The unspeakable in pursuit of the unrepeatable *

(* with apologies to Oscar Wilde)

Replication is never far from the news in psychology these days. Pick up a newspaper or journal, or browse the blogosphere, and chances are you’ll encounter yet another piece on the importance of repeating experiments. Like those people who dress up in period costume and reenact old battles, researchers are battening down and busying themselves repeating each and every tedious behavioral experiment from the past 100 years or so. Just to make sure. Meanwhile, the bright young things are immersing themselves in metascience, writing treatises on statistics and worthy lists of good research practices that will probably, eventually help us figure out how minds and brains work… one day, when someone actually gets around to looking.

Were Onan alive today, he’d be a replicator. Or second author on a methods paper, anyway. Which is not so say that I think replication is a bad idea in itself (as I made clear in an earlier post, I’m all for it). It’s rather that I feel a sense of mounting horror as I realize that most of the things I think of as ‘standard scientific practice,’ seem to be news to many of my colleagues. And I feel queasy as I contemplate what seems to be the replication movement’s big idea, which is that somehow a few new statistical techniques and some registered replications will suffice to fix the many parts of psychology and neuroscience that are misguided, doltish, or simply wrong.

In fact, to the extent that I occasionally find myself feeling some support for the replication movement, it is because of this last point. In the same way that every minute that the managing committee of a soviet car factory spent debating their workers’ political education saved many a poor oppressed people from having to actually travel in lethally incompetent cars, so much of the output of the replication movement is, thankfully, irrelevant. Usually, at least, it avoids being actively intellectually harmful.

The problem, as I see it, is the bottom-line: There is an expectation that those of us that draw a salary for pursuing research in the brain and cognitive sciences will actually try to contribute to advancing research in the brain and cognitive sciences; that the people who are paying us to pipe would prefer some tunes to more methods papers. They want us to pump out as many cars as we can, and they would like them not to be deathtraps, if we can possibly avoid it.

And as I’ve pointed out in earlier blog posts, linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists are not covering our selves in glory in this regard.

We are promising this:


yet delivering this:


Which raises a question: how can I convince you that I’m right about this problem without sounding like a soviet car committee pondering a new five year plan?



Last year I lost a dear friend.

Joe read, queried and quibbled with every word in every post I ever made here. In our last conversation, he was (successfully) trying to get me to change a tortuous metaphor at the end of the “Bells and Smells” post.

I miss him.



Bells, smells, and the ageing mind

Why bad science is as much of a threat to the elderly as age itself

The bells
A couple of years ago, I moved from California to a small town Southern Germany. Determined to experience the ancient wonders of my new hometown to the fullest, I spent my first two months living in a cupboard-sized hotel room, patiently waiting for my dream apartment — in a converted fifteenth century nunnery — to become available.

When the time came to leave my cupboard and move in, I realized I had neglected a very important piece of due diligence. The apartment is a loft in the attic of the nunnery, and its many windows stare directly at the clock tower of a church. ‘Handy view of the clock!’ I had thought at the time I fell in love with the place. What did not occur to me then, but was soon to be brutally revealed, is that a ‘clock tower’ can also be a ‘bell tower.’ (Had I thought of this, I might have noticed that by sticking my head out of the window, I could enjoy a glorious, uninterrupted view of the clock tower of another church, which dominates the town centre.)

Because I failed to make the clock tower – bell tower association, I settled down to sleep that first night in complete ignorance of the plans that had been made to greet me. On the stroke of each quarter-hour I was to be welcomed to the neighborhood by locals only too happy to pass the time of day: One deafening bong for the quarter hour; two deafening bongs for the half-hour, three deafening bongs for the three-quarter-hour, and as many deafening bongs as it took to enumerate the hour (plus a few helpful peals to discriminate the hour-bongs from all the other bongs). And although this alone would have been perfectly sufficient to crush my hopes of a good night’s sleep, there was more: Each heavy metal communiqué from the bell tower opposite my apartment was accompanied by another, slightly offset message from the other church; a subtle reminder that just as they differ slightly in their conceptions of the divine, so each demurs at the other’s idea of the exact state of time.

Less than three years ago I despaired of every sleeping more than an hour or so in my new home, yet now I barely notice the bells. Why? (more…)

The errors in my answer to Darwin

How the humble lab rat can teach you to raise your kids smarter and grow old gracefully

The importance of knowing how to look
Today, Charles Darwin is largely known for his theory of natural selection. Yet although his status as a scientific legend is assured, the nature of his fame does him an injustice. Darwin was not a theorist in the modern sense. First and foremost, he was a brilliant observer,  and his extraordinary gift for observation is, more often than not, hugely underappreciated.

While the difficulty of observation is easily overlooked, it has become abundantly clear that we do not perceive the world ‘objectively’ (indeed, as Borges’ ingenious tale of the one-to-one map of the world reminds us, objectivity is a tricky idea at the best of times). Instead, our  brains  invent their perception of the world, inferring the nature of reality by means of a variety of processes based on of guessing and learning. For better or for worse we are theorists by nature, and the unreliability of perception is one of the reasons why we do science in the first place. It is also why observation is such a vital – and very difficult – scientific skill.  Our facility to observe in an ‘objective-like’ fashion – consciously resisting the temptation to interpret every observation in accord with our minds’ prior expectations – is one of the great intellectual achievements of our species.

A prime example of Darwin’s genius for observation is found in his little-known contributions to the study of child psychology. Aside from his other well-documented achievements – and despite suffering from chronic illness throughout his adult life –  Darwin not only fathered ten children, but even more remarkably, he found time to be a wonderful, engaged dad in an age when fathers were typically distant.

Darwin  kept detailed diaries of the observations he made as his kids grew, and as a result of these we know that he may be the first person to ever notice a simple, yet deeply puzzling phenomenon that has tended to pass just about every other parent by:  the bafflingly long time it takes kids to learn the meanings of color words. (more…)

learning is not what you think it is

Why much of what you think you know about learning is likely to be wrong 
Ever since Ivan Pavlov (an endocrinologist with a particular interest in dog drool) made his famous observations about bells and dog-food, we have known that animals can be conditioned to respond to pairings of cues and events. Ring a bell every time you feed your dog, and you’ll soon be seeing some disappointed drooling whenever the doorbell chimes.

Pavlov, and other early students of learning, assumed that because a dog learns to associate a bell with its dinner after the two have been paired together, then this kind of learning was the product of a simple process of tracking and  forming associations. The dog sees or hears one thing, then sees or hears another thing, it notices that they “go together” and, voila! Learning occurs.

Unfortunately, not only is does it turn out that this common understanding of how animals — or, indeed humans — learn associations is completely wrong, but to the consternation of Robert Rescorla, who did a lot of the important work in figuring out how animals actually do  learn form to form associations, half a century after the simple associative account of learning was shown to be utterly incorrect, most psychologists and neuroscientists are still taught to believe that this is  how animals — and, indeed humans — learn. In the light of this, our recent work showing that scientific accounts of cognitive ageing have spectacularly failed  to consider the impact on learning on cognitive processing has a grim inevitability about it. How can scientists control for learning if their training ensures that they fail to understand what it is?

The problem runs deep.  As a number of ingenious experiments by Rescorla and other  researchers’ studies have helped make clear, most people’s — and, what is worse, most scientists’ — understanding of the way associative learning works  is pretty much the opposite of our best estimation of the truth.

In my last post, I promised to  provide more in-depth coverage of our aging work. On reflection, I realized that unless I made some kind of effort to explain what our best understanding of how our brains learn is, then our  explanations of what actually happens to our minds and memories as we age would be difficult, if not impossible to grasp. This post — and my next — are intended to bridge this gap, by helping you to understand why it is that learning almost certainly doesn’t work the way you think it does, and by helping you to understand how it actually does work.  Today, I’m mainly going to focus on the first part of the equation: I’m going to explain why, if you think that learning associations is about putting two and two together, then a lot of that stuff you think you know about learning is wrong.