Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dysrationalia: Intelligent people behaving irrationally

by Jamie Hale

The following interview features the Stanovich, West, Toplak Research Lab.

Your research shows that intelligence does not imply rationality. Could you please briefly explain your general findings?

Those findings are easy to summarize briefly. They are simply that the correlations between measures of intelligence and various tasks from the cognitive psychology literature that measure aspects of rationality are surprisingly low. We use the term “surprisingly” here, because for many years it has been known that virtually all-cognitive ability tasks correlate with each other. Indeed many show quite high correlations. So, being psychologists, the surprise is in the context of this wide and vast cognitive ability literature, which has the technical name “Spearman’s positive manifold.” This positive manifold--that performance on cognitive tasks tends to correlate, and often quite highly--is more than 100 years old.

Thus, it was in this particular context, when we started observing fairly modest or low correlations between measures of intelligence and rational thought, that we thought this quite startling. Indeed, in restricted samples of educated adults this correlation can be virtually zero on certain tasks in the literature. Most often the correlation is positive, but, again, in light of 100 years of correlations between cognitive ability tasks, the correlations are often surprisingly low.

Of course one of the implications of this is that it will not be uncommon to find people whose intelligence and rationality are dissociated. That is, it will not be uncommon to find people with high levels of intelligence and low levels of rationality, and, to some extent, the converse. Or, another way to put it is that we should not necessarily expect the two mental characteristics to go together. The correlations are low enough--or moderate enough--that discrepancies between intelligence and rationality should not be uncommon. For one type of discrepancy, that is for people whose rationality is markedly below their intelligence, we have coined the term dysrationalia by analogy to many of the disabilities identified in the learning disability literature:


What is the definition of rationality?

Dictionary definitions of rationality tend to be of a weak sort—often seeming quite lame and unspecific. For example, a typical dictionary definition of rationality is: “the state or quality of being in accord with reason”. The meaning of rationality in modern cognitive science has a much stronger sense, it is much more specific and prescriptive than typical dictionary definitions. The weak definitions of rationality derive from a categorical notion of rationality tracing to Aristotle, who defined “man as the rational animal”. As de Sousa (2007) has pointed out, such a notion of rationality as “based on reason” has as its opposite not irrationality but arationality. Aristotle’s characterization is categorical—the behavior of entities is either based on thought or it is not. Animals are either rational or arational.

In its stronger sense, the sense employed in cognitive science and in this book by de Sousa (2007), rational thought is a normative notion. Its opposite is irrationality, and irrationality comes in degrees. Normative models of optimal judgment and decision making define perfect rationality in the noncategorical view employed in cognitive science. Rationality and irrationality come in degrees defined by the distance of the thought or behavior from the optimum defined by a normative model. This stronger sense is consistent with what recent cognitive science studies have been demonstrating about rational thought in humans.
We would also warn that some critics who wish to downplay the importance of rationality have been perpetuating a caricature of rationality that involves restricting its definition to the ability to do the syllogistic reasoning problems that are encountered in Philosophy 101. The meaning of rationality in modern cognitive science is, in contrast, much more robust and important. Syllogistic reasoning and logic problems are one small part of rational thinking.
Cognitive scientists recognize two types of rationality: instrumental and epistemic. The simplest definition of instrumental rationality, the one that is strongly grounded in the practical world, is: Behaving in the world so that you get exactly what you most want, given the resources (physical and mental) available to you. Somewhat more technically, we could characterize instrumental rationality as the optimization of the individual’s goal fulfillment.

The other aspect of rationality studied by cognitive scientists is termed epistemic rationality. This aspect of rationality concerns how well beliefs map onto the actual structure of the world. The two types of rationality are related. In order to take actions that fulfill our goals, we need to base those actions on beliefs that are properly calibrated to the world.

Although many people feel that they could do without the ability to solve textbook logic problems, virtually no person wishes to eschew epistemic rationality and instrumental rationality, when properly defined. Virtually all people want their beliefs to be in some correspondence with reality, and they also want to act to maximize the achievement of their goals. Psychologist Ken Manktelow (2004) has emphasized the practicality of both types of rationality by noting that they concern two critical things: What is true and what to do.

Epistemic rationality is about what is true and instrumental rationality is about what to do. For our beliefs to be rational they must correspond to the way the world is—they must be true. For our actions to be rational they must be the best means toward our goals—they must be the best things to do.

De Sousa, R. (2007). Why think? Evolution and the rational mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Manktelow, K. I. (2004). Reasoning and rationality: The pure and the practical. In K. I. Manktelow & M. C. Chung (Eds.), Psychology of reasoning: Theoretical and historical perspectives (pp. 157-177). Hove, England: Psychology Press.

What are some of the rational thinking skills that are positively associated with intelligence? How about rational thinking skills that are not associated with intelligence?

Various probabilistic reasoning tasks have moderate correlations with intelligence. However, myside bias (the tendency to view evidence from one’s own side) is pretty much independent of intelligence in university samples. There are many, many domains of rational thinking measures and they each have important characteristics that will impact whether they are associated with intelligence. Stanovich’s Yale book contains a theoretical explanation of why some rational thinking tasks correlate with intelligence and others do not:

Stanovich, K. E. (2009). What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

In a TV interview you (Toplak) mentioned the need for RQ testing. Do you think we can expect to see RQ testing within the public domain, in the near future?

Yes, this would be a great thing, but it is not likely to happen in the near future. The development of such an instrument would be a logistically daunting task, partly because rational thinking is such a big construct with so many parts. We use the term “multifarious” to describe this, and a metaphor we use is that it is like going to your family doctor for a check-up: there is not one test that will tell you that your health is good, rather the doctor checks multiple things to make this assessment.

The purpose of our work, and many of our recent publications, has been to speed the development of an RQ test along. We have done this by showing that there is no impediment, theoretically, to designing such a measure. The tasks that would be on such a measure have been introduced into the recent literature. In several recent publications we have been working on bringing them together into a coherent structure. Of course there are many, many, more steps that are needed before one has an actual standardized test. Standardization samples would need to be run and items would need to be piloted. In terms of the corporations that produce mental tests, it’s an endeavor that, if one were to measure it in dollars, would be millions of dollars.

Again, the purpose of some of our recent work has been to sketch out what such an endeavor would look like, to show that there is no theoretical or empirical impediment to such a thing, and to recruit others into this endeavor of working on such an instrument. We would like to include others in this endeavor, because we believe that it is way beyond the capabilities of a single laboratory. Our hope is that such an instrument might someday stand in parallel to the intelligence tests. This has been one of the motivations in our recent books and chapters, such as the following:

Stanovich, K. E., West, R. F., & Toplak, M. E. (in press). Intelligence and rationality. In R. J. Sternberg & S. B. Kaufman (Eds.), Cambridge handbook of intelligence (3rd Edition), Cambridge,UK: Cambridge University Press.

We need to emphasize, however, that there is no reason for this to be an all or nothing, rather than an incremental, process. There clearly would be immediate practical uses of less all-encompassing instruments that focused on important components of rational thinking (e.g., economic thinking, probabilistic thinking, scientific thinking, reduced myside biased thinking).

Is rationality more important than intelligence?

No, we would never make such a blanket statement. We would only say that the magnitude of its importance at least approaches that of intelligence. Differences in rational thought have real world consequences that cash out in terms of important outcomes in peoples lives. We don’t want to get into a contest of which is more important. We acknowledge that intelligence, as assessed by standardized tests, is one of the most important psychological constructs that has ever been discovered. But outlining the nature of rational thought, how to theoretically conceive it, and how to measure it empirically, is certainly up there with intelligence in terms of the most important five or six mental constructs that psychologists have investigated.

Can a person be highly rational, but rank low in intelligence?

Yes. This was addressed in our response to question number 1, that the whole point of our research showing that the correlation between the two is not excessively high is that you can have discrepancies, and that one can be high on one and low in the other.

Tell our readers how they can improve their rational thinking skills.

A good first start is education, which readers have already started here by reading this blog entry. Having an understanding of how cognitive scientists have expanded what is meant by rationality is important, namely that rationality is about two critical things: What is true and what to do.

There are numerous books that deal with rational thinking. Some of the chapters and books in our own research lab have contributed to this, and we will list them at the bottom of this entry.

Do you think a good starting point would be becoming educated on basic logic?

Basic logic would be part of a rational thinking skills curriculum, but not necessarily the first part. Again, rational thinking in cognitive science encompasses decision theory, epistemic rationality, and many areas beyond simply the study of basic logic in philosophy 101. It is very important to understand that rational thinking in cognitive science is rooted in good decision-making. Good decision making skills and good skills of knowledge acquisition do have logical thinking as one subcomponent. But there are many subskills that are even more important than logic. The subskills of scientific thinking, statistical thinking, and probabilistic reasoning, for example. Many of these are listed in the books that we will recommend here.

Baron, J. (2008). Thinking and deciding (Fourth Edition). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Hastie, R., & Dawes, R. M. (2001). Rational choice in an uncertain world. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (a new 2010 edition is just out)

A recent chapter of ours contains a large number of citations to successful attempts to teach the skills of rational thought:

Toplak, M. E., West, R. F., & Stanovich, K. E. (2011). Education for rational thought. In M. J. Lawson & J. R. Kirby (Eds.), The quality of learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Is there a particular book that you recommend- for people interested in increasing their rationality- for the lay public?

Yes, some of the books that we have already mentioned. We will be so immodest as to recommend a small textbook of our own.

Stanovich, K. E. (2010). Decision making and rationality in the modern world. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weblinks with bios and further information:

Video- Stanovich Grawemeyer Lecture- Third link from the top of the page

Friday, October 22, 2010

Good Thinking: More Than Just Intelligence

by Jamie Hale

Are intelligent people good thinkers? Some are, some are not. Society is replete with examples of intelligent people doing foolish things. There is a plethora of scientific data showing intelligence does not necessarily predict rationality. Intelligence shows a low to moderate association with some critical thinking / rational thinking skills, while showing little to no association with other rational thinking skills. A study published in 2008, in Thinking & Reasoning (Stanovich & West), investigated two key critical thinking skills- avoidance of myside bias and avoidance of one side bias.

2008, 14 (2), 129 – 167

On the failure of cognitive ability to predict myside and one-sided thinking biases
Keith E. Stanovich
University of Toronto, Canada
Richard F. West
James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, USA

Two critical thinking skills—the tendency to avoid myside bias and to avoid one-sided thinking—were examined in three different experiments involving over 1200 participants and across two different paradigms. Robust indications of myside bias were observed in all three experiments. Participants gave higher evaluations to arguments that supported their opinions than those that refuted their prior positions. Likewise, substantial one-side bias was observed—participants were more likely to prefer a one-sided to a balanced argument. There was substantial variation in both types of bias, but we failed to find that participants of higher cognitive ability displayed less myside bias or less oneside bias. Although cognitive ability failed to associate with the magnitude of the myside bias, the strength and content of the prior opinion did predict the degree of myside bias shown. Our results indicate that cognitive ability—as defined by traditional psychometric indicators—turns out to be surprisingly independent of two of the most important critical thinking tendencies discussed in the literature.

Key cognitive skills required for critical thinking are the ability to evaluate evidence in an objective manner, and the ability to consider multiple points of view when solving a problem, or coming to a conclusion. Most people fail to demonstrate these critical thinking tendencies. Myside bias is displayed when people evaluate evidence and come to conclusions that are biased towards their own beliefs and opinions. One side bias is demonstrated when people prefer one sided arguments over arguments presenting multiple perspectives. Intelligent people are just as likely as less intelligent people to demonstrate these thinking biases. Before going further, it is important to mention that intelligence in this context refers to cognitive abilities measured by popular intelligence tests and their proxies. These tests do a good job assessing computational power and certain types of declarative knowledge. But, they do not adequately assess critical thinking skills. Avoidance of myside bias and one side bias are not measured on intelligence tests. It seems that intelligence tests are missing an important element of good thinking- evaluating evidence in a unbiased manner, and considering a multitude of perspectives when problem solving. I don't think any sane person would argue that these skills are not important.

In a series of experiments Stanovich and West examined the association between cognitive ability and two cardinal critical thinking skills- avoidance of myside bias and avoidance of one side bias. In Experiment 1 natural myside bias was investigated in 15 different propositions. In Experiment 2 myside bias and one-sided bias was studied. In Experiment 3 associations between thinking dispositions- in addition to cognitive ability- and one-sided and myside bias were investigated.

In Experiment 1, the researchers concluded, there was "no evidence at all that myside bias effects are smaller for students of higher cognitive ability" (p.140). The main purpose of Experiment 2 was to investigate the association of cognitive abilities with myside and one side bias. "The results... were quite clear cut. SAT total scores displayed a nonsignificant 7.03 correlation with the degree of myside bias and a correlation of .09 with the degree of one-side bias (onebias1), which just missed significance on a twotailed test but in any case was in the unexpected direction" (p.147). It was also revealed that stronger beliefs usually imply heavier myside bias. In Experiment 3 "the degree of myside bias was uncorrelated with SAT scores", and "[t]he degree of one-side bias was uncorrelated with SAT scores" (p.156). Myside bias was weakly correlated with thinking dispositions. One side bias showed no correlation with thinking dispositions.

The final two sentences or the research report read: "Our results thus indicate that intelligence—as defined by traditional psychometric indicators—turns out to be surprisingly independent of critical thinking tendencies. Cognitive ability measures such as the SAT thus miss entirely an important quality of good thinking" (p.161). The good news is critical thinking abilities are malleable, and in fact, probably more malleable than intelligence

Stanovich, K. & West, R. (2008). On the failure of cognitive ability to predict myside and one-sided thinking biases. Thinking & Reasoning, 14 (2), 129-167.

Additional Sources
What IQ Tests Miss- Dr. Toplak Interview

Stanovich, K. E. (2009, Nov/Dec). The thinking that IQ tests miss. Scientific American Mind, 20(6), 34-39. First Link at the top of this page -

Next week I will be publishing an interview with the Stanovich, West, Toplak Research Lab.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How We Know What Isn't So: Interview w/ Thomas Gilovich

by Jamie Hale

Recently, I had a chance to conduct an interview with one of my favorite writers- Thomas Gilovich. Gilovich is the author of one of the most celebrated books- How We Know What Isn’t So- in the skeptic, critical thinking community. I first learned about the book when reading Shermer’s- Why People Believe Weird Things. In addition, Gilovich has co-authored three other books. He is also a prominent primary researcher and professor & chairperson at Cornell University.

If you have any interest in critical thinking, everyday judgments and beliefs you will love the following interview.

Does the "hot hand" or "streak shooting"- as defined by basketball enthusiasts, really exist? What are the origins of this idea? How prevalent is this idea among basketball enthusiasts?

Despite what everyone "knows" to be the case, basketball players do not shoot in streaks. That is, their streakiness does not exceed the level of streakiness one observes when, say, flipping coins. The widespread belief in streak shooting seems to stem from a common misconception about what chance outcomes look like. Statisticians refer to this as the clustering illusion. Purely randomly arranged stimuli "clump" together more than one would expect and so when we see instances of randomness, it doesn't look random to us. Applied to basketball, when we see a player make four, five, or six shots in a row, we think the player is hot. But careful statistical analyses reveal that the frequency of such sequences do not exceed what one would expect if the outcomes of prior shots had no influence on the outcomes of subsequent shots.

Does money buy happiness? Explain.

Money is associated with happiness. People in rich countries are happier, on average, than people in poor countries and, within a country, people with more money are happier, on average, than people with less. As you might imagine, it's not a huge effect, but it's there. Whether money "buys" happiness depends in part on how one spends it and a great deal of recent research in psychology and economics has been devoted to figuring out what type of expenditures yield the most happiness, and the most enduing happiness.

What do you think is the most common, or maybe a short list of a few of the most common errors in thinking that lead to bad decision-making?

At the top of the list, what my colleague Scott Lilienfeld refers to as "the mother of all biases," is what is known as the confirmation bias, or the tendency to examine whether an idea is true—to test a hypothesis—by looking disproportionately for evidence consistent with that idea. Someone testing whether professors tend to be pompous will search their memories (or the outside world) for pompous professors; someone testing whether professors tend to be modest will search their memories for modest Profs. Because there is SOME evidence for nearly any idea (there are many pompous profs and many modest ones), this bias leads to an excess of credulity.

What advice can you give people who are interested in increasing their critical thinking skills?

Take a course in statistics and in psychology (social psychology in particular)

What is your favorite book? Favorite website?

I'm not a big fan of favorites because there's so much great stuff at the top end of almost any category, and who wants to assign one member of the upper echelon to a lower rung (Is Citizen Kane really better than The Godfather, as the American Film Institute would have us believe?) But Guns, Germs, and Steel and The Omnivore's Dilemma are certainly favorites, as is the book I just finished, Nicholson Baker's fabulous The Anthologist. As for a favorite website, it's hard to beat The New York Times—and I can't resist a plug for my brother's website, www.surfline.com

Of the books you have written, which one is your favorite?

Again, I don't much like the idea of favorites but my first, How We Know What Isn't So, will always be special to me.

What are your current research interests?

I remain interested in trying to understand how people can become convinced of things that dispassionate analysis and careful inquiry indicate are not true. False beliefs, superstitions, faulty judgments in all walks of life—in politics and government, in economics and personal finance, in sports, and in personal relationships.

Recommended Sources

Gilovich faculty page

Gilovich Books

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sports Illustrated Jinx: Is it really a jinx?

By Jamie Hale

There are many coaches, athletes, sports commentators and sports fans that believe being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated is not a good thing for an athlete. Supporters of the Sports Illustrated Jinx claim being featured on the cover leads to bad luck. SIJ proponents can cite numerous cases to support their belief.

Victims of the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx (Wikipedia excerpts):

“May 26, 1958: Race car driver Pat O’Connor appears on the cover. He dies four days later on the first lap of the Indianapolis 500.

August 7, 1978: Pete Rose appears on the cover the same week that his 44-game hitting streak ended.

May 8, 1989: Jon Peters, of Brenham High School in Texas, sets the national high school record for games won by a pitcher, with a 51-0 record. The next game after the cover, he loses for the first (and only) time of his high school career.

In November 2007, Kerry Meier of the Kansas Jayhawks appeared on the cover, which stated "Dream Season (So Far)" after the Jayhawks were 11-0. In their next game they lost to their archrivals, the Missouri Tigers, 36-28, ending the Jayhawks perfect season.

November 9, 2009: Iowa's Derell Johnson Koulianos appears on the front cover with the words "Still Perfect." The Hawkeyes lost to Northwestern two days before the issue date, ending the longest winning streak in school history.”

Maybe the SIJ is a real phenomenon, or maybe, or almost certainly, it is an erroneous belief produced by the regression fallacy. Gilovich explains (1991) how the regression fallacy applies to the SIJ Myth:

It does not take much statistical sophistication to see how regression effects may be responsible for the belief in the Sports Illustrated jinx. Athletes performance at different times are imperfectly correlated. Thus, due to regression alone, we can expect an extraordinary good performance to be followed, on the the average, by a somewhat less extraordinary performance. Athletes appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated when they are newsworthy- i.e., when their performance is extraordinary. Thus, an athlete’s superior performance in the weeks preceding a cover story is very likely to be followed by somewhat poorer performance in the weeks after. Those who believe in the jinx, like those who believe in the hot hand, are mistaken, not in what they observe, but in how they interpret what they see. Many atheltes do suffer a deterioation in their performance after being pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the mistake lies in citing a jinx, rather than citing regression as the proper interpretation of this phenomenon.

I wonder what SJM supporters think of Michael Jordan's 57 appearances on the cover (Greenfield, 2010), or Vince Young who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice during Texas's National Championship season (Zahn, 2002)?


Gilovich, T. How. (1991). How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason In Everyday Life. New York: Free Press.

Greenfield, J. (2010). Michael Jordan: The Sports Illustrated Covers. http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/sports/2010/01/michael-jordan-the-sports-illustrated-covers-1.html (accessed August 23, 2010)

Wikipeida. Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sports_Illustrated_Cover_Jinx (accessed August 23, 2010)

Zahn, P. (2002). Is Their (sic) a “Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx. CNN. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0201/25/ltm.01.html. (accessed August 23, 2010).

Monday, August 9, 2010

Common Sense Doesn't Matter

by Jamie Hale

“Albert Einstein said common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of 18. It is also a result of some pervasive and extremely stupid logical fallacies that have become embedded in the human brain over generations, for one reason or another. These malfunctioning thoughts--several of which you've had already today--are a major cause of everything that's wrong with the world” (Shakespeare, 2009).

Webster’s New World Dictionary (2003) defines common sense as: “good sense or practical judgement.” This is probably the most commonly accepted definition of the word.

Wikipedia says:

“Common sense, based on a strict construction of the term, consists of what people in common would agree on: that which they "sense" as their common natural understanding.

Some people (such as the authors of Merriam-Webster Online) use the phrase to refer to beliefs or propositions that — in their opinion — most people would consider prudent and of sound judgment, without reliance on esoteric knowledge or study or research, but based upon what they see as knowledge held by people "in common".

The most common meaning to the phrase is good sense and sound judgement in practical matters.”

A better definition of Common Sense is: commonly held belief, regardless of it’s truth value.

It doesn’t matter which definition you prefer to use when discussing Common Sense, referring to Common Sense as reason for a particular claim is fallacious, it makes an argument invalid. Yesterday’s Common Sense is often today’s Common Nonsense. Once upon a time it was common sense that the World was flat. History is replete with examples of Common Sense failure.

The list below was contributed by Frank Lovell, Kentucky Assocation of Science Educators and Skeptics Member.

Common Sense Counterfactuals

“The sun orbits Earth once a day. FALSE -- Earth rotates under the (relative to Earth, essentially) stationary sun once a day, and orbits the stationary sun once a year.

Velocities are simply additive (1mph+1mph=2mph, and 100,000mps+100,000mps=200,000mps). FALSE -- special relativity.

Time is absolute. FALSE -- Special Relativity.

Space is absolute. FALSE -- special relativity (what IS absolute is "space-time").

Earth's continents do not move. FALSE -- plate tectonics.

Everything that happens is rigorously mechanically determined. FALSE -- quantum mechanics.”

From Lilienfeld et al. (2010, p.6):

“…French writer Voltaire (1764) pointed out, ‘Common sense is not so common.’ Indeed, one of our primary goals in this book is to encourage you to mistrust your common sense when evaluating psychological claims. As a general rule, you should consult research evidence, not your intuitions, when deciding whether a scientific claim is correct.

As several science writers, including Lewis Wolpert (1992) and Alan Cromer (1993), have observed, science is uncommon sense. In other words, science requires us to put aside our common sense when evaluating evidence (Flagel & Gendreau, 2008; Gendreau et al., 2002).”

When engaging in argument avoid using the Common Sense fallacy, it gives and impression that you have no evidence to support your claim. It may perusade some people , but it will fail when arguing with someone who has a firm understanding of logic.


Lilienfeld, S. et al. (2010). 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. Wiley-Blackwell.

Shakespeare, G. (2009). 5 Ways “Common Sense” lies to you Everyday. http://www.cracked.com/article_17142_5-ways-common-sense-lies-to-you-everyday.html. (Accessed August 8, 2010).

Webster’s New World Dictionary. (2004). Wiley Publishing Inc.

Wikipeida. Common sense. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_sense. (Accessed August 8, 2010).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Science Might be Wrong

by Jamie Hale

Recently, a friend and I were discussing my article Sham Psychology or Scientific Psychology when he asked, “Are there any definites in Psychology?” I answered by telling him there are no definites in psychology or any branch of science, or any other method of knowledge acquisition. Some people have the idea that science claims certainty, when in fact science knowledge is tentative. The tentative nature of science is one of its strong points. Science, unlike faith-based beliefs accepts the preponderance of evidence and changes it’s stance if the evidence warrants.

The scientist has the attitude that there are no absolute certainties. R.A Lyttleton suggests using the bead model of truth (Duncan R & Weston-Smith M 1977). This model depicts a bead on a horizontal wire that can move left or right. 0 appears on the far left end, and a 1 appears on the far right end. The 0 corresponds with total disbelief and the 1 corresponds with total belief (absolute certainty). Lyttleton suggests that the bead should never reach the far left or right end. The more that the evidence suggests the belief is true the closer the bead should be to 1. The more unlikely the belief is to be true the closer the bead should be to 0.

The non-scientist is ready to accept explanations that are based on insufficient evidence or sometimes no evidence. They heard it on CNN or their teacher said it so it must be true (logical fallacy of an Appeal to Authority). They reject notions because they can’t understand them or because they don’t respect the person making the claim. The scientist investigates the claim and critically evaluates the evidence.

The scientific method is the best method we have for acquiring knowledge. Sometimes science is wrong, but science does not claim absolutism, nor does it claim to have all the answers. I have heard some people say, “science doesn’t matter, what matters is the real world”, news flash- the scientific method is the very best we have for understanding the real world. Of course, no one complains about science while watching TV, driving their car, or receiving their medications, all luxuries given to us by science.


Duncan R & Weston-Smith M. (1977) The Nature of Knowledge by RA Lyttleton. The Encyclopaedia of Ignorance. Pergamon Press.

Hale, J. (2009). Scientific and Nonscientific Approaches to Knowledge. http://www.maxcondition.com/page.php?126
(Accessed July 28, 2010)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Correlational Studies & Science

Correlation does not necessarily imply causation, as you know, if you read scientific research. Two variables may be associated without having a causal relationship. However, just because a correlation has limited value as a causative inference, does not mean that correlation studies are not important to science.

Why are correlation studies important? Stanovich (2007) points out the following:

“First, many scientific hypotheses are stated in terms of correlation or lack of correlation, so that such studies are directly relevant to these hypotheses."

"Second, although correlation does not imply causation, causation does imply correlation. That is, although a correlational study cannot definitely prove a causal hypothesis, it may rule one out."

"Third, correlational studies are more useful than they may seem, because some of the recently developed complex correlational designs allow for some very limited causal inferences."

"…some variables simply cannot be manipulated for ethical reasons (for instance, human malnutrition or physical disabilities). Other variables, such as birth order, sex, and age are inherently correlational because they cannot be manipulated, and, therefore, the scientific knowledge concerning them must be based on correlation evidence.”

When practical, evidence from correlation studies can lead to testing that evidence under controlled experimental conditions.

In conclusion, it is true that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, however causation does imply correlation. Correlational studies are a stepping-stone to the more powerful experimental method.


There are two major problems when attempting to infer causation from a simple correlation- 1) directionality problem- before concluding that a correlation between variable 1 and 2 is due to changes in 1 causing changes in 2, it is important to realize the direction of causation may be the opposite, thus, from 2 to 1 -2) third-variable problem- the correlation in variables may occur because both variables are related to a third variable

Complex correlational statistics such as path analysis, multiple regression and partial correlation “allow the correlation between two variables to be recalculated after the influence of other variables is removed, or ‘factored out” or ‘partialed out” (Stanovich, 2007, p. 77)

Conditions Necessary to Infer Causation (Kenny, 1979):

Time precedence: For 1 to cause 2, 1 must precede 2. The cause must precede the effect.

Relationship: The variables must correlate. To determine the relationship of two variables, it must be determined if the relationship could occur due to chance. Lay observers are often not good judges of the presence of relationships, thus, statistical methods are used to measure and test the existence and strength of relationships.

Nonspuriousness (spuriousness- not genuine): “The third and final condition for a causal relationship is nonspuriousness (Suppes, 1970). For a relationship between X and Y to be nonspurious, there must not be a Z that causes both X and Y such that the relationship between X and Y vanishes once Z is controlled” (Kenny, 1979. pp. 4-5).


Kenny, D. (1979). Correlation and Causality.

Stanovich, K. (2007). How to Think Straight About Psychology. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Venter's Synthetic Genome

There is big news in the world of biology- researchers have created the first “Synthetic Cell”. The idea will surely excite many people, but at the same time, I suspect strong opposition from some groups.

Geneticist discusses synthetic life breakthrough (Craig Venter briefly discusses some implications of this remarkable breakthrough- video is a little over one minute)

"a bright line in the history of synthetic biology...also at the same time its a baby step'

'this cell is the first one on the planet that it's parent came from a computer"

The Journal Science Interviews J. Craig Venter About the first "Synthetic Cell" (posted yesterday- video is approximately 13 minutes)

"...well this is an important step...um we think both scientifically and philosophically it certainly changed my views on definitions of life and how life works'

'life is basically a result of an information process"

Letter from Obama

"As you know, scientists have announced a milestone in the emerging field of cellular and genetic research known as synthetic biology. While scientists have used DNA to develop genetically modified cells for many years, for the first time, all of the natural genetic material in a bacterial cell has been replaced with a synthetic set of genes.

'Given the importance of this issue, I request that the Commission consult with a range of constituencies, including scientific and medical communities, faith communities, and business and nonprofit organizations."

My thoughts: Why is there a need to consult with faith communities? They should have zero input into matters concerning science. Scientific progress concerning this issue will probably be slowed if faith communities have any say in the matter.

Now ain't that special? The implications of creating the first synthetic bacteria

"For many, the wondrous nature of what permits something to be alive has been a mystery that science never, ever could penetrate. Life is sacred, special, ineffable and beyond human understanding. Except it isn’t.'

'... they created a living thing from man-made parts. Or, in more important words, they created a novel lifeform from man-made parts."

Researchers start up cell with synthetic genome

"The success clears the way for developing and testing new variants of existing organisms.

'With this approach we now have the ability to start with a DNA sequence and design organisms exactly like we want,' says Gibson. 'We can get down to the very nucleotide level and make any changes we want to a genome." http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100519/full/news.2010.253.html

What do you think? Should religious groups have input on this scientific endeavor? Should their opinions influence scientific progress?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Popular Psychology: Fact or Fiction

Interview with Scott Lilienfeld
by Jamie Hale

1- Congratulations on the success of your new book- 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. While conducting research for the book were you surprised by any of your findings?

Many thanks..... admittedly, we probably weren't surprised by too much given that we've been researching these myths for a number of years. But certainly, in the past some surprised us. For example, I once believed that the main influence on happiness was external events, but now think otherwise.

2- Can you give readers an example of a popular brain myth?

Sure, the belief that people use only 10% of their brain capacity.

What about a popular memory myth?

The belief that memory operates much like a video camera or tape recorder.

What about a popular myth associated with psychological treatment?

The belief that to get better, one must go on a psychological 'tour" of one's childhood experiences.

3- Who or what are the primary sources of psychological myths? How can the lay public defend themselves against shams?

The primary source is the huge, burgeoning pop psychology industry - self-help books, the internet, films, TV shows, magazines, and the like. But many of these myths also spring from the allure of our everyday experience: many of these myths seem persuasive because they accord with our commonsense intuitions. But these intuitions are often erroneous. The public can defend themselves against shams by becoming armed with accurate knowledge. Laypersons need to understand that not all pop psychology claims are correct, and that they need to be able to distinguish fact from fiction.

4- What are you current research interests?

Personality disorders, psychiatric classification and diagnosis, evidence-based practice in psychology, scientific thinking as applied to psychological treatment, research, and education.

5- Who is your favorite science writer?

Carl Sagan.

6- Keith Stanovich's new book- What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought- reveals that intelligence tests do not measure rational thought? Are there any measurement procedures available for measuring rational thought?

Not many good ones. Actually, Stanovich is working on one from what he's told me..such measures are sorely needed, because I think Stanovich is right that standard IQ tests don't do a great job of measuring critical thinking capacity. Lots of smart people can't think clearly, as recent events in the U.S. economy demonstrate.

About Scott Lilienfeld
He is a professor of Psychology at at Emory University, Atlanta, and an author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions About Human Behavior, co-written with Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and the late great Barry Beyerstein.

I would like to thank Dr. Lilienfeld for taking the time to answer many of my questions regarding the diverse field of psychology. To learn more about Dr. Lilienfeld visit http://www.psychology.emory.edu/clinical/lilienfeld/index.html

Recommended Readings
50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Review

Real Self-Help

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Broken Prison System

interview with Matthew DeMichelle

For or against death penalty?- that is one of the tough questions I asked Dr. DeMichelle, in a recent interview concerning the prison system.

Briefly, could you explain what is meant by "Supermax prisons" and how do they differ from maximum security? In general, what does the research data indicate about the rehab capabilities of Supermax prisons compared to max security?

Good question Jamie, but the reality is that supermax prisons are not meant to have any rehabilitative effects. These institutions are designed to keep individuals locked-up for nearly the entire day. I believe typically folks in such institutions are locked down for 23 or 24 hours a day, and when they do get out, they are segregated to small fenced in areas. The point to these facilities is security and incapacitation of offenders, not post-release success. I don’t believe there is any real research on success of individuals released from supermax vs. other prisons. Supermax prisons are warehouses or storage facilities for offenders deemed too dangerous to be housed with others. Interestingly, these distinctions are not made solely based upon convicted offense, but rather on institutional behavior. That is, if an inmate attacks a guard or other offender, they might get moved up in security level. To a certain extent, supermax prisons is the correctional system throwing up its hands and giving up on reintegration of offenders, and saying let’s just lock these folks up away from everyone. This is problematic, however, when we start to realize that many of these people will be released back into communities. So, while the prison system may give up, the community is left to deal with these folks again. With all this said, though, the US correctional system gave up on the notion of rehabilitation a long time ago. In fact, there is a well-known piece of research by Robert Martinson (1974) in which he argued that ‘nothing works in correctional rehabilitation.’ Martinson analyzed more than 100 research articles on correctional rehabilitation with juveniles and adults, and he argued that offenders going through these interventions did not perform significantly better than similar offenders not exposed to the interventions. This research was used as fodder to support conservative policy designs to remove any attempts at resocialization from penal institutions. Instead, it was argued that if rehabilitative mechanisms do not work—then, why bother? Why not just lock people up and throw away the key? Well, unfortunately, Martinson did not intend for his research to be applied in this way; instead, he was saying that better reintegrative mechanisms were needed, not fewer. But, we should realize that the late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of increasingly neo-liberalizing economics and political arrangements that fostered a punitive turn in social policies. At any rate, we’ve experienced a nearly seven-fold increase in incarcerated populations since the early 1970s---with incarceration rates per 100,000 population moving from around 100 to more than 700. This is amazing and it significantly outpaces our Western counterparts. In fact, the only other nations with such levels of incarceration are found in places such as Soviet Russia and South Africa. I say all these things because it is important to understand that incarceration and crime policy in general are not so much rational responses to public threats as much as they are shaped by larger contextual realities (e.g., economy, politics). At any rate, supermax prisons were part of this punitive turn, and they serve to house offenders that, essentially, had problems in other facilities and/or they were repeat violent offenders. But, researching their success upon release is not something that I aware has much research—probably because we know how these folks will do upon release, don’t we?

Does the death penalty aid in lessening crime? How is the death penalty used differently in the USA compared to other countries?

For or against death penalty?

Which country executes the most people?

Boy, oh boy, Jamie, couldn’t you give me some easy questions? Now you throw these three or four on the death penalty. First, the data on the death penalty reducing crime is a difficult question to unpack. I mean how could we measure crimes that folks might have committed if it had not been for the death penalty. These counterfactuals are nearly impossible to measure. I mean let’s assume that someone comes home to find their spouse in bed with someone else. Now, the news will tell us about the times when an individual goes to their closet and gets out their pistol and shoots someone—probably without every rationally calculating their actions, but we do not know, nor can we measure, the times when someone processes the potential consequences of shooting and killing someone in such a scenario. Simply, the deterrent effects of crime policies are difficult to measure accurately. Some research, however, suggests that crimes increase in areas following the commission of a death penalty, and if we look at states within the US that use the death penalty the most, we see elevated violent crime rates.

Second, the only western (or at least quasi-western law country) that uses the death penalty is Japan. The others got rid of the death penalty sometime ago, which is not to say that the public is not in favor of the death penalty in these other places. We should remember that most of Europe has a different memory of WWII than the US, and they may have a heightened sense of fear of the government’s ability to kill people legally. With that said, however, criminal justice policies and practitioners are protected from politics in that these are not elected positions in many other countries. Consider how the multiple elections of prosecutors, judges, sheriffs, and other criminal justice professionals shape crime policy and rhetoric. During election times, we all see the commercials in which someone claims that he or she is much harsher with criminals than their counterpart, or how another person is soft on crime. There is a famous case in which George Bush was running against Michael Dukakis for president, and Bush used the situation of a work furlough program that operated in Massachusetts when Dukakis was governor in which an offender was out and committed a brutal rape and murder of an elderly woman. While this crime was horrible, Bush did not mention that the furlough program had a small recidivism rate and was considered successful overall. Now, do not misunderstand me, no one is in favor of brutal offenders being released, but we cannot create rational policies to prevent the irrational from occurring. I mean does anyone think that we can eliminate crime? Policies cannot make all crimes go away. Crimes and violent forms of predation are much bigger social and psychological issues that can be addressed through policies, but we should not expect to get rid of crime. This would be like expecting medical doctors to eliminate death.

Third, am I for or against the death penalty? I am not in favor of how the US operates the death penalty. This is not to say that I do not see individuals that I believe should be executed. We see these sensational and horrific cases in which a young child is kidnapped and abused for decades, or someone kills and rapes someone, or some other horrible act, and I believe many people are in favor of using execution to handle these folks. But, unfortunately, in a large modern society it is not possible to conduct executions that way. Instead, we have a constitution that provides specific forms of protections to all of us, and these are a good thing—many of these rights are what separates this country from others, and it is what makes the US a special form of democracy. We should admit why we would want to use the death. That is, we do not use the death penalty to deter so much as to get retribution and revenge, which I am not saying is a wrong thing necessarily, but we should not expect to get anything else from it. Also, we know that hundreds of people on death row have been released due to prosecutorial misconduct, lack of adequate legal protection, and DNA evidence suggesting that someone else committed the crime. I mean does anyone believe that O.J. didn’t murder his ex-wife and her boyfriend? And, was acquitted, not because people believed he was innocent but because “the glove didn’t fit.” So, we see that money for a fancy legal defense is important, and we know that most of the individuals on death row had a public defender, not a hired attorney. This does not seem right to me. We also know that there are situations in which prosecutors fudge evidence to get conviction—to make sure they have a high prosecution rate and get reelected. And, DNA evidence has proven that many people on death row did not do the crime in the first place. Eyewitness testimony is weak at best. I suppose I’d be in favor of the death penalty if I were able to pick on a case-by-case basis who was to be executed, but until that time comes, it seems to be a flawed policy due to understandable human errors.

Fourth, I really don’t know which country executes the most people. As I mentioned above, the US and Japan are the only western law countries to execute, and it is really hard to compare the non-western countries with us. Not to mention in many other countries there are very shady sorts of things that happens due to a lack of due process and civil liberties.

Why solitary confinement? According to scientific data it doesn't look promising.

Solitary confinement is used as a punishment for offenders that do not get along once they are incarcerated. We know that historically this was used as a way to soften prisoners up. Now, it is what happens when administrators do not know what to do with prisoner. Maybe they are too violent or are problematic in other ways. I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t be used, but let’s be honest about why we use it. I mean it is simply a way to punish folks it has not interest in making people better. With that said, however, the correctional system gets something of unfair mandate because they are to correct folks that should be somewhere else. That is, after deinstitutionalizing the mental health system in the US, we simply just put these folks on the criminal justice system to deal with them. The reality is that mental illnesses are serious psychological problems that need specialized care and treatment, not simply locking them. Also, we have to realize that correctional administrators have a real challenge of trying to control and house so many individuals in such a small space, and with the long sentences that many offenders receive there is a growing sense in prisons that they have little to lose. This creates a dangerous place to work, so I’d say that solitary confinement is used as an administrative way to gain control over inmates that do not want to abide by the rules.

If you were told you were responsible for designing a new plan for running the US prison system, what would a brief outline look like?

Hmm…this is a difficult question. I’m so used to critiquing policies, but I’m rarely asked what a good prison would look like. First, it is important to ask what causes crime. I mean we don’t really think that crime is the outcome of “bad people” necessarily, which is not to say that people don’t do bad things. But rather, I believe that we must look at macro effects on human behavior, and recognize that human decision-making needs to be understood as multilevel (incorporating both psychology and sociology). We know that social disorganization, strain due to relative deprivation, limited legitimate education and employment opportunities, and other forces breeding hopelessness and frustration are related to anti-social behavior. This is not to say that we need to “hug-a-thug” but to simply recognize what research has shown since the 1920s-1930s. A holistic approach would be needed to combat these forms of street predation. Which brings me to one of my pet peeves when talking of crime policy, that we focus nearly exclusively on street level crimes when we know that white collar and corporate crimes and malfeasance are more dangerous and costly. Think if we spent half as much effort in investigating the latter as we do the former. This would create a fundamentally different criminal justice system.

Second, we should look to other similar countries and see what they are doing with offenders. Some of my recent research focuses on Scandinavian countries that identify the negative effects of capitalist hierarchies through welfare and mental health systems set up to catch folks before they enter the CJ system. Then, once an individual is incarcerated the central point to incarceration is not to dehumanize them in horrible conditions. One historian, James Q. Whitman, wrote an interesting book a few years ago in which he talked about the degrading nature of US punishment and how this differs from the fundamental purposes of European models that seek to normalize prisoners life with that which they will meet once released. Instead, we seek to make prisons as austere as possible, to degrade prisons, to stigmatize them upon their release. It is almost as though we do not want people to be successful.

Third, we need to return to some of the earlier policies that existed in the US, namely indeterminate sentencing. That is, while mandatory minimums and determinate sentencing sounds good on its face, these policies strip criminal justice officials of having any carrots to shape inmate behaviors. Indeterminate sentencing allows for apply punishment ranges to offenders, so if they do certain good things they can get out earlier, but if they do not do good things they won’t. Instead, determinate sentencing tells inmates that it doesn’t matter what they do while they are locked-up because they are serving their entire time no matter what they—this seems silly to me because we know through much research in conditioning that positive reinforcers work to shape behavior (and are probably more effective than negatives or punishments). At any rate, some sort graded system of release would be in order—depending on individual needs—in which offenders would receive additional freedoms—that includes family visits, conjugal visits, and work release opportunities—as they meet various requirements. And, no doubt, we must encourage educational and employment trainings opportunities to inmates. As it currently operates, prisons simply force inmates to sell and use drugs, join gangs, and live in hyper-violent state, in which most of us would relegate to the most basic human impulses of survival. The prison system is broken. Does anyone really think that folks leave prisons in a better condition than when they went in? I’d say not.
According to your research how does religiosity correlate with crime rate?

I really don’t know how crime rates and religiosity relate. We do see that in states that have larger conservative Christian followings that they punish more harshly, which is not to say that they have higher crime rates or not. It has always seemed ironic to me that the most Christian are typically the most punitive. I suppose this has something to with the emphasis on Old Testament readings, as opposed to New Testament, which focused on Christ and the idea of forgiveness.

About the Author

Matthew DeMichele, PhD is a Senior Research Associate at the American Probation and Parole Association. He is working on several projects related to the community corrections field, with his recent work focusing on reentry, DWI risk assessment, gang member supervision, and agency workload issues. Dr. DeMichele has several publications related to technological issues in the community corrections field, most notably Offender Supervision with Electronic Technology: A User’s Guide, 2nd edition (2009), as well as articles addressing unintended consequences and strategies for fostering and maintain law enforcement and community corrections collaborations when working with technology in the field. In addition, Dr. DeMichele is working on several projects using comparative-historical approaches to explain cross-national and temporal changes in crime control policies and naturalization strategies. His most recent publications appear in the Journal of Criminal Justice, Federal Probation, the Prison Journal, and Corrections Today. He also is an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky (Department of Sociology) and Eastern Kentucky University (Department of Criminal Justice).

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sham Psychology or Scientific Psychology

by Jamie Hale

The news media, television shows, movies, and the internet are saturated with psychological topics- mental illness, brain imaging, forensic psychology, psychics, recovered memories, polygraph testing, parenting, heinous crimes, psychotherapy, intelligence tests, child sexual abuse, hypnosis and so on (Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio & Beyerstein, 2010). Bookstores generally have hundreds of books on psychology. Self-help and motivational books, which are generally stocked in the psychology department, are often best sellers. These books often provide information that contradicts scientific evidence. Other best sellers associated with psychology include books on ESP and other psychic abilities, even though psychology has probably done more than any other field to refute psychic claims. Psychology’s association with the self-help industry, the supernatural, and a variety of other nonscientific claims have lead some people to believe psychology is not a science.

Before determining whether psychology is a science, it is important to understand the central tenets of science and psychology. After acquiring a basic understanding of science and its methods you will be able to determine psychology’s scientific status.

What is Science?

Science is a specific way of analyzing information with the goal of testing claims. Keith Stanovich (How to Think Straight About Psychology, p.9) says, “Science is … a way of thinking about and observing the universe that leads to a deep understanding of its workings.” Contrary to popular belief, science is not about a specific subject matter, but is applicable to various aspects of the observable universe. Science is not defined by test tubes, electronic equipment, or the researcher’s white lab coat (Stanovich, 2007). Claims that are considered scientific must meet the falsifiability criterion; that is, they must be stated in a way that their predictions can be tested and potentially falsified.

What sets science apart from other modes of knowledge acquisition is the use of what is commonly known as the scientific method. Giving a precise definition of the scientific method is difficult as there is little consensus in the scientific community as to what that definition is. Although the scientific community has been slow to agree upon a clear definition, the scientific method is rooted in observation, experimentation, and knowledge acquisition through a process of objective reasoning and logic (Hale, 2009). If you asked a panel of scientists to define the scientific method you would receive a large array of answers. This is what Michael Shermer had to say about the scientific method (Why People Believe Weird Things 1997, p. 19). “A sizeable literature exists on the scientific method, but there is little consensus among authors. This does not mean that scientists do not know what they are doing. Doing and explaining may be two different things. However, scientists agree that the following elements are involved in thinking scientifically:

Induction: Forming a hypothesis by drawing general conclusions from existing data.

Deduction: Making specific predictions based on hypotheses.

Observation: Gathering data, driven by hypotheses that tell us what to look in nature.

Verification: Testing the predictions against further observations to confirm or falsify the initial hypotheses.”

When using the scientific method one of the primary goals is objectivity. Proper use of the scientific method leads us to rationalism (basing conclusion on intellect, logic and evidence). Relying on science also helps us avoid dogmatism (adherence to doctrine over rational and enlightened inquiry, or basing conclusion on authority rather than evidence).

Scientific Theory

In science the word theory is used differently than it is in everyday language (Johnson, 2000). To a scientist, the word theory represents that of which he or she is most certain; a hypothesis or set of hypotheses that has been proven successful time and time again (Shermer, 2002). Scientific theories are provisional. The provisional nature of science is one of its most important and distinctive characteristics. The willingness to modify theories promotes scientific progress.

In everyday language the word theory implies a guess (not sure). This often causes confusion for those unfamiliar with science. This confusion leads to the common statement “It’s only a theory.”

What is Psychology?

Webster’s New World Dictionary (2003, p.520) gives two definitions for psychology:
“1. the science dealing with the mind and with mental and emotional processes. 2- the science of animal and human behavior.” L, Sdorow (Psychology 1990, Glossary G-11) defines psychology as “the science of behavior and mental processes”. Another commonly cited definition of psychology is the science of human behavior. Even though definitions vary, most people in the psychology field will probably agree that psychology involves the study of behavior and to a degree the cognitive processes that influence behavior and thinking. Modern psychology is composed of an enormously diverse set of investigations (Stanovich, 2007), which has led to many branches within the discipline.

Within the different branches come different areas of research and study. Some of these branches are rooted in science while others are not. For example, Freudian psychoanalysis does not meet the criteria to be called science, while cognitive psychology and experimental psychology are scientific endeavors. When determining whether a specific branch is scientific it is generally more important to address the methods used than the research topic.

Psychology’s Superstar

When most people think of psychology they think about Sigmund Freud. “The notoriety of Freud has greatly affected the general public’s conceptions about the field of psychology and has contributed to many misunderstandings”, says Keith Stanovich (How to Think Straight About Psychology 2007, p.1). Sigmund Freud, Austrian physician and physiologist, is the founder of psychoanalysis. Freud believed human beings were primarily motivated by unconscious, and often sexual motives (Sdorow 1990). In addition he believed that early childhood experiences were the main factors in the development of personality. A 1981 survey of chairpersons of graduate psychology found that the respondents considered Freud the most influential figure in the history of psychology (Davis, Thomas, & Weaver, 1982). Times have changed. According to Keith Stanovich (How to Think Straight About Psychology 2007, p.1), “[I]f all the members of the American Psychological Association (APA) who were concerned with Freudian psychoanalysis were collected, they would make up less the 10 percent of the membership. In another major psychological association, the Association for Psychological Science, they would make up considerably less than 5 percent.”

Modern psychology pays little attention to the ideas of Freud. Freud’s methods of data collection are different than those used by modern psychologists. Freud based his theories on case studies, not controlled experimentation. His theories lack scientific support and rely on a database of unreliable, unreplicable behavioral relationships (Stanovich, 2007). Psychology is not synonymous with Freud.

Media Psychology and Hearsay

In addition to the Freud problem the media’s promotion of psychology has distorted the layperson’s image of the field. A common misconception is that psychology deals only with mental illness and therapy. When I was attending college, as a psychology major, my family and friends often asked what type of mental facility I planned on working in when I graduated college. Contrary to popular belief, psychology encompasses more than the study of mental illness; not all psychologists are shrinks or therapists.

Psychologists featured on radio and television shows often offer common-sense advice about personal problems. These types of programs contribute to the idea that psychology is only concerned with personal problems and that psychology is merely common sense. Both of these assumptions are incorrect. To reiterate, psychology investigates a wide variety of topics not only mental disorders and personal problems. Furthermore, psychological science is not synonymous with common sense (Flagel & Gendreau, 2008; Cacioppo, 2004). Common sense is often common nonsense. To illustrate the point consider the common-sense idea that children who read a lot or excel academically are socially or physically under developed (Stanovich, 2007). This idea is often perpetuated by society, although contradictory to scientific evidence (Gage & Berliner, 1984, pp.18-19; Zill & Winglee, 1990). The idea of common sense is a fallacy found in various fields, not only psychology.

Bookstores often place paranormal books in the psychology department. This leads the layperson to believe psychologists’ agree with the reality of paranormal claims (e.g. telepathy, remote viewing, psychic surgery, psychokineis etc.). In reality, psychologists’ second only to professional magicians “have clearly done the most to expose the fraudlent nature of most purported demonstrations of paranormal abilities” (Stanovich 2007, p.186).

Shelving the self-help literature in the psychology section has furthered blurred the general perception of psychology. The quality and diversity of the self-help literature is enormous, containing good and bad information. Even if the book contains accurate information, will reading it have a positive impact on people’s lives? Will their lives get better (PSYBLOG, 2010)?

Most of the self-help literature found in bookstores provides advice on eating disorders, relationship mal-functions, sexual disorders and so on. This leaves an impression that psychologists only deal with abnormal behaviors (Stanovich, 2007). Another problem arises when psychology’s research methods are confused with those promoted by the self-help literature. The self-help database is derived from testimonials and case studies, while the database for scientific psychology is based on a rigorous scientific process. Bookstores or popular book publishers are rarely concerned with accurate representations of science, but more with book sales, which often means selling books that have little scientific value.

Modern Scientific Psychology

Psychologists often contribute to other fields of science yet receive no credit. Psychologists have made contributions to the fields of evolution, exercise science, biology, computer science, neuroscience, engineering, business, ethology, nutrition science, and so on. The involvement of psychologists in a variety of scientific endeavors is testament to psychology’s wide diversity. One of psychology’s top researchers, Daniel Kahneman, received the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics (Stanovich, 2007).

In a recent interview (www.knowledgesummit.net Thinking Straight About Modern Psychology), I asked Keith Stanovich- What branches of Psychology or rooted in science? Which ones are not? He said, “Virtually all areas of modern psychology are scientific, except for certain subsegments of clinical psychology and a good deal of clinical psychological practice.”


Is psychology a science or a sham? If you associate the entire field of psychology with media psychologists, self-help gurus, or anyone whom wears the title psychologist then you may be able to say psychology is not a science, however this would be a logical fallacy- Hasty over generalization. The fallacy of judging the entire industry based on a few bad apples happens in all scientific endeavors. What if you were to base the scientific status of exercise science on popular exercise literature or base the scientific validity of nutrition science on claims made supplement companies and popular diet plans? What if you were to base physiology’s scientific status on assertions made by physiologist Sigmund Freud? Modern psychology takes a scientific approach to knowledge acquisition. Psychologists whom gather data else wise should not be seen as representatives of modern psychology.


Cacioppo, J.T. (2004). Common sense, intuition, and theory in personality and social psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 114-122.

Davis, S.F., Thomas, R.L., & Weaver, M.S. (1982). Psychology’s contemporary and all-time notables: Student, faculty, and chairperson viewpoints. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 20, 3-6.

Flagel, D.C. & Gendreau, P. (2008). Sense, common sense, and nonsense, Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35, 1354-1361.

Gage, N.L., & Berliner, D. (1984). Educational Psychology(3rd ed). San Francisco: Freeman.

Hale, J. (2009). Scientific and Nonscientific approaches to Knowledge. MaxCondition.com. http://www.maxcondition.com/page.php?126
(accessed Jauary 27, 2010)

Hale, J. (2010). Thinking Straight About Modern Psychology. KnowledgeSummit.net. www.knowledgesummit.net (accessed January 29, 2010)

Johnson, G.B. (2000) The Living World. USA: McGraw Hill.

Lilienfeld, S.O., Lynn, S.J., Ruscio, J, & Beyerstein, B.L. (2010). 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell.

PSYBLOG. Is Modern Self-Help Just a Massive Money-Making Scam? PSYBLOG. http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/01/is-modern-self-help-just-massive-money.php
(accessed Mar 2, 2010)

Sdorow, L. (1990). Psychology. Dubuque, IA: Wm.C. Brown Publishers.

Shermer, M. (2002). Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: Owl Books.

Stanovich, K. (2007). How To Think Straight About Psychology. Boston MA: Pearson: Allyn and Bacon.

Webster’s New World Dictionary: Fourth Edition (2003). Pocket Books. New York: New York.

Zill, N., & Winglee, M. (1990). Who Reads Literature? Cabin John, MD: Seven Locks Press.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Psychic & Fitness Expert in Hott Water!

by Jamie Hale

Psychic busted again

The following quote is from Consumer Health Digest #10-07
February 18, 2010 (Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., with help from William M. London, Ed.D)

”A detailed three-year study of alleged psychic Sylvia Browne's predictions about missing persons and murder cases has found that despite her repeated claims to be more than 85% correct, ‘Browne has not even been mostly correct in a single case.’ The study's authors collected Browne's televised statements about 115 cases and compared them with newspaper reports that are believed to be factual. They found that in 25 cases where the actual outcome is known, she was dead wrong in every one; and in the rest, where the final outcome is unknown, her predictions could not be substantiated. The study indicates that the media outlets that repeatedly promote Browne's work have no visible concern about whether she is untrustworthy or harms people.”
[Shafer R, Jadwiszczok A. Psychic defective: Sylvia Browne's history of failure. Skeptical Inquirer 34(2):38-42, 2010]

Sylvia Browne is the so-called psychic that has made numerous appearances on the Montel Williams show. The following quote is from the Stop Sylvia Browne website, “On February 6 2007, Lt. Colonel Hal Bidlack (Ret) mailed a letter to Montel Williams, asking him some serious questions regarding Williams' continued support of Sylvia Browne.” http://stopsylvia.com/articles/montelresponsetoopenletter.shtml

Sylvia’s predictions have proven highly unreliable, but she still charges $850 for a phone reading. However, she is Sylvia Browne- a real psychic- and “Unlike some pseudo-psychics who tell people that their problems are caused by curses, evil entities, demons, or karmic retribution neither Sylvia nor Chris will blame the negative occurrences on your life on these things, and each of them feel it is important to advise their clients to not believe in such things. They do not exist.” http://readings.sylviabrowne.com/#promos

Seriously, pseudo-psychics?

If I could ask Sylvia (the real psychic) one question, it would be- why haven’t you collected the one million dollars James Randi has been offering you for years? If you really believe in your psychic ability why not make an easy million?

In 2001, Sylvia said she would take Randi up on his one million dollar challenge- a challenge that states if you can demonstrate supernatural abilities in a controlled scientific study you will receive one million dollars. At this time, Browne has still not taken the challenge. She has made various excuses for why she hasn’t participated in the challenge. To entice Browne, Randi even changed the rules of the challenge when he offered to put the money in an escrow account and make Montel Williams and Larry King, both Browne supporters, the escrow agents

Check out Robert S. Lancaster’s website
Stop Sylvia Browne

Fitness expert in the hott seat!

So-called fitness expert from NBC-TV’s reality show, “The Biggest Loser” is being sued for falsely advertising that her “Jillian Michaels Maximum Strength Calorie Control” will provide “automatic” weight loss if taken before meals. “Christie Christensen of Lake Elsinore, California has filed a class-action lawsuit against Jillian Michaels and two companies [Thincare International and Basic Research, LL] that market her products”

False advertising by weight loss, or supplement companies is nothing new. It may actually be the norm. This doesn’t make it right, but, in my opinion it means many other celebs and companies should also be sued.

Let me make it clear, I am not defending Michaels or her false assertions. I think Michaels should be fined and barred from the fitness industry, along with others participating in false ad campaigns.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Thinking Straight About Modern Psychology

After reading Stanovich's highly recommended book- HOW TO THINK STRAIGHT ABOUT PSYCHOLOGY- I decided I had to get an interview with the brilliant scientist.

In How To Think Straight About Psychology you dedicate an entire chapter to the ‘Freud Problem”. Can you give readers a brief explanation of “The Freud Problem”?

The notoriety of Freud has greatly affected the general public’s conceptions about the field of psychology and has contributed to many misunderstandings. Many people think Freud is central to modern psychology and are shocked to learn that he is not. One popular introductory psychology textbook (Wade & Tavris, 2008) is over 700 pages long, yet contains only 15 pages on which either Freud or psychoanalysis is mentioned—and these 15 pages often contain criticism (“most Freudian concepts were, and still are, rejected by most empirically oriented psychologists,” p. 19).

In short, modern psychology is not obsessed with the ideas of Sigmund Freud (as are the media and some humanities disciplines), nor is it largely defined by them. Freud’s work is an extremely small part of the varied set of issues, data, and theories that are the concern of modern psychologists.

It is bad enough that Freud’s importance to modern psychology is vastly exaggerated. What makes the situation worse is that Freud’s methods of investigation are completely unrepresentative of how modern psychologists conduct their research. In fact, the study of Freud’s methods gives an utterly misleading impression of psychological research. For example, Freud did not use controlled experimentation, which, is the most potent weapon in the modern psychologist’s arsenal of methods. Freud thought that case studies could establish the truth or falsity of theories. Of course, this idea is mistaken. Finally, a critical problem with Freud’s work concerns the connection between theory and behavioral data. For a theory to be considered scientific, the link between the theory and behavioral data must meet some minimal requirements. Freud’s theories do not meet these criteria. To make a long story short, Freud built an elaborate theory on a database (case studies and introspection) that was not substantial enough to support it. Freud concentrated on building complicated theoretical structures, but he did not, as modern psychologists do, ensure that they would rest on a database of reliable, replicable behavioral relationships. In short, Freud’s style of work can be a significant impediment to the understanding of modern psychology.

What is your definition of science? What branches of Psychology or rooted in science? Which ones are not?

In my book How To Think Straight About Psychology, I define science as having three essential features: (1) the use of systematic empiricism; (2) the production of public knowledge; and (3) the examination of solvable problems.

Virtually all areas of modern psychology are scientific, except for certain subsegments of clinical psychology and a good deal of clinical psychological practice.

How has the field of Psychology changed over the past 20 years?

The field has evolved steadily. It has not undergone any revolutions. Psychology is a very evolutionary, cumulative science.

What impact has Brain Imaging had in the field of psychology?

Brain imaging is one converging technique among many. It has not revolutionized anything. In one of my research fields—the psychology of reading—it has merely served to confirm what we have known about reading (for example, the importance of phonological awareness in early reading) for decades. Newspapers and magazines love the pictures of many-colored brains, but this type of publicity over-emphasizes the contribution of these techniques.

Who is your favorite writer? Favorite book?

Contemporary writers I like are David Lodge and Ian McEwan. Of classic writers in the canon, it’s George Orwell. Favorite books would be Lodge’s Thinks (a novel about cognitive science). McEwan’s Enduring Love and Saturday (both of which are flavored by science). Orwell’s essays are worth reading (“Shooting an Elephant”) in addition to the famous novels.

What are your current research interests?

Investigating the differences between rational thought and intelligence.

Do you have any current projects you are working on?

Same as the previous.

Of the books you have written which one is your favorite?

The last two: What Intelligence Tests Miss and The Robot’s Rebellion.

Click on the following links for more information on Keith Stanovich

Psyconoclasm: A scientific Approach To Psychology