Feedback hereby declares that, to the best of our knowledge, what follows is a true representation of whatever it is that follows. We find ourselves moved to this statement by a kerfuffle surrounding a scientific paper from 2012 entitled “Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end”. Its authors included Dan Ariely, the Duke University psychologist who wrote the bestselling book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How we lie to everyone — especially ourselves.
The paper showed that requiring people to declare honest intent before filling in an official form made them more likely to complete it honestly than did the usual practice of making them sign to declare their honesty at the end.
In a subsequent investigation, the authors found they couldn’t reproduce all the results. So far, so psychological science, where a 2015 study found that little more than one-third of studies stood up to further scrutiny. Eating from small plates doesn’t make you eat less, and resisting marshmallows as a child doesn’t make you a better adult, that sort of thing.
Now, however, another group of researchers have uncovered anomalies in some of the data about honesty declarations that they say suggests fakery. Cue widespread schadenfreude at honesty research being suspected to be dishonest.
This all reminds us of a 2019 study saying that non-experts could reliably tell whether the results of a psychology experiment could be replicated just by reading a short description and using their common sense. To the best of our knowledge, no one has yet attempted to replicate that finding. Signed and dated, Feedback.
Is it weathering?
For those overwhelmed by the complexities of weather forecasting relying on probabilities (14 and 21 August), Jenny Gretton of West Clandon in Surrey, UK, has a simple solution discovered when travelling in Canada in the form of the “Nova Scotia Weather Button”.
“For the technically minded, it is a piece of card with a string loop at the top, and below the card a small section of a tree branch complete with bark,” she says. “Instructions are: ‘To use hang exactly eight inches from the house. By observing the following you can make weather predictions that are 100% accurate. If it is hard to see, it’s foggy; if wet, it’s raining; if white, it’s snowing; if black, pollution is REALLY BAD; if swaying, it’s windy; if missing – call the Police.”
Neat, indeed, Jenny – we have already whittled our own to attach to our hat, which we intend to use for real-time forecasting when out and about.
Renate Wood deepens our cultural understanding of what she terms UAMUs – Unusual Alternative Measurement Units – by pointing us to an ABC Radio Sydney website article claiming that “One Sydharb is an official Australian unit of measurement. It is used to measure volume and is equivalent to 500 gigalitres, the volume of water in Sydney Harbour”.
Our usual question of how many pints of Australian beer that amounts to applies (12 June). While wondering with Renate how the size of Sydney Harbour is relatable to those in the far-flung parts of Australia or elsewhere who have never seen Sydney Harbour, we do consider it very convenient of it to have adopted such a well-rounded size.
Rather as in the good old days, now sadly gone, of the metric prototype kilogram held in a vacuum-sealed container in a vault in Paris, we can only imagine the lengths, and depths, the authorities must go to in order to maintain the stability of the base unit – some dredging here, a nip and a tuck to the shoreline there. And climate change is going to be a beast to deal with.
Ger’off my land
Our item about crocodiles on a golf course (14 August) reminds Roger Lampert of St Albans, UK, of a sign he saw while out walking in the US some years ago. “It read ‘Respect the rattlesnake’s right to privacy. Stay on the path’,” he says. “I did.” It’s fair to say that sort of problem is rare in St Albans.
Elephant in the room
The prime natural hazard in southern England’s New Forest National Park is overly skittish wild ponies, rather than rattlesnakes, or indeed elephants. But this doesn’t stop Sam Edge, from Ringwood on its borders, writing to us in response to our item on thermal imaging cameras for detecting elephants (14 August). He suggests that the old joke on how to hunt an elephant needs an update.
For those in the dark, with or without an elephant, it is a “those scientists” joke: a mathematician will prove the existence of an elephant, and leave the detection and capture of an actual elephant as an exercise for a student; an engineer will take anything greyish within 15 per cent of the standard weight, and so on.
Looking through the list, we see it sadly lacking in some disciplines. A psychologist might, we speculate, not actually directly observe an elephant, but see a correlation in the data that definitely indicates an elephant, except on further scrutiny it turns out it was a chihuahua. Further suggestions for other areas of scientific endeavour welcome.
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