ScienceSkepticism

The Science News Cycle: An Example

Everyone and her brother are sending me this hilarious PHD comic detailing the science news cycle, and so I will pass it along to you (click to read the whole thing):

Science News Cycle

And if you happen to be a science grad or post-grad who doesn’t subscribe to the RSS of PHD Comics, there’s probably something wrong with you. In the head.

This reminds me of something relatively minor that I happened to notice last week. If you’ll recall, I wrote about a recent study that found a correlation between viewing cute animals and performing well in certain tasks that test carefulness. I learned about that study thanks to a very small, one-paragraph blurb in the Boston Globe, which was handed to me by my coworker.

At the time, I couldn’t locate the article online but have since found it (bottom of the page):

Few people can resist the charms of a cute child or animal. A study at the University of Virginia suggests that experiencing cuteness can actually change how we behave. Students who watched a slideshow with pictures of puppies and kittens scored higher in the board game “Operation” – which requires manual precision – than students who watched a slideshow with pictures of mature cats and dogs. Although the effect was most pronounced in women, it was also evident in men. The authors speculate that evolution favored those who became more careful in the presence of their young.

Sherman, G. et al., “Viewing Cute Images Increases Behavioral Carefulness,” Emotion (April 2009)

I started writing the blog entry immediately after reading this, and I began by saying that the study showed that you could boost your performance by viewing cute pictures, especially if you’re a woman. Then, I tracked down the study to see how much greater the effect was on women, thinking that that was going to be my angle for the blog entry. After all, a story that focuses on women and science and cute things is pretty much perfect for Skepchick.

What I found when looking at the study was this:

Replicating the main finding of Experiment 1, participants showed significantly greater improvement on the operation task in the high-cuteness condition than in the low-cuteness condition, t(54) �1.97, p .05, d � 0.48. Although there was a trend for women (d � 1.03) to show a larger effect of condition than men (d � 0.24), this was not statistically significant: Gender Condition interaction, F(1, 52) � 1.36, p .25.

Even though the women in the study did show slightly more improvement, it wasn’t statistically significant. If you’ll recall, there were two experiments and only the second included men (33 of them, compared to 23 women). The difference was slight enough and the sample size small enough that you can’t tell if women in general react differently than men.

With that in mind, the single sentence “although the effect was most pronounced in women, it was also evident in men” is very misleading as it implies that there was a significant difference between the sexes. I nearly took that and expanded it into an entire blog entry, which would have been totally wrong.

It’s not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, but I thought it was an interesting look at how easy it is to misrepresent scientific results. It’s like a game of Broken Picture Telephone, where at each step the truth gets a bit more twisted until it doesn’t really resemble the truth anymore.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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26 Comments

  1. Coming up at 11! Everyone is going to die!!!

    From one or more of the following –
    -old age
    -cancer (not the astrological sign, unless you know your tumor’s birthday)
    -severe allergic reactions (like to shellfish, peanuts, stupidity, etc.)
    -terminal diseases
    -terminal diseases that could have been prevented by vaccines they didn’t get
    -terminal velocity (it’s in the freaking name!)
    -accidental beheading/dismemberment
    -intentional beheading/dismemberment
    -lack of blood
    -lack of air
    -lack of water
    -lack of food
    -lack of ground (see; terminal velocity)
    -sudden insertion of metal into flesh (knives, swords, bullets, crowbar, etc.)

    And, finally,…

    -brain damage caused by slamming your head against a table, while trying to convince your parent Obama’s not the f**king anti-Christ

  2. Maybe we can get the major media outlets and news bloggers to start including links back to the original research.

    Okay, you caught me. That was an attempt to say something so ridiculous and crazy that someone would nominate it for a Comment O’ The Week.

  3. Always needing someone or something to blame, I blame our piss poor science education. If more people (I’m looking at you journalists) were more intimately familiar with the scientific method and critical thinking, it would improve science reporting by a bunch. Don’t ask me to quantify “a bunch”.

  4. NPR went whole hog gullible http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104200910 on the “new” acupuncture study that proves nothing like what they reported. Steve Novella gives the whole thing a good smack down here. http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=492

    Rebecca, perhaps a weekly ‘Media Twists Science’ feature could be interesting with alternating time for ‘Politicians Twist Science’ and ‘Religion Twists Science”.

  5. I was listening to NPR yesterday and Robert Krulwich was interviewing David Eagleman on the subject of temporal binding (the perception of simultaneity in non-simultaneous stimuli). Krulwich kept pushing the idea that tall and short people have different “nows” (because taller people’s toes are farther from their brains, apparently), even though Eagleman’s research didn’t determine that at all (it’s about 80 ms regardless of height). Even without knowing about the study ahead of time, I could tell Krulwich was way off base but Eagleman just sat there and let Krulwich draw his own conclusions. And now NPR’s got a web article called The Secret Advantage Of Being Short. Waiting for this to get propagated as “tall people are slow” or “hacking your legs off will make you think faster”.

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