Thursday, October 4, 2007

Watch a movie, use Google, get published

or "Stop that, it's silly".

There's been too much silliness around here. I mean, some daftness is necessary in life, but I realised today that the entire first page of this blog is curently made up of posts with the silliness tag. So, to ease me back into some more serious scientific posting, here's an only mildly silly article in Current Biology.

The authors decided to investigate whether the rate of left-handedness has risen, from apparently around 3% of those born in 1900 to around 11% today. But how to obtain an accurate measure of handedness in the Victorian era?

Ooh, by watching a movie! To be precise, documentaries on life in Northern England between 1897 and 1913. After citing Wikipedia (an unusual tactic in scientific publishing), the authors go on to describe how they analysed the arm-waving preferences of 391 people shown in the footage.

And the all-important experimental controls? The article includes another unusual phrase in scientific publishing: "a modern control group of equal size... was obtained by entering 'waving' into Google Image". You can recreate this historical moment in scientific research by following this link. At the time of writing, the first page of results includes six cartoons, a puppy, a bear, and two seals. I didn't read the supplemental data for the "technical details" of this novel methodology, but I assume the search results were filtered somehow.

I've been a wee bit rude about this article, but it does actually contain some interesting data. By estimating the age of subjects in both groups, a correlation between date of birth and the rate of left-handedness emerged. The rate fell quite sharply between ~1840 and ~1900, and then rose steadily before plateauing at today's rate in around 1960. Speculation about the reasons for this change includes the increasing levels of education and industrialisation (i.e. machine use) in Victorian England, potentially making left-handers more visible and more vulnerable to pressure to conform. There's even a suggestion for further studies, which might involve performing similar analyses in different countries with different rates of education and industrialisation.

Despite its quirks, this article raises some important points.

  • If you don't have any direct data, or if you don't trust the accuracy of existing data (in this case, old questionnaires on hand preference), be creative! Go out and find an alternative source. Just make sure you use the source appropriately, and don't forget your statistical analysis.
  • You can get published with minimal data and unconventional methodologies. Just choose your subject, journal and publication type carefully. A correspondence article, containing one figure and one table, on a subject that is likely to generate a lot of public interest, might be just as acceptable to the editors of Current Biology as it would be to the judges of a school science fair. Just don't try to submit the equivalent kind of research as a full paper in Nature or Science.

So, go forth and publish your Google search results and Wikipedia links! But only in a journal that tolerates some silliness!


  1. There have been attempts to trace handedness further back in time than the Victorian era. I can't remember the name of the paper unfortunately as I read it some time ago, but as I recall there was analysis done of hand-prints in prehistoric cave paintings. The theory was that the artist was most likely to hold the brush which was daubing the paint in his dominant hand, thus the hand that was being painted around - and leaving an imprint on the rock - would be the non-dominant. So they counted the total left and the total right hands.

  2. Unless the hand print wasn't always that of the artist... could it be possible that one person painted the hands of everyone who was, say, involved in a successful hunt to commemmorate the event?

    It's interesting to this ex-molecular biologist how people can extract data in such creative ways. It's much more straightforward when you've got the subject you're interested in growing in a flask in your incubator!


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