Psychology research procedures can be innovative and intricate, especially in the US. A study called “Examining the effect of threatened masculinity on gun violence” by Brittany Vincent and her colleagues at St. Joseph’s University in New York showcases these qualities.
This research is planned to happen in four stages. First, the study says, “each participant will be given a baseline assessment of their masculinity”. Then each participant will be told about a difficult moral dilemma and asked how they would solve it. They will be informed that another participant will read their response and will give them “an audio recording about what they think of their response”.
It is at this point that things get interesting: each participant will then “either have their masculinity threatened or be assigned to a control group”.
In the final stage, the interestingness continues to grow: “participants will be asked to play a game involving an online voodoo doll where they will be asked to pretend the voodoo doll is the person from the recording, and to shoot the voodoo doll”.
A bunch of points
Mathematician Ravi Vakil at Stanford University in California wrote a phrase you might apply to lecturers who ramble at whim – who flit yon, thither and hither as they tell some simple fact.
Vakil gave a talk earlier this month called “Passing a curve through n points – Solution of a 100-year-old problem” at the Joint Mathematics Meetings 2024 in San Francisco.
He asks a purely mathematical question that (Feedback suggests) harks of a familiar human behaviour. It seems to describe the way some lecturers yearn to meander en route to their destination. Vakil asks: “Through two randomly chosen points in the plane, indeed in n-space, there is a line [but] is there a curve of some ‘type’ through a bunch of generally chosen points?”
For lecturer and listener alike, the basic question sometimes is: “What’s the point?”
John Davies, a retired anaesthetist, responded to Feedback’s query (9 December 2023) about the saying that “the art of medicine consists mostly of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease”. The expression is, correctly or not, often attributed to Voltaire.
John says: “Voltaire was not a doctor, but a hypochondriac. So of course he knew what he was talking about. But he was ‘practicing’ in the 18th century, when medical treatment was either herbal or bleeding, and surgery was either military or dental, because it was so painful. Today we have drugs which are undoubtedly effective, and because of anaesthesia, painless surgery during the procedure.
“But amusing the patient? During surgery under general anaesthesia, no patient amusement is required, and keeping the surgeon amused and in good humour is the best service the anaesthetist can provide for the theatre staff. Stories, chat and anecdote all help.
“Surgery under local anaesthesia demands the same amusement for the patient. And what you learn! Under mild sedation, as under mild intoxication, all sorts of stories come out about their lives, none of which may be repeated, of course.”
Gavin Spickett, a retired consultant in medicine, immunology and allergy, also gave his perspective on the saying:
“One patient, an elderly gentleman who lived alone and had no family, was admitted regularly when I was a junior doctor. His illnesses were nebulous and most likely to be generated by a desire to be in hospital to be warm and well fed. He was undoubtedly lonely. On admission, he always insisted on Guinness and ‘red medicine’. He would never improve until supplied with his preferred treatment…
Once this was prescribed and accompanied by the nurses making a fuss of him, there was always a steady improvement… leading to a willingness to be discharged. The red medicine was an iron edetate syrup (bright red!), to which he ascribed magical properties, even though he wasn’t deficient in iron. Subsequently I found that this syrup was equally effective in other patients during my career.
“[Long ago] a highly respected clinician, for whom I was working, explained that if you were not sure what was wrong or what treatment to give, then you should give MICLO therapy. MICLO stood for ‘masterly inactivity and cat-like observation’. Doing nothing beyond following the patient carefully and supplying empathic holistic care is still sometimes both appropriate and necessary, but is at risk of being buried by the avalanche of new genetic tests, imaging techniques and bespoke pharmaceuticals.”
Alison Flood, New Scientist‘s comment and culture editor, offhandedly came up with a good new definition for medicine: “quite gross – but also interesting”.
Those five words remind Feedback of biologist Dany Adams’s classic seven-word definition of biology: “If it can get infected, it’s biology.” Can you come up with a pithy new definition (of seven or fewer words) for some scientific concept? If so, please send it to: “TINY TRUTHS” c/o Feedback.
Marc Abrahams created the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony and co-founded the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. Earlier, he worked on unusual ways to use computers. His website is improbable.com