April 27, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Humans As Guinea Pigs

Some scientists like to examine everything except themselves.  Human beings are natural objects, they think; why not apply the scientific method to the study of other human beings?  It’s a perfectly natural inclination; the question is whether the findings have scientific validity, or result in understanding of human nature better than the explanations offered by the humanities department.

  1. Eyeing IQ:  What does an IQ test measure?  For many decades, psychologists have assumed that it measures intelligence.  The assumption has been supported by empirical results: people who do better on IQ tests tend to do better in life.  But are the testers overlooking other variables?
        A new paper in PNAS thinks so.1  A team from four universities believes it measures motivation as well as intelligence.  “Collectively,” Duckworth et al said, “our findings suggest that, under low-stakes research conditions, some individuals try harder than others, and, in this context, test motivation can act as a third-variable confound that inflates estimates of the predictive validity of intelligence for life outcomes.”
        In other words, motivated individuals do better in their careers and on IQ tests because they are motivated by nature.  This does not mean the test has nothing to do with intelligence; it just means that a third factor not usually considered by the test designers and proctors could compromise the validity of the test.  Consider a bright kid who, for some reason, is bored stiff having to take a test he or she considers a waste of time.
        The problem is summarized on Medical Xpress, asking, “What are IQ tests really measuring?”  Other critics of IQ tests over the years have claimed they measure cultural accommodation, or were designed to marginalize certain races.  Regardless of who’s right, no one knows whether a future finding will add a fourth-variable confound, or a fifth, or an n-th.  The BBC News quoted psychologist James Thompson quipping that “life is an IQ test” and “If an IQ test doesn’t motivate someone then that is a good predictor in itself.”  The question now becomes how to design a valid MQ test.
  2. The science of cruelty:  “There is always a certain danger that the simple art of observation may be lost, that clinical description may become perfunctory, and the richness of the human context ignored.”  That quote by Oliver Sachs set the stage for a book review in Nature by Stephanie Preston, who doubts that Simon Baron-Cohen has accomplished what his new book claimed in its title, Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty/The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Allen Lane/Basic Books 2011).  Nature’s caption summarizes her position: “Malfunctioning brain networks only partly explain why some people act cruelly, finds Stephanie Preston.”
        Preston found some value in Baron-Cohen’s bold analysis of a difficult topic, but argued that his thesis (“Baron-Cohen reconstrues ‘evil’ as the product of a failure to empathize, caused by malfunction in an empathy network within the brain”), along with confusing vocabulary and dubious classification, raises questions about “how his model advances our understanding of human cruelty.”  She was repulsed by “the disturbing examples of cruel behaviour in the book, including the seemingly gratuitous levels of humiliation of victims in genocides and massacres….”  A photo of a disfigured victim from the Rwanda genocide raises questions whether psychologists are able to understand such brutal behavior.
        It would seem other sources “should be used to inform our scientific theories.”  She called for some input from the humanities: “An interdisciplinary framework that combines our neuroscientific knowledge with findings from social and political science may allow us to capture the ‘richness of the human context’ in such a consequential topic.”  She left out theology, ethics, and philosophy, but recognized some limits to naturalistic science.  “Understanding our simultaneous capacity for great compassion and cruelty is no easy feat,” she ended.  “We should take Baron-Cohen’s accessible book as an invitation to leave the comforts of our smaller, more tractable problems in a genuine attempt to address larger social issues.”
        That raises additional questions.  What will be the criterion for success?  Will neuroscientists decide, or social scientists, or political scientists?  Others?  To what degree?  Will this be an ongoing project with no denouement?  Will satisfaction be pragmatic or theoretical?  As with the IQ Test study, could scientists be overlooking critical variables by isolating their search for the roots of cruelty in neural circuits, heredity, or the environment?

Researchers on humans should take caution from the history of psychology.  It wasn’t terribly long ago when charismatic individuals like Mesmer and Freud swept large numbers of elites into the illusion that they had scientifically explained human nature.  Newly introduced vocabulary like animal magnetism, or Freud’s id, ego, superego, and unconscious added to the illusion of scientific validity.
    In New Scientist, Tiffany O’Callaghan interviewed emeritus Harvard psychologist J. Allan Hobson, author of 9 books, who, like many others, had been swept into the euphoria.  Hobson eventually abandoned Freud’s idea that dreaming is unconscious:

I had to ask myself, why do I say it’s an unconscious mental process?  The answer was because I’m still a Freudian, even though I’ve been trying to get over it.  The philosopher Willard Quine once told me I belong to Freudians Anonymous.  It’s true, and it’s not just me: I think everyone is addicted to Freudian misconceptions.  We’ve got to take all of these received ideas more seriously, and then take them apart.

Now he states, “Psychoanalytic theory is popular because it’s easy to understand, but I think it’s wrong.”  This was from somebody who was trained to think “science is our defence against belief.”  Yet somehow Freud pulled a con job on a generation of scientists: “There’s nothing scientific about psychoanalysis, there’s nothing scientific about Sigmund Freud.  He didn’t do a single experiment, he didn’t do any direct observation, he used no controls.  The guy was out to lunch.
    But when Hobson suggests we “take the science of subjectivity seriously,” has he himself come back from lunch?  Science was supposed to be the paragon of objectivity. 


1.  Duckworth et al, “Role of test motivation in intelligence testing,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online before print April 25, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1018601108 PNAS April 25, 2011.
2.  Stephanie Preston, “Psychology: the empathy gap,” Nature 472 (28 April 2011), p. 416; doi:10.1038/472416a.

Even if Freud had done experiments, made observations and used controls, he would have been out to lunch.  In fact, all the secular materialist psychologists who think human beings (other than themselves) can be reduced to molecules in motion spend their lifetimes at the Yoda lunch counter, sipping martinis.
    Observations, experiments and controls do not by themselves produce understanding.  They have to be interpreted within a paradigm that involves core assumptions about the nature of reality.  Psychologists who think their “science” is a defense against belief need to cure their Yoda complex and get back on the level playing field with their fellow human beings.  Psychoanalyst, psychoanalyze thyself.
    Only when they listen to their own consciences speaking, when they acknowledge the law of God written on their hearts, when they include the missing factor in human behavior – sin – will they will begin to understand motivation, cruelty, and the other character traits and flaws in human nature.  Science cannot put moral accountability in a test tube.

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