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The self in social context

A Hysterical Critique of Psychological Science

Think tank philosopher blunders his inferences.

Psychology has been taking a public beating. After l’àffaire Stapel, we now have l’àffaire Fredrickson. Stapel fabricated data and Fredrickson made extravagant claims about happiness being nonlinearly related to the balance of positive to negative emotions. She has squirmed but not recanted. It looks pathetic and it’s bad for the field. It’s even badder when blogheads with a limited understanding of science opine in much-visited venues and commit errors of reasoning that outmoronify the errors they criticize.

Mr. Will Wilkinson, who according to Wikipedia has a Masters degree in philosophy, “did work toward a Ph.D.” and writes for “The Daily Beast,” takes the Fredrickson fiasco to tear down all of psychological science. He asserts that “most work in the psychological and social sciences suffers from a lack of conceptual rigor. It’s a bit sloppy around the edges, and in the middle, too.” Without proof or even an attempt at corroboration, this statement must be regarded as an overgeneralization. Mr. Wilkinson, having a Masters in philosophy, ought to know this. Does he have reasons for claiming that his is just a generalization without the “over?” He thinks he does: “The problem is not that Fredrickson is a bad research psychologist. The problem is that she’s one of the best.” Now, if Fredrickson were one of the best, then she, by definition, would not blunder so egregiously. She may have been one of the most impactful psychology professors, but some of her work is now being reconsidered, and hence her reputation (it’s a Bayesian updating thing, Mr. Wilkinson). Do we still count Mr. Stapel among the best psychologists?

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Wilkinson goes on: “This is how it’s done by chaired professors at major universities at the top of the game.” Here is the same overgeneralization again, now targeted more narrowly (and cunningly) at the top of the field. If the top falls, the whole thing falls. If most or all of those psychology professors who are considered with respect did routinely what Fredrickson did once, there would be little left. Wilkinson wants to see it this way: “Filigrees of rhetorical precision atop unsteady pillars of conceptual bluff. Now and again, someone sees through the decorative math, but the semipro philosophizing just goes on and on.” It does not take a Ph.D. in psychology to see what is irking Mr. Wilkinson. Fredrickson is not a philosopher, but treads on their turf – with data. She does not acknowledge that philosophers, perched in their armchairs, have a superior understanding of the conceptual structure of happiness and that only they understand that happiness is not measureable. The dismissal of empirical work in toto is an old ploy to protect the realm of pure reason and the pure reasoners from being refuted. Unless, of course, their reasoning is fallacious on their own terms.

Mr. Wilkinson has no credentials in the world of peer-reviewed scholarship that I was able to detect. He has, however, written chapters for the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank.

Note. I intend the word hysterical in the title to be understood in both its meanings: ‘unhinged’ and ‘funny.’

 

Joachim Krueger, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Brown University who believes that rational thinking and socially responsible behavior are attainable goals.

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