The Longest Now

Psych statistics wars: new methods are shattering old-guard assumptions
Thursday October 20th 2016, 12:51 pm
Filed under: %a la mod,chain-gang,citation needed,Glory, glory, glory,knowledge,meta,metrics

Recently, statistician Andrew Gelman has been brilliantly breaking down the transformation of psychology (and social psych in particular) through its adoption of and creative use of statistical methods, leading to an improved understanding of how statistics can be abused in any field, and of how empirical observations can be [unwittingly and unintentionally] flawed. This led to the concept of p-hacking and other methodological fallacies which can be observed in careless uses of statistics throughout scientific and public analyses. And, as these new tools were used to better understand psychology and improve its methods, existing paradigms and accepted truths have been rapidly changed over the past 5 years. This shocks and anguishes researchers who are true believers in”hypotheses vague enough to support any evidence thrown at them“, and have built careers around work supporting those hypotheses.

Here is Gelman’s timeline of transformations in psychology and in statistics, from Paul Meehl’s argument in the 1960s that results in experimental psych may have no predictive power, to PubPeer, Brian Nosek’s reprodicibility project, and the current sense that “the emperor has no clothes”.

Here is a beautiful discussion a week later, from Gelman, about how researchers respond to statistical errors or other disproofs of part of their work.  In particular, how co-authors handle such new discoveries, either together or separately.

At the end, one of its examples turns up a striking example of someone taking these sorts of discoveries and updates to their work seriously: Dana Carney‘s public CV includes inline notes next to each paper wherever significant methodological or statistical concerns were raised, or significant replications failed.

Carney makes an appearance in his examples because of her most controversially popular research, with Cuddy an Yap, on power posing.  A non-obvious result (that holding certain open physical poses leads to feeling and acting more powerfully) became extremely popular in the popular media, and has generated a small following of dozens of related extensions and replication studies — which starting in 2015 started to be done with large samples and at high power, at which point the effects disappeared.  Interest within social psychology in the phenomenon, as an outlier of “a popular but possibly imaginary effect”, is so great that the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has an entire issue devoted to power posing coming out this Fall.
Perhaps motivated by Gelman’s blog post, perhaps by knowledge of the results that will be coming out in this dedicated journal issue [which she suggests are negative], she put out a full two-page summary of her changing views on her own work over time, from conceiving of the experiment, to running it with the funds and time available, to now deciding there was no meaningful effect.  My hat is off to her.  We need this sort of relationship to data, analysis, and error to make sense of the world. But it is a pity that she had to publish such a letter alone, and that her co-authors didn’t feel they could sign onto it.

Update: Nosek also wrote a lovely paper in 2012 on Restructuring incentives to promote truth over publishability [with input from the estimable Victoria Stodden] that describes many points at which researchers have incentives to stop research and publish preliminary results as soon as they have something they could convince a journal to accept.

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