Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I've been reading Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, in which he charts the history of official punishment in the Western world. In a section on torture and execution, he attempts to enumerate the reasons why executions were treated as public spectacles, especially in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

One reason is to declare the truth of the crime. Prisoners were expected to make a public declaration of their crimes as part of the execution. This was seldom undertaken voluntarily; declarations were cajoled out of them, or were simply supplied by a sign the prisoner was made to wear around his or her neck on the way to the gallows. Even if the prisoner rebelled, making no declaration or a declaration of innocence, the official records would nevertheless state that a confession was given.

Reading about the legal systems that humans have used before makes me all the more glad that we've got the one we do now. Granted, we still have our problems to work out of the system, but think of a world where you can be accused and judged in secret, then arrested only to get a confirmatory confession. In a system with such little allowance for procedural justice, the illusion of infallibility, or at a minimum of correctness, becomes even more important to maintain. Therefore, the public declaration becomes a tool of asserting the truth of the finding, and the rectitude of the punishment.

Obviously, executions still take place today. In the US they are private, viewed only by those directly tied to the case. They are also relatively rare--very few criminal trials end in a death sentence. But on this anniversary of the tragic events ten years ago, it seems like we still find ways to maintain the illusion of truth. A case in point: Netflix just conspired to land me with the DVD of United 93, the 2006 dramatization of the events of September 11, 2001. It's primarily told through the eyes of the passengers of the titular flight. Of the three planes that were hijacked, this was the only one to not hit its target, through the heroic intervention of those passengers. The writer and director, Paul Greengrass, went to great lengths to make the movie as accurate as possible: the events depicted hew closely to the official report of the 9/11 Commission, and even the terrorists are humanized, showing a range of emotions that many might not want to ascribe to them.

But a movie is a movie; a movie is a staged production telling a particular story in a particular fashion. Nevertheless, once a movie is made, and especially if it is widely acclaimed, it takes on a certain patina of truth. The understanding that we have of the actual event begins to call back to the dramatization of the movie, and the events as portrayed in the movie start to represent, even if they are not strictly regarded as, the truth. In an event as complex and vast in scope as 9/11, this process is likely to be magnified; no one person, alive or dead, knows the full truth of the events of 9/11, and even after all the evidence was marshaled for an official investigation there are still unknowables.

What other ways do people have to create the appearance of truth? In other criminal justice systems - South Korea is one example - it is common to have a suspect reenact a crime--demonstrating how a murder transpired, for instance. Again, seeing the events imparts a certain level of truth to the matter, even though this is not the actual crime taking place, but just a staging of it. The legal systems that we develop leave us with official accounts and judgments of the truth of events, but we find other ways to satisfy our yearning for certainty.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What works with sex offenders?

ResearchBlogging.orgMarnie Rice and Grant Harris have a review article in the May issue of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law on androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) and its use to control the sexual behaviors of sex offenders. The big conclusion from the article is, unfortunately, that there just isn't enough quality research (i.e., no randomized blind trials) to say whether ADT actually has any effect on sexual behavior, let alone things like health effects.
What was more interesting to me, however, was a brief history of eunuchs that the authors included. My understanding of eunuchs was apparently way off-base. For instance:
"Throughout the Greek and Roman empires, 'clearly eunuchs were widely perceived as neither chaste nor celibate, but highly sexual and sexed beings' and 'The reputation of eunuch sexual promiscuity extended to include giving sexual pleasure to their mistresses'...
And about the Italian perma-soprano Castrati, who had their testicles removed prior to puberty to preserve their high-pitched voices:
"Most could, and many apparently did, experience virtually normal sexual relations, being capable of erection and the emission of prostatic fluid(Barbier, 1996). Many Castrati were celebrities pursued as sexual partner by women (Aucoin & Wassersug, 2006)."
So simply cutting off a man's testicles (and even sometimes the penis, in part or in whole) is not necessarily enough to curtail sexual desire, nor sexual activity. Involuntary castrations are relatively rare in the US, while so-called "chemical castrations" are more widely used, but considering the history of eunuchs (as well as a few case studies described by the authors), any described dampening of libido linked to ADT may simply be expectation effects -- "knowing" what's going to happen can make it come true.

Marnie E. Rice, Grant T. Harris (2011). Is Androgen Deprivation Therapy effective in the treatment of sex offenders? Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 17 (2), 315-332

Friday, August 19, 2011

Talking Theory -- Slide post

ResearchBlogging.orgI recently gave an informal talk which focused on a recent special issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science (Vol. 6(2), March 2011). In it, I summarize and discuss five papers that each raise issues with and make suggestions for the current processes of theory construction in psychology. I'm putting the slides here without much explanation, but I'll say that there's a significant amount of my own editorializing in the "Conclusion" sections.

Fiedler, K. (2011). Voodoo Correlations Are Everywhere--Not Only in Neuroscience Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (2), 163-171 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611400237

Meiser, T. (2011). Much Pain, Little Gain? Paradigm-Specific Models and Methods in Experimental Psychology Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (2), 183-191 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611400241

Garcia-Marques, L., & Ferreira, M. (2011). Friends and Foes of Theory Construction in Psychological Science: Vague Dichotomies, Unified Theories of Cognition, and the New Experimentalism Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (2), 192-201 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611400239

Houwer, J. (2011). Why the Cognitive Approach in Psychology Would Profit From a Functional Approach and Vice Versa Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (2), 202-209 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611400238

Hahn, U. (2011). The Problem of Circularity in Evidence, Argument, and Explanation Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6 (2), 172-182 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611400240

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Strange, and not-so-strange, happenings on the justice front

The Supreme Court just handed down a 5-to-4 ruling stating that California needs to reduce its state prison rolls by more than 30,000 prisoners. The overcrowding in California prisons presents a violation of the constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment, according to the court -- and if you've seen or heard anything about our prison system in recent history, it's hard to argue with that.

So where are all these prisoners going to go? Well, one option is local jails -- though that's hardly a step up in many places (looking at you, Los Angeles). What about release? This, to me, would make the most sense. Schwarzenegger took some steps to increase the number of parolees, which is a sensible, and much cheaper, option for low-risk offenders. Of course, it's hard to convince the public that it'd be a good thing putting 30,000 prisoners out on the street.

And in other news, the FBI released its crime statistics for last year, which found a drop in crime rates across the country. In Los Angeles, we're seeing decade-low murder rates. This is most definitely a good thing, but also somewhat confusing -- crime usually tracks pretty closely with the economic situation, so seeing an actual decrease in crime in the middle of the biggest recession in 80 years is... unexpected.

What's the deal? Have anti-crime measures and policies enacted during the boom times paid off dividends? Or is our current slump different in kind, somehow? I don't have an answer, unfortunately. I'm tending to lean away from the latter, though, considering that so far the "recovery" has passed over the average non-working stiff, making things most difficult for those most likely to fall into crime.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Better than creationism? Or fueling the fire?

ResearchBlogging.orgLast year, Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer put out a monograph, titled "Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America's Classrooms." It describes their nationwide survey of public high school teachers on their views and practices in regards to teaching evolution or nonscientific alternatives.

Now, what's clear that evolution is winning in the courts, as time and again efforts to "teach the controversy" are shot down as violating the establishment cause. (Never mind that none of those who are advocating all this controversy-teaching would be able to recognize a legitimate scientific controversy if it hit them in the face.)

The more troubling thing, and what Berkman and Plutzer highlight in a recent commentary in Science, is that despite clear-cut legal - and, obviously, scientific - mandates, there is still a large proportion of high school biology teachers out there who fail to promote evolution in their classrooms. In their survey, Berkman and Plutzer asked these teachers whether they consider themselves to be advocates of evolution, creationism (or intelligent design), or neither. By "advocates," they mean that considerable class time is spent portraying the given theory in a positive light.

The good news (comparatively?) is that only 13% of biology teachers actively advocate for nonscientific theories in class. The worse news is that only 28% of teachers actively advocate for evolution -- meaning that a whopping 60% of teachers fall into the wishy-washy "neither" camp. A majority of our public biology teachers don't teach their students the fundamental tenet of modern biology. This is a problem.

So what are they teaching, if not evolution? Attempting to skirt controversy, many follow the traditional creationist canards, such as focusing on microevolution, small changes and adaptations within a species, and ignoring macroevolution, the evolution of one species into separate species. Macroevolution is hardly a controversial proposition -- well, from a scientific perspective -- as it has been demonstrated and documented countless times, even in controlled studies.

In line with the previously mentioned "controversy," many teachers in this 60% say that they just present all options to their students, trusting them to make up their own minds. Most people have to study evolution for 5-10 years before they really understand it well enough to accurately weigh evidence and claims, but somehow these teachers feel they can do just as well in one semester.

Just because they're not actively promoting creationism doesn't mean that this 60% of teachers isn't doing something destructive. The excuses that they use to justify sidestepping teaching evolution are picked up by creationists as arguments against evolution. In reality, though, these are simply arguments from ignorance, lack of confidence, or simple laziness. Teachers who have never taken a class specifically on evolution are more likely to fall into the 60% camp, which argues that simply educating teachers will make them more likely to become evolution advocates.

Of course much of this is likely to come down to cultural and social differences. A teacher in a conservative, religious community is not likely to see much support for teaching something that most of the community members disagree with ("Inherit The Wind," anybody?). So another way to reduce this 60% is to show support for your teachers. If you live in one of these conservative communities, you may want to get to know your local biology teacher. If she or he is truly an ally in teaching science, I'm sure it will mean a lot to know that there are others out there who are willing to go to bat.

Berkman MB, & Plutzer E (2011). Science education. Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6016), 404-5 PMID: 21273472

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Self-reflection In the Brain

ResearchBlogging.orgHow do you know how well you're doing when you perform a task? Let's make it really easy -- let's say I quickly flash a word in front of your eyes, and you have to say what that word is. Now how confident are you that you got it right?

Making this kind of decision falls into the realm of metacognition, or thinking about thinking. It's something that we do all the time -- "Am I remembering that right?," "Did I just see that?," and so on. It's also something that's critical when trying to learn something; if you can't accurately gauge your abilities, then you have no idea what you need to work on. Unfortunately, we're not always accurate -- and this is more true for some people than for others.

In a September issue of Science, Fleming and colleagues took advantage of this natural variance in metacognitive ability to -- what else? -- identify a corresponding brain region. Participants in their study performed a simple visual discrimination task: they had to try to decide which of two sequentially presented sets of gabor patches (like that one ->) was sharper, and then they had to rate how confident they were in their decision.

Obviously, one thing that can affect your metacognitive judgments is your objective performance... but that's not what we're interested in here. However, the task difficulty was manipulated on-the-fly so that participants didn't actually differ in their performance (everyone got 70-74% correct). After controlling for this, there was still a good amount of variance in people's accuracy -- some were spot on, while others were almost guessing at random.

So what happens when you look at the brains of these individuals? Are there any consistent differences in structure? In fact, there are: the volume of gray matter in the right anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC) was positively correlated with metacognitive accuracy, and the white matter tracts connecting to that region also showed a consistent relationship. It makes sense that differences would be found here, since the PFC is involved in higher-order cognition; its primary mode is to receive information from other areas of the brain and act on it -- something that is likely to take place even without the subjective feeling of deliberately making a judgment.

So what does this mean? Are some people born with more insight into their thought processes? Well, maybe, but then again, maybe not. Just because we're seeing a correlation between brain structure and behavior doesn't tell us anything about the source of the underlying variance. We don't know how heritable this mental process or the volume of this brain region are -- that is, the balance between genetic and environmental determinants.

And yes, correlation does not equal causation, meaning that just because we're seeing a relationship between cortical volume and accuracy doesn't mean this is the location of this mental process -- though the authors cite a study in which transcranial magnetic stimulation is used to temporarily suppress the activity in the PFC, after which metacognition becomes worse even though actual performance on the task is unaffected. This drove home for me just how modular the mind can be -- how things that would seem to go hand-in-hand can turn out to be entirely distinct.

Fleming SM, Weil RS, Nagy Z, Dolan RJ, & Rees G (2010). Relating introspective accuracy to individual differences in brain structure. Science (New York, N.Y.), 329 (5998), 1541-3 PMID: 20847276

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mental Illness and Violence: The Lack of a Link

Vaughan Bell of the excellent Mind Hacks blog has an important article up at Slate. It's an attempted prophylactic to media speculation in the recent Gabrielle Giffords shooting about the mental state of suspected gunman Jared Loughner.

Despite advances in public understanding about mental illnesses, there are still pervasive misconceptions, especially when it comes to safety and violence. To wit:
If you found evidence on the Web that Jared Lee Loughner or some other suspected killer was obsessed with soccer or football or hockey and suggested it might be an explanation for his crime, you'd be laughed at. But do the same with "schizophrenia" and people nod in solemn agreement. This is despite the fact that your chance of being murdered by a stranger with schizophrenia is so vanishingly small that a recent study of four Western countries put the figure at one in 14.3 million. To put it in perspective, statistics show you are about three times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike.
It's easy to ignore the common causes of violence (like alcohol or heightened emotions at sporting events) in part because they're so common -- no one gives it a second thought, and it's very unlikely to get on the news. However, whenever there's a rare but highly publicized incident of violence linked with a person with a mental illness, our confirmation bias kicks in to say, "See? I knew it all along -- he had to be crazy." There's a comparison to be made here with auto and airplane death rates, but I'll let you connect those dots.