What Do We Want our Scientific Discourse to Look Like?

I was recently quoted in an article appearing in the Observer, a publication of Association for Psychological Science. In the article Alison Ledgerwood quotes from a diverse set of voices in psychology on the topic of scientific discourse in part in response to Susan Fiske’s piece in the Observer. Fiske takes issue with methodological critics of psychological science (who she referred to as “methodological terrorists” in an earlier draft circulated online). Her article promoted many responses (see here) and a call led by Ledgerwood to write a more diverse (and less status-driven) article for the Observer on the topic. True to form, Alison quoted my writing fairly, and elegantly brought together many other contributions.

Here, I provide my small contribution in its entirety.

We would serve each other, and science as a whole, better if we treated critique and communication of science as an open and humble process of discovery and improvement. To this end, I would like to see our scientific discourse focus more on methodology and evidence. This is easier said than done. Criticisms of the science are often construed as criticisms of the scientist. Even when we, as scientists, appreciate the criticism and recognize its scientific value, it still evokes concerns that others will lose trust in us and in our research. It is no wonder people are distressed by methodological criticism. However, focusing our discourse on methodology and evidence, with more awareness of how tone and context influence others’ perceptions of the scientist whose work is under the microscope, will help ensure healthy development of our science. Second, I would like to see an increase in open and humble scientific discourse. Openness may make our mistakes and shortcomings more apparent, and it may make it easier for others to critique our work, but it will surely improve our science. If we simultaneously place more value on humble communication, I expect criticisms will feel less personal and be easier to swallow as well. Finally, as a graduate student, I feel vulnerable publicly stating my thoughts on criticism and openness in science, which speaks to the climate of our discourse. It is essential that we have a communication environment in which graduate students, post-docs, and junior faculty from all backgrounds are rewarded for humbly and openly presenting methodologically sound ideas, research, and criticisms.

How should I feel about Net Neutrality?

I thought I had a clear understanding of what Net Neutrality means for the consumer, and how I should feel about it. However, I came across an article that raised some interesting questions. There has been some recent media activity around new Net Neutrality rules being brokered by the FCC.  This is an important issue that could change the way we use the internet. What could change?  At the very least, the amount we pay for access and the accessibility of content. This is huge. So I want to learn more. Please comment with your two-cents or a link to someone else’s.

Net Neutrality good for google not consumers

This is the articles that peaked my interest this morning. It got me thinking about where the costs for developing a better internet should fall. It is expensive to build and maintain the infrastructure that supports our ever increasing consumption of cat videos and House of Cards (aside: my very empirical search for the number of cat videos on youtube came to about 31,900,000). Content providers, such as Google and Netflix, that feed our impulse to gorge on all things cutesy and corrupt require a lot of bandwidth. Service providers, such as AT&T and Comcast, could simply charge content providers for access to better bandwidth. But this is not Net Neutral. It creates a situation where the big players, like Google who can afford the better bandwidth, get preferential treatment. Small companies or start-ups will have to live with slow content delivery until they can afford the faster piping. This seems bad. Cash-money will drown innovation and free-flow of information.

But, let’s say the FCC keep the Net Neutral. This is what Google wants, supposedly because they believe in a “free internet” but more likely because they won’t have to pay for the better bandwidth. Well, free internet is free internet, it will be good for Google but it will also be good for the consumer, right? It seems to be more complicated than that. It is still expensive for service providers, so will they just eat the cost? No, they will likely pass the cost on to the consumer through increases in monthly subscriptions for wired broadband or ‘pay for use’ as is the case with many mobile phone data plans.

So, while I believe both a neutral Net and fast Net is a good thing in that it allows for information to flow freely and smoothly, who is going to pay for it? Perhaps we, as a society, need to weigh what is more important. Do we want an internet that levels the playing field or do want an internet that delivers cat videos in an instant? Ok, yes, this framing reveals my bias, but I really think we need to grapple with an expensive, world-changing truth if we want both free and fast internet. Maybe the government should subsidize service providers who spend on increased bandwidth capabilities? Is speed that important to our society? Probably.

Please share thoughts and links. I’m sure I got some things wrong as I am still learn about this topic. Help me learn more, it seems important.

…ok, just one video to feed the beast…

Support NSF: Stop Cuts to Social Science Research!

The Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act of 2014 (FIRST Act) serves as reauthorization legislation for the National Science Foundation (NSF). The bill passed the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Technology on March 13 and moves on to consideration by the full Committee.

FIRST includes a proposal to cut NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic (SBE) sciences directorate by $50 million—a 22 percent reduction. The social and behavioral sciences play a vital role in the nation. They contribute significantly to understanding and solving our nation’s economic, health, and security challenges.

You can oppose cuts to social science funding at NSF here.

Without NSF this Nobel laureate wouldn’t have revolutionized how we think about human decision-making. Here he is on happiness:

Does the FDA really think 12 ounces is the same as 20?

The FDA recently released a proposal that would update packaged food labels to “reflect the latest scientific information.” They are taking public comments here and here until June 2nd, 2014. Some of the more salient changes include

New FDA Food Label What is Different

  • disclosing “added sugars” in addition to natural sugars;
  • adding a column to include both “per serving” and “per package” calorie and nutrition information;
  • and highlighting “calories”, “serving size” and “percent of daily value” through changes to the size, style, and position of font.  

Many of the new rules improve clarity and relevance of the labels, which will provide consumers with more accurate information. But will we make better choices?  Access to open and accurate information does not necessarily lead to healthier behavior, in fact, it could result in exactly the opposite.

In particular, there is one component of the new rules that could result in poorer eating behavior: the FDA is increasing serving size for larger containers in order to “better align with how much people really eat.” 

There is a large body of literature that shows the size of food containers influences the amount of consumption. In other words, the larger your bowl of popcorn, the more popcorn you will eat (and doesn’t matter if the popcorn is really bad). Part of the new FDA rules will reflect this research by increasing serving size to take changes in the amount of food consumed as a result of different package sizes into account. In effect, larger packaging will have larger serving sizes such that a 12 oz bottle of soda and a 20 oz bottle of soda are both a single serving. This update is an attempt to align with legislation that requires serving size to reflect the amount people actually eat. The current serving sizes are based on surveys conducted in the 1970’s and 80’s. Since then food packaging sizes have increased dramatically, and consumption along with it. Thus, the FDA is increasing the serving size to reflect changes in how much people are eating today. This is a misuse of the research. Think of it this way, if a recent survey showed people are driving faster today than they were thirty years ago, and there is clear evidence that people are driving faster today because their cars have more horsepower, should the government then increase the speed limit for cars with more horsepower? It doesn’t make any sense. While people eat more as a result of larger food containers it does not mean that they were unsatisfied when they ate less from a smaller container nor that it is safer to eat more. Further, just because we eat more from a larger container does not mean we actually want to eat more if someone asked us. Perhaps the law should reflect what is safe, and how much the average person eats (and wants to eat) after controlling for external factors (often manipulated by industry) that influence when our body tells us we’re satisfied.

FDA Serving Size Infographic

The FDA has proposed a dual label which displays caloric and nutritional information per serving and per container. Saving the public the burden of arithmetic.

The FDA has proposed a dual label which displays caloric and nutritional information per serving and per container, saving the public the burden of arithmetic.

Another justification for changing serving size goes something like this: “When the serving size is less than the package size, consumers have to do mental math to figure out how many calories are in the package.” This is bad because math is evil. Who wants to do arithmetic? But in all seriousness this is a legitimate concern. Math takes up valuable time and mental energy, and frankly most people won’t bother. The problem is, this point is no longer relevant as the FDA is also introducing a “dual column” feature that shows caloric information “per serving” and “per container” so we don’t have to remember to “carry the one” when counting calories. 

Another concern of mine is how industry and consumers will react to these changes in serving size labeling. Industry might wonder, “why offer a 12 oz soda when a 20 oz soda is also one serving and we can charge more?” The consumer might think, “why buy the 12 oz soda when the 20 oz doesn’t cost that much more and is also just one serving?” The new serving size label also allows for easy rationalizations of poor eating habits, “I shouldn’t drink this whole soda, but it’s ok because it’s just one serving.”

There is much yet to be discovered as to how the new presentation of information on food labels will actually affect behavior. But it is important to remember that information by itself doesn’t always lead to behavior change and, if it does, the resulting behaviors could be detrimental to our health. I believe there will be negative consequences that come from labeling serving size by container size. If you agree, tell the FDA to remove this part of the new rules because 12 ounces is NOT the same as 20. Also I encourage you to explore all changes for yourself. I believe many of the new rules are at least a step in the right direction.