Are Research Psychologists More Like Detectives or Lawyers?

Unlike detectives after facts and truth, psychologists often argue one-sidedly.

Posted Jul 22, 2013

U. S. Grant
D+ Term Paper

Essentially, the model I had adopted for "testing" my hypothesis was a legal model rather than a scientific model. In the legal model, prosecutors and defense attorneys are supposed to stack the evidence in favor of guilt or innocence, respectively. The legal theory behind this practice is that when opposing sides present their best arguments, an impartial judge or jury can decide which case is stronger, and truth will win out more often than not. That might be fine for the legal system, but that is not how science is supposed to work. Scientists are not supposed to begin with the goal of convincing others that a particular idea is true and then assemble as much evidence as possible in favor of that idea. Scientists are supposed to be more like detectives looking for clues to get to the bottom of what is actually going on. They are supposed to be willing to follow the trail of clues, wherever that may lead them. They are supposed to be interested in searching for the critical data that will help decide what is actually true, not just for data that supports a preconceived idea. Science is supposed to be more like detective work than lawyering.

But this is science in theory, not in practice. In practice, it looks to me like many social scientists learned about hypothesis testing from my ninth-grade history teacher. In psychology I think it is actually the norm for psychologists to begin with a preconception about what is true and a desire to convince others about this preconceived truth. Next, they set out find data and statistical procedures that will produce results that support what they already believe. And, in some cases, their desire for their pet hypothesis to be true is so strong, it colors their perception and makes them see support for the hypothesis when the support is not there—sometimes even when the data literally suggest the opposite conclusion.

Graphing indicating error in Fels Study
Persuasion as gears connecting between people
Tenured professor

What should be done about the failure of psychological researchers to live up to textbook accounts of dispassionate objectivity? Some individuals have called for reforms in the way we evaluate and reward research, so that researchers do not need to act like lawyers. Personally, I think that this is probably a losing battle because, in agreement with Mercier and Sperber, I think that most scientists possess the species-typical trait of wanting to lawyer for their own pet positions. The best we can hope for is that, when the smartest scientists make their best cases for their divergent positions in the arena of scientific discourse, eventually the best ideas will prevail, just as the truth about guilt or innocence is supposed to prevail in the courtroom.

Maybe my ninth-grade teacher did not teach me the wrong model of social science research. Maybe I simply had not yet learned how to construct a persuasive argument. Hopefully I am a little better at that now.

I love to persuade hat