Archive for February, 2012


Science proves Sarah Palin is stupid or evil (but which..?)

February 28, 2012

Sarah Palin: Corrupt politician, boon to the cosmetics industry, reality-TV star, alleged adulterer and cocaine-user, jaw-dropping ignoramus regarding matters of historical record or just actively anti-Semitic… she is all this and more. A headline-writer’s dream and cash-cow rolled into one. And now science has proved she’s either stupid or dangerous… or both.

During the 2010 mid-term elections in the US, Mrs. Palin published a map of the United States with the home districts of Democrats who had voted in favour of Obama’s progessive health-care bill targetted with crosshairs. The text on one version read, disturbingly, “we’ve diagnosed the problem… help us prescribe the solution.” Was this an attempt at humour or was it just shockingly stupid? I guess we’ll never know, but it all backfired terribly for Palin when one of the members of Congress “targetted” by Palin’s map was promptly shot. It isn’t obvious to anybody living outside of the US, where socialised medicine is so vigorously defended exactly how an attempt to extend medical care to an extra 32 million Americans might provoke the venom of Republicans, libertarians and Fox News anchors. It is, however, perfectly understandable that Palin’s proposed “solution” might be misinterpreted by a mentally unstable, anti-abortion, sexist, conspiracy theorist.

So what does science have to say to all this gun-crazy nutjobbery? Having spent three years in Montreal myself at the time of the Dawson College shootings, I have always thought that the North American media’s handling of these events is a little, um… insensitive. As an North American TV viewer you are constantly exposed to graphics like this:

Gun and cross-hairs graphic from Chicago News Report

Even news channels who were critical of Palin’s map shennanegins are guilty of the over-use of violent imagery. So, is this a problem? Opinion is still very much divided almost a century after the invention of television, but a recent study from the Netherlands and Germany has looked at exactly this issue. The study created a fictional scenario involving an epidemic of foxes across the Netherlands. Having diagnosed the problem, researchers asked subjects to prescribe the solution by indicating to what extent they would agree with two different proposals: a) a cull of fox numbers by shooting, or b) capture and relocation of the offending canines.

Here comes the experimental manipulation. The subjects were given a map of the Netherlands showing the “problem areas” indicated by either crosshairs a la Palin, or more neutral circles. That’s it. That’s the whole experiment. Amazingly, this small manipulation had a huge effect. 26% of the subjects shown the neutral map with circles favoured shooting first and asking questions later, while 43% of the subjects shown the crosshairs map preferred to let God sort ’em out (U = 1356, z = 1.67, p = < .05).

Respondents were asked afterwards whether they were familiar with Palin's map and the subsequent controversy and, if they were, their results were excluded to control for the effects of previous media influence. The results show that the subtle use of visual imagery can have a profound effect on perfectly ordinary folks' opinions. A disturbing finding considering the relaxed attitude that broadcast news has developed with regards to showing violent images.


Neuroscience for the Soul (teaser)

February 7, 2012

I recently became interested in the neuroscience of religion, a field that in more journalistic circles is referred to by the complete misnomer “neurotheology”. I have written a feature article on this topic that should see publication in a fairly popular venue soon. But for the moment, here’s me in action:

Neuroscience for the Soul courtesy of The Chris Worfolk Foundation

Enjoy, its only 48 minutes long.


A sleeping giant: Vision scientists wake up, drink some coffee and start boycotting Elsevier

February 6, 2012

The recent calls for a boycott of traditional, closed-access scientific publishers – especially the Fred Goodwin-esque pariah-of-the-moment, Elsevier – have caused much discussion over the last week in the vision science community. Elsevier publishes the long-running flagship journal Vision Research and many of my fellow researchers are expressing frustration at providing free content and peer-review services to a journal whose owner makes money by restricting access to research, rather than disseminating it. Suggestions made in the past few days have ranged from black-and-white suggestions that we simply boycott all non-open journals, to boycotts of specific publishers, to more subtle discussions of the role of copyright in this battle, a battle which is widely being perceived as a tipping point in the open access revolution.

Elsevier’s £724 million (36%) profit last year, combined with their support of the controversial Research Works Act and a series of campaign “donations”, widely perceived as bribery of elected representatives in a blatant attempt to grease the passage of said Act, piled on top of existing ethical qualms about the company (such as their support for the arms trade), appears to have woken a sleeping giant as hundreds of thousands of researchers worldwide ask themselves: “why the bloody hell are we doing free peer-review for these bastards?”

This came hard on the heels of a recent lively discussion on the Colour & Vision Network and Applied Vision Association mailing lists regarding the astounding cost of the journal Experimental Brain Research, published by Springer. The issue was raised by Simon Rushton, Tom Freeman and Petroc Sumner of Cardiff University, who pointed out that the cost to libraries of a yearly subscription to Experimental Brain Research was (at $11,751) roughly 6.2 standard deviations (SD = $1656) above the mean ($1360), which due to the positive skew of the data is actually an overestimate of the representative cost of a Springer journal!

The price of Experimental Brain Research compared to other journals from Springer (in USD). These stats came from the Nov 10th 2011 pricelist. Thanks to Simon Rushton for this graphic.

This issue crystallised in many people’s heads when Bristol academic Mike Taylor wrote a stark, polemical comment in the Guardian, and Fields-medal-winning Mathematician, Timothy Gower wrote a widely-read call for a boycott of peer-review against Elsevier, which in turn gave rise to an online petition.

An online pledge calling for researchers to only peer-review for open-access journals followed, and now, with most of the vision community thoroughly up in arms about the issue, University of Sydney academic Alex Holcombe plans to organize a satellite event at the Vision Sciences Society conference in May to discuss these issues.

In recent years, vision science has been invigorated by the introduction of the open-access, pay-to-publish (or get-your-funding-body-to-pay-to-publish) Journal of Vision, which already ranks alongside Vision Research and IOVS in terms of impact factor and has far outstripped several other vision journals. It has forced the other vision journals to raise their game, review their policies and improve their customer service, and for that, I tip my hat. Whether its success leads to any other journal’s downfall remains to be seen, but suffice to say, this is an exciting time. The question now is how traditional scientific publishers like Elsevier and Springer will respond to this challenge of their increasingly-unjustifiable hegemony. In the meantime, I intend to use what little power I have by politely declining to review papers for Elsevier journals and thinking long and hard about to which journals I submit in the future.

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