Friday, July 29, 2022

A Blast From the Past: Retractions and Meta-Analysis Edition

I stumbled across this article, Media and aggression research retracted under scrutiny, and found it to be an interesting short read. The article's author chronicles some recent retractions, and what had been another on-going investigation of several papers coauthored by Qian Zhang of Southwest University. I've written enough about his work over the last few years. I think referring to many of Zhang's papers having "been called into question" is a fair assessment. 

Part of the story chronicles Samuel West, who included one of Zhang's papers in his meta-analysis at the request of a reviewer. His meta-analysis would undergo another round of peer review around the time he learned of that particular Zhang paper being under investigation at the same journal. Ouch. West certainly has legitimate concerns about including a potentially dodgy finding in his meta-analysis. In this case, the paper by Zhang and colleagues was not retracted, but I am sure West has his misgivings about including the paper in his database in the first place. I can certainly empathize. My most recent published meta-analysis included one of Zhang's papers that would eventually get retracted early this year. That said, there are plenty of papers generated from Zhang's lab with obvious problems, or, in the case of his more recent work, have problems that are more cleverly hidden. I agree with Amy Orben that the fact that problematic studies continue to remain in journals and meta-analyses is "a major problem" when we think about how politicized media violence research is. Requiring archiving of data, data analyses, and research protocols probably helps to the extent that it is required - at least anything that might be incorrect or fraudulent can more easily be sniffed out. Otherwise, one can only hope for sleuths with enough time on their hands and no concerns for career repercussions for blowing the whistle on published papers that should have never seen the light of day. Good luck with that.

I do take issue with Zhang's characterization of Hilgard as someone who is "just trying to make his name based just on claiming that everyone else does bad research." I get that Zhang is a bit sore about the retractions, and Hilgard was the person who contacted Zhang and a plethora of journal editors regarding the papers in question. That said, there was plenty of chatter about Zhang's work in 2018 and onward, and there were probably several of us who just wanted to know that we hadn't gone insane, and that the obvious data errors, including degrees of freedom that were inaccurate, means and standard deviations that were mathematically impossible, and tables that made no sense really were what we thought they were. Hilgard was far and away better connected to the sphere of media violence research as an active researcher himself, and had the data analytic know-how and the connections that come with being at a R-1 university to do what needed to be done. Aside from that, Hilgard made plenty of positive contributions to the methodology side of psychological science, and from interacting with him online and in person over the years, I'll simply say he's a good person to know. 

I think this article is somewhat helpful in pointing out that even those who believe there is a link between violent content in media (such as video games) and aggression can view Zhang's work and see it for what it is, and express an appropriate level of skepticism. At the end of the day, one can take a philosophical perspective that there is "no one right way to look at the data" and that's all well and good. But at the end of the day, if the analyses show decision errors, and the means and standard deviations forming the basis for those analyses are simply mathematically impossible, the only reasonable conclusion that can be made is that the data and analyses in their present form cannot be accepted as valid. 

The only bone I really have to pick is that the author characterizes the body of media violence research as asking the question of whether or not "violent entertainment causes violence". Although I am aware that there are researchers in this area of inquiry who would draw that conclusion, there are plenty of other investigators who view what we can learn based on our available methods much more cautiously (a lot of aggression is mild, after all). There are also plenty of skeptics who doubt that there is any link between media violence and even the mild forms of aggression that we can measure. As far as I am aware, there is no link between exposure to violent content in mass media and violent behavior in everyday life. All that said, this is a useful article that captures a series of events that I know quite intimately. 

Suddenly, I am in the mood for some cartoon violence. I think I'll watch some early episodes of Rick and Morty. Goodnight.

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