Can I Just Say…?

This week psychologists, neuroscientists and statisticians have been again prompted to reassess our methods by a widely-circulated preprint (pdf) accusing some in the field of acting like “methodological terrorists”. Thankfully, the initial urge to identify with one or other “side” (and to hit back at “opponents”) has largely given way to more thoughtful, nuanced and long overdue discussions about how research should be conducted. I am not arguing for or against one of the “sides” in this debate, but I am just sharing my perspective.

Scientists have learned that we need to continually question our beliefs about the natural world, and test them against the evidence. As Feynman put it: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” We have to question our beliefs. This applies to our beliefs about the scientific method as well as to our beliefs about the natural world. It applies to ourselves as well as the other people who we think are wrong.

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The Sorting Ceremony

Harry gripped the edges of the stool and thought, Not Slytherin, not Slytherin. “Not Slytherin, eh?” said the small voice. “Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that — no?”

Tomorrow the UK votes on a referendum: do we remain part of the EU or do we leave? Every vote counts equally, and the outcome is very finely-balanced, so every vote is important. I’ve been on a bit of a journey with this issue. At first, although I could see many clear-cut benefits of membership, reservations about the EU’s arcane structure weighed very heavily with me. Later, although the facts and my understanding of them hadn’t changed, I began to feel uncomfortable with the idea of leaving; the risks of leaving seemed much clearer and more immediate than the risks of staying, and I decided I had to vote to remain. However, I was still ambivalent.

IN

Now all ambivalence has gone. I know why I felt so uncomfortable about the idea of voting to leave. The referendum campaigns have been divisive, and while both campaigns have been negative, the Leave campaign has focused on the issue of immigration. I think immigration (whether from the EU or beyond) benefits the UK, and I think that blaming immigrants for our problems is the opposite of what Britain stands for, or should stand for.

In troubled times such as the recession we’re currently experiencing, it’s easy to prey on people’s fears, to cast outsiders and foreigners as scapegoats and have them take the blame for problems caused by bankers and politicians. We’re very lucky in Britain that our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t fall for this crap in the 1930s, and we shouldn’t be falling for it now.

When Jo Cox MP was murdered, we got a glimpse of where this rhetoric leads, where it can still lead in the 21st Century and in Britain, and for me, that was the moment when the last trace of ambivalence evaporated. My reservations about the voting mechanisms seemed very small and a very, very long way away.

It’s natural that people in every nation are proud of their culture, and perhaps overlook their own shortcomings. I think that generation had reason to be proud, and I grew up with a (perhaps rose-tinted) idea that Britain had done some good in the world. Although that feeling gradually faded, I still felt proud to be British. In 2012 when London hosted the Olympics, I thought the opening ceremony distilled the essence of what we still had: at our best we’re industrious, creative, funny, irreverent, welcoming to newcomers, proud of our diversity and self-confident. If we lose those things, we won’t have much left. It will be a very hollow kind of “independence” if it means closing the borders and polishing our memories of empire.

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Maybe this is where I was so wrong at the beginning of the process. I had thought that we could at least contemplate leaving the EU while still being the welcoming, diverse and self-confident country that made me proud. The Leave campaign has convinced me that’s not the possible. Talking to friends from continental Europe I realise that the EU now plays a big part in my rosy image of a outgoing, self-confident country. Although I work with people from all around the world, colleagues from continental Europe, especially, value the ability to live and work in Britain, and they feel hurt Britain might reject them, as they see it. I was taking these friends for granted, and I am sorry.

Tomorrow will be like a grim Sorting Ceremony in Harry Potter, and I am still desperately hoping we will find ourselves in Gryffindor, like the generations before us. The other possibilities are now all too clear.

Slytherin-house

Decided

A few days ago I wrote a post about the EU referendum. At that time I was undecided now I’ve made up my mind, so I thought I should update the blog.

Given my uncertainty, I can’t tell anyone else how to vote and can only talk about the issues as I see them. One of my frustrations is that people on both sides of the debate argue that the decision is straightforward, and I don’t think it is. However, I am going to vote to Remain. The process of coming to the decision has been disturbing. I’ve written previously about the role of the unconscious in decision making, and I am not sure my own decision is entirely rational, as I explain below. Unusually, I went through the process of carefully thinking through and articulating my main concerns in the previous post, and it’s been uncomfortable to feel my position gradually “shifting beneath me”.

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Rhythm and Memory for Speech

This post was co-written with my fellow authors Mark Hurlstone and Graham Hitch.

Today we published an important paper in Cognitive Psychology. The paper is significant because it explains a link between rhythm and memory in terms of a common mechanism that connects speech processing, verbal learning and language development to rhythmic oscillations in brain activity.

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Undecided

I am undecided about the EU referendum.

Although I am fast approaching 50 (actually 48) I never had a chance to vote on this issue, and indeed when my parents’ and grandparents’ generations voted to join the Common Market, it was very different to today’s European Union. The increasing constitutional power of the EU over its member states has been justified by the words “ever closer union” that appear in the original treaty that established the European Community, but subsequent generations have never been consulted on whether this objective is desirable or what form it might take in practice. We’re not even being asked now – it’s “take it, or leave it”. This lack of consultation is a symptom of a broader problem – EU citizens just don’t have much say in its direction. So, I don’t really want to miss what is likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to have some say in the issue, but I am feeling decidedly ambivalent.

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Brash or brilliant?

How do we select people for career advancement, and are these processes really accomplishing what they set out to achieve? In these posts I am mainly concerned about my own field, science and academia. My worry is that the best scientists are not always selected, and that some groups, such as women, are systematically disadvantaged by our current processes. I think this is a problem, not just because of the unfairness it entails, but also because it means that the quality of the whole enterprise is being undermined. Although I am thinking principally about science and especially about women in science, I think the issues are much more general and so where possible I am going to try to write about them in general terms.

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Ampersand Cartoon by Barry Deutsch. Thanks to Rachel Jones for sharing it on Twitter

As I plan to write a few posts on this topic, I want to begin by dividing the processes I refer to into two, potentially separable, parts: criteria and evaluation. By criteria I mean the objective characteristics we use to determine whether someone is doing well at their job. By evaluation I mean the (often subjective) way we determine the extent to which someone meets these criteria. Flaws in the criteria and evaluation would imply that the people best able to do a job are not always selected for advancement. Biases in the criteria and their evaluation would mean that these errors will work systematically in favour of some groups and against others. Neither flaws nor biases need result from a conscious intent on the part of those involved. Flaws might be due to unavoidable gaps or noise in objective information, leading to uncertain measures of objective criteria, and in the case of bias there is ample evidence to demonstrate that unconscious factors play an important role in human judgements under uncertainty. If we agree that our procedures might be flawed or biased, we should identify and fix these problems regardless of whether they are intended or unintended. In further posts I want to return to the issue of bias and how bias plays out in selection procedures and over time through career advancement. But for now I want to raise a problem that I think gets too little attention, and that is the question of whether our criteria are flawed or biased. I think they often are. One case identified in a blog post by Jenny Rohn looks at the effect of eligibility criteria relating to age and experience for a particular fellowship scheme. In this example, she explains how a small and apparently innocuous change in the wording can exclude candidates with atypical but promising paths involving career breaks, childcare responsibilities or industrial experience. The apparently reasonable aim of the criteria is to target those whose rapid progress demonstrates greatest potential. The unreasonable effect is to exclude those whose less rapid progress is unrelated to their potential. The general point is that, whenever we use criteria that do not directly correspond to candidate’s relevant abilities and achievements, we run the risk of introducing flaws that could lead to unintended bias.

It is clearly the case that when we select among candidates for a job or promotion we will want to choose people who are better than others or, in absolute terms, excellent by some yardstick. It goes, frankly, without saying. So why do job adverts so often specify that applicants will be “excellent”, “outstanding”, “world-leading”, “exceptional”, and so on? This can only have the effect of encouraging applications from people who think they’re fantastic and presumably deters more modest people, regardless of their objective abilities. In my view adverts, job specifications, funding eligibility and promotion criteria ought to focus on objective characteristics and scrupulously avoid terms that are open to subjective interpretation.

Wording of a current ad in naturejobs.com. This is purely illustrative of a widespread trend and no particular criticism is attached to the employer. After all, who wouldn't want to employ an extraordinarily gifted scientist.
Wording of a current ad in naturejobs.com. This is purely illustrative of a widespread trend and no particular criticism is attached to the employer. After all, who wouldn’t want to employ an extraordinarily gifted scientist.

Flawed criteria are particularly problematic because we tend to equate the outcome of a selective process with the desired result. For example, people will say, “as a modern scientist you do need to be competitive and confident – these are important characteristics” but this is rather circular. The reason a scientist needs to be competitive and confident is that only then will he or she win grant funding, publish numerous papers in glamour journals, gain promotion and win prizes, but this in turn is only because in each case evaluation criteria place undue emphasis on confidence and competitiveness. You do not need to be confident to do excellent science that will make an enduring contribution to knowledge. It seems very likely to me that in science the brash may at least occasionally outcompete the brilliant. The central point of this post is that if we want the best person for a job, we must ensure that our criteria for determining what’s “best” are aligned with what we actually want the person to do. Assuming we have such criteria, it’s still possible that subjective evaluations based on them will be affected by bias, and in future posts I want to show how the mechanisms of bias can be surprisingly subtle and long-lasting.