelligence is attributable to the environment raged. Charges of racism entered these arguments and charges and evidence that IQ tests were culturally biased raged. It should be noted that there are statistical techniques and research designs (controlled identical twins studies, for example) that allow estimates of what percentage of intelligence is genetically determined and what percentage is due to the environment. But these are statistical abstractions. Nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) are inextricably intertwined; they never appear in isolation.

The recent birth of the study of epigenetics has highlighted the interaction between the environment and genetics. The genome cannot be considered alone. Another layer of information stored with the genome is called the epigenome. It is a chemical switch that determines which genes are activated and which genes remain dormant. It does not alter the genetic code, but affects the specific expression of genes. It shuts down or revs up the production of proteins that affect mental states.

Today we know the role of epigenetics. The question for the future is how well can we develop our understanding of epigenetics and whether we can use it to enhance brain function. Research using mice provides reasons for optimism. One study involved mice that were born with genetic disorder resembling mental retardation. They were given a drug that activated epigenetic activity three hours before a training session. They exhibited no learning problems. So perhaps someday mental retardation might be remedied via epigenitic manipulation.

Drugs are not necessarily required for epigenitic manipulation. Researchers at MIT restored mouse memories by enriching the rodents environment. Not only were memories restored but evidence of epigenetic activity was found. Research on the benefits of enriching environments was done years ago, but that was before anyone had ever heard of an epigenome.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.