Jeb Bush has misthought

According to the Washington Examiner, republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush has said that doing a psychology major will mean “you’re going to be working a Chick-fil-A” and has encouraged students to choose college degrees with better employment prospects.

If you’re not American, Chik-fil-A turns out be a fast food restaurant, presumably of dubious quality.

Bush continued:

“The number one degree program for students in this country … is psychology,” Bush said. “I don’t think we should dictate majors. But I just don’t think people are getting jobs as psych majors.

Firstly, he’s wrong about psychology being the most popular degree in the US. The official statistics shows it’s actually business related subjects that are the most studied, with psychology coming in at fifth.

He’s also wrong about the employment prospects of psych majors. I initially mused on Twitter as to why US psych majors have such poor employment prospects when, in the UK, psychology graduates are typically the most likely to be employed.

But I was wrong about US job prospects for psych majors, because I was misled by lots of US media articles suggesting exactly this.

There is actually decent research on this, and it says something quite different. Georgetown University’s Centre on Education and the Workforce published reports in 2010 and 2013, called ‘Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings’ where they looked at exactly this issue.

They found on both occasions that doing a psych major gives you employment prospects that are about mid-table in comparison to other degrees.

Below is the graph from the 2013 report. Click for a bigger version.

Essentially psychology is slightly below average in terms of employability. Tenth out of sixteen but still a college major where more than 9 out of 10 (91.2%) find jobs as recent graduates.

If you look at median income, the picture is much the same: somewhat below average but clearly not in the Chik-fil-A range.

What’s not factored into these reports, however, is gender difference. According to the statistics, almost 80% of psychology degrees in the US are earned by women.

Women earn less than men on average, are more likely to take voluntary career breaks, are more likely to be suspend work to have children, and so on. So it’s worth remembering that these figures don’t control for gender effects.

So when Bush says “I just don’t think people are getting jobs as psych majors” it seems he misthought.

Specifically, it looks like his thinking was biased by the availability heuristic which, if you know about it, can help you avoid embarrassing errors when making factual claims.

I’ll leave that irony for Jeb Bush to ponder, along with Allie Brandenburger, Kaitlin Zurdowsky and Josh Venable – three psychology majors he employed as senior members of his campaign team.

A social vanishing

CC Licensed Photo by Flickr user Jonathan Jordan. Click for source,A fantastic eight-part podcast series called Missing has just concluded and it’s a brilliant look at the psychology and forensic science of missing people.

It’s been put together by the novelist Tim Weaver who is renowned for his crime thrillers that feature missing persons investigator David Raker.

He uses the series to investigate the phenomenon of missing people and the result is a wonderfully engrossing, diverse documentary series that talks to everyone from forensic psychiatrists, to homicide investigators, to commercial companies that help you disappear without trace.

Missing people, by their absence, turn out to reveal a lot about the tension between social structures and individual behaviour in modern society. Highly recommended.
 

Link to Missing podcast series with iTunes / direct download links.

A museum of many minds

I spent a very long time in the old Bethlem museum, owing to the fact that there’s little else to do when you live at one of the world’s oldest psychiatric hospitals.

The Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam as it’s been known in centuries past, has moved many times over its lifetime, but it’s now located in one of London’s comfortable, sleepy suburbs. Unfortunately, there is very, and I mean, very little to do there on weekends.

The museum was occasionally open on Saturdays, and during the six months I lived at the hospital, I visited. Repeatedly, as it turned out.

But for an institution that was founded in 1247, that has been a central character in London’s history and formative in our understanding and misunderstanding of madness, the museum was surprisingly crap.

It lived in a small, bleak portakabin in the corner of the grounds. You would walk in, stare at a few tiny walls of exhibits and then chat to the curator, who would be so bereft of visitors that it would be like a turning on a ‘history of the Bethlem’ fire hose for a few minutes before you left them to solemnly contemplate the archives once more.

But after years of neglect, the portamusem has been replaced by the Museum of the Mind in the Bethlem Royal Hospital’s central building. To get an idea of how much the new museum is being valued, they kicked the hospital bosses out to make space for it.

Apart from the museum space, it also has two galleries. One dedicated to work from current patients and another that has guest exhibitions. It also does talks from historians and art workshops – on everything from art techniques to building websites. You can even buy Bedlam mugs and pencils in the museum shop – for reasons I’m not entirely sure of.

The museum itself is beautifully put together and is entirely focused on tackling the most contentious issues in mental health. Here’s a quote, painted in large letters on one of the walls:

“The words of psychiatry are often unjust stewards, sorry guardians of meaning, workers of deception.”

The quote, quite profound in itself, doesn’t have the same impact until you understand that it’s from Aubrey Lewis the ‘father of British psychiatry’ and one of the most important people in the history of the profession.

And it is this rather confrontational approach to psychiatry’s assumptions, now and in the past, which permeates the museum.

Many of these challenges come from the voices of patients themselves, either contemporary or historical, and the testimonies to medically-induced suffering sit alongside the testimonies to its value as a remedy to mental distress.

For those looking for something of the London gothic, there are strait-jackets, manacles, and panels from a genuine padded cell from an old asylum, but it’s hardly the gaudy tourism of the London Dungeon – not least because the framing is quite different – the question of what it means to be humane in treating people with mental health difficulties is a central theme.

This approach also means artwork from patients, some of whom have been the country’s most distinguished artists in their own right, is integral to the design of the museum.

While you’re visiting, by the way, have a walk through the hospital grounds. They’re open to the public, extensive and beautiful. Locals walk their dogs there and come in the use the swimming pool. It’s quite different from how many people imagine a psychiatric hospital to be (and it has to be said, quite different from how many other psychiatric hospitals are).

And before you leave the museum, don’t miss the guest book. I’ve visited twice but the comments and art in the guestbook have been one of the highlights.
 

Link to the Museum of the Mind website.
 

Disclaimer: I still work for the NHS Trust which is responsible for the museum and occasionally still work at the Bethlem. However, I have since moved out to less salubrious accommodation in South London’s out-of-control rental market. Do note, however, that the Bethlem is genuinely out of the way in suburban London. It takes a while to get there and there is still nothing else to do there on weekends.

Oliver Sacks has left the building

CC Licensed Photo from Wikipedia. Click for source.Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has died at the age of 82.

It’s hard to fully comprehend the enormous impact of Oliver Sacks on the public’s understanding of the brain, its disorders and our diversity as humans.

Sacks wrote what he called ‘romantic science’. Not romantic in the sense of romantic love, but romantic in the sense of the romantic poets, who used narrative to describe the subtleties of human nature, often in contrast to the enlightenment values of quantification and rationalism.

In this light, romantic science would seem to be a contradiction, but Sacks used narrative and science not as opponents, but as complementary partners to illustrate new forms of human nature that many found hard to see: in people with brain injury, in alterations or differences in experience and behaviour, or in seemingly minor changes in perception that had striking implications.

Sacks was not the originator of this form of writing, nor did he claim to be. He drew his inspiration from the great neuropsychologist Alexander Luria but while Luria’s cases were known to a select group of specialists, Sacks wrote for the general public, and opened up neurology to the everyday world.

Despite Sacks’s popularity now, he had a slow start, with his first book Migraine not raising much interest either with his medical colleagues or the reading public. Not least, perhaps, because compared to his later works, it struggled to throw off some of the technical writing habits of academic medicine.

It wasn’t until his 1973 book Awakenings that he became recognised both as a remarkable writer and a remarkable neurologist, as the book recounted his experience with seemingly paralysed patients from the 1920s encephalitis lethargica epidemic and their remarkable awakening and gradual decline during a period of treatment with L-DOPA.

The book was scientifically important, humanely written, but most importantly, beautiful, as he captured his relationship with the many patients who experienced both a physical and a psychological awakening after being neurologically trapped for decades.

It was made into a now rarely seen documentary for Yorkshire Television which was eventually picked up by Hollywood and made into the movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

But it was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat that became his signature book. It was a series of case studies, that wouldn’t seem particularly unusual to most neurologists, but which astounded the general public.

A sailor whose amnesia leads him to think he is constantly living in 1945, a woman who loses her ability to know where her limbs are, and a man with agnosia who despite normal vision can’t recognise objects and so mistook his wife’s head for a hat.

His follow-up book An Anthropologist on Mars continued in a similar vein and made for equally gripping reading.

Not all his books were great writing, however. The Island of the Colorblind was slow and technical while Sacks’s account of how his damaged leg, A Leg to Stand On, included conclusions about the nature of illness that were more abstract than most could relate to.

But his later books saw a remarkable flowering of diverse interest and mature writing. Music, imagery, hallucinations and their astounding relationship with the brain and experience were the basis of three books that showed Sacks at his best.

And slowly during these later books, we got glimpses of the man himself. He revealed in Hallucinations that he had taken hallucinogens in his younger years and that the case of medical student Stephen D in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – who developed a remarkable sense of smell after a night on speed, cocaine, and PCP – was, in fact, an autobiographical account.

His final book, On the Move, was the most honest, as he revealed he was gay, shy, and in his younger years, devastatingly handsome but somewhat troubled. A long way from the typical portrayal of the grey-bearded, kind but eccentric neurologist.

On a personal note, I have a particular debt of thanks to Dr Sacks. When I was an uninspired psychology undergraduate, I was handed a copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat which immediately convinced me to become a neuropsychologist.

Years later, I went to see him talk in London following the publication of Musicophilia. I took along my original copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, hoping to surprise him with the news that he was responsible for my career in brain science.

As the talk started, the host mentioned that ‘it was likely that many of us became neuroscientists because we read Oliver Sacks when we started out’. To my secret disappointment, about half the lecture hall vigorously nodded in response.

The reality is that Sacks’s role in my career was neither surprising nor particularly special. He inspired a generation of neuroscientists to see brain science as a gateway to our common humanity and humanity as central to the scientific study of the brain.
 

Link to The New York Times obituary for Oliver Sacks.

Don’t call it a comeback

Duchenne_de_BoulogneThe Reproducibility Project, the giant study to re-run experiments reported in three top psychology journals, has just published its results and it’s either a disaster, a triumph or both for psychology.

You can’t do better than the coverage in The Atlantic, not least as it’s written by Ed Yong, the science journalist who has been key in reporting on, and occasionally appearing in, psychology’s great replication debates.

Two important things have come out of the Reproducibility Project. The first is that psychologist, project leader and now experienced cat-herder Brian Nosek deserves some sort of medal, and his 270-odd collaborators should be given shoulder massages by grateful colleagues.

It’s been psychology’s equivalent of the large hadron collider but without the need to dig up half of Switzerland.

The second is that no-one quite knows what it means for psychology. 36% of the replications had statistically significant results and 47% had effect sizes in a comparable range although the effect sizes were typically 50% smaller than the originals.

When looking at replication by subject area, studies on cognitive psychology were more likely to reproduce than studies from social psychology.

Is this good? Is this bad? What would be a reasonable number to expect? No one’s really sure, because there are perfectly acceptable reasons why more positive results would be published in top journals but not replicate as well, alongside lots of not so acceptable reasons.

The not-so-acceptable reasons have been well-publicised: p-hacking, publication bias and at the darker end of the spectrum, fraud.

But on the flip side, effects like regression to the mean and ‘surprisingness’ are just part of the normal routine of science.

‘Regression to the mean’ is an effect where, if the first measurement of an effect is large, it is likely to be closer to the average on subsequent measurements or replications, simply because things tend to even out over time. This is not a psychological effect, it happens everywhere.

Imagine you record a high level of cosmic rays from an area of space during an experiment and you publish the results. These results are more likely to merit your attention and the attention of journals because they are surprising.

But subsequent experiments, even if they back up the general effect of high readings, are less likely to find such extreme recordings, because by definition, it was their statistically surprising nature that got them published in the first place.

The same may well be happening here. Top psychology journals currently specialise in surprising findings. The editors have shaped these journal by making a trade-off between surprisingness and stability of the findings, and currently they are tipped far more towards surprisingness. Probably unhealthily so.

This is exactly what the Reproducibility Project found. More initially surprising results were less likely to replicate.

But it’s an open question as to what’s the “right balance” of surprisingness to reliability for any particular journal or, indeed, field.

There’s also a question about reliability versus boundedness. Just because you don’t replicate the results of a particular experiment it doesn’t necessarily mean the originally reported effect was a false positive. It may mean the effect is sensitive to a particular context that isn’t clear yet. Working this out is basically the grunt work of science.

Some news outlets have wrongly reported that this study shows that ‘about two thirds of studies in psychology are not reliable’ but the Reproducibility Project didn’t sample widely enough across publications to be able to say this.

Similarly, it only looked at initially positive findings. You could easily imagine a ‘Reverse Reproducibility Project’ where a whole load of original studies that found no effect are replicated to see which subsequently do show an effect.

We know study bias tends to favour positive results but that doesn’t mean that all negative findings should be automatically accepted as the final answer either.

The main take home messages are that findings published in leading journals are not a good guide to invariant aspects of human nature. And stop with the journal worship. And let’s get more pre-registration on the go. Plus science is hard.

What is also clear, however, is that the folks from the Reproducibility Project deserve our thanks. And if you find one who still needs that shoulder massage, limber up your hands and make a start.
 

Link to full text of scientific paper in Science.
Link to coverage in The Atlantic.

Psychological science in intelligence service operations

CC Licensed Photo by Flickr user nolifebeforecoffee. Click for source.I’ve got an article in today’s Observer about how British intelligence services are applying psychological science in their deception and infiltration operations.

Unfortunately, the online version has been given a headline which is both frivolous and wrong (“Britain’s ‘Twitter troops’ have ways of making you think…”). The ‘Twitter troops’ name was given to the UK Army’s ‘influence operations specialists’ the 77th Brigade whom the article is not focused on and whom I only mention to note their frivolous nickname.

Actually, the piece focuses on GCHQ’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group or JTRIG whose job it is to “discredit, disrupt, delay, deny, degrade, and deter” opponents mainly through online deception operations.

Some of the Snowden leaks have specifically focused on the psychological theory and evidence-base behind their operations which is exactly what I discuss in the article.

Controversially, not only were terrorists and hostile states listed as opponents who could pose a national security threat, but also domestic criminals and activist groups. JTRIG’s work seems primarily to involve electronic communications, and can include practical measures such as hacking computers and flooding phones with junk messages. But it also attempts to influence people socially through deception, infiltration, mass persuasion and, occasionally, it seems, sexual “honeypot” stings. The Human Science Operations Cell appears to be a specialist section of JTRIG dedicated to providing psychological support for this work.

It’s a fascinating story and there’s more at the link below.
 

Link to article on psychological science in intelligence service ops.

Digital tech, the BMJ, and The Baroness

CC Licensed Photo by Flickr user World Bank Photo Collection. Click for source.The British Medical Journal just published an editorial by me, Dorothy Bishop and Andrew Przybylski about the debate over digital technology and young people that focuses on Susan Greenfield’s mostly, it has to be said, unhelpful contributions.

Through appearances, interviews, and a recent book Susan Greenfield, a senior research fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, has promoted the idea that internet use and computer games can have harmful effects on the brain, emotions, and behaviour, and she draws a parallel between the effects of digital technology and climate change. Despite repeated calls for her to publish these claims in the peer reviewed scientific literature, where clinical researchers can check how well they are supported by evidence, this has not happened, and the claims have largely been aired in the media. As scientists working in mental health, developmental neuropsychology, and the psychological impact of digital technology, we are concerned that Greenfield’s claims are not based on a fair scientific appraisal of the evidence, often confuse correlation for causation, give undue weight to anecdote and poor quality studies, and are misleading to parents and the public at large.

It continues from there.

I was also on Channel 4 News last night, debating The Baroness, and they seem to put some of their programme online as YouTube clips so if our section turns up online, I’ll post it here.

UPDATE: It disappeared on the Channel 4 site but it seems to be archived on Yahoo of all places. Either way you can now view it here.

Greenfield was lovely, as on the previous occasion we met. Actually, she didn’t remember meeting me before, despite the fact she specifically invited me to debate her on this topic at a All-Party Parliamentary Group in 2010, but I suspect what was a markedly atypical experience for me, was probably pretty humdrum for her.

Either way, she trotted out the same justifications. ‘I’ve written a book.’ ‘It contains 250 references.’ ‘The internet could trigger autistic-like traits.’

Dorothy Bishop has had a look at those 250 references and they’re not very convincing but actually our main message is shared by pretty much everyone who’s debated Greenfield over the years: describe your claims in a scientific paper and submitted them to a peer-reviewed journal so they can be examined through the rigour of the scientific process.

Oddly, Greenfield continues to publish peer-reviewed papers from her work on the neuroscience of Alzheimer’s disease but refuses to do so for her claims on digital technology and the brain.

It’s a remarkable case of scientific double standards and the public really deserves better.
 

Link to ‘The debate over digital technology and young people’ in the BMJ.


So the video of my debate with Greenfield is up online but it seems like you can’t embed it so you’ll have to follow this link to watch it.

Watching it back, one thing really stands out: Greenfield’s bizarre and continuing insistence that using the internet could ‘trigger’ autistic-like symptoms in young people, saying that most kids with autism are not diagnosed until age five and many use computers before.

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what autism is, and how diagnosis is done. Autism is diagnosed both on presentation (how you are at the time) and history (how you have been throughout your life) and to get a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder you have to demonstrate both. So by definition, being ‘turned autistic’ at age 4 or 5 doesn’t even make sense diagnostically, let alone scientifically, as we know autism is a life-long neurodevelopmental condition.