Methodological terrorism and the replication crisis in science

3 October, 2016 at 16:05 | Posted in Statistics & Econometrics | Leave a comment

Psychology professor Susan Fiske doesn’t like when people use social media to publish negative comments on published research. She’s implicitly following what I’ve sometimes called the research incumbency rule: that, once an article is published in some approved venue, it should be taken as truth. I’ve written elsewhere on my problems with this attitude — in short, (a) many published papers are clearly in error, which can often be seen just by internal examination of the claims and which becomes even clearer following unsuccessful replication, and (b) publication itself is such a crapshoot that it’s a statistical error to draw a bright line between published and unpublished work …

how-science-goes-wrongIf you’d been deeply invested in the old system, it must be pretty upsetting to think about change. Fiske is in the position of someone who owns stock in a failing enterprise, so no wonder she wants to talk it up. The analogy’s not perfect, though, because there’s no one for her to sell her shares to. What Fiske should really do is cut her losses, admit that she and her colleagues were making a lot of mistakes, and move on … Short term, though, I guess it’s a lot more comfortable for her to rant about replication terrorists and all that …

And let me emphasize here that, yes, statisticians can play a useful role in this discussion. If Fiske etc. really hate statistics and research methods, that’s fine; they could try to design transparent experiments that work every time. But, no, they’re the ones justifying their claims using p-values extracted from noisy data, … they’re the ones who seem to believe just about anything (e.g., the claim that women were changing their vote preferences by 20 percentage points based on the time of the month) if it has a “p less than .05” attached to it. If that’s the game you want to play, then methods criticism is relevant, for sure …

I am posting this on our blog, where anyone has an opportunity to respond. That’s right, anyone. Susan Fiske can respond, and so can anyone else. Including lots of people who have an interest in psychological science but don’t have the opportunity to write non-peer-reviewed articles for the APS Observer, who aren’t tenured professors at major universities, etc. This is open discussion, it’s the opposite of terrorism. And I think it’s pretty ridiculous that I even have to say such a thing which is so obvious.

Andrew Gelman

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