Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Part of my ethos

There is a famous Wayne Gretzky quote that I treasure:

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Wayne Gretzky was not just talking about his particular sport, ice hockey, but of life itself. We cannot succeed if we don't at least try. I understand that there are plenty of facets of life that are way beyond our control. What we can control is the willingness to take our shots for those things we value most. 

I try to model that ethos by engaging students in my courses, and by pushing them to try some things that perhaps they find scary. Methodology and Statistics courses are ones in particular where students seem prone to miss shots that they could have taken, primarily out of fear. I do what I can to break everything down, and hopefully in the process make that material less scary. My bottom line is I want my students to take their shots (i.e., complete their assigned work). I want my students to at least try enough to learn from the experience, rather than to simply give up and fade away. In the process, I take my shots. I engage. If I see that a student is no longer showing up in my classes and labs, or is no longer logging on to an online course, I send emails. Sometimes I get responses that lead to completing coursework. Sometimes, I never get a reply. But if nothing else, I can say I tried.

In the meantime, there may be some major life changes coming my way - if not within the next few weeks, most likely within the next year or two. I'm taking a few shots of my own.

Reversals in Psychology

This blog post captures the essence of something I've been increasingly imparting to my students, especially over the last three or four years. Like any other scientific field, we're going to have reversals. Something we thought might be true turns out to be not only falsifiable, but just plain false. The author is fairly optimistic about Psychology. We're a bit more transparent, if less than ideal, than other fields, and that has enabled us to call ourselves out on our own bovine fecal matter. If nothing else, it's a reminder that many of our classics, which are still taught in textbooks and portrayed in pop culture as true, are not necessarily what they appear to be on the surface.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The current state of social psychology

I think this is a very useful post on Retraction Watch for understanding the current state of Social Psychology. The author, Augustine Brannigan, excerpted part of a book chapter that looks back at the replication crisis, but also looks forward. The various forms of data fraud and notorious incidents are very well-known at this point, as are Daryl Bem's infamous publication from 2011, as are the replication failures of social priming experiments. That Bem's experiment was not intended to be replicable but a form of persuasive argument is itself antithetical to what we are supposed to do in the sciences, as are other infamous classic experiments (by Sherif, Milgram, and Zimbardo). Brannigan is apt at pointing out the shortcomings of these classics, including the lack of clear hypotheses, control groups, etc. Brannigan also questions whether what we are doing as Social Psychologists is really particularly useful. The experimental approach that has "taken the social out of social psychology" is critiqued. I do think a more realistic appraisal of our field is to understand that many of the phenomena we study may be ephemeral. We probably should question when experimentation is appropriate and when we might wish to use other methods for understanding social phenomena. I suspect getting there will take some time. Whatever we do, we need to make sure that we are doing actual science and not merely making persuasive arguments, which turn out not to be all that persuasive.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

On mass shootings

I still use Mother Jones' relatively cautious count of mass shootings, as I noted a few years ago. It's relatively cautious in terms of how it operationally defines mass shootings. This year, so far, appears to be a return to the immediate pre-pandemic years of 2017-2019. One of the few positives that came from the various lockdowns and curfews that came to define 2020 was that there were fewer opportunities for those with the means to commit mass shootings to do so. Other facets of daily life in the US are going back to some semblance of normality. Regrettably, so too are mass shootings. As I also noted earlier, defining mass shootings has proven to be quite difficult and politically charged. While I think the risk in a number of circles regarding being victimized by a mass shooter incident can get overstated, it's pretty clear from the pattern of data I see from Mother Jones' database that the trend over the decades is one of increased risk. We would do well to commit ourselves to a sober analysis of the root causes of this increase in mass shootings, as well as viable solutions. I seriously doubt that the political will exists at either the legislative or judicial levels to limit access to military grade firearms, even if doing so is an obvious step in the right direction. If some of the root causes are economic, perhaps the best available solutions are economic, and thankfully are ones that a functional legislative branch could begin to address. We've seen some beginnings of addressing some potential economic causes in the American Relief Act that was passed and signed into law earlier this year. Whether or not remaining economic legislation happens is a bit up in the air at the moment. If nothing else, we might be able, after a few years, to see if we begin to see a trend of decreased mass shootings that might be attributable to tangible efforts to address economic inequality and misery. That might not decrease the number of firearms in circulation, but if it decreases their use in mass shooting incidents, we might be willing to accept that is as good as it gets. We might also keep an eye on how the Department of Homeland Security responds in the next few years. Thus far, domestic terrorists have not been treated as enemies of the state. If that changes, we may potentially see a dampening effect on mass shootings, to the extent that they had some ideological or ethnic origin. We shall see.

Monday, June 7, 2021

A weapons effect-related pet peeve

One of the periodic irritants I experience is that of finding documents such as this amicus brief that cites one of my weapons effect papers (see the footnote on page 22). This is probably not the first time that work I have authored or coauthored on some facet of the weapons effect has been misused, and it most certainly won't be the last. Even when I still had reason to believe that there appeared to be a reliable causal relation between short-term exposure to weapons such as firearms and aggressive behavior, it was with the understanding that the behavioral effects we were measuring in the lab were fairly mild. If at any time I made more of the findings either collected or summarized, mea culpa. There is, even under the best case scenario in which research unequivocally shows a solid causal link between short-term exposure to weapons and lab-based measures of aggression, no reasonable way to jump to the conclusion that the same sort of exposure would produce violent behavior (primarily gun violence, which is what the attorneys are focused on in their amicus brief). 

 Even if I am fairly sympathetic to what these attorneys wished to accomplish, I really wish they would have consulted with me first. If nothing else, I would have pointed them to the meta-analysis (Benjamin et al., 2018) and suggested that positive findings in the literature needed to be taken with a grain of salt. I've been pretty clear about that since (see Benjamin, 2019, or Benjamin, 2021 for more details). Based on some preliminary meta-analytic work I've done pre-pandemic, I have reason to believe that many of the positive findings regarding the weapons effect can be chalked up to an experimenter allegiance effect. The upshot is that folks really need to be careful when they interpret this literature. The evidence is ambiguous, at best, and any suggestions that short-term exposure to weapons could explain gun violence probably have historical origins in a moral panic over media violence that has been on-going since at least the 1960s. 

In the meantime, since this appears to be a mess for which I bear some responsibility, I also bear some responsibility for cleaning it up. That's probably part of my life's work going forward, whether I like it or not. There are only a small handful of social psychologists who are legitimate experts when it comes to this body of work. I am, regrettably, one of them, and I am probably the one who is the proverbial skunk at the picnic. That can happen when the available data require one to be a skeptic. If folks really want to discuss this body of research with me, I'll do so. I will try to be less prickly or non-responsive, especially if I am convinced that whoever is contacting me is doing so in good faith. I may or may not tell you the story you want to hear, but I will tell you the story you need to hear - i.e., the truth as we currently understand it.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Is there a brain drain in the science reform movement?

The answer, according to Alexander Danvers, appears to be yes, there is indeed a brain drain. There are plenty of reasons why we appear to be losing our best and brightest, at a time when we arguably need them the most. There doesn't appear to be much of an incentive for reformers to do their work, including post-peer review necessary to weed out grossly incompetent and fraudulent research. Nor is there much of an incentive to develop or engage in the sort of necessary work of conducting replication research, developing and validating our measures in a way that would inspire confidence, etc. Certainly the grant money isn't there for such work. And gaining a reputation for engaging in reform-minded research activities is a terrible way to get promoted, given the way the power structure in the academic world currently works. There simply are not enough mid and late career scholars willing to defend this necessary work, and those who carry out that work. There's also the question of whether what we do in my field has much meaning. That's certainly a question that haunted Joe Hilgard as he contemplated his eventual exit from academic life. Indeed, one might make more of a difference as a data scientist in any of a number of industries. And although I am quite happy for my peers who have found more lucrative and rewarding careers outside of the academic world, I can't help but wonder how that bodes for the future of reform. How much of what some very driven and competent reformers within psychology will become normative? How much will get set aside as the publish-or-perish model of scholarly life continues to dominate, and those who have profited from the old status quo continue to call the proverbial shots? Could independent research centers like IGDORE Institute be a way of sidestepping at least some of the current power structure? In the meantime, on a more personal note, I am having to accept that at least some subset of the people I met at SIPS in 2019 and again virtually in 2020 are ones who will not be around once I can finance another international conference trip in a couple years. I'll miss them. Hopefully some newer members at SIPS will be ready to carry the torch further. We shall see. Whatever happens, we need to make sure that there are incentives in place to keep our best minds with us. Otherwise, my field is one that will deserve to slip into irrelevance.