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How Smartphones Could Keep Psychology From Getting Too WEIRD

In 2004, I was a lab rat for about 15 minutes. A psychology professor at Juniata College, where I spent my freshman year, was conducting an experiment. I don’t remember what exactly he was studying, but it involved video games. He put up posters around campus and gathered a bunch of volunteers in a campus building basement to frag each other in several rounds of Unreal Tournament. I lost pretty quickly, but did my part. I think I got a game store gift card for my time.

Now ideally, if you want to learn anything useful about human brains and behavior, you try to get a large and diverse group of people to draw your conclusions from. But as Canadian psychologist Joseph Henrich and colleagues revealed in a 2010 paper in Behavioral Brain Sciences, a lot of psych studies are done the same way as the one I participated in.

That is, they test ideas by looking at small and homogeneous groups of volunteers brought to college campuses and research facilities, usually drawing those volunteers from the school’s student body or the local population. (The rest of the guys in my study were, like me, all white male undergrads who liked playing first person shooters.)

WEIRD Science

Henrich’s team looked at hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals, and found that 68 percent of the research subjects came from the United States, and 67 percent of those were undergraduate psychology students. Overall, 96 percent of the subjects came from Western industrialized countries that, together, make up only 12 percent of the world's population. Frequently, studies that claim to reveal something universal about the human brain or our behavior are really just extrapolating results from the same (relatively) small groups.

This kind of study-building method results in the overrepresentation of a population that the authors dub WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Sure, we’re all human. We’re all working with more or less the same software in our skulls. But, the researchers say, culture and environment play a role in shaping how we use that software. There are important differences in the way my brain works versus, say, a rural farmer in China, versus a member of a hunter-gatherer tribe on an island in the South Pacific, when it comes to areas like “visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ.”

“The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans,” the paper continues. We, the WEIRD ones, are actually  “highly unrepresentative of the species,” but form the basis for so much of what we think we know about ourselves.

Henrich and his colleagues call for their fellow scientists to collect comparative data across culturally and geographically diverse populations before drawing conclusions about our species as a whole. But how do you do that? With shrinking funding and small staffs, it’s not always feasible, to conduct a study in your own lab and then go elsewhere to get a different sample, or even to try to attract a diverse sample to you. Researchers have tried to get volunteers from the far reaches of the globe to participate in web-based studies, but found that mice and keyboards and web page interfaces couldn’t provide the precision necessary for understanding the subtle details and changes of cognitive processes and behavioral responses.

Pick up the Phone

But now there’s a new way to bring non-WEIRD volunteers right to the researchers. The number of smartphone users worldwide is expected to top one billion by next year. The technology has found a home in almost every social group in every part of the world, Western and Eastern, educated and not, industrialized and agrarian, rich and poor, democratic, autocratic and theocratic. Not only are they everywhere, but they’re well suited to collecting scientific data. They can transmit and receive multiple types of media and commands, can transfer time- and location-coded data, and can time, down to the millisecond, stimuli display and touchscreen responses. They are, an international team of scientists suggested last year, ideally adapted to studying cognitive function and could be used as a “multi-dimensional scientific ‘instrument’ capable of experimentation on a previously unthought-of scale” that could reveal things about the human mind long hidden by smaller experiments.

Researchers could take advantage of smartphones to revolutionize research in cognitive science, the paper argues, but the studies and the technology have to come together in a way that makes it work. To see if smartphones could live up to their promise in a real-world study, Stephane Dufau, the lead author, and her team took their idea for a road-test, without ever leaving the lab.

An App for That

The researchers developed an iPhone/iPad app that replicates the "lexical decision task,” a test used by generations of psychologists. By measuring response time and accuracy in deciding if a given string of letters is a word (e.g. “table”) or not (e.g. “tible”), researchers have gained insight into the cognitive processes involved in reading, as well as reading impairments like dyslexia. The app, called Science XL, was made free for the general public to download from the App Store in seven different languages in December 2010. By March, 2011, the team had collected results from over four thousand participants, a number they say would have taken several years, and considerably more money, to collect via more conventional means.

The results collected so far are similar to those obtained by running the test in laboratory conditions and match many of the known features of this type of data, indicating that an app-based study like this doesn’t introduce variables that affect the results.

Another team of American researchers launched a similar app-based study to look at age-related differences in cognition. They got 15,000 people to participate and their results replicated specific patterns and data found in lab experiments. This study did reveal some problems with the app-based data collection, though. One hindrance the researchers noted is the lack of ability they had to monitor the participants. Their app instructions recommended that users complete their tasks without distractions, but there’s no way they could tell if someone used the app while multitasking or in a noisy environment, which might affect their performance.

Since there’s no obligation or accountability for completing the tasks, there was also a higher participant dropout rate than in many lab studies. Still, the researchers say that the larger sample size that the app gave them access to compensated for the loss in data amount and quality.

These two studies suggest smartphones are a reliable way to collect culturally and geographically diverse data on an enormous scale. The smartphone, far from being just a gadget that lets you tweet from the bathroom, could be as important to scientific exploration as the microscope or the lunar lander. They could potentially allow for direct tests of the universality of cognitive theories and make our understanding of ourselves a little less WEIRD.

The Science XL study is ongoing, so if you want to take part, the app is free to download from iTunes AppStore.

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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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Space
Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

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