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Science and Society (op.ed.)

Not to sound too cynical, but sometimes it feels like people only “fucking love” science if it agrees with their current views of reality, or if it’s something flashy and pretty. Which, you know, contradicts the basic premise of curiosity-driven research. Every scientific venture in a capitalist world must have a financially-motivated outcome. No one’s looking into fun things just for the fun of it. You just can’t get grants that way. You have to write up some grand outcomes scheme to get funded – which is unfortunate because it feels dishonest. You say that looking into this protein folding mechanism might someday help find vaccinations against prion diseases; well that’s a pretty damn far call! That’s years, maybe even more than a decade down the line! Think about the big picture think about the big picture.

As a child I loved science because it allowed me to go down a fantastic rabbit hole, full of endless possibilities and outcomes. It’s never the end-goals that were important but rather the things you learned along the way. The following quote is presented while keeping in mind that Thomas Alva Edison was a fucking asshole and an ideas-theif, but I first heard it as a child so it still holds sentimental meaning to me:

I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that will not work.

That quote keeps me going when things go wrong in the lab in my own work. But in reality, a culture of “publish or perish” permeates scientists’ and grad students’ daily life, shifting the focus into volume of publication rather than quality and utility of publications and research.

Setting aside that issue, the other thing that has been bothering me for a while (exacerbated by a series of horrifying bills put forth by the current US administration, and the fact that I have been reading a lot about climate change research lately while on my short trip to the beautiful mountains of Alberta) is how the general public will claim they “love” science when it comes in the form of flashy experiments  and life-saving bio-technology which will take over social media – probably with someone making some sort of stupid, overly broad conclusion from a mere video. But they dont “love” science when it means accepting certain changes into their lifestyles. They don’t “love” it when it might mean forgoing buying a gosh-darn 4×4 and unnecessarily large trucks which emit a lot more greenhouse gases than a smaller, more fuel-efficient car. Living in the heart of Alberta, I see this all too much. Of course, it is not only up to the individuals to forgo luxury items that really serve no purpose other than to rev their weirdly large ego, and possible compensation for other inferiority complexes. It is also up to the administration of cities and provinces to concentrate more on urban planning and public transit, to avoid the urban sprawl in so many North American cities; individual family homes are less fuel-efficient than apartment buildings and flats. If it was less expensive to live in the city center, and housing was more easily available in areas with good public transport, maybe people wouldn’t feel the need to buy individual vehicles. After all, it’s not fair to ask poor people living on the outskirts of town to save money to give up their vehicle which may be their only way to get to work.

But even those small changes are met with public backlash. Who remembers the obnoxious whining about the carbon tax introduced this year? Any step towards a more environmentally conscious system is seen as a personal threat to people’s lifestyles and their luxuries. If only they knew how far we have already gone with climate change, the damage that has already been done.

There’s the books and science on climate change, and it is non-controversial in scientific realms; then there’s the media, where if you look, climate change is apparently a topic that is still up for debate. Whom will the public believe? The media, who knows how to present a narrative in an entertaining way, or scientists, who’s languages are often too inaccessible for the general public? This is why I began writing this blog. But even this is filtered through my personal lens. And I can understand that my personal lens are a little too snarky for a lot of peoples’ liking.

I have added to my book recommendations based on the stuff I’ve been reading recently. They are a pretty grim, but necessary read. By 2050, we’ll start to see a massive influx of ecological migrants and refugees from the Middle East and coastal settlements because their environment has become too hot and arid to live in, or their homes have drowned. I myself am from a country where my ancestral homes and lands are already partway under the Bay of Bengal, and by 2050 and rising sea-levels, it’s expected about 20% of my homeland will be under water. This is inevitable. But what we can try to do is make sure things don’t go even further than that. What will happen by 2060 is already set in stone but the rest…we can still try. If we have to die as a species, don’t you think we should go down swinging?

Look at how the world is handling the refugee crisis right now. How much better equipped do you think the world will be to handle the next wave of refugees so soon in our future? It’s expected to be a much bigger wave, from countries whose cultures are very dissimilar from ours. There is a need for scientists to work on new technologies to move towards renewable resources, not build another goddamn pipeline or mine for coal. Newsflash Drumpf, there is no such thing as “clean coal”; coal by its very nature emits a lot more greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuels. Stop promising to “resurrect mining jobs” (I’m sure he said that, in much more incomplete sentences). It’s time to taper away our dependence of fossil fuels and set up the infrastructure necessary to shift to using renewable energy exclusively, and to lower our net energy consumption.

If the rednecks hate refugees now, imagine how much more they’re going to hate it when the number of refugees triple or quadruple, and not through any fault of their own. But because you don’t want to let go of your trucks and 4×4 and lavish single family homes with too many bedrooms. I don’t think knowing about it will change their mind, because I’m much too cynical. They’ll probably go about thinking “why should I deprive myself?” while the future comes at us; too slow to really see, but with the surety of death.

If you “fucking love” science, fucking start listening to it.

Role of Emotion in Skeptic Communities and Science Outreach

Popular science pages and blogs such as SciBabe, and the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe are a great new avenue of making sure scientific discourse can reach a wider audience. It is especially great when they also have Facebook pages, because with more and more people getting their information from social media, it becomes more important to have credible sources also sharing information on an easily accessible and widely-used forum. This would serve two main purposes:

  • stem the flow of misinformation from charlatans eager to take advantage of a gullible public
  • open communication channels between those with a scientific education, and those without.

Initially, I was  encouraged by the existence of these spaces; it even inspired me to revive my comatose science blog last year (oui, I am aware that it has been a good 8.5 months since my last post). However, a disturbing trend soon emerged. I noticed that comment sections on these posts almost invariably turn into a circle-jerk within the scientifically educated, or, when challenged by someone without a scientific background, not fully answering the question, mocking/deriding, or explaining in a way that someone with a high school science education wouldn’t be able to understand it. Today, I want to address a very specific statement I have seen repeated in these conversation, “Science doesn’t care about your feelings/emotions. Science cares about facts.” I bought that, for about 5.8 seconds. And only really, because for many many years I’ve been uncomfortable with my own existence as an emotional creature who cannot always be 100% rational. However, here’s where the argument, and therefore the goal of scientific outreach falls apart. Human beings are inherently emotional creatures. You cannot change people’s minds with mere facts, because people first need to care about why the facts are important. To draw a parallel with scientific papers, facts are like raw data. They don’t mean anything except to a very small fraction of people who know how to analyze and interpret the data. At some point, you need to disseminate the data, interpret it, and explain the importance of why the facts matter. This to me, seems a key failing of amateur science educators, and dare I get a little bit political, also a key failing of those who try to “fact-check” politicians who are peddling an outrageously bigoted narrative. At this point it seems important to make note of two groups that you cannot “fact-check” because they do not care about the facts and will not be affected by emotional appeal either. 

  • You cannot “fact-check” people who already know the facts but are invested in pushing their narrative for personal gain. E.g., politicians with corporate ties, “scientists” paid off by oil companies to deny human-caused climate change, etc.
  • You cannot “fact-check” stubbornly ignorant people who are already closed-minded and believe that anything that challenges their personal world view is lies and propaganda. E.g., religious extremists, tin-foil hat-wearers, people getting their medical information from naturalnews.com instead of medical practitioners who went through the rigors of medical school.

The above two are, in my opinion, lost causes and I wouldn’t necessarily waste my time nor energy with them, unless they are the current administration of a major economic superpower and have the power to influence policies that can affect the well-being of other people. Here’s the third group you cannot simply “fact-check”, but you can appeal to them using emotion. Those who are on the fence, with no clear opinions, but are vulnerable to emotional manipulation by the above two groups (who have a vested interest in increasing their numbers such that they can influence larger change, as such is the nature of democracy).  I’m not saying the facts are not important, but it is also important to present the facts in a way that also demonstrate the importance of standing with the facts. E.g., will their children’s life be in danger? Are they endangering other people’s children; can they live with themselves if their neighbour’s kid who is immunocompromised dies from a preventable disease that was spread from their unvaccinated children. Yes, some people, genuinely don’t care, and will keep misusing the phrase “survival of the fittest” right up until the moment their own children fall deathly ill, and yes, some people will literally not stop peddling the same bullshit even after sacrificing their own children to their strongly held world view (those same people sometimes are also merchants of “miracle cures” that rely on other people also denying science based medicine). But I am optimistic that most people are not this way. As such, I implore the more educated people to stop mocking the less-educated but not bat-crab-looney-tunes/snake-oil-merchants, and provide them with the resources more gently, and with an appeal to emotion.

Yes, it is very satisfying to insult the more obstinate ones who are not willing to learn. I encourage mocking them, because it should be unacceptable to spread unscientific garbage. But the way to get people to care about facts is to appeal to their emotions.

I would like to attribute this revelation to my PI, who agreed to do an interview last year when I was first re-jump-starting this blog. I wanted to know how to get people to be more critical-thinking, rational people, who weren’t steared solely by emotion. I was locked into the idea that to be rational, we have to forsake emotions entirely, but it frustrated me that people wouldn’t calmly and rationally think through facts but immediately jump to how it made them personally feel. And most of the time, anything that challenges your current worldview is uncomfortable for most people.

Her answer is that you can’t keep people from being steared by emotion; people have to first care about being critical-thinkers and the only way to do it is by appealing to their emotions. Caring is an emotion and if you can get people to care about the importance of facts, they would be more willing to educate themselves.

Anti-science groups are experts at the tactic of emotional manipulation. They show photos of screaming babies being stabbed with horse needles, they appeal to your emotional sense of having ownership of your child’s body/well-being. They tell you that you, the parent should have the final say and it feels good and powerful. It’s about time we used our basic human characteristic for progress: for better science education for the public, for more critical thinkers and less “alternative fact”-ers. You know what feels good and powerful? Being able to protect yourself and others from preventable diseases, and not having 16 children just so maybe 1 or 2 will survive to adulthood, knowing you tried to make the Earth a better place to live in instead of stripping its resources for your own miserably short-lived life, contributing to the ever-growing body of knowledge… I know it’s not just me.

New Series: Audience questions

You, my beloved readers (well, all five of you) now have the incredible chance to have your scientific curiosities answered! Send in questions regarding science, medicine and health research and I will do my best top answer them. First question is already in from a different blogging platform.

Degizzie: What is the methodology behind DNA genotyping to find out what are the %s of your ancestral DNA?

I have very little idea, but I hope I find out!

Little note as an afterthought: I am a full-time research student who’s looking for graduate school opportunities all over Canada and Europe. The latter is like having a part-time job on top of my current research work. Therefore I am very busy. I run this blog as an unpaid hobby and will only be picking well-formulated questions that are of interest to me, and that are within my capacity for researching online and answering. Thank you for understanding.

Effectively Studying for Exams

This has been in the works for little over 8 months, and for that I apologize. I was busy, doing the things I am about to suggest you too, do in order to do better on your exams. I am always reminded that this would be a good post to write just before finals, since that is the thought most prominent in my mind. However, I do not suggest you ever try studying last minute, or “cramming”, since it rarely works for anyone past high school. As such, nothing I say here will be useful to you if you are preparing for exams that are coming up in less than 2 weeks. Good luck to you, and good bye (it is a contraction of “God be with ye” and by God, you will need it now.) So I think in the end, this post is perfectly timed after all, since this is directed at university students and most of you are starting soon this fall.

What are my qualifications to be giving you this advice? Experience. Ah yes… I was one of those high school students who never studied for anything, attended classes, barely took notes, reviewed said notes the night before/day of the exam and did great on everything. While at the time I thought I was lucky, to be so smart, it turned out to be my downfall first year of university. Suddenly, I was no longer easily one of the smartest kid around (because, well, everyone is smart at university, at something or another); also, and more importantly, I had zero study skills. I floundered for most of first year and a bit of second trying to find the adequate skills and resources to become a good student, and my GPA reflects this change. And I am fond of saying now, that I no longer consider myself an “intelligent” person, but rather, a hardworking one.

So let’s just dive right into it.

Before classes start:

  1. Do your research on each of the professors. Read their ratemyprofessors reviews, take suggestions from former students (with a grain of salt, of course, it is the internet), check the course they are making those comments in regards to. Professors, like all of us, are humans and inevitably enjoy teaching certain classes more than others and it shows. So it may be worthwhile to take into heart comments about, say PHYS 301, more than PHYS 123, if the former is what you’re taking.
  2. Be reasonable about what supplies you will or won’t need during the semester. As a student, you will forever be strapped for cash and you do not need to buy a box of pens. Go to orientation/ first week of classes events and gather a few free pens and sticky-notes booklets. My most used stationary in the past 3 years are freebie stationary. Although I have bought stationary in the interim, it’s not because I need them, it’s because I have impulse control issues and as a child held a fixation for stationary that most children hold for candy and toys. But you do not need to buy any stationary. Staplers, hole punchers, sharpeners are everywhere.
  3. Wait till first week for classes to see if you’ll even need the books “recommended” or “required” for class. My school has a textbook listing system where it tells you if it’s required or just recommended, but occasionally I’ve found that even if it’s “required”, you may still get away with borrowing it periodically from the library.
  4. Depending on whether you work with notebooks or binders best, label them, and find and insert anything you feel might be useful for that course (eg., a print out of the periodic table for chemistry, or IR spectra chart for organic chemistry labs, etc.) I like to decorate mine with relevant hand-drawn dividers too (I like binders, always easy to retrospectively add stuff). I like drawing and it gets me pumped for the class.
  5. Have a pin board to post reminders for yourself. Putting up a calendar for your schedule may also be a good idea. This need not cost money. I got a white foam board from the dollar store and painted on a black border and put a clear wrap on top so I could write on it with erasable markers. (This is a good time to mention that if you are going completely paperless, which I’m trying to do this year, all of this is doable with various apps, which will be listed in a separate post).

When classes start:

  1. Make any necessary modifications to your individual study folders/binders/etc., according to that particular class. Most of my professors post their notes in pdf format online, so I always make folders on Adobe Reader on my tablet, and organize them by assignment, HW, midterm 1, midterm 2, material, and so on. An organized work space (real or virtual) is worth investing the time into because later on it will save you time you have to spend looking for it. One of my professors were very keen on hand-drawing a lot of additions into his notes and I never had enough space on the pdf documents, so I added a unlined notebook to my collection of things I use for that class.
  2. Review the main ideas for each class immediately after that class and highlight/bookmark concepts you have trouble with. Put it on your calendar right away as something you need to either ask for help during office hours, or spend more time on later. If possible, make sure this is done before the next class. I know time doesn’t always permit this, but to really solidify the foundation of learning, you should review previous class’s information just before the class and preview that class’s notes.
  3. For subjects that require not rote memorization, but practice of concepts (eg., calculus, applying physics or chemistry concepts and equations), schedule 1-4 hours a week to use available practice problems. The amount of hours depends on how weak your grasp on the concepts/the subject is. This can be in addition to HW you are already assigned or just time to do the assigned HW. The hours should also be broken up into smaller time periods over the week. Four 1-hour sessions a week is much more effective than one 4-hour session. It also protects you from fatigue.
  4. The above also applies to other subjects where you may just be trying to understand concepts and memorizing them without needing to necessarily practice their application (as is the case with most neuroscience, physiology or psychology courses I take). It is far more effective to review your lecture notes for each class for 15 minutes per day, than it is to spend the two weeks before exams cramming. You will have learnt nothing of value, and it will feel a lot more stressful. For me, “finals season” no longer feels as exhausting or stressful as it had my first year at university. In fact, it barely seems any different from any regular day during the semester.
  5. If you keep up with your reading, get help on weaker concepts and subjects right away, all you really need to do before exams is review all the material once, just to make sure the information is salient in your brain when you are writing the test. You won’t be wasting valuable pre-exam hours relearning concepts. It’s unlikely to do you much good anyway. When you cram a lot of new information within a short period of time, you are putting too much pressure on your short term memory, which by it’s very nature has a short capacity. By rehearsing material over several sessions over longer periods of time, you encode it into long term memory. This way, you will have actually learnt something from the class instead of just cramming and regurgitating for an exam.

Week before exam(s):

  1. Casually review all the material you need to know for the exam, spending a little bit extra time on concepts that were hard to get at the first time around.
  2. For things that require practice, (eg., calculus, mathematical application of chemistry or physics), don’t worry about reviewing the concepts so much if you already get it. Just do a lot of practice questions and timed practice tests. At this point, doing well on the exam will be more about getting into the flow of doing those calculations and deductions over and over again.
  3. Try to do said practice questions or review in an environment similar to that you will write the exam in. In most cases the best you can do is a library. Occasionally I can find empty classrooms or lecture halls to study in but this is rare.
  4. You can also condition yourself to certain things to aid memory (eg., chewing a certain flavor of gun while writing the exam that you chewed while studying for the exam). I did this with coffee, since I always drank it during study session, but caffeine plus pre-exam adrenaline make for unhelpful jitters so I just carry a cup of coffee into the exam without drinking it (much). Occasionally sniffing the coffee is enough to re-focus me.
  5. Pre-exam stress doesn’t always have to be bad. If you have prepared adequately, a certain level of stress is beneficial, even necessary, to keep yourself working at an optimal pace during the exam.

    The Flow

    I recently ran out of time on a particular section of a heinous 7.5 hour exam because I felt so comfortable with the material I began to zone out in between(sometimes even while) reading passages. A little bit of stress is good!

  6. Take some time to relax and recuperate between study sessions. Never schedule back-to-back study sessions. At the very least, alternate between subject materials so at least you have fresh eyes regarding the subjects every few hours. If you have something you like to do just for fun (exercise, dance, read for fun) it is also worthwhile to schedule some time to do that. That way, you don’t feel guilty for “indulging” since it is on the schedule, and you definitely should do that. If you enjoy something, it is not a waste of time. I personally prefer very physical activities such as exercise or dance since it allows my brain to disengage from exam matters  for a bit, and the endorphin helps too.

I hope this will be helpful to everyone returning to school this fall. And I hope you have fun.

A Brief Overview of Colour Perception and Colour-blindness

What is colour?

To begin, I think it’s important to realise that colour as we know it does not exist in the objective world.  Wavelengths do. Lights of different wavelengths form an additive colour mixture, and the composite of all the wavelengths form white light. Paint on the other hand, have a subtractive nature and absorb all wavelengths except the one you perceive it as. The subtractive mixture of all paint, as any toddler could probably tell you, is black.

Figure 1: Visible light spectrum in terms of wavelength.

As children we learn the “VIBGYOR” (or ROYGBIV) method to memorize the colours of the rainbow. This represents the spectral colours. You can also turn the spectrum into a colour wheel, as it was first described by Newton in 1708.

Figure 2: Farbentafel (Color wheel). 1874. by Wilhelm von Bezold.

Modern colour psychologists also add purple and reddish-purple in between red and violet, although these are not on the visible spectrum.

Now we know that the wavelength of light determines what colour it appears to be. Other characteristics of colour is it’s saturation, which can be thought of as a spectrum of grey to the colour; and the intensity or brightness, which can be thought of as a spectrum from black to white, with the colours in between. Given these other dimensions, the best way to represent all possible visible colours is the colour spindle as shown below.

Figure 3: Colour spindle. The circle represents the hues previously shown in the colour circle with brightness on the y-axis and intensity shown radially from the centre of the circle to the outside.

Let’s for a moment, go back to just the primary colours, i.e., the wavelengths which mixed together in different proportions can produce any other colour on the wheel. Red, blue and green define the colour triangle. The problem with this version is that some colours are not additive of two other colours on the triangle. Yellow, for example is a negative primary, i.e., you have to subtract one primary from another (green from blue). To overcome this problem, the Commission Internationale de l’Eclairage (1931) was charged with creating an imaginary colour triangle that was defined by proportions of red and green, and added a dimension for brightness.

Figure 4: Primary colour triangle (Maxwell, 1860)

Figure 5: Imaginary colour triangle (Commission Internationale de l’Eclairage, 1931).

Colour perception

How do we see colours if they don’t exist in the objective world? That my friend, is an excellent question, and presumably why you came upon this post in the first place. Colour opponent theory suggests that a particular neuron is activated by the presence of one colour in the centre and/or the present of another in the surround area of the cell. So for example a red-green colour-opponent neuron would be activated by medium wavelengths in the centre and deactivated by longer wavelengths in the surround cell area. Colour-opponent cells are found in blobs in layer 2 and 3 of V1. Cells in V1 layer 4 and V4 have double colour-opponent cells, i.e., it is activated by the presence of a particular wavelength in the centre and the absence of it in the surround, but also activated by the presence of it in the surround and absence of it in the centre. A classic example of this is the red-green double colour opponent cells, also known as “berry on a green leaf detector”. Here’s some diagram examples to help visualise this concept. (-) indicates an inhibitory effect and (+) indicates and excitatory effect.

Figure 6: Color opponent and double opponent cells. The double opponent cell represents the “berry on a green leaf” detector. (From http://www-psych.stanford.edu/)

Colour blindness

Once upon a time, long, long before my advent into psychology and neuroscience, I had a friend who is colour-blind and like a true scientist in the making, I spent hours asking him about what colour different objects appeared to his vision. Before that point, I thought that people with colour-blindness literally could not see any colour and instead saw the world as a black and white movie from the 20’s (but with better resolution). Turns out this form of colour-blindness is extremely rare. For someone to completely lack all colour vision, they would have to lack cones. I suppose before I go into this, I should go over rods and cones a bit.

Rods contain rhodopsin, which is “bleached” in the presence of light. As a result, they only really work in dim light condition and is necessary for night vision. Rods mostly reflect 500-550 nm wavelengths.

There are three types of cones, each of which help us see a different primary colour. They are aptly called red-cone, green-cone and blue-cones.

Figure 7: Rods and three types of cones help us see different wavelengths of light.

Going back to my juvenile misconceptions about colour-blindness, a complete lack of colour vision is extremely rare (1 per 100,000 people) and would require a complete absence of all types of cones. They are called rod monochromats and since rods don’t function well in bright light, by and large, they are legally blind. Blue-cone monochromats are less rare.

People with only two types of cones are called dichromats. Red/green colour-blindness is the most common of all, in part because there are two types of dichromacy that causes this. Protanopia is caused by long wavelength cone deficiency, and deuteranopia is caused by medium cone deficiency. In both cases, people see in hues of blue and yellow. A third, very rare type called tritanopia is caused by a short wavelength cone deficiency, causing blue/yellow impairment and seeing mostly turquoise and red (lacking the solid blue/violet end of the spectrum).

Figure 8: Trichromacy vs. the three types of dichromacy.

The last type we will briefly mention are anomalous trichromats who have all three cones but one type is abnormal and discriminate hues poorly. I don’t have any simulation examples for this, since the results would be variable depending on which type of cone malfunctions and how.

I hope this has been very informative, and that you will use this as a handy resource. And the next time someone says they are colour-blind, you will refrain from quizzing them endlessly about what colour objects are. Or go ahead and do it; that’s how I started after all! Of course, hypothetically, we all see slightly different colours as red, or green or purple…no one has exactly the same number of cones and all of them do not function exactly the same!

IQ tests: A history and current uses and issues

I have often been known to say that I don’t put much stock in IQ tests, to those who know me well. Certainly, it does not mean that IQ tests don’t matter, or don’t tell us anything. It simply means that the layperson often use it today to mean something very different than what it was originally intended to mean. As well, a lot of pop “IQ” quizzes have come up, thanks to the internet, adding to the confusion. So in this post, I will go over the history of IQ tests a little bit and talk about the current issues surrounding IQ tests.

(Note that a lot of the information in this comes from my lectures and class notes, so I am in the continuous process of finding primary sources for the information. Please be patient.)

History

At the end of the 19th century, a new law in France mandated that all children aged 6 to 14 must attend school. To accomplish this, it was necessary to devise a way to help children with learning disabilities so they might progress through the ranks instead of being stuck in the same class while their peers move on. Alfred Binet, along with his student Theodore Simon devised a test for this purpose called the Binet-Simon test which was published first in 1905. Subsequent revisions were made by Binet in 1908 and 1911, before he died.

The test was created by averaging the performance of students on several measures in several classrooms, and the results were cross-checked by conferring with the teachers. In other words, if Sally is considered by all of her teachers to be very smart and doing well in all of her classes, and she did very poorly on a measure of intelligence, it was considered to be useless in serving the purpose of the Binet-Simon test. The test measured performance of an individual student compared to the average of that age group. The purpose was to isolate those who were performing far under the average and put them in special classes where they can get extra help.

The Binet-Simon test was soon imported over to the United States of America, where it quickly gained popularity, albeit due to historically condemnable reasons. The Binet-Simon test was picked up by H.H. Goddard, a champion of the eugenics movement and used to prove the “superiority” of the Whites. It was used to curtail immigration of Jewish population to US during WWII on the basis of “lower intelligence”. This is the opposite of what Binet himself believed, i.e., that intelligence was a qualitative rather than quantitative characteristic, and was malleable and depended on the environment, and not solely dependent on genetics. He also stressed that IQ scores could only be compared amongst children with comparable backgrounds. I will elaborate on this more on the section about issues.

David Wechsler first published his test in 1939 and by the 1960’s, the popularity of his test overtook that of Binet’s. It has undergone several revisions by now and the WAIS IV and the WISC V are considered the gold standard in psychometric testing for intelligence.

Current measures of intelligence

The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS IV) and Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC V) have various sections with items that measure different kinds of intelligence. The sub-tests look at verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, working memory and processing speed. The tests have been standardized on large samples from both the USA and Canada, and people are scored against the “norm” (the normative range) of their own country. This does differ, as the average score of the Canadian sample is much higher than the US sample. There also exists a French version of the test. The administering of the WAIS and WISC are strictly regulated and a clinical psychologist who intends to administer it undergoes rigorous training before they are allowed to do it independently on actual clients.

IQ scores are often reported as a range, as opposed to a specific number. However, most IQ tests that have been rigorously standardized (so, not that 5 minute Facebook quiz you took 2 years ago) have been shown to be reliable. IQ is stable over time, given that you don’t suffer a traumatic head injury or infection, or one of the many things that could possibly affect your brain tissue. There’s quite a few of these neurodegenerative diseases and this is actually one of my main interests.

Issues

Given that IQ tests are based on normative scores in a population, it is important to stress that it’s really useful for identifying people at either ends of the spectrum. The average IQ is set at 100-110 points, above 130 is considered well above the average, below 70 is considered an intellectual disability. There are levels to this as well, eg., below 20 is severe intellectual disability and a case where the person would be completely unable to survive on their own and usually need a live-in caretaker. IQ scores are not really all that useful for distinguishing between people who fall within the normative range of intelligence.

There is some debate amongst psychologists on the issue of how to report and interpret the data. Some have questioned the utility of reporting it as a raw score (eg. a score of 122), as opposed to a percentile score (eg., Jane Doe scored in the 75th percentile, meaning they did better on the test than 75% of the population) to really drive home the point that the results are on a relative rather than absolute scale.

The average IQ changes over generations, and it is on an upwards trajectory. Criminals with an IQ of less than 70 are considered to be intellectually disabled and put in re-mediation programs rather than prisons. The debate surrounding this is that there might be criminals who were put in prison back in the 70’s or 80’s because they were above the cutoff at the time of their conviction, but would be below 70 and considered intellectually disabled now.

The IQ tests were initially based on a population that is very specific. The subjects measured were all white, middle-class males who were in the education system. As a result, there is some queries about the validity of IQ tests to measure intelligence in populations who fall outside of these parameters. There are issues with cultural interpretation of questions. Certain questions are simply not relevant to certain cultural lifestyles and therefore they would not be able to answer those questions. For example, suppose a question asks you the velocity of a bicycle going downhill at an inclination of 24° and an initial height of 38 meters. If you are from a remote island where bicycles are not a common means of transport and you have never seen or experienced riding a bicycle, you are not going to be able to answer the question. Rather, your question would be, “what is a bicycle?” That does not mean that cultures without experience with the items in a given IQ tests are not intelligent, or below a functioning level of intelligence. To administer the WAIS, you have to be fluent in the language, as does the client.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the issues, but it outlines some of the main points. That’s all, folks! If there are specific questions about IQ tests or the concept of IQ in general, feel free to comment and I will answer to the best of my ability.

Suicide prevention

In Canada, 10% of men and 13% of women in the general population has contemplated suicide at some point, and 2% of men and 6% of women attempted it. The highest risk is for late adolescents and emerging adults (15-24 year olds).

Depression and suicidal thoughts are surprisingly common, but not everyone who is depressed are suicidal. So how do you assess risk?

  • Talking about it is a start. 80% of people who attempt suicide talked about it before doing it. Unfortunately, they are not always taken seriously. In case of adolescents, parents might not take it seriously enough to get their teen help, or start and then terminate treatment prematurely. People do often callously say “ugh, kill me!” and the like, at the slightest inconvenience, but people having suicidal thoughts will probably show other signs.
  • You could just ask them straight up if they feel like they might want to commit suicide. Sometimes, they will just tell you, “You know what, yes I am.” And then you can move onto trying to help them.
  • Hopelessness is a strong sign. If they are constantly making self-defeating statements, and talking about failures like it’s stable (a permanent fixture of their life) and global (encompasses all aspects of their life, e.g., “I got a D in a course, I’m a terrible person who will never succeed”), there’s cause for concern. Hopelessness is a strong motivator for suicide.
  • Planning. Try to ascertain how much planning has gone into this. Did they buy a gun? Do they have an inordinate amount of sleeping pills in the medicine cupboard? Have they been composing a suicide note? Planning can also take the form of getting their affairs in order. They might be writing a will, selling or giving away their possessions, paying off debts and bills.
  • Impulsiveness. Is it possible that they might act completely ok right now and then an hour later go to the pharmacy by some pills and swallow them right away?
  • Do they have access to the things they need to commit suicide? Blades, pills, guns?
  • Do they have a support system that might prevent them from actually committing the act? This could be family or close friends, even a pet. One of my profs told us a story about how this one guy had the access, planning, everything in place but couldn’t do it because he did not want to leave his dog behind. I personally knew someone who had similar thoughts but decided not to because it would hurt his parents.

What can you do to help? While I’m writing this part I’m going to assume you are not a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist because they have different protocols they have to follow with their clients. And I know very little about that.

  • You can stay with them and ask why they feel that way. Often people feel trapped and don’t see a lot of options. They see death as a permanent solution to, what seems to them like a permanent problem. So maybe you can help them find a different way of dealing with whatever problem their having.
  • You could ask them if they wanted help. If the answer is even close to a maybe offer to walk them to the closest mental health center. This assumes you live near somewhere that has an MHC. Try to get them help right away, because they might say, “Oh yeah, you go home, I’ll give them a call.” But it’s most likely they will not. They may want help but lack the motivation to do anything about it.
  • Ultimately, if they do not want help, you can’t force them to get it. You can’t chain them to the dishwasher while you send for help. If someone is adamant that they want to end it all, you can’t really stop them. But you can do one of the following:
  • Alert someone close to them, their family, or their roommate, someone who lives with them so they can keep a close eye on them. If they live alone, alert a family member anyway.
  • If you think they are in immediate danger, as in, they’re going to walk out of here and through themselves in from of a semi, you can call for help, call the police and ask them to help you drive the person to the hospital. They need psychiatric help and to be somewhere where they can be observed while help is provided.
  • Don’t talk down to them o their situation, don’t say things like, “You’re talking crazy.” It’s very diminishing and de-legitimizing and it doesn’t actually help.

Since this is a very important post, I will keep this filed away under the “Resources” tab.