Thursday, May 8, 2008

So I Read This Study...

Anyone who's had a conversation with me has probably heard those title words come out of my mouth. I read a lot of news articles related to health, science, and technology studies. Some of the stuff sticks. One of my favorites was a study where someone gave monkeys either a grape or a cucumber slice for doing a task. When two monkeys did the same task for the same reward, everything was fine. But if one monkey got paid a cucumber and the other a sweeter, and thus better, grape then the cucumber monkey would reject the payment, sometimes hurling it back at the researcher.

The way I understand this is that a sense of fairness is ingrained deeply in our brains, in the mammalian pre-human parts. To treat or be treated unfairly is something we understand without question, without thinking, we just know. I don't know if fairness is like pornography in that you know it when you see it and everyone has a different threshold. But if monkeys recognize fairness, then the concept got hardwired for mammals in cooperative social groups before the ape-monkey split which was a long long time ago. I know not everyone reacts the same to unfairness. But to ignore unfairness or perpetuate it knowingly can cause a rejection that comes from so far down inside our intrinsic selves that the situation and response can wreak havok on relationships of all sorts.

And now I have a phrase for this: inequity aversion
because I commented (nicely this time) on the Freakonomics blog call for questions to primatologist Frans de Waal, happened to get in the 2nd question, and he chose to address it. And since it was about one of my favorite "studies", this thrills me to no end. Even if he didn't address my sub-question about whether the grape receiving monkey every shared with cucumber monkey, I'm going to have to get his books. He's one of the few, like Malcolm Gladwell, who know that writing science for a wide audience isn't "dumbing things down" but rather "speaking to the audience" so as to be entertaining and understandable, something a few of the commenters haven't yet grasped.

But I'll have to get the books after I finish glomming Robert Crais, and probably after the next Suz Brockmann, Into the Fire, comes out in July. Back to the Sunset Express...


Actually, I have to mention a couple things to get them out of my head. And because they're happy things. When mom visited, we managed to call up her home email account (as opposed to her yahoo account) and get her logged in to it for the first time that wasn't at her home computer. Go us.

Mom also brought an unwieldy decoration since it was proving difficult to ship. It's a funky carved wood rising sun in the exact shade of green my "hallway" is painted in. It's got a great face - mom has a thing for faces. (The "kim's pottery" in my sidebar has great faces too.) I'll post a picture of the sun. Just not right this second.

Tomorrow I get "free" food all day, but need to maybe adjust my chiropractic appointment. Breakfast is bagel club, lunch is a meeting providing pizza, and dinner is the general manager buying us food and "please try to limit yourself to two drinks" for beating an important milestone at work. Our general manager and the managers in my group are really good about using their discretionary awards.

I'm perpetually grateful to Cooks Illustrated for recommending the vinegar wash. I wash all my incoming produce except mushrooms and corn with 1 part vinegar, 3 parts water, then rinse and dry. (The corn I cook immediately to prevent the sugar from turning to starch.) With rare exceptions, my food lasts until I eat it, it dehydrates, or I get sick of looking at it, rather than until it goes moldy. One of the farmers' market stalls was selling 6 pints of strawberries for $5, so this vinegar wash buys me more time to eat them fresh and decide whether to cook or freeze the remainder. It's a LOT of strawberries. Still not worth the $24 that someone else was charging. Those must have been the strawberries pre-digested by marsupial cats on Madagascar or something. Speaking of which

black cat with fangs behind clueless grey cat


farmwifetwo said...

I hate studies, you and I both know they can twist stats to mean whatever they want.

Like this one... and is my friend ticked... and still very politely british too about it.

But I'm with this one.. are we going to revert to the time of refrigerator mothers???

Did I mention I have no use for studies??? Nor for those that don't understand the wonderful land of statistics and the ability to manipulate the information to make it work for their study...

Pet Peeve of mine... Can you tell??

CrankyOtter said...

I don't like studies that presuppose someone/-thing is an idiot or incapable. Especially when they then publish findings where they seem shocked to find dogs have feelings and chimps use tools, when anyone who's ever seen a dog for more than 20 seconds knows they have feelings. You'd think that after study after study shows that peers often have more influence on kids behavior than parents do that kids who are themselves socially maladapted are going to have problems that their parents can't really affect because they don't respond "normally" to peer pressure and they aren't on the receiving end of "normal" peer pressure anyway. There's always a study out about "low birth weight causes horrors X-ZZ" and I almost never read them because there's nothing to be done at that point but prevent future low birth weight babies, which we already knew. It's astonishing that people still get funding for that crap. Your heart attack at age 66 vs 67 because you weighed 2oz less at birth? Specious at best.

Anytime someone measures something, I have to look at the methodology though because it's way too easy to dial in the numbers you want to see. Even non-subjective measures can be "calibrated". I wrote a paper on measuring a 10A shift and fully half the paper was proving to myself and the audience that this 10A shift was real and not some noise in the data.

The "scientists believe" statements bother me a lot more than the studies. With the study, you can look at the conditions and see if their conclusions make sense. Monkey girl Sarah Brosnan here does good work and seems to be a good egg.