Thoughts on Psychology

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Focus on a Media Storm

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In this article from the health section of the BBC News site, a study is reported that shows that the brains of women with low libido – “Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder” in the parlance of the drug companies pushing the concept for commercial purposes – show different patterns of activation when exposed to erotic imagery than the brains of women with “normal” libido. The conclusion pushed by the writer, despite some dissenting voices at the bottom of the article, is that HSDD is a “real” condition with a physical cause. This is a pretty common feature of poor reporting – a psychological “condition” is invented, some brain scans are done, and the presence of a difference between groups is used to both confirm the existence of the condition, and to explain its cause in brain operation. There’s been a bit of a media storm reporting this study, the Daily Telegraph for example going with the headline “Women with low libidos ‘have different brains'”.

Whenever you get this kind of (over) reaction to a piece of research or news, it’s worth looking to see what the Daily Mash website makes of it. More seriously though, there has been a gratifying slew of blog posts pointing out problems with the study itself, its conclusions, and the media’s reporting of it.

A good starting point on problems with the study is given at Neuroskeptic, but other issues are raised in the following posts.

There’s a very good piece on the problems of the conclusions drawn from the study on Bad Science. In this post, Ben Goldacre draws on an article on public responses to neuroscience. This article is well worth reading, to better understand the public’s reaction to psychological claims but also to better understand the limitations of neuroscientific claims in psychology generally. While on the Bad Science post, it’s worth looking at the links at the end on the medicalisation of psychological categories: this is a worrying trend in modern society, driven particularly by vested interests such as drug companies.

My favourite post about the study comes from Dr Petra’s blog, which talks about issues with the media reporting of the study itself, but more importantly draws conclusions about the quality of science journalism. These conclusions are quite pessimistic, but fairly so, and are worth bearing in mind whenever you read media reports about psychology.

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Written by daijones

November 3, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Biological Determinism and Violence Against Women

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When I talk about biological determinism I usually discuss its impact on views of human nature and on social policy. Here are a couple of examples that.

I have talked about how biological determinism often suggests that sexual violence is an act of lust or desire, as opposed to seeing it as an act of psychopathic violence against, particularly, women. This reflects a general body of views of gender relations amongst some in society. Fortunately this has been changing as society changes, particularly in response to feminism. I fear the acceptance of strong biological determinist views will set back such changes, and more to the point that such claims are advanced specifically in order to set back those changes, in relation to views of class, gender, race, and other characteristics that distinguish between groups. It’s difficult in the modern day to appreciate quite how bad the position of women in society has been. Historically, the English legal system characterised women as the property of men, either fathers or husbands, and this was reflected in laws around property inheritance, divorce, and sexual violence: see for example the practice of wife selling, practiced in England from the late 17th century to the late 19th. As part of this constellation of views, in times past rape has been seen as a crime against the man who owns the woman, rather than against the woman herself, akin to theft. The still quite widespread view of sexual violence as a crime of lust is reflected in phrases such as “she was asking for it”, suggesting a degree of culpability on the part of women in arousing the passions of vulnerable men. This can have some quite devastating consequences, particularly around the difficulty in obtaining convictions for rape. Even when convictions are obtained, the view can have a chilling effect, and this is where we finally get to the example I promised in the opening paragraph. There was a notorious case in the 1980s of a convicted rapist being given a fine, because his victim had dressed provocatively and was therefore guilty of “contributory negligence” – the legal equivalent of “she was asking for it”. In other cases one judge described an 8 year old victim as “not entirely an angel”, and another suggested a 12 year old victim was “asking for trouble”. There are a number of examples of the outrageous views of the judiciary here:
http://www.truthaboutrape.co.uk/2005campaign.html
The worst example to my mind is that of Sir Harold Cassel QC. I can’t bring myself to write about it.

My second example relates to the practice of forced sterilisation of the feeble minded, that I’ve mentioned several times. One of the most famous cases is that of Carrie Buck, mostly because a case was brought before the US Supreme Court seeking permission to sterilise her, which was given. It’s a tragic story, and I strongly recommend that you read about it here:
http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2009-06-23-eugenics-carrie-buck_N.htm
and here:
http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/columnist/vergano/2008-11-16-eugenics_N.htm
There are a number unpleasant comments to the second article, but it’s worth reading a few to get a feel for people’s views on the issue.

Written by daijones

November 3, 2011 at 11:47 pm

The Lay Scientist on eugenics

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Written by daijones

March 6, 2011 at 11:49 pm

A short history of race and racism

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The Advances in the History of Psychology blog is currently running a series of posts giving bibliographies in different areas. The latest is on race and racism in psychology, and in this case the post consists of a brief history of psychology’s engagement with race, together with suggested reading. You can see the post here:

http://ahp.apps01.yorku.ca/?p=922

Written by daijones

March 4, 2011 at 3:01 am

Posted in Quick Link

Science and politics

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A bit of a storm in the science world recently, when a researcher suggested that the reason women were under-represented in scientific fields was because they’re intrinsically less capable of scientific thinking. There was uproar from those who reject the notion of essential, biologically founded gender differences in higher cognitive functioning, as you might expect. Then there was the usual response from those who are pro difference: claims that that they’re the ones doing proper science, and finding “facts”; and any refusal to accept those facts is no more than political correctness. Cordelia Fine, author of the excellent Delusions of Gender, responds to those arguments here:

http://blogs.plos.org/blog/2011/02/11/let’s-say-good-bye-to-the-straw-feminist/

This is one instance of the usual argument, but the take home message is about the way the argument always plays out: on one side, people claim to be proper scientists who objectively find the truth, and any gain sayers are politically motivated; and on the other, there are people pointing out that the so called science is confounded by a range of social variables, and the claims that are made are unsupportable. We see the same argument in terms of race difference research amongst other areas. In terms of what we cover on the degree, the first side represent examples of what we describe as the “myth of objectivity”, claims of scientific truth being used to hide a political agenda.

Written by daijones

February 16, 2011 at 1:18 am

Wakefield’s MMR study a fraud

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Not only is Andrew Wakefield unethical, the latest research published in the British Medical Journal shows that his original study, that started the whole MMR/autism scare, was fraudulent:

http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c5347.full

Written by daijones

January 8, 2011 at 12:40 am

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Inside the Battle to Define Mental Illness

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A good article in Wired on criticisms of the development of the latest revision of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, DSM-V. The process seems to be marked by an increasing medicalisation of psychological phenomena, including the invention of new disorders; and particularly the identification of disorders that pharmaceutical companies have suggested treatments for. Perhaps not surprising given that 62% of those drawing up the manual have links to the drug companies…

http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/12/ff_dsmv/all/1

Written by daijones

January 7, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Posted in Quick Link