Misleading research in sociology and psychology

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Explosion of bad science

Every week I read about new breakthrough research that generates worldwide media headlines. It is staggering to see how much of that peer reviewed research is wrong, misleading, or misinterpreted. The most prevalent formula seems to go as follows:

  • a correlation between A and B is found in a population
  • convenient causality is suggested (e.g. A causes B)
  • media picks up the interpretation that millions want to hear, e.g. computer games destroy brains, spanking creates psychopaths, daycare is great for health, school increases intelligence, and compulsory schooling increases intelligence even more

The findings are convenient because they often please specific audiences who seek comfort or excuse.

Praising daycare

For millions of moms, it is a heartbreak to part with a crying baby while sending him to daycare. However, research brings comfort with claims that daycare has a myriad of benefits. Most of those benefits are proven with flimsy statistics. There is no doubt that maternal separation has an awful impact on the health of the brain. However, it is also easy to show that playing puzzles improves the performance in playing puzzles. This way, a daycare facility which employs puzzles can appear to be an institution that "improves IQ". Puzzles can legitimately stand as a substitute for a wider IQ test, which is still largely meaningless in a noble quest to improve the creative strengths of the new generation. See IQ is a dismal measure of intelligence for an explanation of why white supremacists love the concept of IQ.

Ban on spanking

Defendants of child's rights are horrified with the possibility of harming a defenseless baby. This is why a ban on spanking is no less popular than a ban on death penalty. This is pretty puzzling for a mom who instinctively wants to slap a kid for his own good. If chimps do it, why can't humans? A pacifist mom would claim that humans are more advanced intellectually than chimps. A good-hearted Dr Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff is on a more scientific mission to protect children. However, her use of the statistics is a bit frivolous. In response, Dr Larzelere may seem heavy-handed. His goals are a bit less lofty. He just calls for a healthy use of statistics.

Digital dementia

When parents abandon their kids in front of TV, it is easy to use correlations to prove the harms of watching television. Instead of blaming the parents, research conveniently proves how TV destroys the white matter of the brain.

Anxious parents want to convince kids to spend more time on homework and less on videogames. This is why pop science that proves the "harms of gaming" is so rich. When research is picked up by corporations or experts with vested interests, the harm may turn monumental. For example, Dr Manfred Spitzer got a great deal of good ideas about play, creativity, upbringing, social life, healthy family, etc. However, he discovered his best money-making meme: "digital technologies cause dementia". As the meme keeps spawning new speaking engagements, Dr Spitzer is heavily incentivized against speaking the truth and providing real evidence. Instead of devoting his life to his good ideas, professor Spitzer keeps on churning false memes in condemnation of Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, automatic translation, spellcheckers, and other blessings of the modern world. In Spitzer's lectures, the root of the evil is the use of digital technologies before the brain crystallizes at the arbitrary age of 17, or … 21. If you think I am being harsh for the good professor, see my excuse: The morbid myth of Digital Dementia.

Discovery learning

It is easy to measure how many words a child has memorized while studying English. It is impossible to measure her potential to become a future Nobel Prize winner. For that reason, PISA is a red herring. IQ tests are a sham. And comparisons between discovery learning and direct instruction are a joke. I explained the problem in Discovery learning is hard to measure. Georgios Zonnios took a more analytical route in his text Misleading Research on Discovery Learning:

The teacher chooses the target. The teacher chooses the confines. "Discovery" is then merely allowing students to scamper around like rats in a carefully-designed maze, often in order to find cheese which they don't really like or want

Spaced repetition

I have no doubt that the need to publish-or-perish and the confines of peer review are highly conducive for the proliferation of low-quality research in psychology and sociology. The rest of the guilt can be attributed to the way media work, and to the fact that schooled populations are poorly immunized against fake news and bad science (see: On freedom of education and freedom of information).

As I am free to bypass peer review and blog to my heart's content, I am often accused on neglecting my academic roots. I have a rock-solid excuse. I do not read much research on spaced repetition. Having mountains of data and tons of evidence, I would probably fall into despair to see how small sample poorly designed research still seems to ponder how effective spaced repetition is. For me, this is a low priority issue. Spaced repetition works for me and assists my further research. Half-a-billion people seem to slowly learn how to best use the tool in their own lives. Pondering the efficiency of spaced repetition is not more interesting than the efficiency of walking. We all walk differently, at different speeds, at different energy cost, but we mostly care about getting to the destination. There are bigger goals on the horizon. I use spaced repetition and incremental reading in my way towards those new exciting targets. I would love to see some automation of conceptual computation powered by the semantic web. On the way, I also hope to liberate millions of kids from the prison of school. Those two goals are compatible. It is the understanding of the concept network that is my main sore spot in observing the survival of the preposterous invention of direct instruction and passive schooling. Is it surprising that I am not too eager to investigate the benefits of walking?



For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru