03 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.02

Friday: problems at Wikileaks; Eric Maskin's "five best books" on economic theory and the financial crisis; how lobbyists co-opted...erm, sorry, "shaped" the financial reform bill; Max Beauvoir, voodoo houngan, on the Haiti earthquake; Kristof on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank; Perelman turns down the $1 million Clay prize; two follow-ups on the 2.1-billion-year-old fossils from Gabon; how did Europeans get white skin? (it may not have been because of Vitamin D); a really cool Darwin tattoo; free articles from Royal Society Publishing.

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02 July 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.07.01

Yesterday (because I fell asleep early again, before writing this post...and it was marvelous): the mystery of AA; an extension of Hamilton's Rule on kin selection; bad lexical analysis, Obama division; books on bubbles and crashes; vuvuzelas for BP.
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01 July 2010

How Not to Track Intellectual Trends

Anyone who knows me, and certainly anyone who follows this blog at all closely, will know that I am an enthusiastic advocate of anything that undermines the misrule of "Theory" in the humanities and social sciences.

Here uppercase "Theory" stands for the vast array of assertions made in these fields without any systematic or critical attempt to support the assertions with evidence, and generally without any attempt to examine what might disconfirm them.

"Theory" of this sort is intellectually largely vacuous.

This is not at all the same thing as saying that any individual instance of an assertion made under this intellectual regime is wrong; it's just that the presentation of the assertion is insufficient—often radically insufficient—to establish it. Nor is this the same as saying that the questions broached by "Theory" are uninteresting or useless. It is just that the methods employed are insufficient to answer them

To me, this is the crucial difference between "science" and other types of intellectual endeavor ("not science"): it is the difference between how assertions are made, tested, and supported or disconfirmed.  Science is not a particular set of subject matters, but rather a way of thinking (and it is, by no means, a way of thinking that is always adhered to in what are commonly called the "sciences").

And thus science is a way of thinking that is just as applicable to the topics generally considered the province of the humanities as it is of those traditionally considered the province of the sciences.

So I'm generally happy to see any evidence of the decline of vacuous Theory.

And thus  I'm disappointed to report on two blog posts that purport to show such a decline, and don't, at least not reliably.

On 30 June, Neuroskeptic (a blog I subscribe to and generally enjoy) published a post entitled "The Fall of Freud". The author used a bash script to investigate the occurrence of various terms in the PubMed database. Neuroskeptic summarizes the results in the following graph:


Neuroskeptic summarizes the trends in these graphs as follows:
As you can see, the number of published scientific papers related to Freud-y search terms like psychoanalytic has flat-lined for the past 50 years. That represents a serious collapse of influence, given the enormous expansion in the amount of research being published over this time.

Since 1960 the number of papers on schizophrenia has risen by a factor of 10 and anxiety by a factor of 80 (sic). The peak of Freud's fame was 1968, when almost as many papers referenced psychoanalytic (721) as did schizophrenia (989), and it was more than half as popular as antidepressants (1372). Today it's just 10% of either. Proportionally speaking, psychoanalysis has gone out with a whimper, though not a bang.
Yet it seems obvious that this is not at all what the graph shows (or at least, this description is misleading). If the term "psychoanalytic" has "flat-lined," then its use in the articles tracked here has not decreased.  Nor does the graph necessarily show a "serious collapse of influence."  What it may show is that the rate of occurrence of the term "psychoanalytic" in the literature that is tracked by PubMed has remained stable. It seems to be true that the proportion of occurrences of this term relative to the tremendous increase in the number of words in all articles on all topics tracked by PubMed has decreased markedly, whereas the proportion of various terms related to other types of psychological research, such as "anxiety" or "antidepressants," has increased very rapidly.  It seems very likely that much of this increase is accounted for by journals that did not exist 50 years ago or (in many cases) even 10 years ago. Most of these new journals will probably have an explicit "medical model" approach to psychological research, and it is highly unlikely that anyone writing an article using the term "psychoanalytic" is going to submit to such a journal.

But surely the graph shows at least a relative decline in the influence of Freudian ideas?  Well, that depends on what what one means by "influence."  Certainly within the realm of the kinds of journals indexed by PubMed, the relative influence (judged by the ratio of psychoanalytic terms to the number of words published and indexed) has decreased. But this doesn't really address the question fully:  for what about the many journals (for example, journals in the humanities) that are not tracked by PubMed?

Thinking about this question led me to investigate the possibility of doing a similar sort of lexical analysis of the appearance of psychoanalytic terms in the humanities and social sciences.  So far as I can see, though, there is no publicly available index like PubMed for these fields.  (Please let me know if I've missed something.)  The Arts and Humanities Citation Index is a commercial product of Thomson Reuters, and is not (so far as I can see) subscribed to by either of the public library systems for which I have cards (the Boston Public Library and the Minuteman system). I do have access to JSTOR, but because it generally lags behind the date of publication by 3 to 5 years, it isn't suitable for doing this kind of analysis.  So far as I have been able to determine, no electronic resource available to me through BPL or Minuteman will do the job.

Neuroskeptic points to what is described as a "classic" post at Gene Expression (gnxp), "Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads," from 22 September 2008 (the post was contributed by user "agnostic"). This post uses JSTOR (with an appropriate caveat on the time lag) to investigate the rates of occurrence over time in that body of articles of the terms "social construction," "psychoanalysis or psychoanalytic," "postmodern or postmodernism," "postcolonialism," "narratolog*," "markist or marxism," "hegemony," "feminist or feminism," and "deconstruction*."  (The spans of time covered by the graphs vary depending on the term; all graphs end with 2005.)

These graphs do seem to show declines in the use of all these terms, but the declines are mostly modest, with the exception of "psychoanalytic or psychoanalytic" (the latter term is misspelled in the graph heading, so it's possible that the search results are inaccurate in any case), "deconstruction," and "marxist or marxism," which perhaps unsurprisingly show a marked fall off after the mid 1980s (and one wouldn't be surprised to see a resurgence after 2008). Again, the analysis by the blogger fails to take into account the extreme expansion of scholarly publishing overall, which certainly accounts, at least in part, for the steep increase in the use of all of these terms beginning in the period between around 1970 and 1980. And again, the blogger fails to address the question of how representative the JSTOR sample is of scholarly publishing as a whole. (JSTOR is by no means comprehensive, and is rather weak on non-English-language publications.)

Thus, while one can perhaps sympathize to some extent with the jubilant triumphalism of the blogger's conclusions ("We are living in very exciting times -- at long last, we've broken the stranglehold that a variety of silly Blank Slate theories have held on the arts, humanities, and social sciences."), it seems clear that the methodology here is flawed, and that any such triumphalism would be premature.

One of the comments to the Neuroskeptic post pointed to GoPubMed, a fascinating and potentially very useful (if still somewhat rough-and-ready) site that allows sophisticated searching and analysis of the PubMed database.  I am currently using it for research into the history of the "Mozart Effect," and I hope to report on this topic here by this weekend.
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Daily Digest, 2010.06.30

Yesterday (yes, I admit it, I fell asleep before doing this post last night): the Lara Croft of cognitive science; 2.1-billion-year-old multicellular fossils?; computer deciphers Ugaritic; The R Journal; Rosenbaum's "Agnostic Manifesto"; the Kitten World Cup.

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29 June 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.06.29

Today: Reception history of the "Mozart effect"; a review of electrical brain stimulation; the phylogeny of languages; the secrets of Çatalhöyük (stay tuned); math vs engineering; the "Two Children Problem" and its variants; mix tapes for dogs.
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28 June 2010

Daily Digest, 2010.06.28

Today: Stiglitz and Krugman on the wrong-headedness of austerity policies; current housing indicators (bad); Wilkins on the problem of God's "foreknowledge" in a quantum universe (personally, I think this would be a problem in any universe); the MIT Energy Initiative on the prospects for natural gas; the importance of rhythm in culture; David Toop on silent sound; Geertz clarifies Foucault; whistleblowers as heroes.

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Cognition News

Today: fMRIs track "mind reading"; a profile of Mo Constandi of Neurophilosophy; the dopaminergic system, creativity, and mental illness; Changizi on Sacks on Changizi on the origins and neuroscience of reading; problem solving in dreams; in memory of HM.

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27 June 2010

Closed Access Summary, 21 to 27 June 2010

"Closed Access" is the nearly universal practice among publishers of scientific and scholarly journals of charging prohibitively high prices for electronic access to single copies of the articles they publish: the dreaded "paywall." For more on the concept of "Closed Access," in the context of my personal experience as a scholar without a current institutional affiliation, see my post from 6 June 2010.

I have referred to just 7 articles behind paywalls in my blog posts over the past week, and only one of these has a price over $15.00:

2010.06.22 "An early Australopithecus afarensis postcranium from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences PNAS $10.00

"The Prickly Side of Oxytocin," Science AAAS $15.00

"The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict," Science AAAS $15.00

"Different amygdala subregions mediate valence-related and attentional effects of oxytocins in humans," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences PNAS $10.00
2010.06.24 "A bag of notes approach to writer identification in old handwritten musical scores," Proceedings of the 8th IAPR International Workshop on Document Analysis Systems ACM $15.00

"The minor third communicates sadness in speech, mirroring its use in music," Emotion APA PsycNET $11.95
2010.06.27 "An fMRI study of self-reflection about body image: Sex differences," Personality and Individual Differences ScienceDirect $31.50


Total: $108.45


Cumulative Total: $917.38

The mean price for articles this week is $15.00 $15.49.  This is considerably lower than the mean of all articles up through 20 June 2010, which was $26.96.  However, it needs to be kept in mind that even $10.00, which is the minimum price for a single "behind a paywall" pdf encountered since I began accumulating statistics, is still extraordinarily high for what you get:  limited time access to an electronic copy of article of just a few pages, reporting research that very likely was supported in whole or in part by public money, for which neither the authors nor the reviewers received compensation. (I will report in more detail on the issue of research funding in this regard in a later post.)

The cumulative cost of the 37 "Closed Access" articles referred to in this blog since it began is $917.38.

Using R's "summary()" function on this data, we get:

   Min. 1st Qu.  Median    Mean 3rd Qu.    Max.
  10.00   15.00   29.95   24.79   31.50   83.68 


I am happy to report that there have been a number of fine research articles this week that were freely available.
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Weekend Roundup, 26-27 June 2010

This Weekend: Quantmod for R (in honor of my Dad); Rosenbaum on Barton Fink; Wilkins on God and (or vs?) Evolution; the victims of Vesuvius didn't suffocate, they cooked instantly in the pyroclastic flow; famous people with face blindness; fMRIs and distorted body image; the history of psychiatric attitudes to homosexuality; Oscar the bionic cat; cat weightlifting (by non-bionic cats); the evolution of Mitch.

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