Social Science Bites

How did humans diverge so markedly from animals? Apart from physical things like our “physical peculiarities,” as experimental psychologist Celia Heyes puts it, or our fine motor control, there’s something even more fundamentally – and cognitively -- different.

“I suppose at the broadest level,” Heyes tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “we differ from animals because we are so ultra-social, so intensely cooperative. And as a result, we’ve transformed our environments, for good or ill, more radically than any other species through things like agriculture, technology, science, but also, law, trade to the point of economies and finance, fine arts, sports, all of these things.”

Heyes, a senior research fellow in theoretical life sciences at All Souls College, University of Oxford, argues that we’ve evolved those differences, or “innate modules.” That may sound like evolutionary psychology, which suggests that many of these traits are pre-coded into humans -- “we get them for free,” as Heyes translates -- and therefore are minimally dependent on what we experience in childhood. While Heyes appreciates the evolutionary aspect of natural selection and agrees there is some sort of genetic starter kit,” but she says the locus of evolution is not genetic but cultural.

She points to things like cross-cultural differences in beliefs and behavior or the ability to read, which hasn’t had time to be genetically encoded (even if it can be observed lighting up only certain parts of the brain) but it can have evolved culturally.

Heyes’ research and theories place her all over the academic map, but she describes herself as “part biologist, part philosopher, but I am first and foremost a psychologist.” A fellow of the British Academy and president of the Experimental Psychology Society, her latest book is the brand new Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking from Harvard University Press.


Direct download: HeyesMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:00am PDT

In determining what makes a successful prison, where would you place ‘trust’? Alison Liebling, a criminologist at the University of Cambridge and the director of the Institute of Criminology’s Prisons Research Centre, would place it at the top spot. As she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, she believes what makes a prison good is the existence and the practice of trust.

As this recording makes clear, these aren’t starry-eyed recommendations from a novice observer. Liebling has years of going into dozens of individual lockups, and believes that good prisons are possible. “A good prison,” she details, “is one where prisoners feel safe and the environment is not threatening – and therefore they can concentrate on their own personal development.” That environment means inmates are “reasonably decently treated, not worried about getting from A to B, the regime works in a fairly predictable and clear way, and the staff are approachable,” among other things.  

While she has met with ‘why bother?’-type resistance from hard-boiled staff and prisoners surrounding her research, her retort is quick and usually effective: “There isn’t any better method than research for authentically describing this invisible world.”

The best prisons, she says, are the ones that “see prisoners as people first.” This isn’t a prescription to be naïve, and she subscribes to what Onora O’Neill describes as “intelligent trust” in dealing with prisoners. Good corrections officers already intuit the concept, she adds: they are “subtle readers of human behavior ... making fine judgements about gradations of trust.”

For her research, Liebling has adopted “appreciative inquiry,” which she came too almost accidentally while trying to discover a way to describe what works in a prison and how do prisons differ from each other.  (“It wasn’t a research tool, or at least it wasn’t until I corrupted it!” she jokes.) Just as plants follow the sun, appreciative inquiry also follows the heliotropic principle, trying to identify and then support what gives life energy to people or organizations. “So instead of telling me about your offending,” she would ask, “tell me something you’re most proud of.”

Talk about working in the prison environment (“I always felt really at home”), the idea that prisoners themselves my feel vulnerable, how to build trust, and how prison policies have improved over Liebling’s career – and how that improvement has stalled

Liebling has published several books on these topics, such as 1992’s Suicides in Prison, 2004’s Prisons and their Moral Performance: A Study of Values, Quality and Prison Life and The Effects of Imprisonment with Shadd Maruna in 2005, and Legitimacy and Criminal Justice, an edited volume with Justice Tankebe, in 2013.

Direct download: LieblingMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:52pm PDT

While they aren’t as unpopular as politicians or journalists, people who work with statistics come in for their share of abuse. “Figures lie and liars figure,” goes one maxim. And don’t forget, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

But some people are the good guys, doing their best to combat the flawed or dishonest use of numbers. One of those good guys is David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk in the Statistical Laboratory in the Centre for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cambridge and current president of the Royal Statistical Society. Spiegelhalter, the subject of this Social Science Bites podcast, even cops to being a bit of an “evidence policeman” because on occasion even he spends some of his time “going around telling people off for bad behavior.”

There is bad behavior to police. “There’s always been the use of statistics and numbers and facts as rhetorical devices to try and get people’s opinion across, and to in a sense manipulate our emotions and feelings on things,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds. “People might still think that statistics and numbers are cold, hard facts but they’re soft, fluffy things. They can be manipulated and changed, made to look big, made to look small, all depending on the story that someone wants to tell.”

Asked at one point if he even accepts that there are ‘facts,’ Spiegelhalter gives a nuanced yes. “I’m not going to get into the whole discussion about ‘what is truth,’ although it’s amazing how quick you do go down that line. No, there are facts, and I really value them.”

Despite that policing role, Spiegelhalter explain, his methods are less prescriptive and more educational, working to get others to ask key questions such as “What am I not being told?” and “Why I am hearing this?” The goal is less to track down every bit of fake news in the world, and more to inoculate others against its influence.

One part of that, for example, is determining what communicators and organizations to trust. Spiegelhalter, acknowledging his debt to Onora O'Neill, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, argues that organizations themselves shouldn’t strive to be trusted, but to show trustworthy attributes. This goes beyond things like “fishbowl transparency,” where you lard your website with every imaginable factoid, but actively making sure people can get to your information, understand it and they can assess how reliable it is.

That ‘understanding’ part of the process is what Spigelhalter pursues as part of chairing the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, which is dedicated to improving the way that quantitative evidence is used in society. In that role he’s become a public face of honest use of numbers, as evidenced by his role as presenter of the BBC4 documentaries Tails you Win: the Science of Chance and Climate Change by Numbers. His own research focuses on health-related use of statistics and statistical methods, and while that might include Bayesian inference using Gibbs samplinig, it can also encompass the focus of his 2015 book, Sex by Numbers.

Direct download: SpiegelhalterMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:00am PDT


Use social media for any amount of time and eventually you will come across something that’s designed to both appeal to the angels of your better nature and asking to make a (small) effort to support or propagate this appeal. The prime example of recent years is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

When these charitable appeals take off, that’s when social psychologist Sander van der Linden perks up. He studies ‘viral altruism,’ and in this Social Science Bites podcast he details to host David Edmonds how he studies this phenomenon.

“The idea,” van der Linden says, “is that you can ‘catch’ altruism in a behavioral way. When someone acts altruistically online, you catch that behavior as a social contagion, which then causes you to adopt that behavior and encourage other people in your network to also engage in that behavior, which then spreads quickly and rapidly.”

Van der Linden observes and describes the mechanics of these processes using something he calls SMArT, breaking down the online altruistic efforts by their social influence, moral imperative, affective reactions and translational impact.

This yardstick allows van der Linden to draw conclusions from what can be a smallish data set of unique events. SMArT allows van der Linden to find shared similarities that create body of data and which can be tracked. For example, van der Linden, is currently looking at the #MeToo movement to see if it fits into his scope of inquiry.

Van der Linden is a social psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge where he directs the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Laboratory. He is also a Fellow in Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at Churchill College, Cambridge and an affiliated researcher at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication at Yale University.



Direct download: SanderMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:15pm PDT

The Western feud over “nature vs. nurture” dates back at least to an essay by John Locke in 1690. The idea that it’s an absolute binary – that our actions are determined solely by one or the other – is thankfully passé. And yet, in an academic setting, with scholars safe in their silos, the tension continues in practice if not in conversation.

For a bit of anecdotal evidence, look at Melinda Mills, the head of department and Nuffield Professor of Sociology at Oxford University. She studied the sociology and demography of families and family formation – things like when to choose to have a child, what a women’s age is when she first gives birth, or the number of children someone might have. “I was,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “looking at them in a very socially deterministic way. I was looking at things such as childcare institutions or gender equality or the kind of jobs that women and men have, and was childcare available and affordable and ... I was using those as explanations and predictors.

“And then I met some biologists and geneticists.”

Over drinks that day, these fellow researchers made fun of Mills: “This is Melinda and she studies fertility, but she doesn’t think it has any biological basis.” Much hilarity ensued. But the gibes bore a pleasant fruit – Mills broke free of the limits on her scholarship with which she had shackled herself. Her studies and collaborations now combined social science and molecular genetics; she now studies ‘sociogenomics,’ with a particular emphasis on how these interplay in the areas of inequality and life course. In that vein, she is the principal investigator of the SOCIOGENOME project and the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods SOCGEN project.

She notes that each part of the triad – social scientists, biologists and geneticists bring their real science to the table. “Wellbeing, depression, reproductive choice – [social scientist] are very good at measuring that. We then work with biologists and geneticists, who determine genetic loci, and then with biologists, who determine the biological function of those genes.

“As social scientists, we then create a score, your ‘reproductive score,’ and we add those to our statistical models together with the social science variables  -- the usual suspects lie your family background or your partner or educational level – and we add those together with the genetic data and we look at the interaction between those.” And, as you’ll learn, there can be surprises for all concerned. Geneticists, for example, might assume that genetic loci are universal ... but are they?

The effort also harnesses the big data of genetics technology, tapping into databases like the UK Bio Bank or the direct-to-consumer testing services like 23andMe.

In addition to her sociogenomics projects, Mills is a leader of the Working Package on Childlessness and Assisted Reproductive Technology in the European Families And Societies network, editor-in-chief of the European Sociological Review, and a fellow of the European Academy of Sociology.

Direct download: MillsMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PDT

That some people are just naturally gifted at mathematics is pretty well accepted as conventional wisdom. With enlightened teaching we can all become adequate at math, or maths, and should set expectations accordingly. That, says Jo Boaler, who is a professor of mathematics education at Stanford University, is hogwash. Although she uses the more refined terminology of calling such thinking “a myth.”

“The neuroscience is showing us petty clearly that there’s no such thing as a maths brain, even though so many people believe that, particularly in the Western culture,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast. She doesn’t fully reject the notion about enlightened teaching, though, only the bit about merely being adequate: “If you were taught the right way ... you could excel at all levels of maths in school.”

She describes how brain pathways are formed when we learn something, and the agglomeration of those pathways are what makes one adept, and not some inherent expertise. “This isn’t to say everyone is born with the same brain,” Boaler explains, “but experiences we have much more potential to shape brains than anything we’re born with. What we’re born with is really eclipsed by the millions of experiences we have.”

Her own experiences. Apart from once having been a mathematics teacher in London comprehensive schools, include following hundreds of students over many years in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Some of those students sitting in rows in traditional classrooms, others actively exploring mathematical concepts while untethered from desks. This research has enabled to bust a number of maths myths, such as that boys are better at math than girls – turns out that boys do better at testing, but not in school performance. Boaler notes that mindset plays a key role in learning, and those afraid of making a mistake don’t benefit from one of the most productive ways of learning, which is making a mistake.

In this podcast, she also details how timed tests actually inhibit the brain from working, and that even adults use (virtual) finger in mathematics, which plays out positively for musicians.

In addition to her role at Stanford, Boaler is the faculty director of the math teaching incubator youcubed and the author of the first ‘massive open online course’ on mathematics teaching and learning. She was also the Marie Curie Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Sussex, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and has written nine books, including the 2015 bestseller Mathematical Mindsets.

Direct download: BaolerMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:00am PDT