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Mind

How (Not) To Fix Social Psychology

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJanuary 18, 2013 8:37 PM

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British psychologist David Shanks has commented on the Diedrik Stapel affair and other recent scandals that have rocked the field of social psychology:

Unconscious track to disciplinary train wreck,

Lots of people are chipping in on this debate for the first time at the moment, but peoples' initial reactions often fall prey to misunderstandings that can stand in the way of meaningful reform - misunderstandings that more considered analysis has exposed. For example, Shanks writes:

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[despite claims that] social psychology is no more prone to fraud than any other discipline, but outright fraud is not the major problem: the biggest concern is sloppy research practice, such as running several experiments and only reporting the ones that work.

It's true that fraud is not the major issue, as I and many others have said. But bad practice, such as p-value fishing, is in no way "sloppy" as Shanks says. Running multiple experiments to get a positive results is a sensible and effective strategy for getting positive results; that's why so many people do it. And so long as scientists are required to get such findings to get publications and grants, it will continue. Behavior is the product of rewards and punishments, as a great psychologist said. We need to change the reinforcement schedule, not berate the rats for pressing the lever. Earlier, Shanks writes that evidence of unconscious influences on human behaviour - a popular topic in Stapel's work and in social psychology generally -

is easily obtained because it usually rests on null results, namely finding that people's reports about (and hence awareness of) the causes of their behaviour fail to acknowledge the relevant cues. Null results are easily obtained if one's methods are poor.

Thus journals have in recent years published extraordinary reports of unconscious social influences on behaviour, including claims that people are more likely to take a cleansing wipe at the end of an experiment in which they are induced to recall an immoral act [etc]...

...failures to replicate the effects described above have been reported, though often papers reporting such failures are rejected out of hand by the journals that published the initial studies. I await with interest the outcome of efforts to replicate the recent claim that touching a teddy bear makes lonely people more sociable.

Here Shanks first says that null results can easily result from poorly-conducted experiments, and then criticizes journals for not publishing null results that represent failures to replicate prior claims! But null replications are very often rejected because a reviewer says, like Shanks, "This replication was just poorly-conducted, it doesn't count." Shanks (unconsciously no doubt) replicates the problem in his article. So what to do? Again, it's a systemic problem. So long as we have peer-reviewed scientific journals, and the peer-review takes place after the data are collected, it will be open to reviewers to spike results they don't like - generally although not always null ones. If reviewers had to judge the quality of a study before they knew what it was going to find, as I've suggested, this problem would be solved. Other people have great ideas for fixing science of their own. The problem is structural, not a failing on the part of individual scientists, and not limited to social psychology.

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