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Michio Kaku: A Brief History of Sexism in Science (by bigthink)
« What’s the “women in science” problem, again? From the grad student whose thesis advisor stole her Nobel-winning ideas to the once-ridiculed theorist of dark matter, female scientific excellence has long been snubbed. »
It’s not really about sexism, but more so about the politics of science.
This problem isn’t just academic. The authors argue that there are real-world consequences, from wasting the lives of lab animals and squandering public funding on unreliable studies, to potentially stopping clinical trials with human patients prematurely (or not stopping them soon enough).
“This paper should help by revealing exactly how bad things have gotten,” said Hal Pashler, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego. Pashler was not involved with the new study, but he and colleagues have previously raised concerns about statistical problems with fMRI brain scan studies in human subjects.
Many researchers consider a statistical power of 80 percent to be a desirable goal in designing a study. At that level, if an effect of a particular size were genuine, the study would detect it 80 percent of the time.
But roughly half of the neuroscience studies Munafò and colleagues included in their analysis had a statistical power below 20 percent. Those studies would fail to detect a genuine effect at least 80 percent of the time.
The raw material for the study was 49 meta-analyses, or studies that analyze data from other studies — 730 individual neuroscience studies in this case — published in 2011. The team concludes that most of the reported findings may not be reliable.
For human neuroimaging studies, the median statistical power was just 8 percent, meaning that half the studies were below this mark and half were above. In two different types of animal studies typically used to study memory, median statistical power was 18 percent and 31 percent, respectively, the teamreported last week in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, which has made the paper open access for one week, starting today.
Acetaminophen is also more accepted in that we don’t think of Tylenol as altering our mental state. People can take it and still drive a car and go to work and remain fully present beings. But the more it’s studied, the more it seems we may be overlooking subtle cognitive effects. In 2009, research showed that it seemed todull the pain of social rejection — sort of like alcohol or Xanax. The author of that study, Nathan DeWall at the University of Kentucky, said at that time, “Social pain, such as chronic loneliness, damages health as much as smoking and obesity.” (via What’s Tylenol Doing to Our Minds? - James Hamblin - The Atlantic)
New research this week found that Tylenol altered the way subjects passed moral judgments. Psychologists used that as a proxy measure for personal distress, a relationship that has been previously demonstrated.
Daniel Randles and colleagues at the University of British Columbia write in the journal Psychological Science, “The meaning-maintenance model posits that any violation of expectations leads to an affective experience that motivates compensatory affirmation. We explore whether the neural mechanism that responds to meaning threats can be inhibited by acetaminophen.” Totally.
More plainly, “Physical pain and social rejection share a neural process and subjective component that are experienced as distress.” That neural process has been traced to the same part of the brain. They figure that if you blunt one, you blunt both. As they told LiveScience, “When people feel overwhelmed with uncertainty in life or distressed by a lack of purpose, what they’re feeling may actually be painful distress … We think that Tylenol is blocking existential unease in the same way it prevents pain, because a similar neurological process is responsible for both types of distress.”
In this study, Randles’ team gave 120 people either two extra-strength Tylenol or a placebo. They then primed them by asking half to write about what happens when we die (meant to invoke or replicate existential anxiety) and the other half to write about a control, non-existential topic (going to the dentist, meant to focus people on concrete things). The rationale was that “thinking about death is incompatible with everyday thoughts … and that it leads to the same anxiety … as frustrated social interactions or perceived incongruities.”
Then all were asked how high they would set bond for a hypothetical person arrested for prostitution.
Among people who took the placebo pill, those who wrote about existential anxiety set much higher bail ($450) than those who wrote about the dentist ($300). But if they took Tylenol and wrote existentially, that sense of moral judgment seemed to be blunted. They set the same bond regardless of the priming.
Then in a similar, separate experiment, they primed the subjects by having them watch video clips. They either watched The Simpsons or a film by surrealistic neonoir writer/director David Lynch, in which humans with rabbit heads wander an urban apartment muttering non sequiturs. They then passed judgment on people arrested in a hockey riot. Again, the people in the existential mindset imposed harsh sanctions, but the people who’d watched The Simpsons were lenient. If they’d taken Tylenol first, though, the David Lynch-induced anxiety was apparently blunted. They recommended the same sanctions as the Simpsons-primed group.
This all raises more questions than it answers. This study was small. Theheadlines are grandiose. The way people pass moral judgments is not necessarily indicative of their level of existential anxiety. But acetaminophen indeed appears to be affecting people’s perspectives, which further muddies our already complex relationship to the drug.
As Randles sees the value of their findings, “For people who suffer from chronic anxiety, or are overly sensitive to uncertainty, this work may shed some light on what is happening and how their symptoms could be reduced.”