Thursday, November 26, 2015

None of Us is Dumb As All of Us Or Two Heads Are Better Than One?: Co-Authors

A recent blog post detailed the rise in frequency of co-authors, including that awkward moment when the list of co-authors is 3 times longer than the paper itself:
Physicists set a new record this year for number of co-authors: a 9-page report needed an extra 24 pages to list its 5,154 authors. That’s a mighty long way from science’s lone wolf origins! 
Cast your eye down the contents of the first issue of the German journal, Der Naturforscher, in 1774, for example: nothing but sole authors. How did we get from there to first collaborating and sharing credit, and then the leap to hyperauthorship in the 2000s? And what does it mean for getting credit and taking responsibility?
Read more here.

Having worked with co-authors, and also written papers on my own, there are certainly benefits and drawbacks either way. Anyone who has ever worked on group projects in school knows that some group members are helpful and some do little to nothing. The same is true in just about any group undertaking.

There are a variety of social psychological phenomena at play here, such as social loafing, which occurs when people exert less effort in a group than they would on their own. A related concept is diffusion of responsibility - we share responsibility with others, so that if there are more people around, we have less personal responsibility for something than we do on our own.

Groupthink can also occur, where groups actually consider less information, suppress controversial and dissenting views, and frequently make worse decisions than an individual on his/her own.

So why do we even bother working in teams at all?

In addition to co-authors becoming more and more common, and perhaps an expectation, research is becoming more complicated. With complication comes the need for multidisciplinary teams and skill-sets. Its becoming less and less likely that one person will have the necessary skills and knowledge to complete the pieces of a study, let alone for a single manuscript. As a result, collaboration is key.

In fact, groupthink is more likely to occur in a homogenous group. Diversity, not only in terms of personal characteristics like race and gender, but also knowledge and background, is incredibly important. Obviously, participants in a group also need to feel comfortable expressing dissenting opinions and critically evaluating information, something that is (usually) strongly encouraged in scientific undertaking.

Though co-authors are certainly becoming the norm, I think we can all agree that 5,154 authors is excessive. The thought of coordinating author forms for that many people gives me a headache!

Trivially yours,

Monday, November 9, 2015

Facial Composites and the Power of Averages

I've previously blogged about facial asymmetry and attractiveness. Research in this area often works with facial composites - photos that combine facial elements of multiple faces - and found that composites are often viewed as more attractive. This is because composites average across various (often asymmetrical) features.

I saw this post on Facebook today and thought it made a nice follow-up to my post: composite faces using celebrities. Enjoy!

Still asymmetrically yours,

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Importance of Scientific Literacy

The next presidential election is a little less than a year away, but we're already hearing from many presidential hopefuls, including a few we wish would go away. One who springs to mind is Ben Carson.

I've been accused of disliking Ben Carson because of his desire to do away with the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Check out a response from some of the major Veteran Service Organization here.)

But my bigger issue is that he has demonstrated a poor understanding of science multiple times. Such as when he said vaccines are important (and thankfully shooting down the autism and vaccines claim) but should be administered in smaller doses, and the ones that don't prevent death or disability should be discontinued (as Forbes asks, which ones are those? Because preventing death or disability is kind of what they're meant to do).

Or when he said the theory of evolution was "encouraged" by Satan.

Or that the pyramids are grain silos.

These are all issues that countless scientists, with years of formal education, have spent their careers studying. I'm certainly not saying we should trust them simply because they have years of formal education. That would be a little like believing anything Ben Carson says because he has an MD.

But, even though I'm not a virologist, or biologist, or archaeologist, I can examine what these experts have to say and come to my own conclusions about whether I think they're accurate based on the methods used in the research.

That's because of an important concept called scientific literacy:
Scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. It also includes specific types of abilities...   
Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately. (from the National Science Education Standards)
As the quote above says, you're constantly bombarded with claims in the popular media. Such as the recent story about how eating bacon increases your risk of colon cancer by 18%. But an examination of this research shows two things: 1) they found this increased risk among people who eat about 2 strips of bacon every day, and 2) the absolute risk of colon cancer without eating bacon at that level is about 5%, and with that level of consumption is about 6% (more here). In fact, this story had a great outcome. People heard the claim, were skeptical, and looked into it.

Or how about this figure shown during a Congressional hearing about funding for Planned Parenthood, which highlights a related concept of numerical literacy (or numeracy)?

A figure that, based on the numbers associated with the two trend lines, should look more like this:

More here
Or even a recent analysis of Southwestern Airlines's claim of having the lowest fares - read more at my friend David's blog here.

The big thing we can do is encourage a healthy level of skepticism. Obviously, continuing to provide strong science and math education is incredibly important when preparing children to become voting citizens. But simply getting people to think twice about any "scientific" claim they hear would be a step in the right direction.

~Scientifically yours,