If you haven’t been living in a cave this past week you’ll probably be so sick of discussion about pasties that you’ll be happy never to hear the word “pastie” again for the rest of your life.
If you’re wondering why the media has spent such a colossal amount of time hand-wringing over such an inconsequential area of economic policy at a time when, quite frankly there are more important topics that could be on the agenda, there is a simple explanation. This is an example of Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, AKA “bikeshedding”.
According to Parkinson, the more complex an issue, the less time is spent discussing an issue and the inverse is also true. To take Parkinson’s example, you could expect every member of the community to want to have their say on a trivial issue such as the colour of a hypothetical bike shed, but a serious issue such as a committee’s decision on a nuclear power plant would receive far less discussion.
The impact of Parkinson’s law certainly doesn’t stop at pasties, the press regularly report half-baked (excuse the pun) neuroscience claims to bulk up a fluff piece and it difficult for the layman to know where to start when checking these claims. To quote wikipedia, “even if major issues do get attention, the ensuing public discourse often is of low quality due to the lack of specialized expertise of the average citizen, and public opinion is formed based on superficial simplified information rather than in-depth knowledge”. To truly gauge a theory’s standing one must conduct a thorough literature review and with over twenty million scientific articles on PubMed, this is no mean feat. Bradley Voytek et al, are developing a great application for sifting through the chaff regarding anything neuroscience related (pre-print PDF). Their BrainScanr web-app sifts through three and a half million scientific abstracts and outputs a graph of how topics are linked. It aims to help neuroscientists find gaps in the research but it could also promise to be a great tool for quantitatively assessing claims along the lines of “neuroscientists think x, y and z” (just don’t forget that age old truism, correlation ≠ causation).
A search on the term “autism” for example instantly informs us that there is a wealth of autism research on the concept of Theory of Mind but that autism related research on motor control, melatonin and glutamate is sparse. Once you’ve entered a search term you can double click on results to search on them instead or click on categories in the legend to refine to the output. You can also hover on a node to see direct connections to other nodes and hover on the histogram to dig deeper in to the data. It’s all very intuitive. So next time you read a vague neuroscience related claim, drop the topic in to Brainscanr, find out how the research is actually connected and check out the research from the drop down list to see what research has actually found.
For more information check out Bradley Voytek‘s excellent post Automated Science, Deep Data, and the Paradox of Information.
Voytek, B. Voytek, J. (2012). Semi-automated Hypothesis Generation (Preprint) Behavioral/Systems/Cognitive (PDF)Follow Simon on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, RSS, or join the mailing list.
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