General

A grad student’s perspective on piecing together a stellar research team

This week I wrote for Quartzy’s blog, The Q, which focuses on “Life, Science, and Stories for Labs.” I hope I hit on all three with my post on cultivating a stellar research team. As a PhD student, I’m far from the position of putting together an entire lab research team, but my research does require that I assemble a microcosm of a larger lab group. The Research Assistants I work with are invaluable contributors to my research, so I’ve put a lot of thought into what’s important for a research team and what I can do to ensure we stay stellar.

Interested to hear thoughts on what other people find important for their research teams, and best practices for creating the ideal ethos for your team.

Here’s the post!

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Can we really vaccinate against fake news?

The Internet is home to a lot of great information, but it’s also home to a growing amount of fake news. This is especially distressing for science communicators who work to portray the gravity of climate change, a subject of pervasive conspiracy theories.

Recent work by Sander van der Linden, Anthony Leiserowitz, Seth Rosenthal, & Edward Maibach suggests that communicators may be able to “vaccinate” their audiences against climate change misinformation. There are some good summaries of the work available, so mine will be brief.

Finding #1: Some people saw (true) information that 97% of scientists agree on manmade climate change. As a result, their own beliefs in the scientific consensus about climate change increased.
Others saw the fake news (which is really published on the Internet, not made up by the authors) about the Oregon Global Warming Petition Project, which claims that over 30,000 scientists have signed an agreement to reject global warming. Their beliefs in the scientific consensus on climate change decreased.

This first finding is a kind of sanity check: when people read information telling them scientists either do or not agree on global warming, their beliefs shift toward the information they receive.

Finding #2: If people read about scientists’ 97% agreement on global warming followed by the fake news petition project, their views on scientific consensus were unchanged from their pre-study views. The true and false information canceled each other out.

Finding #3: The vaccine condition. Some people received extra information along with the 97% agreement info (considered to be an information “vaccine”). Those people read: “some politically-motivated groups use misleading tactics to try and convince the public that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists.” When people read the vaccine + the info that 97% of scientists agree on global warming + the petition project, they still tended to agree more with the scientific consensus than when they had started — not as much as those who only read about the 97% scientific consensus, but more than others who received both the real and fake news (without the info vaccine).

 

Finding #4: The super-vaccine condition. A final group of people received the petition project and the 97% message with the vaccine mentioned in the previous paragraph, PLUS an additional message that specifically addressed the petition project, instead of solely stating a general conspiracy theorist tactic. This message picked apart the petition project, pointing out things like fraudulent signatures. When people received this specific message along with the general vaccine and the conflicting news messages, they were even more likely to shift their views in favor of the scientific consensus than if they had just received the general vaccine with the conflicting messages on scientific consensus.

People can be encouraged to recognize fake news for what it is and discount its message appropriately. This is good news for science communicators, since we can’t eradicate fake news. But this work opens up so many important questions about how this information vaccination might work outside a carefully crafted experiment:

  • How can science communicators disseminate their information vaccines? Most of us are only exposed to information we already agree with (whether we seek it out or it’s tailored to us, for example in a Facebook feed). How can communicators even reach a Breitbart reader with an information vaccine?
    Schools seem to be an obvious place for these warning message vaccines, but very few voting-age Americans are still in school. It will be too late if we have to wait a generation until a significant fraction of voters have been inoculated before taking drastic steps to improve global warming.
  • Relatedly, who should deliver the inoculation messages? Message will probably be less effective if coming from someone that people are poised to distrust (for example, a climate scientist).
  • How often do information inoculations need to be administered? In the experiments, people read the warning messages about conspiracy theorist tactics and the petition project’s fraudulent tactics at the same time as reading about the scientific consensus. In real life, it would be nearly impossible for this kind of warning message to accompany fake news. If it’s been days, weeks, months, or years since someone has been reminded of the tactics that conspiracy theorists use, will they still be inoculated?
  • Further, what are the properties of a successful information vaccine? The studies reported here stuck with the same messages, but there are tons of things someone could write to warn others about fake news. What’s the most successful way to approach this issue?

This work is encouraging because I’ve often heard that when trying to debunk conspiracy theories, it can be dangerous to even bring up the specific theory you’re arguing against, since some people’s beliefs will be strengthened just by the mention of the inaccuracy. We’re all prone to confirmation bias, the tendency to seek information that confirms what we already believe and to consider opposing information to be biased or inaccurate. This work shows us that fake news can be debunked — we just have to learn more about how to actually do it.


Featured cartoon by Susan Nasif, Virology Comics.

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What happened to Team Science?

Last week I saw Hidden Figures, a movie highlighting 3 African-American women who were instrumental in the math work behind NASA’s earliest space missions. I was captivated, and the movie’s success suggests that I wasn’t the only one. The movie showcases the intense obstacles women and African-Americans faced in American society, and sent a message that is still relevant and important today.

One theme that really struck me was the widespread fascination for science, particularly the American space program. Everyone was rooting for the space program. Families crowded in front of the TV to watch coverage of early US space missions, and cheered outwardly at its successes. They were rooting for America in a time of great tension with Russia (sounds familiar…), and they were rooting for scientific progress. Science seemed to be a topic that united Americans.

I’ve never witnessed this kind of collective enthusiasm for scientific progress. I don’t think I’ve ever watched live coverage of a science event on TV, and I can’t recall any scientific event that I celebrated with family and non-scientist friends. I think it’s safe to say that science is not uniting Americans right now. My intuition is the reverse: science fuels ideological divides. It gives people more issues to argue about.

To test myself, I googled: “Americans rooting for science.” The only relevant search result I found referred to the “war on science.” Then I searched for that phrase, and there were many relevant and recent results. Americans aren’t united by Team Science; they are at war over it.

How did we get here? Why is science now so inseparable from other political beliefs, and therefore always a topic for debate? Have our national priorities shifted? Have we become a more individualist nation, all burrowing deeply into our own echo chambers? Are we too distracted by cat memes to realize when big scientific stuff is going on?

I don’t know, and I don’t know if it’s a bad thing. But I do wish my earliest memory of gathering in front of a TV had been to watch a rocket taking off and not of the Twin Towers collapsing.


P.S. Feb. 11, 2017: This post by Marcelo Gleiser really hit the nail on the head: “If there is a central lesson in the movie, it is that united we win; that what makes America great is not segregation and intolerance, but openness and inclusiveness.”

Are your ideas seeds or lightbulbs?

When someone has a great idea or invention, we commonly talk about that idea metaphorically: a light bulb suddenly turned on and the idea struck him, or she nurtured the idea from a seed that grew to bear fruit. The idea’s merit or the merit of the person who came up with it shouldn’t depend on how we metaphorically talk about its emergence, but new research by Kristen Elmore and Myra Luna-Lucero suggests that the metaphor matters.

Participants in the first experiment read about Alan Turing’s invention of a precursor to the modern computer. For some of them, the passage described that Turing had a bright idea that struck him like a light bulb that had suddenly turned on. For others, the passage said that Turing had the seed of an idea that took root like a growing seed that had finally borne fruit. A third group read about Turing’s invention without either metaphor. All participants then answered questions probing how exceptional they believed Turing’s idea to be. People who read about Turing’s light bulb idea believed his invention to be more exceptional than those who read about his seed idea. People who hadn’t read either metaphor rated the idea’s exceptionality in between the seed- and light bulb-readers (though technically their ratings weren’t significantly higher than ratings following seed metaphors or lower than those following lightbulb metaphors). These results suggest that we seem to believe ideas are more exceptional if they’re described with lightbulb metaphors than seed metaphors.

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In the next experiment, the researchers wanted to know if the metaphors could affect more than our perceptions of ideas and extend to our perceptions of the person who had the idea. Participants again read either about ideas as lightbulbs, as seeds, or without a metaphor, and then had to consider the average man and woman. The researchers asked: Do you think men or women are better at coming up with creative ideas? People who had been exposed to the seed metaphor were more likely to indicate that women were more creative than people who read the lightbulb metaphor, suggesting that when people are thinking of good ideas as things that are cultivated and grown from hard work, women seem more capable of having them.

They further probed this question of whether metaphor affects our perception of innovators in a final experiment. In addition to reading a passage that couched an invention (spread-spectrum technology in radio communication) with either the seed, lightbulb, or no metaphor, people read about either a female (Hedy Lamarr) or a male (George Antheil) inventor. Finally, people judged the exceptionality of the inventor. Here are their results:

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The data show us that when the male was the inventor people were considering, people who thought about his idea as a seed actually felt he was less exceptional than those who thought about his idea as a lightbulb or who weren’t encouraged to think about his invention metaphorically. Considerations of the female inventor took the opposite form: those who had been thinking about her innovation as a seed found her to be more exceptional than those who thought of the innovation as a lightbulb. This experiment suggests that we hold beliefs that men who are geniuses experience sudden insights, while women must work long and hard to achieve the same exceptionality.

Work in educational psychology suggests that it is more beneficial to encourage kids to have growth mindsets than fixed mindsets. In other words, they should be taught that their abilities are not immutable. They can get better at things by hard work and practice. They’re taught to have a seed mindset instead of a lightbulb view – ideas don’t just come, we earn them. It might be tough to teach kids to believe in growth mindsets if we also hold the beliefs these studies show, if we believe that women are more likely to achieve success by nurturing their seed ideas and men are more likely to do so with the flash of a bulb.

But boys are not doomed to fixed mindsets! Perhaps we could stop posting pictures of light bulbs all over elementary school classrooms as a source of inspiration and replace them with images of plants. And when kids are encouraged to buy into growth mindsets, we can share these powerful metaphors with them and remind them that men and women can both grow great things from seeds. It’s a start at least.

Recap of ComSciCon-San Diego

This week, ComSciCon – a science communication workshop by grad students for grad students – came to San Diego. Over two days, we enjoyed thought-provoking panels and talks on science communication, touching on topics like: how do we convey the uncertainty in science without teaching the public to be skeptical of researchers? What do we make of the current “edu-tainment” movement? And what is the role of social media in science communication? Attendees also worked with each other and with invited experts to hone their own work, whether abstracts for an academic paper, or a blog post. We ate, we talked, we admired the ocean from the 15th floor, and, luckily, we tweeted. Here’s a collection of some of the tweets that capture the energy from the workshop and highlight many of the impactful moments of ComSciCon-SD.

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CogSci 2016 Day 3 Personal Highlights

  • There is more to gesture than meets the eye: Visual attention to gesture’s referents cannot account for its facilitative effects during math instruction (Miriam Novack, Elizabeth Wakefield, Eliza Congdon, Steven Franconeri, Susan Goldin-Meadow): Earlier work has shown that gestures can help kids learn math concepts, but this work explores one possible explanation for why this is so: that gestures attract and focus visual attention. To test this, kids watched a video in which someone explained how to do a mathematical equivalence problem (a problem like 5 + 6 + 3 = __ + 3. For some kids, the explainer gestured by pointing to relevant parts of the problem as she explained; for others, she just explained (using the exact same speech as for the gesture-receiving kids). The researchers used eye tracking while the kids watched the videos and found that those who watched the video with gestures looked more to the problem (and less at the speaker) than who watched the video sans gesture. More importantly, those who watched the gesture video did better on a posttest than those who didn’t. The main caveat was that the kids’ eye patterns did not predict their posttest performance; in other words, looking more at the problem and less at the speaker while learning may have contributed to better understanding of the math principle, but not significantly; other mechanisms must also be underlying gesture’s effect on learning. 

    But in case you started to think that gestures are a magic learning bullet:

  • Effects of Gesture on Analogical Problem Solving: When the Hands Lead You Astray (Autumn Hostetter, Mareike Wieth, Keith Moreno, Jeffrey Washington): There’s a pretty famous problem for cognitive science tests studying people’s analogical abilities, referred to as Duncker’s radiation problem: A person has a tumor and needs radiation. A strong beam will be too strong and will kill healthy skin. A weak beam won’t be strong enough to kill the tumor. What to do? The reason this problem is used as a test of analogical reading is that participants are presented a different story – an army wants to attack a fortress (and the fortress is at the intersection of a bunch of roads), but there are mines placed on the roads leading up to it, so the whole army can’t pass down one road at a time. Yet if they only send a small portion of the army down a road, the attack will be too weak. The solve this by splitting up and all converging on the fortress at the same time. Now can you solve the radiation problem? Even though the solution is analogous (target the tumor with weak rays coming from different directions) people (college undergrads) usually still struggle. It’s a testament to how hard analogical reasoning is.
    But that’s just background leading to the current study, where the researchers asked: if people gesture while retelling the fortress story, will they have more success on the radiation problem? To test this, they had one group of participants that they explicitly told to gesture, one group that they told not to gesture, and a final group that they didn’t instruct at all regarding gestures. They found that the gesturers in fact did worse than non-gesturers, and after analyzing the things that people actually talked about in the different conditions, discovered that when people gestured, they tended to talk more about concrete details of the situation – for example, the roads and the fortress – and this focus on the perceptual features of the fortress story actually inhibited their ability to apply the analogical relations of that story to the radiation case.
    Taking this study into consideration with the previous one, it’s clear that gesture is not all good or all bad; there are lots of nuances of a situation that need to be taken into account and lots of open questions ripe for research.
  • tDCS to premotor cortex changes action verb understanding: Complementary effects of inhibitory and excitatory stimulation (Tom Gijssels, Daniel Casasanto): We know the premotor cortex is involved when we execute actions, and there’s quite a bit of debate about to what extent it’s involved in using language about actions. They used transcranial direct current stimulation – a method that provides a small electrical current to a targeted area of the brain – over the premotor cortex (PMC) to test for its involvement in processing action verbs (specifically, seeing a word or a non-word and indicating whether it’s a real English word). People who received PMC inhibitory stimulation (which decreases the likelihood of the PMC neurons firing) were more accurate for their responses about action verbs, while those who received PMC excitatory stimulation (increasing the likelihood of the PMC neurons firing). This at first seems paradoxical – inhibiting the motor area helps performance and exciting it hurts, but there are some potential explanations for this finding. One that seems intriguing to me is that since the PMC is also responsible for motor movements, inhibiting the area helped people suppress the inappropriate motor action (for example, actually grabbing if they read the verb grab), and as a consequence facilitated their performance on the word task; excitatory stimulation over the same area had the opposite effect. Again, this study makes it clear that something cool is going on in the parts of our brain responsible for motor actions when we encounter language about actions… but as always, more research is needed.

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  • Tacos for dinner. After three days of long, stimulating conference days, the veggie tacos at El Vez were so good that they make the conference highlight list.

For every cool project I heard about, there were undoubtedly many more that I didn’t get to see. Luckily, the proceedings are published online, giving us the printed version of all the work presented at the conference. Already looking forward to next year’s event in London!

CogSci 2016 Day 2 Personal Highlights

Cool stuff is happening at CogSci 2016 (for some evidence, see yesterday’s highlights; for more evidence, keep reading). Here are some of the things I thought were especially awesome during the second day of the conference:

  • Temporal horizons and decision-making: A big-data approach (Robert Thorstad, Phillip Wolff): We all think about the future, but for some of us, that future tends to be a few hours or days from now, and for others it’s more like months or years. These are our temporal horizons, and someone with a farther temporal horizon thinks (and talks) more about distant future events than someone with a closer temporal horizon. These researchers used over 8 million tweets to find differences in people’s temporal horizons across different states. They found that people in some states tweet more about near future events than in others – that temporal horizons vary from state to state (shown below, right panel). They then asked, if you see farther into the future (metaphorically), do you engage in more future-oriented behaviors (like saving money – either at the individual or state level; or doing fewer risky things, like smoking or driving without a seatbelt)? Indeed, the the farther the temporal horizon revealed through people in a given a state’s tweets, the more future-oriented behavior the state demonstrated on the whole (below, left panel).
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    Then, recruited some participants for a lab experiment. The researchers then compared the temporal horizons expressed in people’s tweets with their behavior in a lab task, asking whether those who wrote about events farther in the future displayed a greater willingness to delay gratification – for example, waiting a period of time for a monetary quantity if the future quantity will be greater than taking the money today. They also compared the language in people’s tweets with their risk taking behavior in an online game. They found that the language people generated on Twitter predicted both their willingness to delay gratification (more references to the more distant future were associated with more patience for rewards) and their risk-taking behaviors in the lab (more references to the more distant future were associated with less risk taking). While the findings aren’t earth shattering – if you think and talk more about the future, you delay gratification more and take fewer risks – this big data approach using tweets, census information, and lab tasks opens up possibilities for findings that could not have arisen from any of these in isolation.
  • Extended metaphors are very persuasive (Paul Thibodeau, Peace Iyiewuare, Matias Berretta): Anecdotally, when I read an extended metaphor – especially one that an author carries throughout a paragraph, pointing out the various features that the literal concept and metaphorical idea have in common – persuades me. But this group quantitatively showed the added strength that an extended metaphor has over a reduced (or simple, one-time) or inconsistent metaphor. For example, a baseline metaphor that they used is crime is a beast (vs. crime is a virus). People are given two choices for dealing with the crime: they can increase punitive enforcement solutions (beast-consistent) or get to the root of the issue and heal the town (virus-consistent). In this baseline case, people tend to reason in metaphor consistent ways. When the metaphor is extended into the options, though (for example adding a metaphor-consistent verb like treat or enforce to the choices), the framing has an even stronger effect. When there are still metaphor-consistent responses but the verbs are now reversed – so that the virus-consistent verb (treat) is with the beast-consistent solution (be harsher on enforcement), the metaphor framing goes away. Really cool way to test the intuition that extended metaphors can be really powerful in a controlled lab setting.
  • And, I have to admit, I had a lot of fun sharing my own work and discussing it with people who stopped by my poster – Emotional implications of metaphor: Consequences of metaphor framing for mindsets about hardship [for an abridged, more visual version, with added content – see the poster]. When people face hardships like cancer or depression, we often talk about them in terms of a metaphorical battle – fighting the disease, staying strong. Particularly in the domain of cancer, there’s pushback against that dominant metaphor: does it imply that if someone doesn’t get better, they’re not a good enough fighter? Should they pursue life-prolonging treatments no matter the cost to quality of life? We found that people who read about someone’s cancer or depression in terms of a battle felt that he’d feel more guilty if he didn’t recover than those who read about it as a journey (other than the metaphor, they read the exact same information). Those who read about the journey, on the other hand, felt he’d have a better chance of making peace with his situation than those who read about the battle. When people had a chance to write more about the person’s experience, they tended to perpetuate the metaphor they had read: repeating the same words they had encountered but also expanding on them, using metaphor consistent words that hadn’t been present in the original passage. These findings show some examples of the way that metaphor can affect our emotional inferences and show us how that metaphorical language is perpetuated and expanded as people continue to communicate.
  • But the real treat of the conference was hearing Dedre Gentner’s Rumelhart Prize talk: Why we’re so smart: Analogical processing and relational representation. In the talk, Dedre offered snippets of work that she and her collaborators have been working on over the course of her productive career to better understand relational learning. Relational learning is anything involving relations – so something as simple as Mary gave Fido to John or more complex like how global warming works. Her overarching message was that relational learning and reasoning are central in higher-order cognition, but it’s not easy to acquire relational insights. In order to achieve relational learning, people must engage in a structure-mapping process, connecting like features of the two concepts. For example, when learning about electrical circuits, students might use an analogy to water flowing pipes, and would then map the similarities – the water is like the electricity, for example – to understand the relation. My favorite portion of the talk was about the relationship that language and structure-mapping have with each other: language (especially relational language) can support the structure-mapping process, which can in turn support language. The title of her talk promised we would learn about why humans are so smart, and she delivered on that promise with the claim that “Our exceptional cognitive powers stem from combining analogical ability with language.” Many studies of the human mind and behavior highlight the surprising ways that our brains fail, so it was fun to hear and think instead about the important ways that our brains don’t fail; instead, to hear about “why we’re so smart.”
  • And finally, the talk I wish I had seen because the paper is great: Reading shapes the mental timeline but not the mental number line (Benjamin Pitt, Daniel Casasanto). By having people read backwards (mirror-reading) and normally, they found that while the mental timeline was disrupted: people who read from right to left instead of the normal left to right showed an attenuated left-right mental timeline compared to those who read normally from left to right. This part replicates prior work, and they built on it by comparing the effects of these same reading conditions on people’s mental number lines. This time they found that backwards reading did not influence the mental number line in the way it had decreased people’s tendency to think of time as flowing from left to right, suggesting that while reading direction plays a role in our development of mental timelines that flow from left to right, it does not have the same influence on our mental number lines; these must instead arise from other sources.

One more day to absorb and share exciting research in cognitive science – more highlights to be posted soon!