Planet Money’s MTurk episode

The NPR podcast Planet Money (of which I am a fan) just released an episode that looks at Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk)- a website where people are paid small sums of money to complete online micro-tasks (like categorising photos or writing transcripts of recordings). The site is named after an 18th Century chess playing ‘robot’ that was actually controlled by a hidden person (see above). This is an elegant analogy for the modern MTurk platform where anonymous workers complete Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) like a well oiled machine. If you want a slightly more in-depth and accessible introduction then I’d heartily recommend listening to Planet Money‘s short episode (available here).

However, while the episode does provide a useful introduction, as a researcher who has run a variety of studies on MTurk, I also have some specific (/pedantic) reservations with what their portrayal. In some ways the Planet Money reporters went to a lot of effort to dig into the topic: interviewing one of the founders of MTurk and embedding a ‘secret message’ in an MTurk task so that they could speak to some actual workers. Yet  I still found listening to the episode frustrating, due to some surprising misrepresentations that implied a low level of fact checking. I realise what follows will likely be too ‘insider baseball’ for most people, but for those who have some interest in how research on MTurk works, below are some of the biggest inaccuracies/pet peeves I had with the episode. (more…)

Cooperative Crocodiles & Skeptical Bias


After writing recently about the flawed research of Sam Parnia on Near Death Experiences I was accused by a few NDE advocates in the comments section of employing unduly high standards of evidence in my analysis of the studies shortcomings. My critical stance, they argued, was due to a deep ideological bias against the very possibility that there could be life after death or a non-material aspect of human consciousness. Personally, I would characterise myself as deeply ideologically biased in favour of both hypotheses, as I would be very happy if we were able to find evidence that there is life after death and, similarly, who wouldn’t want things like telepathy and out of body mental projection to be possible? As such, the issue for me is not that these kind of findings are undesirable but rather, precisely because they are very desirable, we need to be very cautious that confirmation bias is not seeping into our analyses.

In my experience advocates for psi and other paranormal tend not to appreciate just how necessary a strong critical environment is to the production of good science. A nice illustration of what I mean, is found in a relatively popular trend within academic journals to publish a single long form ‘target article’ which is then followed by a series of short commentary articles from relevant scholars, before the original authors have a chance to conclude with a response to the comments. The point here is that such commentaries typically run the gamut from being congratulatory to being overtly hostile to the theories presented in the target article. I’ve found that this format works well and produces some of the most productive articles for the reader, as it is possible to identify the wider field’s likely response through the microcosm of the commentary pieces. Unfortunately, this kind of engagement seems to be rare in psi and NDE research, with the proponents instead establishing their own journals, which become self citing cliques hostile to any critics- regarded as uninformed interlopers, as opposed to peers with different interpretations of the evidence.

Despite such unfortunate trends, the charge that even self professed skeptics can display notable selective biases in the application of their skepticism is warranted. Indeed, the fact that such a phenomena exists is also acknowledged by skeptics, who have a term for when people are failing to apply their critical perspective to a certain cherished topic; possessing a ‘sacred cow’. For instance, a widespread sacred cow, that I also possessed, is the popular Western perception of Buddhism as an atheistic and scientific philosophical system. I became disabused of such notions, swiftly and painfully, through my decision to study about Buddhist cultures and history during my undergraduate degree but the idealistic portrayal remains all pervasive and crops up everywhere from Academic articles to Russell Brand’s rants (and occasionally, my facebook feed). Although I had that particular cow prematurely slaughtered, it is almost certain that there is a whole invisible herd inhabiting my thought processes and views, just waiting for the right motivation (such as encountering evidence that vitamin pills are of practically no use) to make themselves heard. (more…)

New Evidence for Life After Death?


About four years ago I wrote a post about the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) project being lead by Dr. Sam Parnia. The AWARE project is summarised on its official website as being about “using the latest technologies to study the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest… [and] testing the validity of out of body experiences and claims of being able to see and hear during cardiac arrest through the use of randomly generated hidden images that are not visible unless viewed from specific vantage points above”. I previously expressed a number of concerns about the research, with the chief complaints being: 1) the methodology for placing ‘hidden’ images was poorly controlled (i.e. some images were visible to staff, giving patients a rather less esoteric means of learning about their content) and 2) the lead researcher, Dr. Parnia, was already promoting and offering dubious (quantum) interpretations about the meaning of the positive results, before the data was collected!

The study has finally been published, and despite breathless headlines such as the Telegraph’s “First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study” or the Independent’s “Largest-ever study provides evidence that ‘out of body’ and ‘near-death’ experiences may actually be real”, the findings are actually remarkably unimpressive. For a start, the main finding, which is not mentioned in the abstract and quickly dismissed in one sentence in the discussion section, is that none of the 140 patients interviewed were able to identify a single hidden image. The paper tries to downplay this by pointing out that 78% of cardiac events occurred in areas without the special ‘shelves’ that held the images, this percentage however appears to be based on the full sample of 2,060 cardiac events rather than the 140 cases included in the study. It may be that the percentage is similar for these specific cases but the paper doesn’t tell us that and regardless, since the researchers seem to feel this makes the measure all but useless, you have to wonder why such a serious methodological issue was not identified as a problem in the piloting stage. Indeed, if we go back to this report from the BBC in 2009, we find a rather different take from Dr. Parnia on the importance of this null finding:

“If you can demonstrate that consciousness continues after the brain switches off, it allows for the possibility that the consciousness is a separate entity. It is unlikely that we will find many cases where this happens, but we have to be open-minded. And if no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories.


Pain + Other People = Bonds

Pain People


A recent article in Psychological Science by Brock Bastian, Jolanda Jetten & Fiona Ferris (2014) on the basis of some simple but innovative experiments proposes that pain is not always negative and, when experienced collectively, it can act as an effective ‘social glue’ that serves to promote cooperation within a group. This is by no means a new idea, and could even be considered common knowledge by those who play contact sports, but it is also a hypothesis, which, despite its popularity, has received surprisingly little direct attention from researchers. Specifically, while there is a well developed body of literature from psychology and medicine on the effects that experiencing pain (or the threat of pain) has on a wide array of behaviours and attitudes, there remains a notable absence of studies exploring the effects of pain ‘shared’ collectively with a given group. This is a topic which is close to my own heart, not only because I have experienced substantial collective pain in the past through experiences during martial arts training, but more recently because the effects of collective painful or unpleasant (i.e. dysphoric) ritual activities are the main topic of my present PhD(/DPhil) research.


Is there Religion in Japan? (Round 2)

The current debate prompts existential angst for Amaterasu, the Shinto Goddess of the sun.

The ‘religion’ in Japan debate prompts existential angst for Amaterasu, the Shinto Goddess.

A number of years ago I wrote a blog post about a lively debate between Timothy Fitzgerald and Ian Reader concerning whether it was appropriate to speak of ‘religion’ in Japan and whether the concept had any coherent significance prior to the arrival of the Western colonial powers and their ideological baggage. From my perspective a clear winner emerged from these exchanges (*spoiler* it did- see my previous post for details) but I’ve just become aware that, while working on my PhD, I seem to have missed a more competitive second round that has been taking place over the past few years, due in large part to the work of Jason Ānanda Josephson.


Can religious children distinguish fantasy from reality? (YES…)

Christian Kid


A recent study by Corriveau et al. published in Cognitive Science purporting to examine the differences in abilities to distinguish fantasy from reality between children from religious and non-religious backgrounds received a surprising amount of media attention. It was, for example, featured recently on the BBC, the article covering the study on the Huffington Post  has been shared over 23,000 times and the I fucking love science summary has over 81,000 shares. The narrative presented in the paper and the popular press summarises the research as revealing that children exposed to religion are deficient in their ability to distinguish between fantastical and realistic narratives (in comparison with children from secular, non-religious backgrounds). The findings are also argued to undermine the claims of researchers, like Justin Barrett and Jesse Bering, that we are “Born Believers” or possess a “Belief Instinct“, since the secular children do not display the same deficiency in reasoning. Unfortunately, these narratives are themselves largely a fantasy as the research fails to provide strong evidence for either of these claims. I detail the reasons why below.


Religion Explained in 2014? IACSR Conference Report

– This post is a copy of an article I wrote for The Religious Studies Project

(although it has not been published yet) – 

Explaining Religion

A few weeks ago, I attended the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion’s (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference. The theme this year was focused on addressing the state of the field, 25 years after the cognitive approach to religion (CSR) first appeared (at least in its modern incarnation). I contributed to these efforts by presenting a critical review of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness (MCI) literature, and a short poster that detailed a recoding of a previous study on MCI items in Roman prodigies (Lisdorf, 2001) (for those who may be interested, the recoding reversed the original pattern reported). However, I’m not going to review my own talk (for obvious reasons), nor do I intend to offer a thorough account of the entire conference, instead I’d just like to point out some personal highlights and my impressions of the conference overall.