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 Four Mountains Test

Think of the last time you attended a wedding. You can probably remember the room around you, the place where you sat, the other guests around you and so on. Forming this type of memory depends on the hippocampus, an ancient part of the brain that is buried deep in the temporal lobes, a few centimetres in from your ears. People with damage to the hippocampus are unable to form new long-lasting memories of events and it is also one of the first parts of the brain to be affected in Alzheimer’s Disease. Being able to test abilities that depend on a fully-functioning hippocampus could one day be useful in identifying more serious memory problems that might require further investigation and treatment.

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