Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A reminder that changing one's perspective is worthwhile

Part of the fallout of the last couple years' worth of drama with both the weapons effect meta-analysis and with a retracted narrative review that really should have never made it past peer review, let alone submitted in the first place, has been a change the way I view the weapons effect research literature. That drama has been very public to a degree that I ordinarily find discomforting. However, it had to be dealt with. It did get dealt with in a way that I am more or less okay with.

At the end of the day, my perspective on the weapons effect (or weapons priming effect) literature came down to what the data analyses were telling me. If numbers could speak, they would be screaming that we as researchers really needed to reassess the state of the weapons effect literature, and more specifically acknowledge that early skeptics like Arnold Buss may well have been right all along. Regrettably numbers cannot speak, so it is up to us as researchers to do our best to speak for them. My approach was first to listen to those numbers and then to advocate for them. And the numbers, especially for aggressive behavioral outcomes, are damning.

Working with coauthors who were at cross-purposes was not fun - especially with the meta-analysis. I had a third author who was and still is desperate to keep the standard weapons effect narrative intact and a second author who had regrettably been caught up in an unfortunate situation where there had been a database error with which he had no involvement and in which he was understandably desperate to protect his reputation. For the record, I am very sympathetic to the second author's plight, and have and will continue to do anything I can do to protect his reputation with regard to that particular project. If he has no further dealings with my third author, I will consider myself justified in taking the stance I did regarding his credibility. Our second author's very important work was what opened my eyes for good. It is conceivable that short term exposure to weapons primes aggressive thoughts (though recall that is not a guarantee) and primary threat appraisal. However, there is no solid evidence that short term weapons exposure primes aggressive behavioral outcomes (which in lab and field experiments are very mild). Hence, this is a literature that tells us next to nothing about short term exposure to weapons and real life violence.

Those experiences left me intellectually paralyzed for a while. At one point, I really could not write - as in literally could not write. I second-guessed every word, fearing it would duplicate something I had written previously or would amount to some sort of categorical error. That is a lousy way to exist. So last summer, I started the process of a reset, if you will. I asked myself what kind of paper I would write on the weapons effect if I had no coauthor or coauthors. I wrote it. I put it through a plagiarism software I now subscribe to for good measure. I tried submitting it and found a journal that would accept it eventually. That was a relief. Although I was a bit jarred that anyone would want me to speak on the topic, I now have on two occasions. One had to be done virtually after my spouse had what amounted to a debilitating injury. The other occurred on Monday. Both appear to have been well-received. That was a relief. Stating that a body of research that appears in Introductory Psych and Social Psych textbooks is probably not holding up is hardly easy. It is not clear to me that becoming a skeptic on this particular area of research is winning friends and influencing people. But it at least is an honest perspective that can be backed up with tangible evidence. I can live with that.

Earning an award for the weapons effect paper I wrote over the summer and eventually got accepted was a pleasant shock to my system. I feel uncomfortable bragging about myself, and the paper was hardly anything earth-shattering. It was merely a way to make the correction that I would have made in another context had I been allowed to do so. The journal itself is one that probably does not have an impact factor, although its editor and reviewers are very solid when it comes to their work (I know - I have done some peer review for the journal in question in years past). The point was not to appear in a high impact venue, but rather just to get the info out there without the baggage that comes with paywalls, gatekeepers who have a stake in maintaining a false status quo, etc. I will at some point hang that award plaque in my office, and most likely no one will ever notice it. But it will be a reminder to me of a painful era that I somehow managed to survive, and one in which I made the first steps to finding my way forward. Starting the process of closing the books on a research literature that once defined me is just that - a starting point. I think I can now move on both as a researcher and more importantly as an educator. There are new matters that came to my attention thanks to that set of experiences that will occupy me for a while. I know where I need to focus now. 

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