Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Idealized vs actual psychological science

I have been reading recently about the philosophy of science, which has got me thinking about the scientific method, both as it's taught in most psychology classes and as it's commonly practiced in psychology.  This thinking has led me to the following conclusion: the version of the scientific method that is usually taught in psychology classes is a farce, to the detriment of the science as a whole.  Let me explain.

Monday, June 15, 2015

What we can learn from the LaCour data fabrication incident

Mike LaCour, author of a paper on
canvassing that was later retracted
About two weeks ago, news broke that Michael LaCour, the first author of a study about how, purportedly, gay canvassers can successfully improve people's attitudes toward gay men and same-sex marriage initiatives, likely fabricated his data. Although news about fraud is always troubling, this news was particularly troubling -- after all, the study was published in Science, one of the most high-profile journals for scientific research (as the joke goes, the shorter the title, the more prestigious the journal). In addition, the methods of the study appeared to be rigorous, and the findings just "felt good" -- according to the study, brief, 20-minute conversations with canvassers who admitted they were gay created dramatic changes in attitude that persisted up to nine months.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Diederik Stapel and the frequency of scientific shenanigans

On August 27, two junior researchers working with the Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel at Tilburg University contacted a university administrator with suspicions that their senior colleague was using faked data.  As one of the worst forms of academic shenanigans that fall under the broad umbrella of "academic misconduct", an allegation of data fabrication was quite serious.  This is especially true because Diederik Stapel was in the early stages of a prolific scientific career; he served on the editorial board of six different academic journals and had received the 2007 "Early Career Award" from the International Society for Self and Identity (ISSI).  He had also published many articles that received generous press attention, including one in Science that claimed that messy environments promote discrimination.

Nonetheless, a little over a week and one university investigation later, Stapel admitted to making up data and was sacked from Tilburg University.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The quest for (social) scientific truth

Every now and then when I tell a stranger that I study scientific psychology, I get a reaction that is perhaps best summarized by this comic from xkcd:

Click for a larger image

Essentially, the reaction is that, as a social science, psychology isn't a "real" science like biology, chemistry, or physics.  I encounter this reaction often enough, even among otherwise scientifically savvy people, that I am often tempted to do silly things like shout, punch things, or at the very least launch into an ill-advised rant.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A glimpse into the abyss of psychology prelims

Over the past month, I endured the crucible of the so-called "preliminary exams", or as they are more affectionately called, "prelims".  These exams go by different names in different areas ("qualifying exams" or "quals", "comprehensive exams" or "comps"), but across institutions, the intent is the same: complete an exam (or more rarely, write a paper) to prove your mastery of a body of knowledge.  Following prelims, graduate students are allowed to begin their dissertation research and, eventually, their PhD.

Needless to say, taking prelims is an intense and exhausting process.  While the specifics vary from place to place, it usually involves studying for months, followed by a multi-day exam with a strict deadline.  My own prelims consisted of a five-hour in-class test, followed by a six-day period in which I wrote four six-page essays.  I studied for my own exams for around five months and, according to my prelims notebook, I read some 75 papers and book chapters.  By the end of prelims I felt like I was leaking social psychology out the ears.