Thursday, May 02, 2013

Scholarly malpractice, again...

...or why you can't trust the folderol that passes for sociological data or "the attraction of orderly falsehoods."

Again, I do not excuse those who resort to cheating.  But as the consumer of these publications, we should be worried, because this system essentially selects for bad data handling.  The more you manipulate your data (and there are lots of ways to massage your data so that it shows what you'd like, even without knowing you're doing it), the more likely you are to come up with a publishable result.  Peer review acts as something of a check on this, of course.  But your peers don't know if, for example, you decided to report only the one time your experiment worked, instead of the seven times it didn't.

It would be much better if we rewarded replication: if journals were filled not only with papers describing novel effects, but also with papers by researchers who replicated someone else's novel effects.  But replicating an effect that someone else has found has nowhere near the prestige--or the publication value--of something entirely new.  Which means, of course, that it's relatively easy to make up numbers and be sure that no one else will try to check.

Most cases are not as extreme as Stapel.  But if we reward only those who generate interesting results, rather than interesting hypotheses, we are asking for trouble.   It is hard to fake good questions, but if the good questions must also have good answers . . . well, good answers are easy.  And it seems that this is what the social psychology profession is rewarding.

Nor are they the only ones.  My own profession loves nothing more than a neat story, particularly if your thesis is backed up With the Amazing Power of Science.  Which is how Jonah Lehrer got so successful.  Like millions of other readers, I loved his books: he has a great narrative gift.  In hindsight, I should have remembered that life rarely makes a great narrative.

I won't defend Lehrer either, though I can easily imagine the pressure he felt, if not the decision he made under that pressure.  He'd signed a contract to write a book on a great topic that hadn't been well-covered before: creativity.  Unfortunately, it seems that the reason it hadn't been well covered is that it's an impossible topic with very little solid evidence to discuss.  The demand for neat, compelling stories was much greater than the supply of same.  Jonah Lehrer filled that unfortunate gap--and that's why we bought his books. 

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