The Meaninglessnes of the Mean

I had an argument about research methods with a psychologist a while ago. Nothing unusual there, eh? While most of what went on was fairly standard stuff, there is one thing that struck me. It seemed to get to the heart of how we do research, what we mean by research, how it can be applied to people, and what it says about us as individuals.

The Psychologist’s position was that one of the main aims of psychological research should be to find the mean of human behaviour and experience- what most of us feel and do. By this, he hopes to come to a greater understanding of who we genuinely are.

I… disagree.

I can see his point. It’s an attractive idea. Finding the genuine (as opposed to perceived) mean of human behaviour could be interesting.

It’s a pity that the mean, by its very nature, simply does not apply to most of us, most of the time. There’s this thing about humans, you see. One characteristic which defines us more absolutely than any other.

We adapt. We change.

The interesting thing about  humans isn’t in our averages. It’s in the stunning diversity of our adaptations, in why and how we do things differently in different- or similar- situations. It’s in how our hardware interacts with environment, in the commonalities and differences between us. It’s in why we do things the way we do.

The mean erases this diversity. And as a method of studying people, it seems odd to pick one which erases that which makes us most human.

But it’s not just that.

Simplification can be necessary for modeling just about any phenomenon you care to study. Since humans are about as complex as it gets, simplification can be incredibly important in the social sciences. But simplifying is also powerful. What we leave out of a question is as important as what we leave in. The framing of a question can drastically affect the answers we get. If we are to be intellectually honest and aware of the impact of what we do, we cannot make these choices lightly.

A one-size-fits-all decision to use a single method of analysis is not just incredibly intellectually lazy. It also misses the point of why we do research in the first place.

Oh, those smooshy, sappy atheists.

This is the worst. hiatus. ever.

I have a bunch of posts to make about things that people talked about at the World Atheist Conference. I have notes! And hopes to turn the notes into cogent, well-written opinions over the next few days! Right in the middle of Bloggly Hiatus 2011!

However: us atheists have a terrible* reputation for being snarky, arrogant, argumentative types. But I spent a lot of yesterday afternoon sitting with a group of people rhapsodising about the amazingness of the universe, how incredible it is that us bags of chemicals can do such awesome things as everything we do, and how our awareness of our finite lives just plain make us want to appreciate everyone we love all the time, and do what we can to make life better for people.

Those pesky atheists. Sappy gits, the lot of ’em.

*or wonderful, depending on your perspective.

Unfortunate etiquette and why alternative medicine could kill you.

The other day, I want for lunch at my local entirely lovely veggie cafe. As I was munching away on my very tasty green curry, I happened to overhear what the people at the next table over were talking about. In my defense, the place was quiet and they were.. not. Also, I’m an inveterate eavesdropper 😉

These two people were having a conversation about illness. One of them had recently been diagnosed- with what, she didn’t mention, but given the rest of the conversation it might have been some form of cancer. The other had survived some form of cancer. They were talking about his experiences with his illness, and her plans for living with hers. It was.. a pretty intense conversation that they were having. And it was obvious that she was someone struggling to deal with a difficult diagnosis, and looking for support. Which he was providing, in spades.

Where this became worrying was when they started to talk about her options, and whether she would go for ‘the medical route’ or ‘alternatives’. He talked about how medical doctors don’t care about patients as people. How to them a patient is just a cog in the machine. How alternative practitioners, on the other hand, spend time with you and offer real solutions that are tailored to your own needs. And how meditation, positive thinking and art therapy could do more for her than any doctor.

I’m sure this man was incredibly well-meaning. And yes, I’m sure that he’s not wrong when he says that his doctors weren’t interested in him as a person. But, you know something? While art therapy and meditation are lovely things, and while thinking positively can do wonderful things for your outlook and ability to cope, they’re not going to cure this woman’s cancer. And, no matter what he thinks, they didn’t cure his. His unpleasant experiences going through the medical system for cancer treatment were, no doubt, real. But they’re still most likely the reason he’s alive today.

Right then, I wished it wasn’t considered the absolute height of rudeness to interrupt an intimate (if, in fairness, reasonably loud) conversation by telling a distressed woman that her caring friend was wrong, and that taking his advice could very well cost her her life. That she should do all the art therapy and meditating she liked, after taking the advice of her doctors and getting her ass into a hospital for some treatment. That maybe her doctors are a bit busy with making people better, are probably overstressed and overworked, and that if she has a problem with their not being able to take time to get to know her then it might be time to send a strongly worded letter to the Minister for Health. That yes, our health system is incredibly broken- but it’s still the only way she’ll get better. And that dying of untreated cancer is one hell of an awful way to go.

I wanted to say that, but I couldn’t.

But here’s the thing. There’s nothing harmful about meditating, or art therapy (which, I gather, has many very useful applications), or positive thinking. But there’s something very harmful about thinking that these things are reasonable alternatives to evidence-based medicine. That’s the kind of thing that leaves people dying of treatable illnesses because they didn’t get medical help. Or because they tried the ‘alternatives’ first and by the time they went for medical help it was too late. The kind of misinformation that leaves people thinking that ‘alternative’ medicine provides effective cures for deadly diseases is incredibly dangerous.

And with that, I can’t think of a better way to leave you than with Tim Minchin’s Storm. So here you go:

Whose extraordinary claims?

Lots of Sensible Stuff Is Really Really Crazy

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It’s a sensible statement- if you’re going to have a crazy theory, and you want people to believe it, you should have something really, really good to back that up. But what consitutes an extraordinary claim?

I’ve recently been doing some thinking about some of the basic, ordinary facts about the world we live in that, on the face of it, are completely batshit insane. You know. The way that we live on a ball of rock hurtling through an unimaginably massive universe that somehow ended up in orbit around a giant ball of explosion that’s been exploding the fuck out of itself for billions of years. Oh, and the nice, solid ground that I spend my life wandering about on is actually floating on a layer of rock that has turned to sludge which every so often breaks through the surface at temperatures that would fry me in seconds and that is why people are currently spending a lot of time, eh, bored and waiting in airports. Oh, and I’m (and you are!) distantly related to both the herpes virus, and the sausages I just ate for breakfast. And the bread I ate them on. And this is without even beginning to mention the fact that space and time themselves can be squashed and stretched and all sorts. Oh, and this place where I’m sitting right now used to have frackin’ dinosaurs on it. Dinosaurs! Right here. It was covered in ‘em. Oh, and we’re all made of stardust.

Seriously, this stuff is crazy when you think about it. The fact that I, and maybe some of you, have always taken it for granted is mainly thanks to the fact that many of us were told it as kids, when we believed just about anything.

Crazy is where you’re coming from

Last week I was at work reading* ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’, Dawkins’ new-ish book on the evidence for evolution. It’s a great read, by the way. The guy next to me- let’s call him Bob, which is not his name- saw what I was reading, and mentioned that while he hadn’t read any Dawkins, he had heard good things about him. At this point I probably murmured something vaguely agreeable and hoped he’d let me read the damn thing**. I was not to be so lucky- Bob started talking about how, while evolution is totally true, like, it’s not the way They say it is. And that he knows that They are trying to mess with the timelines, dude, and hiding evidence of pre-human civilisations for, eh, some reason he didn’t mention. Fortunately, I barely had time to raise even one of my eyebrows before my phone rang and I could escape into the far more sensible world of explaining to someone that yes, they were expected to pay the entire amount on their bill.

It’s obvious to me that if anyone were to find evidence, good evidence, of entire civilisations existing before we’d gotten around to evolving our nice big brains, they would be thinking less about hiding this from everyone than about making space on the mantelpiece for their shiny new Nobel. Not to mention clearing space in their diary for the astonishingly lucrative speaking tours and TV appearances. And getting a nice new haircut for the photo that’s going to be all over the history books, forever. Sure, they’d have to go through a thorough grilling from a good chunk of their fellows, but that, of course, means many, many publications for years to come.

It’s easy for me to say this. I’ve been hanging around universities long enough to know how this stuff works. But that’s not the case for everyone.

Myths and Stories

If there’s one thing that people love, it’s a good story. When it comes to science, and the pursuit of knowledge in general, one of our favourite stories comes right from the pages of, well, all of our other stories. It is, by the way, the myth of the renegade scientist coming up with an incredible idea or insight which nobody believes, fighting the establishment, and, after years at the very least but often decades or even centuries, being vindicated. It’s an awesome story, it gets us right between the Robin Hoods and the Luke Skywalkers. Particularly when the person dies long before their ideas are accepted- oh, we love a good tragedy, with a big heap of ‘if-only’. We identify with the protagonist, we empathise with their struggles against The Man, we root for them, we cheer for their eventual vindication, and we boo the people who were ‘too closed-minded’ to let go of ideas which are patently ridiculous to our eyes. Narratives like this make sense to us. They have well-defined storylines and satisfying endings. Lucky for us, history is littered with these kind of figures. We have oodles and oodles to choose from, in any field you care to mention- start at Socrates and work your way up, you’ll find no shortage of drama and tragedy.

A short intermission

Since we’re talking about narratives, this point is where I tell you to go away from here, click on a link, and get back to me in ten minutes. I want you to read about the Monkeysphere. If you already know all about the monkeysphere- awesome! You get a super gold star. If you haven’t, then you should go and read it and you can have your super gold star when you come back.


Done? Lovely. Apologies for not explaining that myself, but it’s already been done so well.

And that had what to do with everything?

It’s all about the idea of Real People, the ones I know, versus Them. ‘They’ can be any giant, faceless group of people who are In On It, who have an Agenda and who Don’t Want Us To Know The Truth. The Establishment is a big one, by the way. Generally, though, as long as someone’s capitalising a ‘They’, you can be reasonably sure they’re talking about something way outside their monkeysphere. And we are really, really vulnerable to being manipulated when people have us by the, eh, monkeyspheres. Think of the arguments made by creationists, anti-vaccination activists, anti-gay groups- a common thread is that They are trying to pull the wool over Our eyes, to further Their agenda and take power away from Us. And We are, well, the people you know and love. Your kid with autism, your uncle left by his wife who was having an affair with another woman, all the people from your church/mosque/synagogue/temple who were so welcoming when you moved into this town, and who really went out of their way to be there for you and help you through that hard time you had. Those are real people, having real difficulties and issues, who really care about each other and want to help each other through things. They, on the other hand, are people you’ve never met, representatives of institutions you’ve never seen, and They are going around talking as if you’re stupid if you don’t agree that most of the things you take for granted are completely wrong. Also, they believe in ridiculous things- like that animals somehow change into other animals (wtf?!), that the universe is billions of years old (wtf?!), even that you can’t trust the evidence of your very eyes. And did I mention that they think you’re stupid?

In addition to this, we have the fact that many of the explanations that we have found for just about everything in the universe don’t fit into any narrative. They can be intellectually satisfying and beautifully elegant, but they can often be emotionally lacking. When we ask a question like “why are we here?”, then the answer “we are one of the products of billions of years of natural selection, which is still going on, and whose only point is that it continues, and which has been putting every bit as much time into the herpes virus***”, just doesn’t get to many of us the same way that mythic narratives can. When a parent has a kid with autism, it’s a lot more satisfying to be able to blame Big Pharma (which has, in any case, a history of dodgy behaviour), than to accept that we just plain don’t know the answer, but we’re working on it.

Can we get back to the point? This was supposed to be about extraordinary claims- it says so, right there up on the top of the page.

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the point. I just needed to take a roundabout way to get there. The point that I want to make is that yes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Which claims are extraordinary, though, depends almost entirely on where you’re coming from. If people that you know and trust, people who have shown themselves to be good and kind and caring people, tell you that a thing is true, then you’re likely to believe them. Or at least, to want to. Especially if their answers are emotionally satisfying and help in making sense of nonsensical events. Especially if the alternatives are things which seem ridiculous, counter-intuitive, or require months or years of study to even begin to grasp. Especially if those who advocate these ridiculous-seeming claims aren’t people you know and trust, but are complete strangers, representatives of institutions far outside your monkeysphere. It’s a tough thing to get past, to counter, argue with, or even to discuss. The major point I want to get across, though, is this: Many of the things we**** know to be true are, on the face of it, completely batsh*t insane. If you’re trying to argue them to people, you’d better remember that and take it into account. Also, when you’re on the side of established fact, you’re always going to be against every person who not only has a crazy idea with little/no good evidence for it, but who also has the narrative power of Joan of Arc, Robin Hood and Luke Skywalker all rolled into one. And while hopefully you won’t end up there, you’re starting off as, of not Darth Vader, at the very least a stormtrooper. Good luck!

By the way…

Yeah, here’s where I put a bit of moralising in. Things like this are why openness and being ‘out’ are so, so important. If you’re going to be arguing for something truly extraordinary, it helps to be a bit more girl/guy next door than One Of Them.


*I answer phones for money. The phone wasn’t ringing. Hence, book!

** I’d say this makes me misanthropic, but don’t we all sometimes wish people would leave us alone at least until the end of the chapter?

***Apologies for anthropomorphising. Also, for repeated mentions of the herpes virus. For one thing, it’s not like there’s just one of them, so that’s entirely inaccurate.

****Ooh er. I said ‘we’. Ye’re all in my monkeysphere now lads.

On Existentials and Skeptics.

I thought I’d start this off with something easy. You know, nothing too deep. Nice and simple and unchallenging. Unfortunately, I appear to want to talk about existentials, so the nice, simple stuff is going to have to wait until later.

I’m in my mid-late 20s, I have a couple of Arts degrees*, and, in case nobody’s mentioned it to you, we’re in a recession**. Having an entirely fashionable quarter-life crisis is only to be expected. In my case, this has revolved around two main themes. The first is pretty basic- where am I going in my life and why am I nowhere near any of the massively important ‘grown-up’ milestones that so many people around me seem to be galloping past? The second is far more interesting than that, and is to do with some ways in which I have done a bit of growing-up over the past few years.

One of the major things I have been doing over the past few years is coming into my own as a skeptic. While it didn’t hand me a ready-made career, college did teach me an awful lot about critical thinking- and once you start that (awesome!) process of questioning and looking deeper into the world around and within you, it’s hard to stop. For me, this process also involved a transformation, so gradual I couldn’t tell you where it started and when it stabilised, towards what currently appears to be a confident atheism. My newfound perspective on the world was something I found both marvellous and terrifying- but that’s a whole new topic for another post. However, what is relevant here is that I spent a lot of time lurking about skeptical and atheism-related blogs and communities, as well as devouring all the related books I could get my hands on.

Those people love science. I mean, they really, really love it. I love it too- the process of finding out, of increasing knowledge, the ways in which we correct for our biases and come to the most wonderfully fascinating discoveries. It inspires all sorts of flowery language in me, images of our relentlessly chipping away at out own ignorance, the wonders of describing what we can barely grasp, our having created tools to compensate for the weaknesses of the very minds that created them- that sort of thing. I think it is, for want of a better word, awesome.

As for what I do, what I’m trained in? It’s in the grey area between Real Science and, well, Everything Else. One of the unfortunate things about being around a community of people who are so excited about science is that they’re, to put it mildly, a bit less excited about things that may not strictly be considered science. Social science is fuzzy that way. Because in the social sciences we are people studying people, it’s impossible for anyone to be unbiased or detached from the data. You may think you can, but any social scientist worth their salt knows that even sociologists are part of society, have been moulded and biased by the very thing we want to study. It provides quite the challenge, to be honest. But it means that if you’re going to do good research, one of the first things to do is to quit even thinking you’ll get the same kind of certainty that your counterparts in the hard sciences can achieve. Useful knowledge and fascinating insights? Absolutely! But it’ll rarely be replicable, or generalisable, and you’ll never be able to fully correct for your own bias.

And yes, this is where the existential comes in. One of the major fears I’ve had in recent times is that I’m going in the wrong direction in my life. That I took a wrong turning back when I started college, and, goddamnit, if I could do it over I’d be a marine biologist*** by now. Or, at the very least, doing something that I’d need a lab for. In my head, for a while, that was what was truly useful, what would make a real difference in the world.

It wasn’t until the other day that it hit me that I was thinking about things the wrong way around. Sure, it would be lovely to go back to college and do another degree in something deliciously sciencey. In the kind of science that everyone acknowledges is Science. In the kind of thing that doesn’t get disparagingly referred to as wishy-washy, or somehow not real. But that wishy washy, not-real-science field? That’s where I cut my teeth on critical thinking. That’s where I learned how to examine, and re-examine, and to question everything. To not take things at face value. It’s where I developed the very skills that made me want to go back to college and be a ‘real’ scientist.

So you never know. Maybe someday, when I’ve the money****, I’ll take myself back to college and have a fine old time at Real Science. However, for the moment, I’m okay with being a person who knows how to do good research and answer questions that could do with answering, and I’m okay with my field being one that people see as a bit ‘fuzzy’. It was that fuzziness that taught me to look harder, question more, and be prepared for my assumptions to be shown up at any moment. It’s really… kind of awesome.


* BA in Sociology and Politics, and MA in Sociology of Development and Globalisation. Entirely lovely, both of them.

**It is possible that you’re not in a recession. Lucky you! Please send information regarding your location, as well as immigration requirements and procedures. Also, since you’re not in a recession, you probably have a sofa for someone to crash on, right?

*** In my fantasies, I am a marine biologist somewhere marvellously exotic, making incredibly fascinating discoveries that just happen to take place in breathtakingly beautiful coral reefs. I can dream, right? Right?

****I KNOW! I made a FUNNY! I have Arts degrees, we don’t make money! The lulz, they kill me.