What is science to you?
To me, science is where truth stands tall, looming over all petty human skirmishes and biases. Scientists test each other’s methods, making sure each experiment produces the same results no matter who does it, where, and when. But rigorous checking only propels them to do better. In an ideal world, science is the focus — not the scientists.
At some point this year, I had to choose between majoring in Neuroscience or Psychology. I’ve always had a problem with psychology. So much of it is based on theory upon theory, and who said what. There is little agreement on who is actually right — only the pros and cons of each idea. To me, the facts are lacking.
A similar realisation swept the world six years ago. The concept of power poses, describing how certain postures giving rise to higher confidence, had just been born. Around this time, a variety of bizarre findings were coming to light — mainly in the field of psychology. You may remember headlines like: Ovulating women are more likely to wear red! Male college students with fat arms probably have particular political stances! CHOCOLATE MAKES YOU LOSE WEIGHT!
Amy Cuddy, the social psychologist who wrote about power posing, demonstrating a typical power pose at a TED talk. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (Erik Hershman)
Everything changed when three dissatisfied psychologists released False-Positive Psychology. They showed just how easy it was for researchers to achieve results that were unlikely to be true. They called this p-hacking, a widespread abuse of methodologies including the look-elsewhere effect and cherry picking. In 2015, another Science article revealed only 36% of 100 studies published in psychology journals were replicable — as opposed to 50% in medicine journals.
Why is this important? When researchers obtain results, they need to consider whether their results are true and show a phenomenon that actually exists. For example, proving that certain poses make people feel more powerful could be an effect that doesn’t exist for everyone, but only appeared because of a badly designed study: a false positive.
It’s like getting some friends to laugh at your bad joke then claiming that your joke is universally funny. Or if a doctor did a routine checkup on your uncle and told him he was pregnant. If other scientists carry out the same study, but cannot get the same results, then it could also point towards a “false positive”.
“Well, uncle, you see, it’s because you have back pain and have trouble walking. Your belly is pretty huge too. It just makes sense that you’re pregnant.” – An example of a false positive. Credit: Flickr (Spyros Papaspyropoulos)
Before this point, new discoveries in psychology outpaced the validation of those findings — but statistics has always influenced psychology, ever since the lady tasting tea test. It was previously bad practice to make inferences from the lack of results. For example, had power poses yielded no effect, we could not explain why for certain. Now, we can make sound conclusions from research that shows no results through Bayesian statistics. Projects like the Retraction Watch and Data Colada also keep studies in check. It would be unfair to say that psychology hasn’t progressed extensively since Freud.
Then, as the complicated oxymorons that humans tend to be, we took one step forward and two steps back. The moment statistics revolutionised the field of psychology for the better, scientists became the target of science.
This is how Amy Cuddy, co-author of the power posing study, toppled from grace. She had followed similar methodologies to other psychologists at the time. But because she gave one of the most watched TED talks ever, she fell under global scrutiny for failures to replicate her study after False-Positive Psychology was published.
Cuddy became an icon for bad science, condemned by the rising wave of statisticians eager to showcase the power of their analyses. Her co-author renounced the findings of the power pose study. Fellow academics distanced themselves, silent and afraid.
In an ideal world, science is the focus — not the scientists.
How do we encourage others to pursue academia if scientists are quick to attack one another instead of the science itself? The problems with psychology lie as much within the research as with the researchers involved. In a field detailing the complexity of human behaviour, it’s not surprising that its results are just as messy — especially when the scientists themselves are prone to this complexity.
It seems that as long as humans are involved, perhaps science is inevitably personal.
But when all is said and done, psychology is a science — verifying the results that come forth is the first step of many. It’s up to us to separate the scientist from the science, to recognise the extent to which criticism should be personal, and ultimately strive towards doing better science together.