Friday, September 14, 2018

Reforming Psychology: Who Are These People?

Let's continue just a little bit from my last post. Right now I am merely thinking out loud, so take at least some of this with a few grains of salt. The Chronicle article I linked to in that earlier report was quite adept at finding some of the more extreme statements and magnifying them, as well as at times proving to be factually incorrect (Bem's infamous ESP article in JPSP was published in 2011, not 2010!). That makes for clicks, and presumably ad revenue, but may not exactly shed light on who the stakeholders are.

Among the reformers, I suspect that this is a varied group, representing multiple specialties, and at various levels of prominence within the academic world. Some are grad students who probably have the idealism and zeal I once experienced when I was a grad student, and who like me are legitimately frustrated by their relative lack of power to change a status quo that leaves a lot to be desired. Others are post-docs and early career researchers whose fates hang in the balance based on evaluations by some of the very people whose work they may be criticizing. Hiring decisions and tenure decisions are certainly a consideration. Others may be primarily educators, but who also could be caught in the cross-hairs of those who have considerably more prestige. For those of us who are a bit less prominent, it is easier for those used to getting their way to fling unfounded accusations at us, knowing full well that for now they will be taken at face value in the public sphere. At least in these early moments, the effort to reform psychological science appears to be a high-risk enterprise.

There may be a great deal of diversity in terms of how to go about reform. Going with my generally cautious nature, I might want to tread cautiously - test drive various approaches to making our work more transparent and see what works and what doesn't. Others may want a more immediate payoff. Some of us may disagree on methodological and statistical practices. The impression I get is that regardless of where the reformers stand, there is a consensus that the status quo no longer works, and that the system needs to be changed. The other impression I get is that there is a passion for science in all of its messiness. These are not people with vendettas, but rather people who want to do work that matters, that gets at closer approximations of the truth. If someone's work gets criticized, it has nothing to do with some need to take down someone famous, but to get at what is real or not real about the foundations underlying their claims in specific works. I wish this were understood better. For the educators among reformers, we just want to know that what we teach our undergrads actually is reality-based. We may want to develop and/or find guidance in how to teach open science to research methods students, or to show how a classic study was debunked in our content courses. Of course keep in mind that I am basing these observations on a relatively small handful of interactions over the last few months in particular. Certainly I have not done any systematic data collection, nor am I aware of much of any. I do think it is useful to realize that SIPS is evenly split between men and women in its membership, and really does have a diverse representation as far as career levels (although I think more toward early career), specialties, and teaching load. I think it is also useful to realize that SIPS is likely only one part of a broader cohort of reformers, and so any article discussing reforms to psychological science needs to take that into account.

As for those defending the status quo. I suspect there is also a great deal of variation. That said, the loudest voices are clearly mid and late career scholars, many of whom perceive having a great deal to lose. There has to be some existential crisis that occurs when one realizes that the body of work making up a substantial portion of one's career was all apparently for nothing. I am under the impression that at least a subset have achieved a good deal of prestige, have leveraged that prominence to amass profits from book deals, speaking engagements, etc. and that efforts to debunk their work could be seen as a threat to all the trappings of what they might consider success. Hence, the temptation to occasionally lob phrases like "methodological terrorists" at the data sleuths among the reformers. As an outsider looking in to the upper echelons of the academic world, my impression is that most of the status quo folks are generally decent, well-intentioned folks, who have grown accustom to a certain way of doing things and benefit from that status quo. I wish I could tell the most worried among them that their worries about a relatively new reform movement are unfounded. I know I would not be listened to. I have a bit of personal experience in that regard. Scholars scrutinizing data sets are not "out to get you" but are interested in making sure that what you claimed in published reports checks out. I suspect that argument will fall on deaf ears.

I'd also like to add something else: I don't really think that psychology is any meaner now than it was when I started out as a grad student in the 1990s. I have certainly witnessed rather contentious debates and conversations at presentation sessions, have been told in no uncertain terms that my own posters were bullshit (I usually would try to engage those folks a bit, out of curiosity more than anything else), and have seen the work of early scholars ripped to shreds. What has changed is the technology. The conversation now plays out on blogs (although those are pretty old-school by now) and social media (Twitter, Facebook groups, etc.). We can now publicly witness in as close to real time as our social media allow what used to occur only behind the relatively closed doors of academic conferences and colloquia - and journal article rebuttals that were behind paywalls. Personally I find the current environment refreshing. It is no more or no less "mean" than it was then. Some individuals in our field truly behave in a toxic manner - but that was true back in the day. What is also refreshing that it is now easier to debunk findings and easier to do so in the public sphere than ever before. I see that not as a sign of a science in trouble, but of one that is actually in the process of figuring itself out at long last. I somehow doubt that mid-career and late-career scholars are leaving in droves because the environment now is not so comfortable. If that were the case, the job market for all the rest of us would be insanely good right now. Hint: the job market is about as bleak as it was this time last year.

A bit about where I am coming from: Right now I have my sleeves rolled up as I go about my work as an educator. I am trying to figure out how to convey what is happening in psych to my students so that they know what is coming their way as they enter the workforce, graduate school, and onward. I am trying to figure out how to go about engaging them to constructively think about what they read in their textbooks and in various mass media outlets, and to sort out what it means when classic research turns out to be wrong. I am trying to sort out how to create a more open-science friendly environment in my methods courses. I want to teach stats just a bit better than I currently do. When I look at those particular goals, it is clear that what I am wanting aligns well with those working to reform our field. I can also say from experience that my conversations have been nothing short of pleasant. And even when some work I was involved in got taken to task (I am assuming if you are reading this you know my history) nothing got said that was in someway undeserved, or untoward. Quite the contrary.

I cast my lot with the reformers - first quietly and then increasingly vocally. I decided to do so because I remember what I wanted to see changed in psychology back when I was in grad school, and I am disappointed that so little transpired in the way of reform back then. There is now hope that things will be different, and that what emerges will be a psychology that really does live up to its billing as a science whose findings matter and can be trusted. I base that on evidence in editorial leadership changes, journals at least tentatively taking steps to enforce more openness from authors, etc. It's a good start. Like I might say in other contexts, there is so much to be done.

Postscript: as time permits, I will start linking to blogs and podcasts that I think will enlighten you. I have been looking at what I have in the way of links and blogroll and realize that it needs an overhaul. Stay tuned...

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