Bare-knuckle boxing in PLOS ONE

A paper published recently in the open-access journal PLOS ONE entitled “Getting a Grip on Memory: Unilateral Hand Clenching Alters Episodic Recall,” which, as hinted at by the pun, is about the supposed tie between making a single fist and remembering an event, has been the center of controversy lately.

The abstract of the paper states:

 It was hypothesized that right hand clenching (left hemisphere activation) pre-encoding, and left hand clenching (right hemisphere activation) pre-recall, would result in superior memory.

And they say their hypothesis was proved to be true. One commenter, however, disagrees—and with a pun of their own in the title: “Fist-clenchingly poor science.” The comment attempts to discuss the inherent flaws, starting by:

There are so many flaws it is difficult to know where to begin, but I’d be hard pressed not to fail this paper if it was presented to me as an undergraduate project report.

The climax of the critique showed the main failing of the report:

..the authors admit [the difference between the control and sample groups] was not significant despite repeating throughout the title, abstract, discussion, and press release…

The critique on the whole is pretty funny and informative, and I admit to always loving a controversy (as long as I’m not directly involved). Science controversies are a real favorite of mine, because each side thinks they know the truth and rarely back down or concede. And then when someone does admit to maybe being slightly incorrect, no one lets them forget it. There’s a surprising amount of ego in a group that’s supposed to be made of dispassionate observers.

A mini-argument has also erupted in the comments on the comment.

Woof, quite a long-winded and rhetorical way to state the hypothesis is weakly supported or even disputed, and sample groups too small and biased. The rest of the “comment” steeped in ego.

To which, someone replied.

Did you veer over from a place where ‘woof’ is vigorous rejoinder- where ad hominem is appreciated, and comments on technical subjects are held to two sentences?

With another sub-commenter, commenting on the harshness of the critique:

My problem isn’t with commentary or criticism of the science itself, it’s with how it is expressed. It’s one thing to say “These results need to be treated with caution because the study was under-powered and the analyses didn’t correct for multiple comparisons”. It’s another to say “This is fist-clenchingly, shockingly poor science that wouldn’t even have been acceptable as an undergraduate project”. One is a factual comment on the science, the other is just an emotion-laden and potentially hurtful attack.

All-in-all it’s a pretty good read. The comments that is, not the actual paper, which is arguably garbage.

Lab Group Prejudice

I recently came across an article explaining Henri Tajfel, a social psychologist, work on group mentalities. The experimenters divided people into arbitrary groups then let individuals, without any conversation with the group, decide how money would be split among the two groups. Now realize that the groups were completely meaningless, the participants knew this, no actual money was transferred, and individuals couldn’t choose to give money to themselves. Still, participants showed a bias against the members of the other group by rewarding them with less money. The conclusion reached by the researchers was that group mentality was even stronger than we might think.

So is this group mentality true in labs? As a graduate student, you spend a lot of time in the lab, interacting with the same people everyday. Together, you celebrate when something works and you bemoan when something doesn’t. You share stories of being yelled at by the professor and failing certain graduate requirements (which they always let you redo). The bond between people becomes pretty strong—and so does the group mentality.

In fact, right off the bat when meeting new students we specify our lab group—”Hi. I’m Jenna and I’m in the Locklin lab.” Often followed by questioning their group alliance—”What lab are you in?”

Sure, internally the group mentality is important. In such stressful times it is comforting to know there are people who will be there to help and encourage you. But what about externally comparing two groups. Would you expect much bias?

I am in a prime position to answer this question as a go-between for two different worlds of chemistry: experimentalists and theorists. And believe me, I have heard a lot of bullshit from both sides. Experimentalists bash the theorists for not being able to do “real” chemistry, while the theorists bash the experimentalists for being lab monkey goons that don’t understand the fundamentals. Both sides are fiercely resolute in their opinions. But which side is correct? Are theorists incapable? Are experimentalists goons?

The answer is neither, no, and absolutely not. Remember, both of these sets are made up of highly educated individuals seeking post-secondary education. Everyone here is competent. So why such animosity? What causes the inability to recognize that the other group is smart and talented? Is it the group mentality of “we’re better than you”? Do we actually need to compare the two and say one is better? I think not. Comparisons, in my opinion, only invite opposition. In a comparison, something is the best, something is the worst, and something else comes in second. No one wants to see themselves as the worst, and many people have trouble being second—especially when you dedicate your entire life (and sanity) to something.

If the group mentality can’t completely be stopped, which is pretty damn likely considering all of the psychological research which points to an insuppressible group mentality, we can at least stop the comparison. Let’s maintain all the benefits of a close-knit group, without judging ourselves against others. Then, maybe, we can all get along.