Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Post Baby Reboot

I've neglected my aspirations to contribute to my own blog for the past several months...left hanging the promise of posts regarding the US health care reform debate. At the time, I was all set to write some posts about the state of the health care debate in the US, then came Roan...and graduate course work...but mostly Roan. Needless to say, a lot has happened in the landscape of the healthcare debate, those who insist that the government is up to something sinister have proven resistant to discussions of scientific outcomes, the proposals have undergone a variety of modifications and permutations as they progress in the US legislative system. I do support reform, I wish it went further, but I'm still generally satisfied with the proposals going forward. I've tired of going round in circles discussing with people who insist that the Democrats, Obama, or 'Liberals' want to kill people. I've decided my energy is better spent elsewhere, and my words are better spent on topics that interest me more. I will continue, from time to time, to offer commentary on US (or other countries) healthcare, just right now, the 'discussion' has grown stale and uninteresting. We'll see what the US ultimately gets, if anything of substance can be passed, but in the meantime, I lack the interest, or time, to address every imagined 'concern' of teabaggers who will simply deny reality in their unremitting attempts to gain political points.

I am hoping that over the next month or so, during the between semester break, and over the holidays, that I'll find more time to write here.

Friday, August 7, 2009

US Health Care 2009 - Introduction

The topic of health care reform has become the political discussion in the US this summer, with President Obama originally hoping to pass health care reform legislation this summer, and now pushing to have something done to improve the state of US health care by the end of the year. This is a topic that interests me greatly, for a variety of professional and personal reasons. During my career thus far, I've worked closely with doctors, medical students, and health care researchers conducting various types of research examining the delivery of health care services in the US. But, this is also a subject that I find deep personal interest in, and is one of the foundational political issues that I consider when thinking about and discussing US politics.

As a Canadian living in the US, this is a subject that I've been forced to confront since I enrolled at Evangel University back in 1995. At that time, my colleagues would ask me what I thought about Canada's 'socialized' medicine, as if it were a system that ought to be in question as a legitimate form of paying for health care and providing coverage for the whole population. A question that would have never occurred to me had I never come to the US for school, but a question that I've enjoyed thinking and conversing about ever since.

If you were to believe many of the commentators in the US, you might think that I was raised in a totalitarian state with no 'freedoms', little opportunity for self determination or economic advancement, and that I was surrounded by suffering due to the ineptitude of government involvement in 'so many' of my day to day activities. Of course, this is not at all an accurate depiction of my experience, my family's continued experience, or the experiences of Canadians in general, but it seems to gain traction in the US because of it's frequent repetition and the availability of a few cases where the system has come up wanting.

Given the dissonance between my perception of the experiences of Canadians, and the caricature depicted by so many commentators in the US, health care became an issue that I've pursued as much information on as possible so that I could honestly understand the reality and avoid the ideological colourings that so often obscure the truth rather than provide clarity in political discourse. I've spent much of my adult life considering and comparing Canadian and US health care, alongside other systems around the world in order to determine what works and what the best way to achieve a workable solution (if indeed there is a problem).

Lately, I've found myself involved in a variety of online debates and discussions about the topic of health care in the US, and how health care reform might best be achieved. In the process, I've found myself repeating the same points over and over, sometimes even with the same discourse partners. I've decided, with the encouragement of my friend Angie, that I'll write a series of posts over the next few weeks outlining and dissecting many of the points of contention seen in the US health care debate. While I can't claim to be entirely unbiased in what I think is the 'right' thing to do, I will claim to present arguments that can be backed up with data, and despite my ideological bent I am first and foremost a pragmatist who would much rather see something work than to promote a pure implementation of my ideals. Despite my limited (or non-existent) readership, I welcome any comments to these posts, but I'll enjoy the exercise with or without comments.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink is Malcolm Gladwell's second book, but the first that I've read. As a book for popular audiences, it provides an enjoyable look into the psychology of intuitive judgments. Using examples ranging from experts intuitions about a 'fake' 6th century BC Kouros statue, to judgments about the suitability of dating partners, to snap judgments we make about political candidates, to procedural safeguards that are in place to guard against police 'abuse' during heated, and adrenaline producing, moments.

The take away message being that under the right circumstances, humans are pretty good intuitive judges, even if we can't exactly 'nail down' the reasoning behind our judgments until much later. Indeed, this intuitive cognitive system (sometimes referred to as automatic processing) appears to have evolved as a mechanism that enabled us to make rapid judgments about stimuli that could have life or death consequences. However, from time to time this intuitive system sometimes leads to errors, and, on occasion, those errors can be fatal and tragic. The key to all of this is that one needs to learn when to trust his or her intuitions, and when not to trust them.

For each example that Gladwell discusses, he discusses a somewhat disappointingly small amount of the vast scientific evidence that is pertinent to each of his main topics (and this body of literature is large). The main shortcoming I found in this book is that I would have liked to hear about more scientific research that could move his examples from the realm of simple anecdote to a generalizable phenomenon that all people tend to rely on.

Overall, this book presents an enjoyable entry into some of the issues dealt with by Judgment and Decision Making psychology or Behavioral Economics. However, I think there are a number of extremely well written (and recent) books in this area for popular audiences (some suggestions below) that focus more on the actual research and provide a greater breadth of important ideas than Blink does. While Blink is a wonderful introduction, I think it only scratches the surface of a field of research that offers a great deal of insight into human cognition and behavior.

Some additional reading that I highly recommend:

Friday, January 30, 2009

Book: The Devil in Dover by Lauri Lebo

As education reporter for the York Daily record in 2005, Lauri Lebo reported on the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District 'Intelligent Design' (ID) trial in Dover, PA. The Devil in Dover is her personal account of the events that unfolded in this small American town. While the story of this trial and the judge's ruling against the inclusion of ID as part of the high school science curriculum is well known, Lebo adds her unique perspective to the corpus of excellent books aobut this trial. Lebo's telling of the story is concise yet takes on the feel of a gripping courtroom drama set in rural America. As a concerned citizen, Lebo depicts her astonishment at willingness of the born-again school board members to utter falshoods while under oath in order to promote the inclusion of ID in the Dover science curriculum. As a touchpoint for the events unfolding in the court room, is her ongoing estranged relationship with her fundamentalist Christian father who insists that those promoting ID were obviously the 'good guys', despite their blatant lying. Lebo delves a little bit into the scientific arguments, but spends most of the book focused on the human side of this story, exploring how this episode affected the community, the individuals who brought the suit against the school board, and the board members themselves. It is in her exploration of the personal fallout that Lebo truly demonstrates her unique voice.

Spirituality vs. Religion

I recently encountered a (science) news story with the headline that 'Spirituality, Not Religion, Makes Kids Happy' and, needless to say, it piqued my curiousity. The news article goes on to describe research conducted at University of British Columbia by researchers Mark Holder, Ben Coleman, and Judi Wallace in which elements of the overarching concept of spirituality were related to happiness among 8 to 12 year old children. Out of the gate, the story reports:
The link between spirituality and happiness is pretty well-established for teens and adults. More spirituality brings more happiness. Now a study has reached into the younger set, finding the same link in "tweens" and in kids in middle childhood.
When I begin reading a story of this nature, my initial questions involve how imprecise terms 'spirituality' and 'religion' are operationalized. Given the title and the take home message the author seems is focusing on, one might easily draw the conclusion that this study provides evidence for a certain type of religious thinking will make people happier. In the very least, this thinking includes ideas about the existence of human souls, a god or gods with whom we can relate, or the existence some other form of benevolent ethereal entities. Presumably, this research demonstrates a causal link between 'spirituality' and happiness. However, the reporter has committed the cardinal sin of science reporting by overstating the actual findings of the research.

For me, the term 'spirituality' brings to mind the recently popular notion of being 'spiritual, but not religious' which is espoused by a reasonably large segment of North American society. This 'category' of religious thinking seems to be composed of a variety of perspectives, such as people who espouse a hodge podge of religious ideas but don't identify with any specific religion, denomination, or church. However, for me, it also brings to mind people from Evangelical Christian settings who attempt to distance themselves from a variety of dogmatic and political elements of evangelicalism, yet for the most part maintain an evangelical mindset and continue to attend evangelical churches. Given my own evangelical christian background, to me calling oneself 'spiritual' sounds very much like the line I was trained to use as a young person describing my faith as, 'A relationship with God, not religion' as if to suggest that I possessed the one true faith which involved a personal saving relationship with Jesus, and in contrast to all the other 'false' religions or versions of Christianity and their rituals.

Essentially, the author seems to be promoting the idea that this research provides evidence that legitimizes the idea that a 'spiritual' orientation leads to increased happiness. However, in another early paragraph, the author is a little more clear about the operational definitions of 'spirituality' and 'religion' that were used by the researchers:
Specifically, the study shows that children who feel that their lives have meaning and value and who develop deep, quality relationships — both measures of spirituality, the researchers claim — are happier.
It turns out the researchers used a spirituality scale that identifies four subcomponents of spirituality; Personal, Communal, Environmental, and Transcendental. Of the four subcomponents, only Transcendental seems to hint at an orientation towards some form of god(s) or other supernatural entities, and this component was not a useful or statistically relevant predictor of happiness. The components that are useful predictors of happiness include only the Personal (meaning in life) and Communal (quality of interpersonal relationships) which actually have little to do with one's orientation toward the 'spiritual' realm. Even though the elements are reported, the writer of the article has made the mistake of reporting the elements subsumed under spirituality (which wouldn't really hold as part of the colloquial concept of spiritual) as if they provide a sufficient definition for spirituality.  

Perhaps more grievous from a research perspective is that the news author equates this observed correlation with a causal relationship. But, the problem remains that there is no reason to think that perhaps being a happy person leads to a good view of self and healthy attachments to other people or that there might be some other unobserved factor causing both happiness and these subcomponents of the spirituality scale. As it turns out, in the original published study, the researchers are much more tempered in their report of the findings and do not suggest that being more 'spiritual' makes children or adults happier.

Similar to his or her neglect of the distinction between the operational definition of spirituality and actual spirituality, the reporter also expands the measurement of 'religous practice' as 'religion' overall. Which I could write a whole other post about, but for now, I don't have time or interest to do so.

So, what is my point? Am I denying that religion is a source of meaning in people's lives? Am I attacking this article as a person opposed to religion? Absolutely not! The point is that the research does not support the conclusions drawn by the author of the news article, and I presume a number of readers who aren't attending to the fine distinction between spirituality and the subcomponents of spirituality that could stand independently of any religious orientation or pronouncements about the supernatural. While religious faith does provide a source of meaning (and presumably happiness) for many people, the article misleads by suggesting it's a necessary part of a person's life in order to achieve happiness. The research actually demonstrates the importance of a personal sense of purpose and meaning (which can come from religion, but can come from elsewhere too) and the maintenance of quality interpersonal relationships.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Dan Ariely on Behavioral Economics

The traditional view of human rationality known as unbounded rationality asserts that we possess the capacity to think and behave in a manner that is, after weighing the costs and benefits associated with a decision, concordent with the lowest cost-benefit differential [1]. Thus, when faced with decisions involving our finances, choices between products or brands, and even how to comport ourselves in a variety of social settings, we should be capable of thinking through our options and deciding upon the 'optimal' outcome. It's often presumed that people who consistently make poor decisions or are incapable of orbiting this rational way of thinking are either not thinking about the choice or the problem correctly, or they are allowing unimportant information to bleed into the decision making process. This view suggests that some people are good at being rational, while others are not. However, this type of rationality is not what has been observed in the fields of Judgment and Decision Making Psychology and Behavioral Economics. What has been observed is that humans generally use a variety of short cuts and intuitive rules for making decisions [2, 3, 4, 5]. In many scenarios, especially the artificial sort used for a variety of psychological research studies, these shortcuts lead to 'sub-optimal' decision making. It's been argued that these short cuts, officially referred to as 'Heuristics and Biases', may not be rational in our modern setting, but they do match up well with the environment in which humans evolved [2, 3].

While working on my MS in Experimental Psychology, my area of research specialization was Judgment and Decision Making [JDM]. During that time, I became familiar with the research of Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at MIT who has recently authored the book Predictably Irrational. I have not yet had the opportunity to read Predictably Irrational, though I intend to do so. I came across this video (approximately 20 min.) recently of Ariely presenting some of his research findings. In the video, he demonstrates some classic examples of sub-optimal heuristic-based decision making. Implied in this discussion is that in order to improve our personal and collective decision making in an attempt to achieve more optimal results, we must engineer our environment and design policies that fit well with our heuristic based approach to decision making and cognition. Interestingly, a few high profile politicians, including incoming US president Barack Obama and the UK's conservative Tories, have recently enlisted the aid of Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist from the University of Chicago (author of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness), as a consultant to assist them in developing and presenting policies that aspire to the goal of working within the framework of heuristic rationality. I think the video is a great introduction to the subject of behavioral economics and it's quite interesting to watch.

[1] Gigerenzer, G. & Todd, P. M (1999). Fast and Frugal Heuristics: The Adaptive Toolbox. In G. Gigerenzer, P. M. Todd & the ABC Research Group, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, 3-34. New York: Oxford University Press.
[2] Gigerenzer, G., P. M. Todd, & The ABC Research Group, eds. (1999). Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart. New York: Oxford University Press.
[3] Gigerenzer, G. (2007). Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. New York: Viking.
[4] Kahneman, D., P. Slovic, & A. Tversky, eds. (1982) Judgments Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
[5] Kahneman, D. & A. Tversky eds. (2000). Choices, Values, and Frames. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ken Miller on Evolution (Imports)

Ken Miller is a biologist who I became interested in when, by chance, I flipped the channel to C-Span to find him in a debate about the scientific viability of Intelligent Design (ID). His opponent in that debate was Paul A. Nelson of the Discovery Institute which promotes various arguments against Darwinian evolution, the debate can be heard here.

I caught this debate right around the time of the 2005 Dover, PA trial on whether ID should be included in the public school biology curriculum, where it was ruled that ID was actually religious ideology disguised under a thin veneer of scientific language. Miller was one of the key scientific witnesses for the plaintiffs in that case, where he provided critical testimony to demonstrate the unscientific nature of ID by contrasting it with evolution.

Miller is also very open about the fact that he is a devout Catholic who not only accepts evolution as the scientific explanation for how life came to be the way it is, but also rejects the notion of ID because it not only represents bad science, but bad theology as well. One of the things I find most intriguing about Miller is the fact that he's open about his Catholic faith and he clearly asserts that a person of faith need not deny the science behind evolution.

I came to find out that Miller had a book out in which he discusses Evolution, ID, and faith called Finding Darwin's God, which preceded the Dover trial by about a year. In my estimation, this book is an essential read for anyone interested in understanding evolution and recent 'challenges' to evolution.

Last summer I organized a reading group to work our way through Finding Darwin's God and I tried to stimulate online discussion in preparation of a face-to-face discussion of the book. I'm creating this post to coordinate those online notes and discussion points in a single place. Below are links to each of the posts discussing Finding Darwin's God.

Introduction: My introduction to the book.
Part 1: covering chapters 1 and 2.
Part 2: covering chapters 3, 4 and 5.
Part 3: covering chapters 6 and 7.
Part 4: covering chapters 8 and 9.
Videos: a couple of videos of Ken Miller.
Post Discussion: listing some further resources.

[Update: January 16, 2009 - I came across this video recently of a presentation by Ken Miller from summer 2008. In the video he discusses evolution and ID, the 2005 Dover trial and other recent 'challenges' to evolution in the US, his ideas about the compatibility between theology and evolution, and his 2008 book Only a Theory. The video is about an hour long, but I think he does a great job presenting the case for evolution by discussing some of the more recent scientific findings that he doesn't discuss in Finding Darwin's God. ]