November 19, 2008

Why We Love To Hate Spiders

ResearchBlogging.orgAn article in a recent issue of New Scientist about what is responsible for fear of spiders led me to slightly disagree with the explanations afforded by the researchers. Have a quick read:

"Movies starring the superhero Spiderman may rake in millions at the box office, but the humble spider inspires fear and loathing quite unlike that of other creepy-crawlies. A third of women and a fifth of men admit to being scared of spiders. And an obvious explanation is that we have evolved a dread of spiders because they can be poisonous. However, psychologist Georg Alpers at the University of Würzburg, Germany, and his team believe that if this theory is correct, we would be just as afraid of stinging insects such as bees and wasps.

"To find out if this was the case, Alpers's team asked 76 students to rate photos of spiders, wasps, bees, beetles, butterflies and moths on three counts: how much fear and disgust they inspired and how dangerous the students felt they were. It transpired that spiders triggered far greater fear and disgust than any of the other creatures and were believed to be more dangerous (Evolution and Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.08.005).

"Stuart Hine, an entomologist at London's Natural History Museum, thinks fear of spiders is probably a learned behaviour. You only have to see someone standing on a chair screaming 'Spider! Spider!' to pick up on that fear, he explains. 'It stems back to the days of plagues when people suspected anything that crawled out of the thatch as carrying disease.'"

Now I think it's fair enough to invoke explanations arising from evolutionary psychology ("poisonous") or about learned behaviour, and I respect that, but couldn't we consider the most obvious explanation: that spiders are just horrible-looking little bastards?

I'd post a picture of a spider to prove my point, but as a recovering arachnophobic I don't think it would be a good idea. After years of screaming and screeching after sighting one of the little blighters, what to speak of being paralysed with fear, I'm pleased to report that I overcame my fear (somewhat) after a school trip to London Zoo. It really is quite amazing what group cohesion in the form of "dares" can do, but suffice it to say that we all forced ourselves to go and look at frightening tarantulas and the like in the Insect House. The first thing I noticed when I saw them is how small they are in reality. Many images available in books and other media tend to be close-ups and enlargements which may account for sudden shock reactions. But seeing them in reality gives one the impression that it is the fear itself which is overblown in the face of their diminutive size. If tarantulas represent an extremity in terms of fear, what more could we say about the even smaller stature of house spiders?

Since that visit to the zoo, my own fear of spiders significantly diminished from hysterical reactions to mild observations. I still exhibit a modicum of fear when I see them, but depending on my mood I may choose to squish them into oblivion or I might catch it and throw it outside.

But why do spiders provoke such extreme reactions? I downloaded and quickly read through the actual paper. Alpers et al. hypothesised that similar reactions should be exhibited with respect to bees and wasps, which could be true except that they seem to pose more of an annoyance than a fear. After all, how many apiphobics or spheksophobics do you know? I'd be more surprised if you've even heard those terms. Reading through the introduction to the study, there is much to be said for the evolutionary perspective in terms of fight-or-flight responses but too much is said about their venomous nature as well as the venomous qualities of other arthropods. Quote: "The disgust hypothesis postulates that emotional responses to spiders are culturally transmitted because these animals were historically associated with disease and infection from medieval times onward. However, it is unclear why mainly spiders, and not other 'creepy crawlies,' have been considered to be responsible for infections and disease."

Hello? Could it be because they look horrible? And could it be because they tend to move very quickly and their eight-legged appearance gives off an unnerving impression? I'm sure that much could be said for visual representation in connection with disgust hypotheses and I'm pretty sure that studies have been carried out along those lines, but you'll have to forgive me for being too lazy to dig them up right now. The researchers go on, this time suggesting that fear of spiders could be down to cultural transmission: "Other arthropods that are comparable in terms of venomousness, appearance, or behavior to spiders may elicit similar reactions, but cultural transmission may exert strong biases on verbal labeling. Individuals who report being afraid of spiders may stick with a cultural stereotype ('fear of spiders is common'), although their fears may be much less specific than commonly thought. A variety of arthropods may elicit fear or disgust (e.g., beetles), but 'fear of spiders' may merely be a culturally accepted verbal label for a wide spectrum of animal fears."

Hello? Did you ever consider that their horrific looks may account for fear??

It's no wonder that the results of the experiments suggested that "spider fear is in fact spider specific". Aside from being venomous, the study gives rise to a more interesting evolutionary question as to why spiders accounted for the highest ratings of fear in both emotional and dangerous contexts as compared to bees/wasps. One explanation provided by the authors relates to the honey-creating capacity of bees that formed part of Early Man's diet. Frequent interactions with bees due to honey obtainment and the very real possibility of being stung regularly may have contributed to an adaptive response on the human part with the result of lessening fear. In other words, surviving bee stings would be worth the trouble of obtaining the honey necessary to eat (reward). In spite of the relative rarity of spider stings, interaction with them offers no evolutionary advantage and this leads to a general lack of information about them. Which in turns contributes to informational fear acquisition that is culturally transmitted through generations, often taking the form of myths.

Another explanation relates to their unpredictable and uncontrollable behavior that could be gleaned from their rapid or abrupt movements (aha, now we're finally getting there!). Earlier studies suggest that this could be down to the inability of humans to exert control or influence upon the movements of animals, but many other animals and insects move as fast (or faster than) spiders and this is insufficient to explain spider-specific fear. After some more discussion of other points, the authors recognise one of the limitations of their study in showing static pictures to the participants as opposed to animated, or even 'live' images, and thus responses to spider/insect mobility couldn't be obtained and tested. Whereas spiders tend to be detected extremely quickly in search tasks (and where some say this is observable for other animals), the elevated fear and digust ratings in this study allow the researchers to recognise the 'specality' of spider fear. Very generously, they also recognise that existing explanations for these responses (venomousness and so on) aren't sufficient or well-founded to properly explain them.

They could start by studying reactions to sudden spider appearances, and to what extent this is moderated by their looks!

Thankfully (and at long last!) the researchers do end up suggesting two specific ways to deeply analyse the origin of animal (spider?) fear and disgust; first through detailed cross-cultural studies, and secondly by analysing the morphological and behavioural traits that trigger the fear and disgust responses.

Hallelujah! It was a long ride but they got there in the end! And I think when that kind of study is carried out and published, it will be a worthwhile read.
A GERDES, G UHL, G ALPERS (2008). Spiders are special: fear and disgust evoked by pictures of arthropods☆ Evolution and Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.08.005

November 17, 2008

Why IDiotic Research is BAD for Science

This is a partial repost of a previous blog as I wanted to have a separate post outlining one of my postgraduate experiences of scientific research for a paper, and how it can be scuppered when Creationist/ID papers start entering research databases. After I've outlined my general concerns about this, listen to this tale of research woe. The following exchange took place in the context of a conversation with a believer:

Question: In response to your statement about religious scientists engaging in intellectual dishonesty and their position being unjustifiable, why should you or anyone object to what someone wishes to spend their time researching?

Answer: Because they basically waste everyone's time with what is essentially junk science. In fact its not just scientists, but a whole load of other people like swamis and gurus who think that they can make scientific pronouncements and get away with it. I discussed this briefly at someone's blog a few months ago. This is a very good question you've asked. This summer [2008] it is likely that I'll be involved in a massive scientific project that I hoped would be along the lines of an investigation in the religious content of auditory hallucinations in non-psychotic populations. If I get ethical approval for the basic idea, there is a possibility of significant expansion which will result in investigations beyond the original proposal and quite probably end up a something seriously publishable. As such, it is my duty to do the background research (for the introduction of what will be my paper as I explained above) by seeing what has already been done and how my study can fit in with any previous research. I came across this paper:

Norris, R.S. (2005). Examining the structure and role of emotion: Contributions of neurobiology to the study of embodied religious experience. Zygon, 40(1), 181-200.

A paper that I can only describe through gritted teeth as absolute shit. There was nothing whatsoever of any value in it, least of all to me. Norris basically draws some thoughts together along the lines of: "Look at how this explains this, and how that explains that. Isn't this grrrrrreat?" I was so disturbed by this paper that I checked out the Zygon journal. Strange name for a scientific journal, don't you think? But apparently it is also known as the Journal of Religion and Science, and here's what's written on their website:

"The journal Zygon provides a forum for exploring ways to unite what in modern times has been disconnected—values from knowledge, goodness from truth, religion from science. Traditional religions, which have transmitted wisdom about what is of essential value and ultimate meaning as a guide for human living, were expressed in terms of the best understandings of their times about human nature, society, and the world. Religious expression in our time, however, has not drawn similarly on modern science, which has superseded the ancient forms of understanding. As a result religions have lost credibility in the modern mind. Nevertheless some recent scientific studies of human evolution and development have indicated how long-standing religions have evolved well-winnowed wisdom, still essential for the best life. Zygon's hypothesis is that, when long-evolved religious wisdom is yoked with significant, recent scientific discoveries about the world and human nature, there results credible expression of basic meaning, values, and moral convictions that provides valid and effective guidance for enhancing human life."

Sounds pretty cool, huh? Like some of those weird ideas you hear about science and religion coming together in a synthesis. Personally I'd be suspicious of a publication that had people like Viggo Mortenson on their advisory board but there you go. If I did some digging around, I'm sure I'd find these guys all to be a bunch of Creationists. Whoops, Intelligent Design advocates, sorry. These statements of purpose and all sounds very professional and above-board until you take a look at some of their articles. By virtue of my ATHENS login I was able to access their latest March 2008 issue, and here's an abstract from an article entitled 'The Centrality of Incarnation':

"What we urgently need at the beginning of the twenty-first century is a christological vision that can shape and inform a new and powerful way of helping humankind to interpret their place within the universe. A christological vision that is unintelligible and uninteresting can have a profoundly deleterious soteriological implication: the orbit of God's saving grace will not be wide enough to encompass the universal place of humankind. Arthur Peacocke's move is clear and to the point: Only when the foundations and universal scope of God's grace are fully established for all of creation, only then can the importance of God's specific work in Jesus the Christ be established."

This is science, are you kidding me? And just to make sure I wasn't being unfair I had a look at some other articles much to my chagrin and my theory of these guys being a bunch of religion-biased creationists was more or less confirmed as many of them praise the ideas of Arthur Peacocke. They are definitely religious anyway and biased with it. Articles entitled with things like 'Jesus and Creativity' don't really catch my interest.

And here's a gem from an article entitled 'Is a complete biocognitive account of religion feasible?' Pretty relevant to my interests, I'd think? Unfortunately not:

"Concluding this critical review, I am convinced, along with other scholars in the field, that the cause of the cognitive science of religion would be better served if detached from the biological approach. Very often the evolutionary ideas are highly speculative, lack empirical evidence, and become misleading."

Not only is this utter nonsense, but is it surprising that it was written by someone from a university in the Vatican City? I am filled with shock even while writing this, words can't express how I feel for these morons clogging up valuable PubMed space with their hokum gobbledygook dressed up as "science". Needless to say, I ain't likely to be referring to Zygon articles in any academic piece I write. Unless I wish to poke fun of course. Much has also been written about the Templeton Foundation and their apparent bias in annually awarding $1.6m to individuals who do something in "trying various ways for discoveries and breakthroughs to expand human perceptions of divinity and to help in the acceleration of divine creativity". Other religious sects are jumping on this bandwagon too, putting out junk science books such as those authored by Michael Cremo and Richard L. Thompson; have you read Cremo's 'Human Devolution'? Don't bother, you have better things to do.

So this is basically why I'd object to this type of "research", Member1, because every few years its people like these who also waste everyone's time with court cases against various State Boards of Education in the US that contest the theory of evolution and demand that "Creationism" be taught alongside it in schools. They are outcasts with their junk science.

November 16, 2008

We're in the Top 50!

It hasn't been all that long since I started this blog, and what I've put up here so far is barely a tenth of what I've wanted to write. So it was surprising when I learned today that this blog is included in the Top 50 Psychology Blogs at Networked Blogs!

Even though we're currently at #33, and this site is an extension of a Facebook application, it still feels good. Thanks to all my regular readers! :)

November 11, 2008

War On Neuroscience? What War?

After the initial shock of reading the article about Creationism's declaration of war on neuroscience, I thought I had better give some of my own thoughts. It would be very easy (and also very lazy) to rant on as many have already done by condemning them as "stupid" and IDiots (ID = Intelligent Design, IDiots = advocates of ID) although I do feel that way sometimes. One of my favourite science writers, Steven Novella, has written an excellent two-part review of the article and also provides some of the background behind the controversy:

Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature

Reports of the Demise of Materialism Are Premature - Part II

This whole affair annoys me deeply because, as a general researcher, I am bound to keep up with all the latest developments in the field so as to maintain my own standard of knowledge as well as being properly equipped to deal with issues that I come across. What to speak of any patients I may eventually treat! And now I am going to have to take a greater care with what I read. Of course due care and caution needs to be taken with what we anyway, such as whether experimental studies have been carried out by using a fairly rigorous methodology and whether the (statistical) data really do support the conclusions, but now every time I read a paper that presents somewhat startling or surprising results I'm going to have a niggly little voice in the back of my head asking, "Did an IDiot write this?"

I've already had some disturbing run-ins with IDiotic papers (blogged here) and I still shudder at the memory. Aside from all that, though, is the disturbing possibility of how old notions of neuroscience are proposed for ressurrection (for want of a better term!) in order to substantiate this new 'battle', implicated in the very term 'non-material neuroscience' that is being thrown around by them suggests that they are on a mission to decry 'material' neuroscience as if it is a bad thing. What any good neuroscientist would know through years of private practice and research is that a duality between the two doesn't exist: the mind is the brain and vice versa. This is experienced even in empirical ways where we see a patient suffering from brain injury very often undergoes variable personality changes. The effect of any changes of course depends on the severity of the injury, and cases like these have been known about and treated for nigh on two centuries already (as per the incredible case of Phineas Gage). In short, an injury (or deficiency) to an important part of the brain generally causes the patient to exhibit behaviour that is synonymous with the injury or deficit at hand. The important point about cases like these, and which is often missed, is that it is possible to suggest that fundamental things such as 'thoughts' and 'personality' which are usually thought of in abstract terms can be said to have a material origin.

This point is very unpalatable for those who tend to a spiritual or otherwise New-Agey outlook on life, and who would be given to beliefs or sentiments that favour a sense of being a controller of one's own destiny. One certainly can exhibit control over certain areas in ones life, but this isn't about which outlook, viewpoint or worldview is correct or superior. This is about simple facts. And these facts make it clear that a material viewpoint is the only real path one can take to understanding issues of neuronal importance. Any reasonable person who gives a moment's thought to the concept will be able to understand that all our experiences - sensory, emotional, somatic, metaphysical - are processed only through the brain. Thus, even at the outset, the idea of a "non-material neuroscience" as propounded by Schwartz, Beauregard, and those of their ilk, is defeated.

But for me, this is one of those areas where science and philosophy merge to such an extent that it becomes a big blur. What the ID movement is trying to do is ressurrect "Cartesian dualism" which, put simply, is Rene Descartes' idea that mind and body are separate. Applied to neuroscience, this translates as the mind being a separate and different 'entity' from the brain tissues that host it. He summed up this idea in the famous saying, "cogito ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am." According to Descartes, the mind and the body were composed of different types of substances just as oil and water. How could this be? We can see from our own experience that if we think about kicking someone up their bum and have our minds instruct our foot to do so, signals are sent to the leg that prepares and allows our foot to take aim and kick. Conversely, our bodies can also have an effect on our minds; a cut on the hand, for instance, may be painful enough to send distress signals to our brains and perhaps lead us into a state of panic. It seems that there is some ostensible connection between our bodies and minds.

Although Descartes insisted on their being separate entities and didn't adequately answer how these connections take place, Cartesian dualism, the theory that espouses these views, has come to explain these connections as a form of interactionism, that the (separate) body and mind interacted with each other in some way. In what ways they do that also hasn't been adequately explained. There are other types of dualism of course.

Perhaps the explanations above may go some way in explaining the shortcomings of the dualist theory, and why monism, the conception of the mind and the brain being one entity, is a much better model to use in trying to understand neuroscientific issues and problems. This kind of view is apparent in many modern descriptions of mind: 'Minds are simply what brains do' (Minsky, 1986); "'Mind is designer language for the functions that the brain carries out' (Claxton, 1994); Mind is 'the personalisation of the physical brain' (Greenfield, 2000). To quote Susan Blackmore:

"Such descriptions make it possible to talk about mental activities and mental abilities without supposing that there is a separate mind. This is probably how most psychologists and neuroscientists think of 'mind' today, but there is much less agreement when it comes to consciousness." - Consciousness: An Introduction, 2007 (p. 13).

And this is in fact one of the current problems in neuroscience: how consciousness works. The New Scientist article correctly identifies this as an area where the ID movement are very likely to strike. But before we discuss that, a short description of consciousness must suffice. To describe a neural function that is, to say the least, responsible for our being alive is very hard to do. Is it appropriate to describe consciousness as a 'live' phenomenon? What about those unfortunate individuals who exist in a vegetative state due to horrific injuries, aren't they technically "alive"? Or are they? Who can adequately describe consciousness, in all its fancies and frivolities, dreams and nightmares, naturals and supernaturals, illusions and vividity, in a way that would comprehensively define it? The answer is: there isn't one. Consciousness is simply too big and too difficult to describe and there is no general definition that could come close to fully explaining it.

However, there are ways in which we can come close to understanding it or how it works. The ability to categorise stimuli and react to them, to discriminate between things, the way different cognitive structures integrate to provide information, the reportability of mental states, the mechanics of focus and attention, the deliberate control of behaviour, the difference between sleep and wakefulness, all of these are generally separate issues that can be understood in themselves. They are what we call the 'easy' problems of consciousness, denoting that these issues are relatively easy to understand when sufficient research has been carried out and these processes unfold. When we have 'easy' problems, it automatically follows that we have a 'hard' problem and it is this very hard problem that lies unsolved in the mystery of consciousness. The hard problem can be properly described as how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience. Or put another way, how can the functioning of neurons (objective processes) give rise to the subjective experiences that make us who we are, our loves, our joys, our sadnesses, our life experiences, our memories, our emotions, everything about us that makes us unique?

This is an issue that neuroscience cannot yet fully explain, although research is always ongoing. Some neuroscientists are sceptical and say that the hard problem will never be solved. Others think, as per the article, that new physical principles need to be postulated in order to guide research and solve it. Still others suggest that sufficient research into the easy problems will cause the hard problem to disappear automatically. Time (and research) will tell.

There will be those who, throwing their hands up in frustration (or thunder from their pulpits à la Jeffrey Schwartz), decide it's all a waste of time and go to the opposite extreme in their extreme thirst for an explanation. As per Daniel Dennett (1991), 'accepting dualism is giving up.' And this is precisely what these people appear to have done in joining the ID movement. But before you start thinking about the influence of right-wing Christian fundamentalists, Steven Novella has shown how the current agents for non-material neuroscience have links to Buddhism, loose associations with Deepak Chopra, as well as the intellectual abuse of quantum mechanics. This makes things a little more difficult because there are some neuroscientists who are interested in Buddhist meditational methodologies (and who employ them in their own lives) as a tool to better understand the experiential quality of consciousness, and some papers are sometimes published that discuss the possibility of what those Buddhist principles may be able to contribute to research in the area. Novella also goes into an excellent discussion of what constitutes the correct understanding of materialism, or naturalism, that is required to understand scientific or neuroscientific issues, and how IDeology diverts and is generally incompatible with the basic precepts of science, such as how a hypothesis should be falsifiable in principle. One example of this is how ID'ers suggest that "unexplained" issues in science can be explained once one accepts the notion of an intelligent top-down designer ('Godiddit!'), but how could this assumption be falsifiable? How is it possible to even prove that an intelligent designer exists? Thus, how could ID ever be scientific in spite of their claims to be so?

All in all, it appears that the IDeologues have learnt nothing from their abject failures in attacking evolution. As outlined in their mission statement they seek nothing less than the destruction of materialism, so it is expected that they will simply up sticks and move somewhere else to kick up a fuss. If they follow similar strategies to when they attacked evolution, we can expect more of the same: attacking all the "weak points" and filling the gaps with God. The disturbing thing is that they do this academically and while wearing the same white lab coats that genuine scientists wear, so the public will be fooled into thinking that any controversy they stir up will be a genuine one and that "conflicting opinions" may have some substance to them. They will publish their "scientific" academic papers (mostly in their own journals) and leave them to confuse the innocent wide-eyed newbies. This is all very disappointing, and underlines all the negatives of being influenced by an ideology that conflicts with the facts. Who would ever attempt to square a circle? Yet this is what the IDiots are trying to do.

I do not think much of their declaration of war. What war? Based on previous history, IDiots hardly ever come up with any real evidence of their claims; they simply re-interpret older and 'classic' experiments to suit their ways of thinking. When the 'weaknesses' of neuroscience are an open secret, the ID'ers will have the tough job of explaining away the 'hard problem' as well as having to explain how Cartesian dualist principles are valid after all. I'm not envious, but I'm not expecting too much from them either. Simply saying 'Godiddit!' to everything isn't a scientifically valid answer nor does it provide satisfactory explanations. It also turns out that David Chalmers, the philosopher who coined the term 'hard problem', has shown significant unease at how it has been hijacked by the ID'ers and has made some interesting points on his blog.

What worries me are the reactions of the public. As mentioned before, they are likely to be fooled into thinking that non-material neuroscience is just as equal and valid a paradigm as 'material' neuroscience is. We are likely to hear more 'spiritual' explanations for how various neural functions work from individuals such as the odious Deepak Chopra, and quite possibly the repellent 'Godiddit!' chorus from the Bible-quoting (or Dhammapada-quoting) peanut gallery. And of course, the usual criticisms about evil crackpot scientists with their chemicals and their test tubes, and how damn myopic and narrow-minded they are to ignore the "spiritual realm" in their doomed endeavour to search for the meaning of everything. This isn't a fantasy - this is history - which has the peculiar quality of repeating itself. That the whole evolution debacle even made it to several legal courts and education boards brought the indignation of many a scientist and a judge, but the one good thing about this "war" on neuroscience is that it is unlikely to have a large effect on public education as the subject is generally only taught at university level. Still, the idea of graduates' heads being filled with 'alternative' theories (when there are already plenty of 'orthodox' theories to digest) is something that causes me to shudder.

At the end of the day, what matters is that - war or no war - this shift is important to acknowledge and represents a challenge for this scientific establishment to face it head-on. Plenty of people would disagree about there being anything to face, and they would be right, but the final paragraph of the article was very telling: "What can scientists do? They have been criticised for not doing enough to teach the public about evolution. Maybe now they need a big pre-emptive push to engage people with the science of the brain - and help the public appreciate that the brain is no place to invoke the 'God of the gaps'."

And this is the reason why this blog exists. It represents my very small and humble contribution to public education.