A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holiday Special 2 - More Scandals

I have gotten a few emails noting new information about some older scandals. Nikita Kharlamov sent a really great analysis of the infamous Tuskegee experiments, and Rossella Traversa reminded me about what Ian Nicholson's has been digging out of the recently opened Milgram archives. Here is the quick background, and the highlights of the new information....

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holiday Special - A Year of Scandals in Psychology

Feeling a bit of the holiday spirit, I wanted to reflect a bit about the three public scandals in scientific psychology this year, and on some of the responses to the scandals. The first was a carry over from last year, accusations of fraud that culminated in Marc Hauser's resignation from Harvard. The second was the high profile publication of Daryl Bem's article arguing for "Psi" (i.e. psychic) Phenomenon. The third was the exposure of Diederik Stapel's serial data forgery. Each of these cases has its nuances, and individual morals, but I think there is an overarching moral we might all meditate on as the new year begins.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"But what about the brain?"

I received an email inquiry a few days ago from Eric Haaland, who has studied with John Shook. We met during the neuropragmatism conference in DC last summer, and he is hoping to be a kinesiology grad student next semester with Tom Stoffregen at the University of Minnesota. He gave me permission to post his email, lightly edited, to the blog along with a reply. He said....


I have been reading as much Holt and Skinner as I can find recently as well, and I knew that you were one I could get useful information from.  I know that they both insisted that the [mind] is not 'internal' to the organism, that there is no 'internal' - there is only organism as a process over time.  But I'm failing to put their interpretations of education into descriptive terms.  As animals, we are obviously learning beings, beings that have an innate understanding of our sensorimotor repertoire and how to manipulate the world around us to achieve goals (i.e. affordance perception); but this still seems to fall into the neural network, brain-activation paradigm, which I don't think is the case.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Beyond the Brain: Anti-Anthropomorphism

As luck would have it, my semester is wrapping up, and my philosophy colleague just returned my copy of  Beyond the Brain. He agreed it was excellent and has ordered his own copy. I have two or three more topics I wanted to write about in my extended review of Louise Barrett's excellent book. The first two chapters of the book deal with the problem of anthropomorphizing the behavior of animals, and the topic reappears several times in the later chapters. Barrett is convincing that anthropomorphism causes serious trouble when we try to explain behavior (even human behavior) and she advocates a system in which anthropomorphic terms are acceptable when they refer to evolutionary processes rather than immediate happenings. This is all good, but I think psychology can push further, and use mental terms in a way that refers to immediate happenings, while still avoiding the pitfalls of naive anthropomorphism.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Modeler's Hippocratic Oath

This will be familiar to some people already. In an essay put out in 2009 Emanual Derman and Paul Wilmott write a manifesto aimed at the financial modelers, but with points that can apply to any modelers. The highlight of the article is the Modeler's Hippocratic Oath. Of course, the original Hippocratic oath was the medical doctors pledge (to the Greek gods) to do no harm (sort of). What would it look like if modern modelers were forced to make such a pledge? Maybe something like this:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Eco Psych Textbook Project Update 11/2011

Two years ago, I attended the Ecological Psychology meeting in the city of Normal, Illinois. It was hosted by Jeff Wagman, who does solid empirical research as well as solid theoretical work, including two fun papers with David Miller focusing on the similarities between Ecological Psychology and Developmental Psychobiology (see also, the mission statement of this blog). Anyway, at that meeting Bill Mace, long time editor of the journal Ecological Psychology, gave a talk titled "Ecological Psychology Today." His intent was to imagine what one might put in a chapter for the Annual Review of Psychology or a book length reference for the current state of the field. He had some good ideas about the broad topics that would need to be covered (more on that if I can find my notes, or if he will share his slides), but the two main messages I saw in the talk were:
1. The field has grown tremendously since the last big treatments of the field (Gibson, 1979 and Claudia and Carello 1981), and no one is quite sure what the best format for such a treatment would be today.
2. Even if we can determine the format, it is quite possible that no one is qualified to write such a treatment by themselves (the field has simply grown to large). 
That night, I started working on a project. Why not have the whole field write a textbook?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Eight steps in Neuro-muscular Integration

In the early 1930's E. B. Holt was a lecturer at Princeton. He had retired from Harvard several years earlier and moved up to Maine to live the isolated philosopher's life. A friend named Herb Langfeld, who had been a Harvard colleague, convinced Holt out of retirement to come teach at Princeton, where he was much beloved by the students (undergraduate and graduate, including J. Gibson). While in Maine, Holt had deepened his interest in physiological psychology, and was desperately trying to tackle the biggest questions regarding how a physical body could do mental processes. This lead to his long, and difficult book Animal Drives and the Learning Process. It also lead to a chapter in a festschrift for Beritoff, a Russian physiologist, entitled "Eight steps in neuro-muscular integration." These works are great early examples of epigenetic thinking about behavioral development, it is contemporary with Kuo's earliest work, and anticipates Schneirla, Lehrman, and Gottlieb by decades.
It is not necessary... to assume the existence of any "inherited" pathways as a basis for reflex conditioning or learning. The very first and simplest reflex paths are learned, that is, conditioned (prenatally) according to the reflex-circle principle; and the earliest muscular contractions, as required for the starting of reflex-circles, are the early random movements of the foetus.... and this fact leads one to question whether the important role so universally ascribed to "heredity", at this point, is anything more than an old myth. (Holt, 1936, p. 27)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Embodied Cognition

Scientific American had a recent blog entry about embodied cognition, and Andrew Wilson made some additions / corrections / clarifications over on his blog. I thought I would ride their coat tails a bit and try to clarify a few more issues. Andrew states:
Embodiment is not the weak claim that you can see small effects of the behaviour of the body in our mental representations of the world. Embodiment is the radical hypothesis that the brain is not the sole resource we have available to us to solve problems. Our bodies, and the meaning-filled perception of the world they allow, do much of the work required to achieve our goals, and this simple fact changes utterly what our theories of 'cognition' will look like.
The last part is spot on: Taking embodied cognition seriously requires developing theories of cognition that are quite different from mainstream theories. The first part is, I think, a touch muddled: It confuses the basic requirements for believing in embodiment with a particular solution that Andrew (and I) favor. Some of the confusion has to do with a historic shift in who the opponent of embodiment is.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Physiology and behavioral causation: Part 2

In the last post, I claimed:
...given the questions we typically ask about behavior --- "we" being either psychologists or laymen --- the fact of physiological happenings is typically implicit in the description that starts the question rolling. Though we might not know the details of the physiology, and we might find those details interesting on a personal level, they do nothing to help answer the questions we are asking. Thus, relative to the concerns of the psychologist, physiological facts should rarely be accepted as explanations
 And yet, people commonly accept physiological facts as explanations for behavioral or psychological happenings. Why? This question is, I suspect, pretty easy to answer, and the answer is telling about one of the major problems in psychology:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Physiology and behavioral causation

Sorry for the delay, aside from gallivanting around more than usual (Tony Chemero invited me out to teach a class and give a department seminar at Franklin and Marshall), I have been trying to take a bit of a mental break since the Holt book finally came out. To try to get started again, I want to write at least a little bit about the potential difficulties in talking about physiological causation (including neural causation) of behavioral phenomenon.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A New Look At New Realism

It is finally out! A New Look at New Realism was officially published two weeks ago, and is now available on Amazon!  This is the first book about the philosophy and psychology of E. B. Holt. It shows convincingly (if Vincent Colapietro's kind words are to be believed) that Holt's work is relevant to contemporary issues, both empirical and theoretical. The book is an edited volume that I began soliciting contributions for 4 years ago, while still a lowly post-doc who could have been gone from the academic scene in a blip. I am still amazed at the quality of the scholars who agreed to contribute, and the quality of the chapters they produced.

To give people an idea of the scope of the book, I am going to paste the chapter summaries from the introduction below. This is quite a bit over the word limit the publisher wants me to give out for free, but as it is just a series of teaser paragraphs, I'm hoping that if they ever notice, they will agree it is fair.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What is the Mind ("UnifiedPsychology" Version)

I've been following the Unified Theory of Psychology blog for a little bit. It is written by Gregg Henriques, who works down at James Madison University, and recently published A New Unified Theory of Psychology. His work is incredibly ambitious. In the service of his efforts to explain what psychology is, he creates an elaborate framework to show how psychology fits within the context of all the rest of science and human knowledge. I've been looking for an excuse to link to, and comment on, some of his work, and his most recent post is about the mind-body problem, which seems like a good excuse. The post is long, and a little dense with Gregg's terminology, so I am going to try to give a summary here, and maybe we can generate some discussion in both locations.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Some quick diversions

I have a few more posts about Beyond the Brain left to do, but I want to take a quick break to post about some other things. In part, I'm looking for a change of pace for a little bit, in part I have some other ideas percolating to the fore, and in part I promised to loan the book to a philosophy-professor friend and he is getting testy. Topics I hope to cover in the next few weeks:

  • How Holt suggested we think about brain functions (work for the chapter I am preparing with Andrew and Sabrina)
  • Why we need to be suspicious of physiological "explanations" of behavior
  • How the problem of "illusion" goes to the core of psychophysics, social psych, and comparative psychology.

Topics still coming from Beyond the Brain:
  • The interesting discussion about Anthropomorphism
  • Some instances where the ideas were great, but I didn't quite get the metaphors that were supposed to simply/clarify the ideas. 
  • How far should the "extended cognition" idea should be taken? 

A Final Thought

Just so this post isn't a complete wash, content wise, let me add the line in Barrett's book that most made me stop in shock - unsure if I had just read crazyness or brilliant insight. It is a quote from Peter Hacker (on p. 103) that appears in the middle of the discussion of Gibson's system vs. the alternatives, and as cool as the line is just sitting here, it is even better in context. Hacker states:
To argue that since we can see nothing without having a retinal image therefore what we see is the retinal image is like arguing that since we can buy nothing without money what we buy is money.
Having read the sentence several more times, I'm still not sure if it is crazy, brilliant, or maybe even both.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    Beyond the Brain: Ecological Psychology

    Continuing coverage of Beyond the Brain, by Loise Barrett. 

    Barrett dedicates an entire chapter of her book to Ecological Psychology, the study of perception originating from the work of James and Eleanor Gibson, and ideas compatible with the ecological approach fill the book. The coverage is excellent, but shares some of the strangeness of what I might call the "standard presentation" of Gibson's approach. To get an idea how intellectually fun the chapter is, it opens with a quote from John Dewey, goes briefly into Alva Noe's work, then has quotes from James Gibson and Maurice Merleau-Ponty all in the first two pages!

    Friday, October 7, 2011

    Beyond the Brain: Embodied Minds and Descriptive Mentalism

    Continuing coverage of Beyond the Brain, by Loise Barrett.

    William James and John Dewey claim that "things are what you experience when you experience those things". Pretty similarly, a basic way of explaining Charles Sanders Peirce's Pragmatism was that "things are what things do" (e.g., to be a 'vector' is to do what vectors do, to be a 'bigot' is to do what bigots do). Both of these ideas were alive and well during the berthing years of Behaviorism, and at least a few of the early behaviorists 'got it' (though notably not Watson). In more modern terms, you could call the resulting synthesis Descriptive Mentalism.The thirty-second version is: A descriptive mentalist asserts that mental terms are, first and foremost, descriptions of behavior, not explanations for behavior. For example, to say an animal intends to do X is to describe something about the way the animal is acting. To connect this approach more explicitly with W. James and Dewey (and Gibson)... If we can identify the things that we experiencethe things that we are attuned towhen we experience an animal as "intending", then we have identified what "intention" is.  

    While there will be several posts on this blog trying to explain descriptive mentalism better, here I hope to show how adopting such a view could have helped Barrett.  

    Embodied Minds

    As I mentioned previously, Barrett does not give the most hardline presentation of embodiment you can find, and overall that is a strength, making the book much more accessible. However, it is still worth noting a few places where Barrett struggles, and a more aggressive view on embodiment could help.

    Saturday, October 1, 2011

    Tool Use in Fish = Good, Future Planning in Fish = Bad

    As I was working on the next embodiment post, my attention was drawn to the recent report of tool use in fish (for example, this). As this report was exactly on topic with the issues Beyond the Brain is dealing with, it didn't seem a bad idea to take a minute to think about.

    Basically, researchers found a fish that digs small clams out of sand, then swim around with the clam in their mouths until they find an 'appropriate' rock sticking up out of the sand. Then the fish hurl the clam at the rock to break it open and get to the yummy meat inside. My background is in animal behavior, so this all seemed very plausible and very cool. I had never heard of fish doing something exactly like this, but there are species fish do related things, like gathering stones to make 'nests'. So, the argument that fish 'use tools' seems strong, especially if we are willing to accept a graded notion of tool use, and are merely accepted that fish do something on the low end of that spectrum. However, the authors of the report also seem to believe that they have found evidence that the fish plan ahead. That last part seems problematic.

    Tuesday, September 27, 2011

    Beyond the Brain: Embodied Minds

    Continuing coverage of Beyond the Brain, by Loise Barrett. The book presents much of its material in a way that will push the average reader's comfort zone, but not smash their cherished ideas head on. This is a reasonable stylistic choice and, overall, a great strength. The next two posts will talk about the book's presentation of embodied cognition, hopefully giving fair balance to the places where the book did a solid job, and where it could have hit a little harder.


    "Embodied" has become a bit of a buzz word recently. Most people who use the term seem well intentioned, but seem to have little clue about the full implications of their thoughts. Those who use the term lightly seem merely to mean that they do not believe in a non-corporeal soul or mind-independent-of-the-body. What they do not seem to understand (and what I mean when I say they use the term 'lightly') are the radical implications of such statements for reshaping psychology.

    Friday, September 16, 2011

    Beyond the Brain: Intro

    Beyond the Brain: How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds, by Louise Barrett was released earlier this year. I just finished writing a review of it for PsycCritiques (The American Psychological Association online journal that used to be the printed Contemporary Psychology). So, first things first: Highly recommended.

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    Memory and X-men Origins

    Flipping through the TV channels, I caught the last 10 minutes or so of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. For those who don't know, Wolverine is a 'mutant' who's special power is that he can heal himself from virtually any injury. While Wolverine is most well known for having a metal skeleton, complete with metallic claws that grow out of the top of his hands, that is the result of an experiment he was able to live through due to his healing powers. In the original three X-Men movies, Wolverine did not remember much of anything about his past, including the metal-skeleton experiments nor did he remember Sabertooth, a character that, by comic-book cannon, he should have known very well. The Origins movie happens well before the events in the original trilogy. I gather from the last 10 minutes, that it focused on the metal-skeleton experiment, and heavily involve Sabertooth. "How are they going to handle this?" I wondered. Turns out, they had a good plan. The leader of the experiment loads a gun with six bullets and tells someone he is going to go shoot Wolverine in the head. "It won't kill him," the interloper states plainly, "even if you blow his head off, it will grow back." The leader is undeterred, "His brain will grow back, but the memories won't."

    Six shots later, three in the head, and Wolverine is on the ground, out for the count. After his healing powers kick in, he wakes up... sans memory. He has no idea who he is or how he got there. The dog tags around his neck give him his name, and the ensuing brief bits of conversation indicate that he doesn't know even his close friends. It is a very clever way to explain the memory loss. As a movie or comic-book gimmick, I give it high marks. But it plays off of a clearly impossible view of how the brain works. The mix of materialism and dualism creates an odd double-think about the relationship between ability, memory, and neural structure. That is, the gimmick works because it plays off of the horrible way in which lay people think about the relationship between the brain and mental abilities... and this way of thinking is encouraged by at least some cognitive psychologists.

    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    Fixing Psychology (Mission Statement: Take 1)

    Doug Candland gave the Arthur Staats Lecture for Unifying Psychology in 2010. He was a strong influence during my undergraduate education, and has been a trusted adviser since. Though he has feigned asking me for advice many times -- I say 'feigned', because it often seems to be an extension of an oral exam we started over a decade ago -- he seemed to be actually asking for my advice when we talked about what he might say in his lecture. I'm not sure how much I influenced the talk, but I was quoted once. The title of his talk was "The End of Psychology." During the conclusion, he gave the caveat that he could be completely mistaken, that one of his students had told him "Psychology can not be over, it never really began."

    Psychology is broken in many, many ways. It is broken at every level. At the lowest level, Intro Psych is one of the most poorly conceived courses in the college curriculum; at the highest level, the arguments of famous 'top researchers' are based on faulty premises or are more oriented towards public appeal than any scientific value or philosophical rigor. Further, psychology is broken at its core. The dominant framework of cognitive psychology has failed, and while much of the field has accepted that in practice, they deny it in discourse. That is to say, many people are trying to modify, supplement, distort, or even abandon the traditional computer-metaphor for the mind, but they are unwilling to give up the associated vocabulary, and they want to retain the basic questions that the computer-metaphor implied. This is just misguided: Yes, we have memory, but the idea that our having-memories works nigh identically to computer "memory" is wrong. Yes, we perceive, but the idea that our perceiving-the-world works nigh identically to computer "encoding" of "input" is wrong. More than a minor revision is needed.

    Saturday, September 3, 2011

    Ecological and Social Psychology - Minds as Perceivable

    There is a great team working on a social psychology chapter for the incipient Eco-Psych (Perception-Action) Textbook: Reuben Baron, Bert Hodges, Kerry Marsh, and Ben Meagher. I was especially grateful to have others volunteer to write that section, because my views on the matter are too biased. The textbook should be focused on ideas that are, at least amongst ecological psychologists, not controversial. My views derive from E. B. Holt's attempt to create a behaviorism that could capture the full complexity of William James's work, which lead to an approach that might be labeled "Descriptive Mentalism." Holt was one of Gibson's key mentors in graduate school, Harry Heft and others have noted Holt's sustained influence on Gibson, and I suggested a few years ago that there is plenty more good stuff to be found in Holt.

    This suggestion was made in Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, or IPBS. The journal was founded in 1965, and the 'P' stood for "Physiological" until Jaan Valsiner became editor about a decade ago. Jaan has been working (successfully) to revitalize the journal by encouraging ongoing dialog, including both comment-legnth and article-legnth responses. A few paragraphs in the initial IPBS article were about Holt's relevance to ecological psychologists interested in social psychology, and responses ensued. The initial attempt was superficial, as it was only one of many points in the paper. A more focused version of the argument (taken from here) is shown below. It is worth noting explicitly that the goal was to explore what an 'ideal' contribution to social psychology would look like: "The type that makes it crucially important that [the contributors] are ecological psychologists; the type of contribution that only someone acting as an ecological psychologist could make. That is, the type of contribution that would allow someone to claim that Ecological Psychology had contributed to Social Psychology, rather than merely claiming that the same people had done both ecological research and social research."

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011

    A Brief Introduction to Ecological Psychology

    The deep origins of Ecological Psychology lie in the philosophies of Pragmatism, Radical Empiricism, and New Realism. But that is a much longer story...

    The first key paper of the modern science is probably a paper on perceptual learning (Gibson and Gibson, 1955), in which it was proposed that perceptual learning involved better discriminating stimuli. That is, this type of learning does not involve gaining more sophisticated mental processes, but rather more sophisticated sensitivity to the details of the world. Discussion generated by this paper, and further related works, were guided by a search for the 'discriminated thing' needed to fill in the perceptual-learning theory. The most obvious candidate would be something like the stimulation created by the retinal image... but the problem with the retinal image were already well known: The retinal image is not specific to the properties of the world, and therefore it cannot provide a firm basis for accurate perception. Gibson's prior work on optic flow was working towards a solution, but something more radical was needed.

    Saturday, August 27, 2011

    How is that Psychology? - Rat Pup Huddling

    In a past-life I was going to be an agent based modeler, working with Jeff Schank at UC Davis. He spent many years modeling rat pup huddling... in a psychology department. My main interest in the work was that it showed how a group of organisms could perform very complex behavior, even when no individual organism knew what it was doing, or had access to sufficient information to coordinate what it was doing. As I'll talk about below, this is a special case of the phenomenon where groups of simple and dumb systems can produce intelligent actions.

    Sunday, August 21, 2011

    What are Concepts? (Part 1)

    Amongst my many pet peeves about Intro Psych textbooks is how they handle 'concepts.' It is not so much that they use the term particularly badly, it is that they do not provide any context (i.e., this is a problem even if we put aside the need to redesign Intro Psych more broadly). In particular, I don't see how 'concepts' make any sense without at least some discussion of 'percepts' - the two ideas are intimately intertwined.

    Percepts are the things given by perception / taken in the act of perceiving.

    Concepts are the things added to perception / things with the taken.

    Traditional and Mainstream Contemporary Views
    Most of modern psychology grows out of the tradition of "British Empiricism", at least in the sense that most psychologists assumed that perception gives some sort of atomistic units that must be put together and made sense of through some mental process. They assume that percepts - what is gotten from the world - are, as Gibson would somewhat mockingly say, a "scintillation of sensations", an inherently meaningless array of color points, pressure measures, scent elements, etc. Sometimes psychologists more generously start from something like the stationary retinal image, in which case percepts are a disconnected patchwork of colored shapes, sounds, touches, smells, etc.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    The Myth of Knowledge

    Spurred by Sabrina's comment on my first post, and some of the things I have been writing about on Gary's blog "Minds and Brains", I wanted to talk a little bit about the Myth of Knowledge. This is an intense vestige of dualism, and of enlightenment philosophy. The modern notion of Knowledge is a brilliant 18th and 19th century idea, which is just plain wrong. I'm a big fan of anachronistic ideas like this - the great chain of being, intelligence, etc. - but they are hypotheses that are false, and they are now interfering with our building a more coherent psychology.

    The Myth of Knowledge 

    Once upon a time it was believed that one of the most basic psychological kinds was 'knowledge', i.e., a person 'knowing' something. Well, not a person, but a mind. The body sits there, but the mind/soul/spirit knows things. Several hundred years of philosophy (from at least Descartes on) started with epistemology, i.e., started with a knower and with things known. But what is it to know something?

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    First Post - Affordances at their most natural

    Added: If you are new to the blog, the first few posts were admittedly a bit strained. If you are a new reader looking for a good starting place, I recommend this post

    -------Original Post--------

    My proximate motivation for starting this blog is that I have become an active commenter on a couple of blogs, and I both envy the authors and feel bad when I want to post a reply elaborate enough that it might look like thread hijacking. With that in mind, I want to rift for a bit off of Charles Wolverton's reply to my comments on Sabrina Golonka's post over at  Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists. I was trying to cut the difference between Ecological and traditional Behaviorist ways of thinking, and Charles said:

    In the absence of the tone, the lever doesn't necessarily invite purposeful action, ie, doesn't offer an affordance. But as Eric notes, the rat has learned to associate the tone with a purpose - getting access to something offering "ingestible" - so that the tone's sounding results in the lever's otherwise purposeless offer of "graspable" becoming purposeful, and hence an affordance.

    This made me feel great, but also a little squeamish. It is great, because Charles clearly got my point, and phrased it better than I did. It made me squeamish because of the very last word: affordance.