Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Thinking about Research . . .

I'm enrolled in a psychology course this semester called Fundamentals of Cognition. We meet twice a week, and every week, it's a new lecturer. The faculty who specializes in attention, for example, gives us the basics of attention for a week.

This week, it was memory. The professor was a short and wrinkled guy who couldn't get the projector to work. He wore tan slacks, a brown belt, and a blue short-sleeved oxford shirt. He looked like an old New Yorker who had relocated to south Florida to sit in the sun for too long. From his graying hair, I guessed he was in his 60s and close to retirement. I also guessed he was going to be difficult to listen to. He said he was a mathematician. I don't know when or why he ended up in cognitive psychology, but it was clear that he was more at ease with numbers than with people. He was fidgety and hesitant in his speech. I was expecting it to be a long hour and a half.

He began his lecture by telling us about Ebbinghaus, the German who pioneered the study of memory at the turn of the century. He measured memory in terms of how long it took him to memorize a set of nonsensical items. After a while, people started measuring memory in terms of the percent of nonsensical items that were remembered correctly. This allowed psychologists to quantify their field of study -- to present it as a science. By the 1970s, the study of memory was a fully-fledged field, and it was generally understood from the perspective of a computational metaphor. In other words, the central executive area of the brain was the CPU, and it controlled the "slave" systems, such as language and visuospatial processors. (Stay with me.) Memory was thought of as a set of containers of information. Terms such as coding, storage, and retrieval were used to describe the processes involved.

This is where things got interesting. The professor expressed his frustrations about the limitations of the field. Here are just two:
  1. The brain is not a homunculus in which the pre-frontal cortex is the controller of all other systems. Similarly, memory is not like a computer; it involves all cognition.
  2. Memory is contextual. We remember information because it is meaningful to us; therefore, measuring memory based on how many nonsensical items a person can remember in an experiment is highly problematic because the data is essentially measuring something meaningless.

So how do we measure what is not measurable? If we did it Ebbinghaus's way or 1970s researchers' ways, we would explicitly measure things, whether they were meaningful or not. We would measure the amount of three-letter words a person could remember and how long it took for them to commit the words to memory or to forget them. Basically, we would just want data -- data that is quantifiable.

If we did it another way, though, it might not matter whether we have quantifiable data. We might realize that something so obviously undefinable, such as memory, should be studied another way.

I don't know what that way is, exactly. Hopefully, the professor will cover implicit ways of measuring next week. What I do know is that somehow, scientists (in a broad sense) became obsessed with collecting data and quantifying it. They want to count everything and put it in graphical or chart form. To be sure, quantitative data can be a good thing, but sometimes it's a problem. It's a problem, for instance, when researchers measure the wrong thing and suggest false causation or correlation. It's a problem when researchers falsify data in order to have something to publish. And it's a problem when I wish I was a mathematician or a physicist so the world would think I am smart.

I guess what I'm saying is twofold:
  1. I was embarrassingly judgmental today. I didn't expect such an unassuming old man to give such a thought-provoking lecture, and I didn't expect time to pass so quickly.
  2. I wonder why people have a fascination with quantifying -- instead of qualifying -- everything and that somehow, it is the ideal. (In the same way that extraversion, instead of introversion, is now elevated in American culture.)

Even after so many words, I know I haven't written half of what I wanted to, but I'm not quite sure how to write it. Just know that today was a good day. It was one of those life-changing days -- the kind that make me feel like I'm one step closer to knowing God, if that makes sense. I was quiet for most of the day, but my mind was racing.

Thing I'm thankful for: The Book of Mormon


Anonymous Anonymous said...

quantification is what gives science rigor. This gives you access to the power of mathematics, where you can see trends that are not obvious, and formulate new relationships based on theory, and then test those relationships against experimental data. For instance, without mathematics, physics would still be a branch of Greek philosophy, modern engineering and the technology it produced would not exist.

2:34 AM  
Blogger Amanda Leigh said...

Dear Sara,
You're fantastic. Thanks for sharing! I loooved this entire post.

10:50 AM  
Blogger cardlady said...

So THAT was my problem in measurements in high school testing. ASking me all those nonsensical things, instead of the important things about life, which I DID remember! hahahahahha Great smart post SA. Love YOU and your brain and your beauty! MOM

11:25 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

As big C said, there's great value in quantifiable things. But, as we discussed in brief last night, there are things that we quantify because that's the only way our society (or, at least, the scientific parts of it) knows how to process information. Qualification is subjective, so it's not repeatable without variance in results. Since we want facts and not reasonable guesses (see for an interesting discussion on this topic), we reject qualification - even when qualification is the most accurate way to measure something.

I think we also refuse to accept that some things may not be measurable. If science can't solve it (and by science, we mean the science we've been discussing that relies solely on quantification), we assume that it can't be solved. The divine nature within us can't accept these limitations. If we don't accept our faulty assumption about being able to measure everything, we'll conclude that we must be able to measure things and keep working with poor approximations of our real goals.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Sure, sure -- There's value in quantifying things. But the assumption that quantitative results always yield facts is . . . well, quite presumptuous. I have problems with qualitative research as well, but something I really admire about qualitative researchers is that they seem clued into this problem I'm talking about -- that not everything is measurable in an explicit way, nor should it be.

Also, I think, as a Mormon, we HAVE to accept the limitations of quantifying and empiricism. There are some things we can't know through those avenues. What I'm wondering is, what is the best way to combine the two approaches to come up with something closer to the truth? Is it possible, even? On this earth, I mean?

1:31 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

Right. As I said last night, I believe that some of the most important things in life aren't, in fact, measurable. Evidence indicates that trying to measure the unmeasurable gives results that are mixed at best; at some point, our measurements take us away from what we actually want.

As for how to balance things, I advocate the habit of asking questions like, "What am I measuring? What do I actually want? Are they the same? What differences exist? How can I compensate for them?" We also have to deal with the fact that we'll have to guess. We have to use our gut. We can't prove in advance that our decisions will turn out right when we can't measure and experiment. But life involves that sort of leap and we have to learn to do it well.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

Hm. "We can't prove in advance that our decisions will turn out right when we can't measure and experiment. But life involves that sort of leap and we have to learn to do it well."

I like that. :)

1:53 PM  

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