How Is Incivility Related to Scientific Integrity?

An eminent psychologist's controversial call for greater civility

Posted Oct 11, 2016

This is the first of a series on dysfunctions in (mostly social) psychological science.  It was inspired by an essay by the eminent social psychologist, Susan Fiske, which, in my view, reflects much of what ails the field I love.  Both that essay and my field more generally, has been shooting itself in the foot -- over and over.

THE SCIENTIFIC INTEGRITY CRISIS

Integrity can mean either of two things: Personal morality and honesty; or solidity and intactness (as in, "the building has structural integrity").  I use the term "scientific integrity" in the latter sense, to refer not so much to scientists' morals, but to the degree of validity and credibility of their science. The key scientific integrity question is this: Are the conclusions reached in various areas of science robust and credible, or flimsy and likely to collapse around our ears?

Clearly, science -- and its applied wings, such as medicine and engineering -- have done much to successfully improve the human condition.  We are clearly far better off than we were in the Middle Ages in large part because of advances in science.

Nonetheless, there is an increasing awareness of serious problems in modern scientific practices.  Medical interventions often continue for decades despite accumulating evidence testifying to their ineffectiveness.  Go here for examples involving knee surgery, mammography, and ulcers, but there are many many more.  .

Psychology is facing a "replication crisis" because so many of its findings are proving difficult or impossible to replicate.  When findings do not replicate, it raises doubts about the very validity of the phenomenon being studied.  I have posted previously on the problem of failed replications in psychology, which you can find here and here.  But it is more than a replication crisis; the threats to the integrity of psychological science may run deep and wide.  How deep and wide? No one really yet knows for sure.  

Although psychology has plenty of company with respect to failings in science, this is Psychology Today, and I am a psychologist -- I am most interested and aware of those problems in psychological science, and doing my part to help clean them up is extremely important to me.  In that spirit, a controversial draft essay by Susan Fiske, a famous psychologist, constitutes an inspiration and springboard for this and several other forthcoming blogs identifying specific problems and dysfunctions in the conduct and interpretation of psychological science.

WHO IS SUSAN FISKE AND WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?  

Susan Fiske is one of the most influential senior psychologists of this generation.  She is the eminent former President of the Association for Psychological Science, which is the main umbrella organization for scientific psychology in North American and, possibly, the world.

She was lead author of the American Psychological Association’s Brief presented to the Supreme Court of the United States in a successful anti-discrimination case (on the scientific validity and real world importance of social psychological research on stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination).  She is former editor of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Annual Review of Psychology, Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton, and author of well over 300 scholarly publications.

When Susan Fiske speaks at conferences, she draws crowds in the hundreds, or even 1000 or more.  When she speaks, or writes, the scientific psychological community pays attention

THE FISKE ESSAY

You should read the whole thing.  It is not long.  Here is my brief summary of her points with selected quotes.  (11/1/16update: This blog entry refers to the draft published online; in response to the firestorm that the prepublication draft created, she made some modest revisions, including taking out some of the more extreme terms that appear below.  The published version is available here).

1. The new media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) is riddled with social psychologists behaving badly, engaging in harsh, unethical, personal and ad hominem attacks on other psychologists.  She invents new insults and repackages old ones to describe the vanguard of the scientific integrity movement.  Here are some of the more pungent insults Fiske has slung at that movement, in the name of decrying insults:

Quick Meme
Source: Quick Meme

“destructo-critics,”

“methodological terrorists”

“bullies”

“dangerous minority”

“chilling effect”

“self-appointed data police”

who engage in “ad hominem smear tactics” and “sheer adversarial viciousness.”

According to Fiske, UFSPs (Unidentified Fleeing Social Psychologists; my term, not her's) are leaving the field.  Why do I call them UFSPs?  Because Fiske did not identify any.  This does not mean she is wrong.  However, as a scientist, to believe almost any claim, I need to see the data.  There are lots of possibilities about this claim, such as: 1. there aren’t any; 2. she believes there are some, but she is wrong; 3. there really are such people.  (Although I return to this last possibility in a later entry in this series, whether it is true or not is irrelevant to evaluating the ethics and substance of Fiske's essay).

2. Peer review constitutes a sort of gold standard of “truth,” and “unmoderated” social media are unethical and counterproductive when they circumvent this.

3. Science is a community, scientists are all in this together, and we should not only be more respectful to each other, we should abide by the rules that dominated our attempts at science that were in place during most of Fiske's career.

IRONIES IN FISKE'S CALL FOR CIVILITY 

Fiske's essay uses inflammatory language to refer to sometimes harsh discourse that takes place via social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, discussion boards), in a call for greater civility.

Who can object to greater civility? Not me, especially since I recently posted a whole blog on how to have civil discourse on controversial topics (which you should read and understand before commenting on this or any other of my blogs).  That post predated the Fiske essay, which violated two of its main tenets for engaging in respectful discourse while disagreeing on controversial topics:

1. Do not tar those you disagree with using pejorative labels.  “No insulting those you disagree with” is probably the first rule of civil social discourse. Her essay failed this basic standard.

2. Do not paint groups with broad brushes, unless you really have the data.  It is too easy to paint groups, especially groups one does not like, with unjustified broad brushes.  This often caricaturizes, rather than characterizes, the group one does not like.  Fiske's essay paints with such a broad brush.  Unidentified social media critics are tarred with labels such as "methodological terrorists" and she presented neither examples nor criteria for identifying the non-evil social media critics and criticism.  Therefore, her essay is plausibly interpretable as referring to all or most scientists airing criticisms of psychological research via blogs and social media. (The one exception she did articulate was for "moderated" social media, i.e., media that have something akin to peer review).   If she meant something different, she should say so, and, even though she recently had an opportunity to “justify” and “clarify” her points, she did not provide any grounds for believing any non-peer reviewed criticisms were ever reasonable or justified.

Fiske’s essay calling for civil discourse fails these two standards for engaging in civil discourse.

WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH SCIENTIFIC PSYCHOLOGY?

Is this just some sort of internal food fight among psychologists?  I do not think so. Instead, this reflects deep conflicts in an underlying philosophy of science -- conflicts which go to the heart of the credibility of psychological science.  

As Columbia statistician Andrew Gelman put it:

"Is it simply mudslinging [to criticize Fiske's essay]?  Fiske attacks science reformers, so science reformers slam Fiske? No, that's not the point ... what’s relevant here is ... a paradigm that should’ve been dead back in the 1960s when Meehl was writing on all this, but which in the wake of Simonsohn, Button et al., Nosek et al.,*** is certainly dead today. It’s the paradigm of the open-ended theory, of publication in top journals and promotion in the popular and business press, based on “p less than .05” results obtained using abundant researcher degrees of freedom. It’s the paradigm of the theory that in the words of sociologist Jeremy Freese, is “more vampirical than empirical—unable to be killed by mere data.” 

Put differently, Gelman criticizes Fiske's essay not for incivility, but for defending suboptimal scientific practices  See this article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, titled "A Vast Graveyard of Undead Theories" for some reasons why, as Gelman puts it, theories are unable to be killed by mere data.  See my own paper, on stereotype accuracy, for examples of psychological claims that have persisted for decades in the face of disconfirming data. See my earlier blog, Are Most Published Social Psychological Findings False for examples of failed replication after failed replication. See Simmons et al 2011 classic paper on False Positive Psychology for a summary of many of the suboptimal statistical and methodological practices psychologists, until recently, commonly used to reach statistically significant findings in the absence of a true effect (here is one simple example: It was once common practice to only report in publications studies with statistically significant results without also reporting the [sometimes many] studies with nonsignificant results; thereby overestimating the strength of the effect sometimes to the point of creating the appearance of an effect when none actually existed).

Incivility is a bad thing.  Fiske is probably right that some psychologists have sometimes acted in uncivil ways.  But psychology is not in crisis because of incivility.  It is in crisis because of an increasing recognition of threats to its scientific validity and credibility.

*** These papers Gelman cited are classics in the science reform/scientific integrity movement.  The issues they raised -- as well as others -- can be found in my next blog (link immediately below).  

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If you found this interesting, you might also like my next post:

What is Wrong with Social Psychological Science?  This provides a broad overview of ways that our science can and has gone wrong, with lots of links and resources.

You could also check out the syllabi for two of my courses on the psychology of scientific integrity, which provide lots of resources, many from blogs or the popular press, and some from technical, scientific journal articles.

Scientific Integrity Syllabus -- undergraduate

Scientific Integrity Syllabus -- graduate

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