Last night Mrs. Squirrel and I took a romantic stroll through the BPI Science Center. We mostly walked through the ‘H’s: from hype to hogwash to haters. (More)

It all started because the twins, Nancy and Michelle, went to a guirrel friend’s slumber party. Our son Regis and his fiancée were planning to build a wedding arch from a hollowed-out coconut, and their drawings soon filled Árbol Squirrel. So Mrs. Squirrel and I left to take a romantic, moonlight stroll through the BPI Science Center. After all these years, I still love the way her eyes sparkle in the pale glow of data.

I’ll pause while you say “Awwww.”

Shocking new study finds shocking new studies mostly hype

Okay, that’s not a real headline, but it might have been if the study had been done in the U.S.:

Scientists who study human behaviour are more likely than average to report exaggerated or eye-catching results if they are based in the United States, according to an analysis of more than 1,000 research papers in psychiatry and genetics. This bias could be due to the research culture in the US, authors of the analysis said, which tends to preferentially reward scientists for the novelty and immediate impact of a piece of work over the quality or its long-term contribution to the field.

Daniele Fanelli, University of Edinburgh, one of the authors of the latest analysis, said that there was intense competition in the US for research funds and, subsequently, pressure to report novel findings in prestigious, high-impact scientific journals.

Of course Mrs. Squirrel and I nodded in agreement, because Dr. Fanelli is a fellow at the University of Edinburgh, which is in Scotland, where lots of our cousins live. And if you’re thinking that’s a silly reason to trust a scientific study … well, you’re partly right.

“To trust or not to trust….”

That’s the title of a 2001 study on scientific literacy by Stein Dankert Kolsto. Dr. Kolsto researches and teaches science education at the University of Bergen, which is in Norway, where this was filmed:

So Dr. Kolsto must know his stuff, and for that study he worked with 22 Norwegian 10th graders to find out how they evaluate news stories about science:

One of main things that Kolsto noticed about their responses was that very few of the students attempted to assess the content of the claims being made by various parties (power companies, citizen groups, epidemiologists, etc.). They rarely used their own scientific knowledge to try to judge if the claims made sense or were congruent with their understanding of electricity and the human body. They spent most of their time concerned with evaluating the sources: were the people or organizations trustworthy?

As Dr. Marie-Claire Shanahan of Boundary Vision writes, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Most of us don’t have the expertise to evaluate scientific claims on our own. Like Dr. Kosto’s students, we look for other cues such as whether the source seems to have a business or personal bias, whether he or she is an expert in that field, and whether there’s a consensus among other experts in that field. That last point can be tricky, as Dr. Shanahan writes:

Unfortunately, this status also led to biggest challenge that the students faced: what does it mean when researchers (who are trusted sources) disagree? How do you decide which claims to trust then? About half of the students said explicitly that when researchers disagree, it is very difficult to know whom to trust.

Part of the problem, Dr. Kolsto found, lies in how science is taught in schools. Up through high school, science classes usually emphasize settled topics and students are taught to find and recognize a known answer. But in adulthood they’ll often encounter topics where the science isn’t yet settled. Dr. Kolsto concluded that students need to learn not only settled science, but how the process of scientific discovery works, so they can better evaluate emerging research.

“That’s a scary thought”

Mrs. Squirrel and I didn’t expect to meet conservative activist Alan Keyes and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) in the BPI Science Center. But they leaked in through the internet:

“A lot of people who fancy themselves elites, right, because they’ve made a lot of money, they’re names are all over the media and so forth, they’ve really signed on to an agenda that requires the depopulation of the globe,” Keyes explained. “And in the name of fighting global climatological change, called global warming – that’s proven to be something that’s wrong – they are saying that we’ve got to cut back the population of the world.”

“Bill Gates gave a famous talk back in 2009, which he was talking about actually abusing vaccinations, which are supposed to keep people healthy and alive, and saying how this could lead to a 15 percent reduction in the population of the globe as a way to achieve this result,” he continued.

Keyes warned that elites had a plan to reduce the number of people in the world to 700 million “by culling the population.”

“They’re preaching that doctrine because they actually believe we’re a blight on the face of the planet, we human beings,” Keyes said. “And we should, therefore, be put on a path toward our own semi-extinction. I often try to get people to see that if you think about it, if we actually get back to the levels they’re talking about, it would just be these elitists and the people needed to service them. That’s all that will be left in the world.”

“That’s a scary thought,” Gohmert agreed.

Well yes, that would be scary, if it weren’t complete hogwash, as Emma Batha writes:

Gates has indeed linked vaccines to reducing population growth. But I believe his argument goes roughly like this:

Vaccinating children means they stand a much better chance of making it to adulthood. Parents who are confident their children will reach adulthood generally choose to have fewer children and can therefore devote more of their family resources to each child. This means each child will be better nourished and better educated. Healthy, educated populations boost development.

“Haters gonna hate?”

How can Keyes and Gohmert jump from there to the wild-eyed belief that improving children’s health is part of an elitist plot to cull the human population? Well, some of the answer may lie in a shocking new study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Justin Hepler and the University of Pennsylvania’s Dolores Albarracin:

Dispositional attitudes also significantly predicted the valence of novel attitudes while controlling for theoretically relevant traits (such as the big-five and optimism). The dispositional attitude construct represents a new perspective in which attitudes are not simply a function of the properties of the stimuli under consideration, but are also a function of the properties of the evaluator.

Okay, yeah. Here’s an explanation in plain English:

To test out this theory, a team of psychologists asked study participants how they felt about a number of mundane and unrelated subjects that included (but was not limited to) architecture, health care, crossword puzzles, taxidermy and Japan.

They wanted to figure out if people tended to like or dislike things in general. This was dubbed the individual’s dispositional attitude or, more simply put, checked for whether they were a hater who pretty much hates on everything that comes across their path.

The psychologists tested people for liking and disliking various things and then asked them to evaluate a microwave oven:

With the hater test verified and known haters identified, researchers asked their participants to read about the “Monahan LPI-800 Compact 2/3-Cubic-Foot 700-Watt Microwave Oven.” This not a real microwave but one dreamt up by researchers to test how much people would hate it.

The haters, perhaps unsurprisingly, were much less enthused than those who had more positive attitudes about camping, Japan and the like. This was also true in a question about vaccines, where the likers were more likely to have a positive opinion about getting vaccine shots then the haters.

“The present research demonstrated that some people tend to like things, whereas others tend to dislike things,” the researchers conclude, contending that “A more thorough understanding of this tendency will lead to a more thorough understanding of the psychology of attitudes.”

“That’s pretty cool,” I said to Mrs. Squirrel. “A shocking new study finds that grumpy people dislike pretty much everything, including non-existent microwave ovens and vaccines.”

“True,” she replied, “but that shocking new study was done here in the U.S. So it may be mostly hype.”

I reminded her that one of the researchers is from the University of Pennsylvania, and we have red squirrel cousins there too. Mrs. Squirrel smiled, the cool glow of data sparkling in her eyes. Ahh, romance.

Good day and good nuts.