Why does the media think that chocolate makes you thin, but that Big Macs make you depressed?

Here is my post on how some ambiguous research on food consumption patterns and mental health led some researchers (and most of the world’s media) to conclude that hamburgers cause depression…

…and here is my other post on how some ambiguous research on food consumption patterns and physical health led some researchers (and most of the world’s media) to conclude that chocolate makes you thin.

Go figure!

Can You Have Too Many Friends?


Here is an interesting article from Psychology Today, relating to this book by anthropologist Robin Dunbar. It considers the issue of whether there is an optimal social network size (or amount of social contact or social support) for human societies. If so, this would stand in contrast to the view that having more friends is simply always better than having fewer (or, in more technical terms, that there exists a simple positive association between social contact and well-being).

Theorists have argued that the costs of social contact should begin to outweigh the benefits if the social network is too large. Moreover, the view here is that this is an intrinsic feature of networks of various kinds. In other words, it does not relate exclusively to humans and their friends, but also to other species where social contact occurs and to other types of interconnected contact relationships. 

Such discussions have led to the proposal that there does indeed exist such an optimal size for social networks. The size proposed has become known as Dunbar’s number.

Can you guess what Dunbar’s number is?  

How Many Friends Does One Person Need? HARDCOVER

Altruism test

Here is a questionnaire intended to test whether you are altruistic, egoistic, or somewhere in between.


Consider the various questions and scenarios. Is this a useful test of altruism? What does it suggest about the nature of altruism?

‘Militant secularisation’

In the UK, the chairperson of the governing Conservative party has complained about “militant secularisation” taking hold of British society.

You can read about that in lots of places, including here.

This could be an example of value-laden argumentation, rather than evidence-based argumentation. For one thing, what is meant by the term “militant” in this context? And why would an opponent of secularisation use the term “militant” when making such a point?

That autism story: How psychologists get it wrong (but sometimes get it right)

In class on Monday, we discussed the weekend article by psychologist Tony Humphreys as published in the Irish Examiner. You will recall that the article — which claimed that autism was not a neurodevelopmental disorder but in fact was the result of poor parenting — had caused a great deal of public distress. Moreover, both scientifically and logically, it was deeply flawed. Well, you can now read my full blog post on the matter here.

Coincidentally (and I know it’s a coincidence because I was in touch with the author yesterday), today’s Irish Times features another article on the aetiology of autism written by a prominent clinical psychologist.  The psychologist, Paul O’Donoghue, discusses a separate–but similar–recent controversy in France, where a court has ruled that a film critical of a theory similar to that of Tony Humphreys should be censored (arising from complaints my advocates of such theories).  O’Donoghue carefully sets out the scientific context that makes the theories controversial. I think it’s a good piece. You can read it here.

Two observations:

  1. The author of the Irish Times article is a member of the national professional body (the Psychological Society of Ireland) and, as such, is formally registered and subject to requirements for ongoing professional training (a.k.a., ‘continuing professional development’) in order to maintain that status. As far as I know, the author of the controversial Irish Examiner piece is not a member of that body (although he may be a member of some other organisation, not formally recognised by the Health and Social Care Professions Council). If so, then he will not be subject to CPD requirements, nor subject to professional conduct procedures. Nor will he be on a register from which he could ever be ‘struck off’. (N.B.: As mentioned, Humphreys’s status as a non-PSI-member is labelled “as far as I know”. I have heard it from multiple sources. However,  I am happy to be corrected on this if it is in fact untrue.)  
  2. The Irish Times article appears in the ‘Science’ section of the newspaper. The controversial Irish Examiner article appeared in its weekend lifestyle supplement. This may say something about the need for and merits of appropriate editorial rigour when dealing with specialist topics.

Complementary medicine courses in universities: how I beat the varsity quacks – Telegraph

Professor David Colquhoun of University College London on complementary medicine in universities:

Complementary medicine courses in universities: how I beat the varsity quacks – Telegraph.

Magic: alternative medicine techniques are being taught in accredited colleges much to the dismay of doctors and scientists


Are social conservatives less intelligent? Let’s ask a liberal…

Social conservatives have a lower I.Q.? (probably) | Gene Expression – http://pulse.me/s/5rMNI


Here is an interesting article from Discover, about new research into the association between intelligence and social attitudes. In particular, the author points out how such research can be interpreted in different ways depending on your social value system. It is argued that the study in question was reported from a liberal perspective.

For example, have a look at the diagram and ask yourself the question: why aren’t the arrows pointing in the opposite direction?

Continue reading

The BBC’s problem with science | Martin Robbins

Here is an interesting opinion piece from The Guardian, concerning the way scientific opinion is (or is not) incorporated into public debate on current affairs and public policy: “The BBC’s problem with science” by Martin Robbins


Stanley Milgram on obedience

Here is a short film describing the social and scientific context, as well as the content, of Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments. There is some detailed original footage from of the actual experiments, and some great commentary from Milgram himself. Continue reading

Don’t get married! Cohabiting makes you happier: Study

[Mirrored from my Posterous]

This is from Discovery News >> http://pulse.me/s/5lala

“Planning to pop the marriage question on Valentine’s Day? A study in the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family may make you reconsider. While married couples enjoy some health advantages (likely because of shared health care plans), the study found that unmarried couples who live together are generally happier and have better self-esteem.”

Well that’s interesting. It only further puts the kaibosh on claims that the exact opposite is true. Claims that conservative news media keep trying to make, even when the studies they point to don’t really give them the evidence they need…

…as per my blog post of last year: http://thesciencebit.net/2011/08/26/marriage-saves-lives-well-it-has-a-nice-r…

Brains never lie…?

Here is my blog post from the weekend on media coverage of a recent neuroscience study. The study purports to demonstrate an association between brain function and excessive internet use. It’s essentially a cross-sectional study, so we cannot know if abnormal brain function causes excessive internet use, or if excessive internet use causes abnormal brain function (or, indeed, if some other extraneous factor causes both). Nonetheless, the media seemed pretty confident of the direction of causality: almost as one they reported the study as showing that excessive internet use causes abnormal brains. Given that the underlying finding is ambiguous, I argue that this reflects their value-systems rather than their capacity for scientific insight.

Incidentally, today the media are at it again. The Independent (UK) report on a neuroscience study that is claimed to reveal that people’s capacity to “sell out” on expressed beliefs if given enough money is somehow “wired into” the brain. This seems like something of an extravagant interpretation. The study appears — simply — to show that people process ideas such as “I am a tea drinker” in one part of the brain and ideas like “I support gay marriage” in another. Unsurprisingly, the researchers also found that when people were offered cash to disavow the latter type of idea, then (a) they tended not to do so readily, and (b) when considering it, the part of the brain devoted to ethics tended to become activated (or “lit up” in sci-fi parlance).

Why exactly is this news? Well, in short, the media are obsessed with brains.

We’re great

Today, as a class collective, we completed the survey at http://www.politicalcompass.org/. The survey provides information on human value systems in terms of economic (left- vs. right-wing) and social (authoritarian vs. libertarian) dimensions, and so builds on scholarly research to provide a richer classification system than those offered by the more traditional dichotomous or spectrum-based approaches.

The originators of the Political Compass emphasize that there are “no right, wrong, or ideal” responses. That being said, I think we can conclude from our result that we are in fact great. Our score has us occupying the same political space as the likes of Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. We even ordered the official certificate (€7) just to prove precisely how great we are (that’s us represented by the red circle in the lower left quadrant):

Naturally, we learned quite a lot from this exercise (primarily, that we are great).

Wendy Walsh on “why atheists die first”

Here is psychologist, Dr Wendy Walsh, discussing the merits of religion on CNN. She asserts that “Most studies on survivors show that the atheists die first“. But what does she mean? Well, this assertion is very questionable when the scientific evidence is scrutinized. See here to find out why. Continue reading


You can download some of the introductory documents relating to our class by clicking these links:

PS336 Course Information 2011-2012

PS336 Comment Paper 1112

PS336 Research Paper 1112

Sam Harris on Free Will

Here’s an interesting video on the “illusion” of free will, by neuroscientist Sam Harris. While Harris is a contemporary author, the debate on free will (versus determinism) is centuries old. The idea that an individual is capable of deciding their own actions (i.e., the idea that they have free will) is very seductive — in fact, most people just assume it without question — but, empirically speaking, is very dubious. Continue reading

Barbara Ehrenreich on how ‘positive thinking’ ruined the economy

Many psychologists seek to promote a greater focus on “positive human functioning” in psychology. In this video, journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich criticizes the “delusional” positivity that she believes has permeated contemporary culture, and which has contributed to both the onset and worsening of the ongoing recession that has swept much of the world economy.

Continue reading

Christopher Hitchens on religion and dying

Christopher Hitchens was a British-American author and journalist who died on 15 December 2011, following complications arisng from esophageal cancer. In this video, Hitchens discusses the tendency of his religious friends and associates to recommend to him that he consider changing his views on religion — Hitchens was a high-profile advocate of atheism — in response to the terminal nature of his illness.

Continue reading

Derren Brown on controlling minds

In this video, illusionist and broadcaster Derren Brown reproduces a version of the famous Milgram obedience experiment. In this exercise, Brown attempts to subconsciously influence buisness men and women with no previous criminal records to pull an armed robbery without ever directly mentioning the idea to them. The extract is from Brown’s TV show, “The Heist“.

Continue reading


Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is considered by some to be his masterpiece. While ostensibly depicting the horrors of human conflict in the context of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso steadfastly refused to explain its imagery during his lifetime.


For those interested, here’s a schedule of what we discuss in our class:

Week 1. Orientation to module

  • Format of module
  • Requirements for module participation and assessment

Week 2. Values: What are they; where are they?

  • Moral value systems, political value systems, personal value systems
  • Are values innate or learned? Do men and women have different values?
  • How values affect psychologists
  • Socio-political bias/diversity in psychology
  • What constitutes a ‘social issue’?

Week 3. Why Psychologists Should Be More Ethical

  • Scientists behaving badly
  • Where morality comes from, and why psychologists should know better
  • Why crime happens
  • Ethical codes for professional psychology
  • Psychologists as advocates on social issues

Weeks 4-5. Psychology, Science, and Religion

  • How psychology evolved from moral philosophy
  • Religion in science…and in scientists
  • Scientific explanations of religiosity
  • Scientific explanations of morality
  • Is science a religion (or is religion a science?)

Weeks 6-7. Helpfulness, Altruism, and Other Delusions

  • The limits of social relationships
  • The costs of volunteerism
  • The negative impact of positive thinking
  • Why psychotherapy doesn’t work

Week 8. Life, Birth, and Consciousness

  • What we know about being conscious, and the starting point of human life
  • Is everyone else a zombie?
  • Should you be allowed to select the sex of your children?

Week 9. How to Treat Children: The Evidence

  • The nurture myth
  • Gay and lesbian parenting
  • Why homework is bad

Week 10. Bodies, Animals, and Other Objects

  • Who owns our bodies? Should we be paid for organ donations?
  • Use of (non-human) animals for scientific research
  • The mythology of cognitive neuroscience

Week 11. Mortality, Death, and Wishful Thinking

  • Yes, we’re all going to die
  • The psychology of the afterlife
  • Terror management

Week 12. Wrap-up

  • Final Q&A


In wider society, observers often look to psychology to inform debates on contentious issues. However, it is often overlooked that psychologists themselves will have views on such issues, and/or personality characteristics and ethical dispositions that affect their production and interpretation of psychological knowledge. Further, there are considerable limits on the extent to which empirical scholarship in psychology can or should be considered to be of definitive relevance in debates on public interest issues. Finally, many of the issues relevant to public debate or social policy that psychologists study are also studied by scholars in other academic disciplines.

This blog is linked to an undergrad class on “Psychology, Society, & Human Values” at the National University of Ireland, Galway. Our class is intended to provide an analysis of: (a) the role of personal values in the production of psychological scholarship; (b) how ethical values might be applied by psychologists; (c) whether psychologists should be seen as ‘honest brokers’, ‘issue advocates’, ‘science arbiters’, or ‘pure scientists’; (d) the strengths and limitations of empirical research in public debate; and (e) the relationship between psychology and disciplines cognate to it. Throughout the module, students will be guided in considering specific areas of controversy where psychological expertise is often seen as pertinent (for example, right-to-life politics, religion, libertarianism, child-rearing, gay marriage and adoption, multiculturalism, etc.)