Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Polarizing Mess of Scientific Data

Research is often presented as a set of completed answers, when in reality publications just contribute to the mess that hides behind the scientific debate. One of the simplest examples of this are the studies conducted by Solomon Asch back in 1950, which revolve around studying if and how individuals yielded to or defied a majority group and the effect of such influences on beliefs and opinions.
In these studies, some people in a room are asked to judge the length of a line; all but one are paid actors, and they unanimously assert what is obviously an incorrect answer; but the one true unsuspecting experimental subject conforms to the majority view, despite knowing that it’s incorrect, about a third of the time
The card on the left has the reference line and the one on the right shows the three comparison lines
However, in 2010 a new study was published  in the Journal of Psychology that challenged the discoveries presented by Asch in 1950. Instead of one real subject in a room full of strangers, they used different polarized glasses – similar to the ones used in 3D movies– to show the subjects different images on the same screen, at the same time, in the same room. This meant that friends could disagree, legitimately, and exert social pressure without really faking it.

The updated experiment, the green line is seen as black with the magenta passing glasses while it blends with the background on  green passing glasses.  
The results were problematic. Overall, sometimes the minority people did conform to peer pressure, giving incorrect answers. But when the results were broken down, women did conform, a third of the time, but men did not. It could be that the subjects were different. The Asch experiments were only conducted in men, and they did conform. Perhaps modern Japanese undergraduates are different to 1950s US undergraduates. It could be that the task, where you have to judge the length of a line, was slightly different. But if anything, the task in the new experiment was harder than the original. However, if judgments were trickier, and therefore result in closer calls, then you might expect that conformity would increase, rather than decrease

Maybe these questions will be resolved with a new experiment,  one could be designed so that it would discriminate between the different possible explanations. What we must keep in mind is that in reality the lack of black and white results and aberration are not the exception but rather the norm, and that perhaps this is the foundation of scientific research.

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