Tuesday, May 20, 2014

a quick guide to media reports about brain studies

When someone in the media says:

Researchers at [fill-in-the-blank university/institution] have found that group X's brains are better at [fill-in-the-blank specific task] than group Y's.

This is what they really mean:

In the study, group X's results formed a bell curve. And group Y's results also formed a bell curve. And those bell curves largely overlapped - in other words, the groups were more similar than different. However, if you ignore those bell curves and simply look at the average result for each group, then those average numbers differ somewhat. And that is *so much* easier & more fascinating to report, so that is all we're going to tell you about the study!

That is pretty much everything you need to know about media and pop science reporting on brain studies...

[note: If you appreciate my work and want to see more of it, please check out my Patreon page]


  1. Haha! No doubt! And yet I find myself completely fascinated by these reports, especially if it might involve my brain since I find myself endlessly fascinating. :)

    1. Yes! They are like horoscopes that way!

      When media reports say "women are good at this," or "same-sex couples' relationships are better in this way," or "scientists" or "musicians" or "people who have animal companions" are better at [fill-in-the-blank] than most people, I start to read myself into that: Yes, that's *so* me!!!

      But then I think about how that implies that there are *millions & millions* of folks who fall into that category. Then I think of all the people I know in that category that defy the study's stereotype. Then the brain study results seem irreparably overly simplistic...

      Brain studies are fascinating because 1) we want to have our own beliefs about ourselves verified, and/or 2) we want to have our beliefs about other people verified. They are neat & tidy & have the backing of scientific authority. What else could a person want?...

    2. I have been researching the continued use/misuse of the NHST by many researchers/journals as a way of getting published/determining who gets published, i.e. if you do not have a "statistically significant" result, you are not likely to get published. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that many researchers themselves misunderstand the all-powerful p-value and also the fact that most of the GAP (gross American public) do not understand what "significant" means with respect to research. I have not seen the actual research articles on brain differences as they are behind firewalls I cannot afford to breach. But I suspect that they too are selectively published and the equally important studies showing no significant effect will never see the light of day.

  2. Looking at the world through a keyhole.

  3. thank´s for the remainder, i do forget sometimes.