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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Wednesday Two-fer!

Those who have read the blog for any real length of time are aware that I am deeply skeptical. This doesn't mean that I don't believe anything, but rather that I have a hard time believing in things without a certain amount of evidence. Or, lacking convincing evidence, at least a compelling argument that doesn't fly in the face of known facts and logic. In any case, an ironic part of my skepticism is that I am often doubtful about the findings claimed for publicized research. This is partly, of course, because journalists seem completely unable to resist the urge to put words in scientists' mouths, but largely because cutting edge research hasn't been replicated yet and therefore may turn out to be cutting edge horse shit. Rarely, however, have I seen a more beautiful example of why we should remain skeptical of individual research papers, and insist on seeing the methods, than this:

Neuroscientist Craig Bennett purchased a whole Atlantic salmon, took it to a lab at Dartmouth, and put it into an fMRI machine used to study the brain. The beautiful fish was to be the lab’s test object as they worked out some new methods.

So, as the fish sat in the scanner, they showed it “a series of photographs depicting human individuals in social situations.” To maintain the rigor of the protocol (and perhaps because it was hilarious), the salmon, just like a human test subject, “was asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.”


If that were all that had occurred, the salmon scanning would simply live on in Dartmouth lore as a “crowning achievement in terms of ridiculous objects to scan.” But the fish had a surprise in store. When they got around to analyzing the voxel (think: 3-D or “volumetric” pixel) data, the voxels representing the area where the salmon’s tiny brain sat showed evidence of activity. In the fMRI scan, it looked like the dead salmon was actually thinking about the pictures it had been shown.

“By complete, random chance, we found some voxels that were significant that just happened to be in the fish’s brain,” Bennett said. “And if I were a ridiculous researcher, I’d say, ‘A dead salmon perceiving humans can tell their emotional state.’”

The result is completely nuts — but that’s actually exactly the point. Bennett, who is now a post-doc at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his adviser, George Wolford, wrote up the work as a warning about the dangers of false positives in fMRI data. They wanted to call attention to ways the field could improve its statistical methods.

The article as a whole is a fabulous example of alpha-error and really makes a good case for understanding the logic behind our statistics as well as how to pull the shiny lever on Stata and get results.

And if that isn't enough joy for one day, I have another beauty for you. You know how religious conservatives are always bitching and moaning about how atheists, agnostics, humanists and free thinkers can't be moral because we don't pretend to hear an invisible friend in the sky? You know how they love to talk about how awesome their abstinence-only sex education is? You know how those two things just make you want to scream? Well, now you have a better option! Instead of worrying about the virginity pledge, how about you consider the Secular Principles Pinky Swear?

Tired of seeing the Religious Right claim the moral high ground through abstinence pledges that don't work? As a humanist, you know that ancient creeds are no basis for morality, and that attempts to control teens through fear, intimidation, and outdated doctrines and institutions are futile. Statistics show that teens who take abstinence pledges (such as the infamous "Silver Ring Thing") are no less likely to engage in premarital sex, and in fact are more likely to engage in irresponsible, unprotected sex.

Still, society has a hard time understanding that secular people, especially nonreligious kids, can have strong morals and values. But thanks to a group of young humanist activists from Georgia, the Silver Ring Thing has now clearly met its match. Please take a moment to view the link below, which contains the humanist community's answer to abstinence pledges - the Secular Principles Pinky Swear!

The pledge itself is pretty awesome and, aside from some minor .html errors, pretty neat. So check it out and revel in the joy of asserting your own ability to be moral while subtly mocking those who would tell you otherwise.

It just doesn't get any better than that.

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