Thoughts on Psychology

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Gendered therapy

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Nice example of how psychological diagnosis and treatment has been used to reinforce and impose stereotypical behaviour:

Advances in the History of Psychology

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Written by daijones

January 2, 2012 at 10:47 pm

More shoddy science reporting from the BBC

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An exciting headline on the BBC News website recently:

Alzheimer’s: Diet ‘can stop brain shrinking’

Alzheimer’s is a devastating illness and anything that can help prevent or delay its onset, or lessen it’s severity, is to be welcomed. The headline, and in part the article that follows, suggest that diet can reduce brain shrinkage in later life and so act protectively against Alzheimer’s.┬áThere are a couple of problems here though, that should be quickly apparent if you read the article with a sceptical eye. The first is in the suggestion that the article has anything to do with Alzheimer’s: the research wasn’t conducted on Alzheimer’s sufferers, and participants weren’t followed longitudinally to see if there was a differential incidence of Alzheimer’s developing. So, the research can’t actually tell us anything about Alzheimer’s. To be fair to the article, this is mentioned. In the penultimate paragraph.

A bigger problem, potentially, is with the interpretation of the research itself. The article takes an unambiguous position that a diet high in vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids caused a reduction in brain shrinkage with age. However, the research didn’t find this. Rather, it found a correlation between blood nutrients and brain volume: as a quasi-experiment, even if the test used a difference statistic then the result is essentially correlational. And correlation doesn’t prove causation. There are a number of possible reasons for the results found, given the pre-existing evidence that education and intellectual effort increases brain complexity and volume. Off the top of my head, it may be that people who are well educated tend to have higher brain volumes, and also tend to eat healthier diets. Or people from higher socio-economic groups tend to be both more highly educated, and are more likely to follow (and be able to afford) a healthy diet.

To eliminate these possibilities, you’d hope that the original research controlled for factors including education and socio-economic status. It’s behind a paywall so I can’t check, but if they did then the BBC didn’t think to mention it. The other result reported, that there was a difference in performance on cognitive tasks in a sample of people without clinical deficits, suggests that there’s some relationship between diet and cognitive performance, but without knowing the educational history of the participants it’s impossible to decide whether diet causes differences in performance, as the article suggests; or whether it’s again a matter of better educated people tending to have better diets. The latter is certainly a strong possibility, and you’d hope that the health editor who wrote the article would discuss this.

Written by daijones

January 1, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Gender and social construction

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Nice piece by Sarah Ditum on gender as a social construct, but also as a part of our “grammar of identity” that can’t be dismissed as unimportant:

http://sarahditum.com/2011/12/29/thats-no-social-construct-thats-my-wife/

Written by daijones

December 29, 2011 at 3:03 am

“Objectivity” and the View from Nowhere

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There’s a nice piece here on the “View from Nowhere” in journalism. This is described as a position where it is assumed that objectivity can be achieved by refusing to adopt a position towards a news story. Rather than delivering a story from a particular perspective, the reporter is expected to present the views of others, and facts as others see it, achieving balance by ensuring an equal number or duration of views from different sides of contentious issues. In this model, the reporter is solely an agent transmitting the ideas of others, with as little input from their own thought processes as possible. The article argues that this is a false premise, and that it’s impossible to achieve a view from nowhere: we cannot adopt no position, and trying to hide our true position in the name of “objectivity” serves to obscure when we should aim for transparency. Worse, the article goes on to suggest, encouraging journalists to adopt a view from nowhere is to deny the expertise of the journalist, and their role in the investigation and understanding of a story. The article suggests that the journalist is a knowledge worker, not a passive channel to transmit the claims of others, and that their job should be to help us to understand a situation while being transparent about the position they are adopting towards it.

I like this article a lot, partly because I agree with it when it comes to journalism, but mainly because it’s the position I try to adopt in my lectures. Academics are employed to be knowledge producers and analysers, not relayers of received wisdom, and as such need to actively construct a position towards a body of knowledge while admitting to the factors that influence that position. That’s why my books include a biographical sketch that includes a statement of my political position, so that my position is transparent and my analysis can be understood in those terms.

 

Written by daijones

December 21, 2011 at 1:05 am

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Gender and determinism in the media

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The excellent Sarah Ditum gives yet another example of the news media taking evidence of some small gender difference, and then greatly inflating it; explaining it in terms of essential biological determinism; and criticising females:

Sarah Ditum on “girls talking too much”

The linked post does a good job of showing how media discourse mis-represents academic work, but something else in the original research struck me as interesting. The reporting suggests that girls talk about their feelings too much; an alternative interpretation of such gender differences as were found, and one that would surely improve society if it were acted upon, is that some boys need to be encouraged to open up about their feelings and be more emotionally literate, rather than seeing such opening up as ‘weird’.

Written by daijones

December 11, 2011 at 3:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Neuroscience and inequality

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Nice piece by Sarah Ditum here on how neuroscientific ideas are mangled and used to justify the neglect of the most vulnerable in society:

Pinkos and the Brain

Written by daijones

December 6, 2011 at 12:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

“Compelling”

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20111104-032150.jpg

There’s a short review of Tyson, Jones and Elcock in this month’s issue of The Psychologist:

This introduction to critical psychology explores some of the key areas in the history and current practice of the discipline. It is an extremely well structured tour, aimed at psychology students, with each chapter bookended by learning outcomes, thinking points and further reading.
The authors identify the prejudices and assumptions that are the implicit basis of much of mainstream psychology. It is really brought alive by the historical illustrations, vividly illustrating the social context in which psychology operates.
I was disappointed that they did not go on to offer any alternatives; for example, any discussion of an explicitly black or feminist psychology, or ideas of how psychology could be used as a force for social change rather than yet another way of perpetuating social inequality. I also struggled with some of the subject choices, which seemed to be based on an assumption of a white, male mainstream even though in some areas of psychology, women are the mainstream; and sexual orientation is almost absent, except as a psychiatric diagnosis. It was surprising to see a whole chapter on parapsychology but no mention of religion, given the interesting ways in which it has been both the mainstream and the oppressed at different times.
These issues aside, this is a compelling and wide-ranging book that encourages the reader to look for the moral values and cultural assumptions at the heart of the apparently unbiased science that is psychology.

The book is available here.

Written by daijones

November 4, 2011 at 3:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized