Weekly Roundup 5-12-13

Programming note: I’m pre-empting the usual WR format in order to focus on a sort of battle royale brewing between the fields of psychology and psychiatry at the moment. Spurred by the impending release of the DSM-5, “statements” are flying. Today I’m only posting on the controversy and discussion about DSM-5, which is coming out on May 22.

Psychology: The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) issues a statement in which it withdraws its support of the DSM-5.

Psychology: The head of the DSM task force, psychiatrist David Kupfer, responds to NIMH’s statement.

Psychology: The British Psychological Society is preparing a statement challenging the biomedical model upon which psychiatry is based. (The roots of this can be found in a 2011 statement issued by The British Psychological Society in which it detailed, point by point (a.k.a. proposed disorder by proposed disorder), its objections to the overall paradigm embedded in the development of the DSM-5).

Psychology: An “array” of books slated for release this month launch an all-out assault on the DSM.

Psychology: Dr. Thomas Insel, director of NIMH, says that the DSM is “out of touch” with science. He says that the DSM’s continuing focus on symptoms rather than causes of mental disorders has created “a scientific nightmare.”

Psychology: But, none of this really matters because psychiatrists won’t read the new DSM anyway.

Weekly Roundup 5-5-13

School: A pretty convincing argument about what’s wrong with American education, with suggestions for how to start fixing it.

And…a pretty convincing argument that American education is doing quite well, thank you very much, especially when compared with the rest of the world.

Psychology: Despite the recent focus on deaths resulting from mass shootings, exponentially more people die each year from suicide. In addition, suicide rates in the U.S. have spiked in recent years. Currently more people die annually from suicide than car accidents – a shocking statistic. When you look a little more closely at the numbers, men are by far the largest group to die by suicide; look even closer and you see it’s middle-aged men. Even worse, some experts think suicide is “vastly under-reported” (for a variety of reasons).

This subject has clearly touched a nerve, there are currently 968 comments on the NY Times article about the spike in suicide rates. I’ve read through many of them, and it’s quite hard; a lot of very sad stories are shared. But someone pointed out that if women were killing themselves at the rate men are, it would be a national emergency. I think that’s an excellent point. Is it time we sounded the alarm for this growing crisis affecting men’s mental health?!

Scholarship: I recently discovered Retraction Watch – a blog that tracks scientific articles that are either flagged for concern or have been retracted for a variety of reasons. It’s a little like reading a gossip column about scientists (check out the most retracted scientist of all time! Read about the scientist being investigated for embezzlement! This scientist threatened to sue Retraction Watch!) Be warned: once you start thumbing through the posts, it’s kind of hard to stop!

The Problem with Selective Selection

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Back in January, Peta Pixel shared a series of photos from Infinity Imagined that compared images of cities at night as seen from the International Space Station with neurons imaged with fluorescence microscopy. The similarities are striking and upon first blush, quite compelling.

But if you think about it, these are an excellent example of confirmation bias: finding correlation where you look for it. For every “match” between a city and a neuron, there must be many non-matches that were deliberately set aside; pictures of cities that didn’t fit the hypothesis. This kind of selective thinking occurs in many areas of life – astrologers and numerologists, for example, count on their audience remembering the “predictions” that came true while conveniently forgetting the vast majority that did not.

Lately there has been an uptick in negative press surrounding researchers in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and sociology. They are accused of regularly engaging in a form of selective thinking by bending data to reach desired conclusions. Some are even calling it a “mini crisis.” The accusations range from double-dipping data, to using too-small sample sizes, to outright fraud.

Here is a sampling of the recent bad press:

  • According to an analysis of 49 meta-analyses, the field of neuroscience produces a lot of small, low-powered studies, which leads to a lot of false and/or misleading conclusions (a.k.a. “discoveries”).
  • A scathing take-down of a study linking fist-clenching with memory. In the comments section, no less! (Another take-down was just posted on The Neurocritic).
  • A 2009 study about the practice of double-dipping (using overlapping data) in the field of neuroscience was recently making the rounds.
  • A lengthy profile in the Sunday New York Times Magazine of the eminently unlikeable Diederik Stapel, the infamous Dutch social sociologist who perpetrated perhaps the biggest academic fraud in the field of sociology (retractions to date: 53 articles and counting). (Film studies side note: Stapel’s account of going back to the sites of some his faked experiments and trying to make the actual setting fit his fabricated descriptions is strikingly similar to the sequence in Shattered Glass when Chuck Lane goes back to the locations Stephen Glass describes in his fabricated stories and tries to reconstruct the truth).

But there may be some good news. A recent editorial in The New Yorker by Gary Marcus says that this is all a tempest in a teapot. Marcus doesn’t claim that the accusations are wrong per se, but rather that the field of psychology is well prepared to address the problems. He also assures us we’ll be better off for the effort, even if we have to suffer through a “lost decade” of dubious research.

Finally, if you want to keep track of scientists keeping track of themselves, I recommend the blog Retraction Watch. It reads like a gossip column about all manner of scientific bad behavior. It’s the TMZ of science!