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Memory failures and public policy

memory photoA great article from the New York Times on memory errors and their importance for law and public policy.

Our lack of appreciation for the fallibility of our own memories can lead to much bigger problems than a misattributed quote. Memory failures that resemble Dr. Tyson’s mash-up of distinct experiences have led to false convictions, and even death sentences. Whose memories we believe and whose we disbelieve influence how we interpret controversial public events, as demonstrated most recently by the events in Ferguson, Mo.

via Why Our Memory Fails Us – NYTimes.com.

Testing the pink prison cell hypothesis

prison photoResearchers from Ghent University have tested the long-held belief that painting prisons cells the color pink reduces aggressive behaviors.

This belief was based on previous demonstrations that supposedly showed reduced strength when pink cards were held in front of a person’s eyes.

The new study was done in an actual Swiss prison with authentic inmates and guards.

The prisoners showed reduced aggression at the end of three days, compared with at their arrival, but crucially, at no time was there a difference in aggression levels (in terms of emotions or behavior) between prisoners in the differently colored cells. The same null result was found when analysis was restricted to just those prisoners who started off low in aggression, or just those who started off with higher aggression.

via BPS Research Digest: Are prisoners calmer when their cells are painted pink?.

Photo by christian.senger

Detecting lies with questioning

124315322_efe6bf96ed_mThere has been lots of talk, and even a television show, about detecting lies by observing body language. But the actual support for this has been weak.

Here is an interesting article that describes how active questioning was far more powerful for detecting lies.

Here’s The Real Secret to Detecting Lies (And It’s Not Body Language) — PsyBlog.

Despite all the advice about lie detection going around, study after study has found that it is very difficult to spot when someone is lying.

Previous tests involving watching videos of suspects typically find that both experts and non-experts come in at around 50/50: in other words you might as well flip a coin.

Now, though, a new study published in Human Communication Research, has found that a process of active questioning yielded almost perfect results, with 97.8% of liars successfully detected.

Testing a paranormal power in Vegas

handHere is a detailed article on the steps used to test a paranormal claim for James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge. Although the claimed power was simple, the required testing was not.

The trials and tribulations of the 2014 James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge..

Mr. Wang claims that he can project or transmit a power, force or energy, hitherto unknown to science, from his right hand into the hand of a receptive subject. The subject will be able to feel this energy as warmth, movement, tingling or other notable sensations in their hand. It is also claimed that this energy (possibly known as “Qigong”) can be transmitted through various materials including wood, plastic and metal. It is important to note that this claimed ability still works even if the subject is unaware of the direct actions of Mr. Wang.

On the surface of it, this may appear to be a relatively simple claim to test, but experience has shown us that even simple claims can be quite a task.

Does brain training really work?

There are a variety of products out there that claim to improve your cognitive functions through brain training — often in the form of games. The game of Sudoku is particularly popular among people who think it is important to keep their brain active. This article from Randi.org asks whether such brain training activities actually lead to generalized cognitive gains.

Girl Stretching
“PictureYouth” via Compfight

If you practice Sudoku, does your memory and concentration get better, or do you just get better at Sudoku?

The research is mixed, but the overall pattern of research is converging on a particular nuanced answer. It seems that practicing a particular task improves your performance mostly on that task, and to a lesser extent on closely related tasks, but not beyond that to more general intellectual function.

There does seem to be a particular advantage to doing novel things – don’t get stuck in a rut, do a variety of things and add some new experiences and challenges to your life.

But don’t buy into neurosciencey hype about “brain training” and scientifically designed games that are allegedly going to be better for your brain than other similar games. There is no cheat, there is no short cut to becoming smarter or better. The more you work, the more you benefit.

Anti-science and Progressives

Laboratory
tk-link via Compfight

Here is an interesting article from Skeptic that asks whether conservatives or progressives are more anti-science. Common wisdom is that conservative thinkers are more anti-science, but this article reviews a book that demonstrates that progressive thinkers are also waging a war against science.

Let’s settle this thing once and for all—right here, right now. Who are more anti-scientific—Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or progressives? Conventional wisdom would have us believe—or at least so says science writer Chris Mooney—that Republicans have waged an unparalleled and all-out war on science.

Indeed, certain big business interests continue to see basic climate science as an entirely too inconvenient truth. And, yes, some religious leaders will likely always deny the facts of human evolution, abortion, homosexuality, and stem cell procurement and therapeutic cloning. Responsible journalists have documented and exposed these affronts to reason quite thoroughly with appropriate vigor.

But are progressives really so different? Not according to Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell. In Science Left Behind, the authors contend that American media have long bestowed a “free pass” on the political Left (primarily progressives), who are just as likely to “misinterpret, misrepresent, and abuse” science to advance their ideological agendas. In fact, the authors say, progressives are currently waging an “undeclared war on scientific excellence itself.”

 

Light a Candle for Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini was an escape artist, magician, and showman. He was also an important skeptic famous for exposing the simple tricks used by mediums of his time. This article explains why we should light a candle to Harry on Hallowe’en.

Houdini’s careers in magic as well as escapology, aviator, filmmaker and movie star, author, book collector, and magic historian, are all fodder for fascinating stories in their own right. But we should particularly honor, this and every Hallowe’en, his career as a skeptic. While the link between magic and skepticism preceded Houdini by at least three centuries in the written record alone (marked with the publication of the classic Elizabethan text, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot, in 1584), and other magicians of the Edwardian era spoke out stridently against spiritualism both in the United States and Great Britain, nevertheless, Houdini crystallized the role of the magician in critical thinking, and the importance of having qualified magicians present when investigating self-proclaimed psychics.

Mistaken beliefs about crowds in emergencies

In the crowd
Stefano Corso via Compfight

This is an interesting article about the beliefs held by police and safety professionals, and the actual behavior of crowds in emergency situations. Contrary to the myths, people tend to act rationally and cooperate when faced with a crisis.

Police and safety professionals fall for myths about people’s behaviour in emergencies.

Research shows that people typically shown signs of collective resilience in emergency situations. Promisingly, the professional groups recognised that emergency crowds are often cooperative; that acts of heroism often occur; that people use their local knowledge to aid their escape; and that people often underestimate the risk they face. On this last point, it was clear that many participants in this study held directly contradictory beliefs about crowd behaviour given, as mentioned, that many had also endorsed the idea of people overestimating threats.

CFP: Workshop on Usable Security, due Nov. 6

NDSS logo

I am helping out on the Program Committee for the  USEC’14 workshop.  The workshop will take place as part of the Network and Distributed System Security (NDSS) Symposium in February 2014 in San Diego. Consider submitting your work.

The workshop on Usable Security invites submissions on all aspects of human factors and usability in the context of security. USEC’14 aims to bring together researchers already engaged in this interdisciplinary effort with other computer science researchers in areas such as visualization, artificial intelligence and theoretical computer science as well as researchers from other domains such as economics or psychology.

 

Canadian municipalities and anti-science

teethHere is a disturbing article from the National Post on how some municipalities are practicing anti-science under pressure from fringe groups.

Attacks on science: Canadian municipalities often more likely to listen to activists than scientific facts | National Post.

In the past few years, towns, villages and cities throughout Canada have passed a wave of laws that could well be described as “anti-science.” Water fluoridation bans. Anti-WiFi resolutions. GE free zones. The decisions often fly in the face of scientific consensus, ignore the advice of experts and lend legitimacy to groups once considered fringe.

But, as activists are starting to discover, science does not matter when a city hall meeting is facing a room full of angry townsfolk.