Human Social Research: The Lively Science?

May 9, 2013

Michael Agar of has just written a book provocatively titled The Lively Science: Remodeling Human Social Research.

Having heard Mike speak, it’s sure to be an interesting book, and the online sample chapters confirm that belief. It’s kind of ironic that, even though I’m originally a mathematician, what Mike says about inappropriate quantification really resonates with my experience. For a complete view of human activity, numbers, pictures, and stories are all important. And if they disagree, something is surely wrong.

– Tony

Lollies or Poison

October 16, 2012

Human factors covers many facets of human behaviour and interaction with the natural and constructed environment.  The issue of how to ensure that these environments remain safe for the younger and older members of our society is a case in point.Post image for Product Confusability: Tide Pods

Recently, a dishwashing detergent was packaged so that even adults could easily mistake them for food.  Young children have ingested these dangerous chemicals as the packaging is very colourful and resemble candy or lollies.  The harm done to these children and the increasing toll on the health system would surely outweigh the financial benefit to the manufacturer of this product, who obviously either didn’t think or was blissfully unaware of the consequences.  Perhaps the unwanted publicity of the dangers of this product, especially if there is an impact on their bottom line, may encourage them to design their products with more care in future.

All too often, human behaviour is not taken into account in the design of products.  No amount of urging customers to “be careful” will eliminate the danger posed by badly designed or labelled goods.  It is better business to design them properly in the first place.

When I was involved in training service and police dogs, there were five principles which used to guide us.  Firstly, Knowledge was required – if you didn’t know what you were doing, it made it difficult for the canine to know what was required.  Secondly, Repetition showed the required behaviour.  Thirdly, Patience in attaining the goal was essential.  Praise and Correction were the final principles, the former being more desirable and effective.  It seems that in the case of the design of the products described above, the first fundamental principle was lacking, as is commonly the case in many other applications where the knowledge and expertise of the human scientist is not sought or ignored.

This translates to the whole range of human applications.  Human scientists can provide critical knowledge but this fact is not often understood and can have great impact, both in terms of time and budget when ill informed decisions are made, and especially when the younger and older members of society are involved.

As has been previously posted, the initial BMW iDrive was a product which was installed in vehicles that the older demographic was more likely to acquire, which compounded the problems of poor initial design.  The older drivers did not have the digital savvy or knowledge that their offspring or grandchildren had and therefore the whole concept was flawed from the outset as it did not take into account the basic metrics of the human operator.  Of the five principles that I listed above, Patience is in short supply when you are battling traffic!

Which leads to the point made by the authors of the pieces – consideration of the special needs of the younger and older demographic is central to good design and outcomes going forward.

The future world of neuroscience

October 3, 2012

English: Drawing of the human brain, from the ...

Just read a post on the increasing ability of neuroscientists to image and understand the brain.  The author, Kathleen Taylor makes a very interesting observation that perhaps in the future the research of the brain will surpass the physical sciences in importance.  She is probably biased given her neuroscience background but I feel that she has highlighted some fundamental questions with regard to how humans will interact with the world (or perhaps the universe?) and with each other in the future.

She makes the point that the physical sciences have largely been insulated from how the knowledge gained from research in this area is used, given that there is no human input into their experimentation.  The research is largely introspective or governed by mathematics or similarly prescriptive methods.  The potential consequences of the research is not addressed at any time (at least in a formal sense) as there is little input from others apart from peers and supervisors with a similar research background.

The difference between the physical and social sciences has been commented on in previous blog posts.  Physical scientists, although brilliant in their own field, tend to make assumptions as to how humans fit into their models and how their research can be applied.  Human behaviour is commonly included as a probability which then influences the remainder of the postulated model to provide results which do not necessarily reflect what actually happens in the real world.  However, either these discrepancies are ignored, or assumed to be just part of a distribution of human behaviour.  A system is then designed using such flawed thinking and typically, it is the poor old human operators who have to adapt and make up for such sloppy design when they have to make things work.

Alternatively, these operators are seen as the problem when the system is subsequently audited as the ‘brilliant’ system design is hardly ever tested and/or seen to be at fault.  At last there are glimmers of hope as safety management systems are identifying that these ‘brilliant’ systems are more often than not the cause of many failings, not just from the operator perspective.  So the ‘human error‘ which historically has almost always been attributed as the cause of an accident is sheeted home to where it belonArachnoidgs in the first place – the arrogant human who designed the system who was either unaware of or was permitted to ignore the fact that an inherent part of the design process is to understand how the human operator thinks and acts when interfacing with their system.

On the other hand, social scientists and human scientists in particular have a core theme that human behaviour is far more complex and determined by sensory and perceptual aspects initially, then modified by cognitive processes which are also subject to change.  These factors need to be addressed when modelling how a human operates with a machine or amongst themselves to make decisions etc.  As discussed in Kathleen’s article, the brain is such a complex organ and it is subject to a massive range of inputs that we are only now becoming aware of how it works, and how to manipulate it.  Perhaps in the new millennium, neuroscience may have similar advances as occurred in physics (relativity, quantum mechanics and understanding of atomic and sub-atomic structure for example) during the last.

Kathleen highlights that the ethics of operating on the neural and molecular scale within the human brain and the resultant impact it may have on the individual concerned will be a central theme going forward.  This is especially pertinent when entities such as commercial or government interests will be in a position to manipulate these factors and it is therefore something which needs to be addressed well prior to this particular genie escaping the bottle.

Which leads back to KathleEnglish: Computer tomography of human brain, f...en’s major point.  She contends that neuroscience may overtake the physical sciences as the whole consciousness experience will determine how the human species develops into the future.  The social/psychological/physiological sciences understand these aspects and, most importantly, understand the need for an ethical framework when addressing these matters.  So at least we will be better placed than the current situation, where the physical scientists, who have neither of these fundamentals, seem to determine how technology develops and is applied.  Perhaps we will then have a more level research field where social and human scientists are included at the very beginning and can (heaven forbid!) inform how technology is developed and applied to best advantage for the human user who will ultimately directly interact with it.

The human face and emotion

August 20, 2012
Emotion: Fear

Emotion: Fear (Photo credit: Cayusa)

Everyone has experienced emotion to some degree.  From chilling fear to surprise and delight.  These emotions are quite obvious in children who are still quite innocent in the ways of the world.

The human face is believed by many to betray many of these emotions and this view holds that expressions are quite universal, overriding aspects such as  culture and geographical location.  However, this view derived by Charles Darwin and supported by many subsequent studies begs the question: what do these expressions mean and why are they associated with the respective emotions?  There is new evidence that suggests that there may be more at play here than first thought.   Cultural influences may play a more important role and it may be that the six basic themes of happiness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust/contempt and sadness may have nuances which make the whole concept far more complex than previously thought – it is the subject to current research and discussion with perhaps future modification.

This coincides with technology to clone a human face by the Disney Company.  It seems that this technology will make its way into animations and ultimately, humanoid ‘soft’ robots which will then enable a more ‘human’ interaction. I suppose the task of the engineers has been made a little harder by those pesky psychologists who are  saying that humans are more complex than the six basic themes. Oh life would be a lot easier for a lot of people if humans were simpler and behaved themselves according to physical laws.

But then, psychologists aren’t real scientists are they?  The author of this article decries the methods that psychologists use to describe and understand human behaviour.  Believe it or not, mate, it’s an extremely difficult task – doesn’t really fit in with testing for the Higg’s boson in the CERN but probably at least as difficult.  Similar to doing microbiology without a microscope.  But as technology improves as does our understanding of the extremely complex mechanism called the human brain, we’re getting better.  Sort of like how a real science like genetics made changes markedly after DNA was fully understood and the mechanisms behind how genes are expressed are developed.

After all, chemistry became a science after ancient chemists practised alchemy.

The human factor in healthcare

August 14, 2012

Moin Rahman wrote a very informative piece about the various factors which influence emergency healthcare.

He clearly illustrates the stages which occurred in the case study of a child who died from septic shock as a result of a small cut he received whilst playing basketball.  Fits beautifully into the safety management systemframework.

What is apparent immediately is that it reflects a common theme in society – the tendency to attribute blame to the end user despite the underlying reasons for an incident.  As is so often the case in other areas such as aviation, road use and military applications, ‘human error’ is commonly given as the reason an incident occurred, often with deadly consequences.  However, as Moin succinctly points out, there are very clear underlying factors that are probably more important and should be highlighted.  The root cause is the process which almost makes the final act, in this case the death of a child, almost inevitable.

Unfortunately, as in many fields where there is a high aspect of skill or ‘art’ in a profession such as medicine, these root causes are too often subsumed as there is an easy scapegoat on whom to focus attention.  But what about the lack of funding, high workload and lack of resourcing common in the medical field, especially in public-funded or profit-driven private hospitals.

As is now the case in OH&S matters, managers are increasingly being scrutinised regarding their contribution to an incident.  Adopting Reason’s (1990) model as described in Moin’s article, their function is to provide the first three layers of the safety system and one would expect that they should shoulder an appropriate proportion of the blame if something does go wrong.  Perhaps they would be less inclined to reduce services if they were held truly accountable for their actions. Perhaps the accountants who have no knowledge of the coalface and make cost cutting  decisions without first taking a reasonable view of the potential results could take a fair cop as well.

But then, how will they know what is wrong?  What is a reasonable view? A theme which I have espoused in my other blogs is that many, if not all systems contain humans as an integral part. Therefore, a scientific, objective assessment of the human in the system should be fundamental.  And given human scientist expertise in this area, it should be evident that they would be best placed to undertake this role.