Field of Science

Chemistry has its own problems with replication, according to Nature:
Scrounging chemicals and equipment in their spare time, a team of chemistry bloggers is trying to replicated published protocols for making molecules. The researchers want to check how easy it is to repeat the recipes that scientists report in papers ... Among the frustrations [chemists] have experienced with the chemical literature ... are claims that reactions yield products in greater amounts than seem reasonable, and scanty detail about specific conditions in which to run reactions. In some cases, reactions are reported which seem to good to be true - such as a 2009 paper which was corrected within 24 hours by web-savvy chemists live-blogging the experiment.
It's hard to tell from the article how common it is for a reaction simply not to be possible at all as opposed to simply produce less product than reported. Presumably either is problematic, but the causes would be different.

Given the recent excitement about (non-)replication, one has to wonder if this problem is more or less common than in the past. While my gut instinct is that replication was probably less of a problem in the earlier, smaller days of science, it's also quite possible that it's like many forms of violent crime: extremely rare today by historical standards, but we care much more about it.

What makes psychology and neuroscience hard

Explained by today's XKCD:

Ambrose Bierce pointed out the same problem in his 1911 satyrical dictionary (The Devil's Dictionary):
Mind, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with. 

Fractionating IQ

Near the dawn of the modern study of the mind, the great psychological pioneer Charles Spearman noticed that people who are good at one kind of mental activity tend to be good at most other good mental activities. Thus, the notion of g (for "general intelligence") was born: the notion that there is some underlying factor that determines -- all else equal -- how good someone is at any particular intelligent task. This of course fits folk psychology quite well: g is just another word for "smarts".

The whole idea has always been controversial, and many people have argued that there is more than one kind of smarts out there (verbal vs. numeric, logical vs. creative, etc.). Enter a recent paper by Hampshire and colleagues (Hampshire, HIghfield, Parkin & Owen, 2012) which tries to bring both neuroimaging and large-scale Web-based testing to bear on the question.

In the neuroimaging component, they asked sixteen participants to carry out twelve difficult cognitive tasks while their brains were scanned and applied principle components analysis (PCA) to the results. PCA is a sophisticated statistical method for grouping things.

A side note on PCA

If you already know what PCA is, skip to the next section. Basically, PCA is a very sophisticated way of sorting thigns. Imagine you are sorting dogs. The simplest thing you could do is have a list of dog breeds and go through each dog and sort it according to its breed.

What if you didn't already have dog breed manual? Well, German shepherds are more similar to one another than any given German shepherd is to a poodle. So by looking through the range of dogs you see, you could probably find a reasonable way of sorting them, "rediscovering" the various dog breeds in the process. (In more difficult cases, there are algorithms you could use to help out.)

That works great if you have purebreds. What if you have mutts? This is where PCA comes in. PCA assumes that there are some number of breeds and that each dog you see is a mixture of those breeds. So a given dog may be 25% German Shepherd, 25% border collie, and 50% poodle. PCA tries to "learn" how many breeds there are, the characteristics of those breeds, and the mixture of breeds that makes up each dog -- all at the same time. It's a very powerful technique (though not without its flaws).

Neuroimaging intelligence

Analysis focused only on the "multiple demands" network previously identified as being related to IQ and shown in red in part A of the graph below. PCA discovered two underlying components that accounted for about 90% of the variance in the brain scans across the twelve tasks. One was particularly important for working memory tasks, so the authors called in MDwm (see part B of the graph below), and it involved mostly the IFO, SFS and ventral ACC/preSMA (see part A below for locations). The other was mostly involved in various reasoning tasks and involved more IFS, IPC and dorsal ACC/preSMA.

Notice that all tasks involved both factors, and some tasks (like the paired associates memory task) involved a roughly equal portion of each.

Sixteen subjects isn't very many

The authors put versions of those same twelve tasks on the Internet. They were able to get data from 44,600 people, which makes it one of the larger Internet studies I've seen. The authors then applied PCA to those data. This time they got three components, two of which were quite similar to the two components found in the neuroimaging study (they correlated at around r=.7, which is a very strong correlation in psychology). The third component seemed to be particularly involved in tasks requiring language. Most likely that did not show up in the neuroimaging study because the neuroimaging study focused on the "multiple demands" network, whereas language primarily involves other parts of the brain.

The factors dissociated in other ways as well. Whereas people's working memory and reasoning abilities start to decline about the time people reach the legal drinking age in the US (coincidence?) verbal skills remain largely undiminished until around age 50. People who suffer from anxiety had lower than average working memory abilities, but average reasoning and verbal abilities. Several other demographic factors similarly had differing effects on working memory, reasoning, and verbal abilities.


The data in this paper are very pretty, and it was a particularly nice demonstration of converging behavioral and neuropsychological methods. I am curious what the impact will be. The authors are clearly arguing against a view on which there is some unitary notion of IQ/g. It occurred to me as I wrote this what while I've read many papers lately discussing the different components of IQ, I haven't read anything recent that endorses the idea of a unitary g. I wonder if there is anyone, and, if so, how they account for this kind of data. If I come across anything, I will post it here.

ResearchBlogging.orgHampshire, A., Highfield, R., Parkin, B., & Owen, A. (2012). Fractionating Human Intelligence Neuron, 76 (6), 1225-1237 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.06.022

Professor -- The Easiest Job in the World

There has been a small kerfuffle over Susan Adams's article at Forbes, titled "The least stressful jobs of 2013":
University professors have a lot less stress than most of us. Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year's and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don't sped too many hours in the classroom ... Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands...
She also mentions the great job prospects ("Universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professors by 2020").

To her credit, Adams has added a sizable addendum to her article, correcting -- but not apologizing for -- her mistakes. Unfortunately, this is far from the first time this kind of article has appeared in a major publication. Some time back, a columnist for the New York Times wrote an article suggesting that the solution to rising costs of higher education was to make professors work more than a few hours a week. An article in the New Yorker casually noted that the new head of a particular company was concerned that his employees worked "the hours of college professors" (I initially assumed they meant "way too hard" and that the boss wanted them to take a break!). What gives?

Scicurious suggests it's the curse of half-knowledge:
The vast majority of us aren't teachers or professors, but we've all been students, right? ... We thought that, because of what we saw of them in our classes, we knew what they did ... Because of this half-knowledge, people make assumptions about our jobs, assumptions that can really affect how we are perceived as people...
 That is no doubt part of it, but it also requires that people not think very hard. If I heard that someone made a pretty good living working only a few hours a week, it would immediately set off my implausibility alarm. I mean, what are the chances? And you'd only have to think for a moment to realize this can't be true.

Adams got hundreds of comments and letters pointing out that professors, in addition to giving a few lectures a week, also grade papers, advise students, write papers and books, go to conferences, give invited talks, etc. Adams presents this as if this came as a surprise, but that seems equally implausible. I'm going to assume she's read one or two articles about medicine or science, in which case the people discussed are inevitably professors. In fact, articles about politics occasionally cite professors as well. If she went to college, she knows that professors have office hours and grade papers. Many of the books on science and politics in the bookstore are written by faculty, as are essentially all college textbooks.

Even if she had never attended college, never interacted with a professor, and didn't read articles about higher education, a few minutes of Googling prior to writing her article would have corrected that mistake. My guess is that she didn't really think about her article before writing it and didn't consult either her own memory or Google because she -- and the others who write similar articles -- wanted this crazy claim about the lazy professor to be true. The interesting question is why she wanted it to be true. Anti-intellectualism? A desire to believe that such cushy jobs really exist? Or is this just an example of one of those ideas that are crazy enough that they inspire belief (like one of those many apocryphal "weird facts")?

*I do realize that some professors do very little work. Some people in all professions do very little work.

Transferring Consciousness

My brother was just in town, and we had our usual argument about Old Man's War, which he loves and about which I'm less enthusiastic (it was a fun read, but...). Perhaps one issue that keeps me from enjoying it fully is that whenever I think about it I think about an early scene, in which a character's consciousness was transferred from an old body to a new body. This is presented in the book as just one more futuristic miracle, but I can't stop thinking about the deeper questions it raises.

What does it mean to transfer consciousness from one body to another? Our current scientific understanding is that there is no consciousness separate from the underlying physical machinery, so such a transfer could not happen. But you might be able to create the illusion of a consciousness transfer, which I explain below. So we can make sense of Old Man's War if we assume that the doctors are deliberately lying about what is going on, covering up the murder that lies at the heart of the procedure.

Here's what might be going on (yes, I realize this is fiction, but good science fiction almost always has a thought experiment at its heart): It should be possible, at least in principle, to create a new body that has identical machinery to an existing body. This is would be new person who is a twin not only physically but mentally, down to having the same memories (by definition, since they have the same brains down to the microcircuitry). From the new person's perspective, he has finds herself suddenly in a "new" body. (This is much like the old philosophical puzzle, what if the world was created yesterday, all of us with artificial memories?)

So now we've got a consciousness that believes itself to have transferred into a new body from an old body. What happened to the consciousness in the old body? The doctors in Old Man's War claim that it is now a vegetable, with no consciousness inside, because that consciousness has transferred. Since that can't happen, they are lying: either the process of creating the new copy of the old brain destroys the old brain, or the doctors deliberately destroy the old brain to preserve the illusion of the transfer (after all, if transfer is impossible, why go through this procedure? It's very nice for your twin to have a new body, but it's not going to do you any good at all!).

Here's the question: does this matter? If John undergoes this procedure happens on a Wednesday, then the world on Thursday is much the same as the world on Tuesday: on both days, there is a consciousness calling itself "John" with roughly the same memories. It only gets tricky when you think too much about Wednesday. You might be tempted to say you have John 1 on Tuesday and John 2 on Thursday, who are duplicates but nonetheless not the same because they have different bodies. But, of course, John had a different body when he was 5yo than when he was 75yo, down even to being made up of different atoms. So if we're willing to call 5yo John and 75yo John the same person, why aren't John 1 and John 2?

This confuses the heck out of me, which is why I have difficulty paying attention to the novel itself.