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Dr Pete Etchells


Pete Etchells is a lecturer in psychology at the Bath Spa University.  His PhD focuses on fast eye movement (saccadic) motor behaviour and how the human visual systems process velocity information.  Pete’s current research is focusing on perceptions of motion and human gait.  He is also a science blogger for the Guardian.

A lot of people will try and use eye movements to try and abstract to a higher level

On first interests in psychology

Psychology? Really late on, actually.  So I’ve always been interested in science, right from an early age, my mum and dad were really encouraging in getting me into it.  I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was, like, seven – I wanted to be a dinosaur when I was five so that wasn’t really going to work out – I was really interested in biology and then when it came to university, when I was 18, I was sat there thinking what am I going to do, and I wanted to do physics and philosophy cause it sounded really interesting and I’d done philosophy at A level.  And everybody around me would say, don’t do that, don’t go into that, there’s no money in it, you’ll be jobless for the rest of your life, go into computer science, computers is where the money is.  This was people like my granddad, so it was probably not the most up to date current view of where the money was, so I ended up completely blindly going into computer science, failing miserably in my first year; I think I averaged about 15% on my course work. I remember there was one piece of course work – two, actually – where we had to mark our own coding work and I gave myself 5% and I had to go and see the tutor  and he said, ‘Why have you been so harsh on yourself?’  I told him to read it and try and compile it and it broke his computer, so I think, yeah, fair enough.  And there was another competition at the end of the year where we had to programme a robot and they fight each other in an arena, and my robot would just keep boning into a wall and just keep head butting it until somebody came around and shot them so, it wasn’t really my calling. But I was doing psychology as an open unit, just randomly I thought, I’ll give it a try, see what it’s like.  I really, really enjoyed it and at the end of that first year I changed over to psychology and I’ve not really looked back since.

On being drawn to physics and philosophy

It’s probably going to sound really lame, but it was novel, it was something that I’d never tried before.  I think, you know, throughout the schooling system, it’s fairly rigid what you’re taught and then at A level you get the chance to kind of broaden out.  Philosophy just sounded really exciting.  It was a bit of a weird year, I only did it for one year and our  teacher just left about six weeks into the course and we never really got a replacement so we kind of had to teach ourselves A level philosophy which was…you can’t really get it wrong in philosophy so it wasn’t too bad.  But I just got really drawn by the fact that…we were talking about Plato and Socrates and, you know, stuff that’s been around for thousands and thousands of years and still is really relevant to things like arguments about the scientific method now, I just found it really compelling.

On PhD research

Yeah, so my PhD, it was on eye movements; so I was interested in motion particularly so, we know how you move your eyes, we’ve got a lot of information about that, for sort of 30-40 years a lot of people have done research on that, and eye movements are interesting because we know so much about them they’re sort of used as a model system for high forms of decision making.  So when you move your eyes somewhere, you’ve probably made a decision to move your eyes and look at something.  Now, it might be conscious or it might be subconscious, but we know a lot about those processes, so a lot of people will try and use eye movements to try and abstract to a higher level and think about decision making more generally. 

My PhD was more about whether the brain’s got a bit of predictive power really, so if you imagine you’re sort of just staring randomly at something and you see something moving in your periphery over here and you want to make an eye movement to it, then eye movements take time, it takes a certain amount of time for your brain to decide that you want to make the movement, it takes time to make the movement itself.  And if something’s moving then it will have moved from the original position that you saw it in to the point that you actually make an eye movement to it.  So my PhD was basically whether, when you make that eye movement, do you make it accurately, i.e. do you sort of predict where that object’s going to be in half a second’s time and make an accurate eye movement, or do you make an eye movement to where it was and catch it up.

And we found out that actually you’re really good at doing this sort of thing, you’re really accurate quite a lot of the time even if you try and screw people up by kind of randomising the movement.  So it was kind of looking at the brain processes that are involved in that and trying to find a part of the brain that was responsible for making that prediction.

On current research

So at the minute my research is sort of flitting about between a few areas: I’m interested in the effects of video games on childhood behaviour, and the other side I’m interested in is kind of science policy and journal reform, things like that, and there’s kind of a link between those two.  So I kind of got interested in video game research and blogging really at the same time from seeing things in the newspapers, certain scientists saying that, you know, video games damage your brain or that, you know, using social media changes your brain, and I wasn’t quite convinced about it really, so we’ve started looking at it sort of in our own time and the project that we’re working on that’s kind of not really being funded by anybody, it’s using data that already exists, a big dataset from Bristol called ALSPAC Children of the Nineties which is a big cohort of children that have been followed since they were born in 1990-1991 all the way up until now.  So we’ve got this really rich data set of people who’ve grown up playing video games or not playing video games and we can look to see how that’s affected them.

So the research that we’re doing specifically is on a big data set that’s already been collected, so it’s kind of observational research really.  We just go away, take all that data, what you want to do with something like a basic question like ‘Do certain video games cause increased aggressive behaviour in children?’, the really key thing that you need to do is figure out what are the other confounding variables involved in that that also have an effect and can we control for them.  So it might be the case that kids who are playing violent video games at age eight are doing that because they’ve not got any other outlet to go and play, they’re not  allowed to play outside or they’ve got a poor family background or they’ve got emotional problems.

So there’s a trouble in sort of establishing a causal direction; you can say that there’s a correlation between them but you don’t know whether it’s violent video games causing aggressive behaviour, or aggressive behaviour meaning that children or adults or whoever play violent video games.

So with the big data set that we’ve got, we’ve got different measures of potentially confounding variables, things like socio-economic status and family history and things like that that we can control for.  So a lot of it is thinking about what you need to control for and what you can reasonably extract out of the data and then the rest of it is just stats – and I’m not the stats person on the paper, somebody else is – but that’s all it is really.

So it’s not difficult to do this research because the data are already out there, it’s just not that many people are doing it at the minute. 

On science in the media

So I was getting increasingly more interested in how science was being represented in the media and in how psychology was represented in the media and back in 2008, 2009, 2010 there were a lot of paper articles that came out with these quite grandiose scary claims, things like, if you let your kids use Facebook it’s going to cause brain damage, and playing video games is bad for them, and when you read the pieces they kind of sound like arguments from authority, really, there’s very little data in there, very little evidence, there might be a sentence that says there’s a vast amount of literature on this so we know what the effects are, which is kind of true but it kind of glosses over what the real issues are.  And the thing about the brain is, everything changes it, so if you say, you know, playing video games is going to change your brain, that’s not really interesting news, everything changes your brain; this interview’s changing my brain, that’s how brains work, if they weren’t plastic in that way you’d never be able to learn anything.

So the newspaper articles tended to concentrate on that side of it which sounds scary, and the interesting side of it is how using social media and playing video games and things like that, how they change your brain, that’s not really been addressed and it kind of annoyed me really, cause I thought, well, that’s a really interesting question, let’s ask that instead, and so we’ve been trying to do that with the research that we’re doing at the moment.

That’s a really good question; so, I think when you’re reading newspaper articles, the first thing that gets a lot of people is, it’s not always the case that the first person writing the piece writes the headline, so ignore the headline, because they’re usually quite sensationalist and trying to draw you in.  If you’re reading some sort of piece that looks sensationalist like, video games are going melt your brain, I think the first thing to do is look for the evidence in there; if they’re citing studies, see how many studies they’re citing, see where those studies have been published, hopefully if it’s open access research you can go and look at it yourself, maybe get an idea of whether what they’re saying about the research is actually what the research reported.

More and more people now days are writing science blogs that are kind of reactive towards stories like this and towards research that comes out in journals, so if you’re interested in something you can go away and have a look see if someone has written something maybe more balanced about it.  But really, just sort of take things with a pinch of salt, there’s no single paper in the history of the world that will solve an issue in science, that’s not how science works, so if ever there’s a newspaper article that makes a really bold claim, a really definitive claim about a single paper, just assume that it’s wrong, that they maybe sort of missed the point of what the paper’s about.  And there’s probably an interesting result in that research paper, but it’s kind of been sort of swept under  for the interest of sort of sensationalism in the newspaper article.

On future advancements in psychology

I think at this moment in time, some of the interesting questions are surrounding how psychological research is actually done; so there’s been a lot of stories in the media recently about quite high profile cases of fraud, where social psychologists in the Netherlands have completely made up their data and put out 30-40 journal articles on the back of that and there’s a massive debate going on at the minute about what we do about that.  Is it a real issue, are these people sort of one-offs, or whether there’s something kind of deeper going on that we need to address.  And my feeling is there are some deeper issues, so there’s what we call questionable research practices, which aren’t wrong at the minute, they’re just…people aren’t educated particularly well about how to do statistics properly.  And what happens is, if you get a load of these dodgy practices together and do them all in the same paper, then the chances that you’ll find a result when actually there’s no result to be found are kind of blown through the roof.  Normally, we assume that it’s a 5% false positive rate, but if you do these kind of extra things which aren’t wrong in themselves but sort of together, make things worse, then that false positive rate can go up to something like 60%.

So there’s a really unique paper that came out in 2005 that said, you know, most sort of published research findings in the life sciences are false because of issues like this.  And the worry is, you know, that you do a lot of psychological research and it’s on the back of stuff that, you know, nobody was doing problematic deliberately, they just didn’t realise that what they were doing was wrong, you get this whole raft of research that actually isn’t telling you anything useful.  So I think that the real key for psychology at the minute – and it’s not just psychology actually, the issues that come up are relevant to the life sciences as well – I think things like physics are way ahead of us in dealing with these problems so we can learn a lot from the kind of more established sciences, but the key thing for me at the minute is to kind of come with ideas as to how to kind of solve these problems and whether there’s a way that we can do the science better, really.

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