A Novel Defence Of Bad Social Science Studies

They may not be true, but they feel true.

The New York Times,  16 July 2018

Normally a mini-essay by a journeyman reporter for the New York Times would not be worth rebutting with another mini-essay. We can all agree that the world has quite enough mini-essays as it is. But the recent piece by science writer Benedict Carey is a landmark in its own small way. It demonstrates two related cultural dilemmas—a crisis in social science, usually called “the replication crisis,” and a crisis in the news business, as yet unnamed. And it shows how our “thought leaders” hope to evade both of them.

The crisis in the social sciences has grown so obvious that even mainstream social scientists have begun to acknowledge it. In the past five years or so, disinterested researchers have reexamined many of the most crucial experiments and findings in social psychology and related fields. A very large percentage of them—as many as two-thirds, by some counts—crumble on close examination. These include such supposedly settled science as “implicit bias,” “stereotype threat,” “priming,” “ego depletion” and many others known to every student of introductory psychology. At the root of the failure are errors of methodology and execution that should have been obvious from the start. Sample sizes are small and poorly selected; statistical manipulations are misunderstood and ill-performed; experiments lack control groups and are poorly designed; data are cherry-picked; and safeguards against researcher bias are ignored. It’s a long list.

The second dilemma has to do with the first, though it is less often discussed. The great bulk of journalism—what used to constitute the stuff of a large metropolitan daily newspaper—involves only a handful of general subjects. We read sports, politics, weather, celebrity doings, and pop science. Without them the trade would collapse. Readers and editors alike especially love stories that begin “A new study finds . . . ” or “Scientists have discovered . . . ” This last sort of news—easily digested findings that scientifically explain the mysteries of human behavior—is fed and constantly replenished by the same social science whose elemental assumptions are withering before our eyes. This is bad news for the news.

The circle is vicious indeed. Journalism craves pop-science stories from researchers, who like publicity and must get their work into print, according to the pitiless mandate of publish or perish. The researchers’ urgency encourages corner-cutting and conclusion-jumping, which conveniently tend to produce flashy findings, which are inhaled by news outlets, which publish them under the headline “Researchers find!” and then turn back to the researchers to demand more, more, more.

The growing realization of this unhealthy co-dependency is the kind of thing that can ruin a science writer’s day—his livelihood, too. For Benedict Carey, the Times science writer, the collapse of social psychology is an understandably painful subject. The tone of his mini-essay is mournful, as if he’s watching an old friend walk to the electric chair.

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July 31, 2018 at 09:54AM

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