Andrew Ferguson argued in early December that journalists fall too easily for bad academic research. However, he seems to base much of his argument on the actions of one fraudulent scientist:
Lots of cultural writing these days, in books and magazines and newspapers, relies on the so-called Chump Effect. The Effect is defined by its discoverer, me, as the eagerness of laymen and journalists to swallow whole the claims made by social scientists. Entire journalistic enterprises, whole books from cover to cover, would simply collapse into dust if even a smidgen of skepticism were summoned whenever we read that “scientists say” or “a new study finds” or “research shows” or “data suggest.” Most such claims of social science, we would soon find, fall into one of three categories: the trivial, the dubious, or the flatly untrue.
A rather extreme example of this third option emerged last month when an internationally renowned social psychologist, Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, was proved to be a fraud. No jokes, please: This social psychologist is a fraud in the literal, perhaps criminal, and not merely figurative, sense. An investigative committee concluded that Stapel had falsified data in at least “several dozen” of the nearly 150 papers he had published in his extremely prolific career…
But it hardly seems to matter, does it? The silliness of social psychology doesn’t lie in its questionable research practices but in the research practices that no one thinks to question. The most common working premise of social-psychology research is far-fetched all by itself: The behavior of a statistically insignificant, self-selected number of college students or high schoolers filling out questionnaires and role-playing in a psych lab can reveal scientifically valid truths about human behavior…
Who cares? The experiments are preposterous. You’d have to be a highly trained social psychologist, or a journalist, to think otherwise. Just for starters, the experiments can never be repeated or their results tested under controlled conditions. The influence of a hundred different variables is impossible to record. The first group of passengers may have little in common with the second group. The groups were too small to yield statistically significant results. The questionnaire is hopelessly imprecise, and so are the measures of racism and homophobia. The notions of “disorder” and “stereotype” are arbitrary—and so on and so on.
Yet the allure of “science” is too strong for our journalists to resist: all those numbers, those equations, those fancy names (say it twice: the Self-Activation Effect), all those experts with Ph.D.’s!
But there are a couple of issues here and several are worth pursuing:
1. The fact that Stapel committed fraud doesn’t mean that all scientists do bad work. Ferguson seems to want to blame other scientists for not knowing Stapel was committing fraud – how exactly would they have known?
2. Ferguson doesn’t seem to like social psychology. He does point to some valid methodological concerns: many studies involve small groups of undergraduates. Drawing large conclusions from these studies is difficult and indeed, perhaps dangerous. But this isn’t all social psychology is about.
2a. More generally, Ferguson could be writing about a lot of disciplines. Medical research tends to start with small groups and then decisions are made. Lots of research, particularly in the social sciences, could be invalidated if Ferguson was completely right. Ferguson really would suggest “Most such claims of social science…fall into one of three categories: the trivial, the dubious, or the flatly untrue.”?
3. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: journalists need more training in order to understand what scientific studies mean. Science doesn’t work in the way that journalists suggests where there is a steady stream of big findings. Rather, scientists find something and then others try to replicate the findings in different settings with different populations. Science is more like an accumulation of evidence than a lot of sudden lightning strikes of new facts. One small study of undergraduates may not tell us much but dozens of such experiments among different groups might.
4. I can’t help but wonder if there is a political slant to this: what if scientists were reporting positive things about conservative viewpoints? Ferguson complains that measuring things like racism and homophobia are difficult but this is the nature of studying humans and society. Ferguson just wants to say that it is all “arbitrary” – this is simply throwing up our hands and saying the world is too difficult to comprehend so we might as well quit. If there isn’t a political edge here, perhaps Ferguson is simply anti-science? What science does Ferguson suggest is credible and valid?
In the end, you can’t dismiss all of social psychology because of the actions of one scientist or because journalists are ill-prepared to report on scientific findings.