I was having a discussion with someone about problems with the science reform movement (as discussed here by Jessica), and he shared his opinion that “Scientific reform in some corners has elements of millenarian cults. In their view, science is not making progress because of individual failings (bias, fraud, qrps) and that if we follow a set of rituals (power analysis, preregistration) devised by the leaders than we can usher in a new era where the truth is revealed (high replicability).”
My quick reaction was that this reminded me of an annoying thing where people use “religion” as a term of insult. When this came up before, I wrote that maybe it’s time to retire use of the term “religion” to mean “uncritical belief in something I disagree with.”
But then I was thinking about this all from another direction, and I think there’s something there there. Not the “millenarian cults” thing, which I think was an overreaction on my correspondent’s part.
Rather, I see a paradox. From his perspective, my correspondent sees the science reform movement as having a narrow perspective, an enforced conformity that leads it into unforced errors such as publishing a high-profile paper promoting preregistration without actually itself following preregistered analysis plans. OK, he doesn’t see all of the science reform movement as being so narrow—for one thing, I’m part of the science reform movement and I wasn’t part of that project!—but he seems some core of the movement being stuck in narrow rituals and leader-worship.
But I think it’s kind of the opposite. From my perspective, the core of the science reform movement (the Open Science Framework, etc.) has had to make all sorts of compromises with conservative forces in the science establishment, especially within academic psychology, in order to keep them on board. To get funding, institutional support, buy-in from key players, . . . that takes a lot of political maneuvering.
I don’t say this lightly, and I’m not using “political” as a put-down. I’m a political scientist, but personally I’m not very good at politics. Politics takes hard work, requiring lots of patience and negotiation. I’m impatient and I hate negotiation; I’d much rather just put all my cards face-up on the table. For some activities, such as blogging and collaborative science, these traits are helpful. I can’t collaborate with everybody, but when the connection’s there, it can really work.
But there’s more to the world than this sort of small-group work. Building and maintaining larger institutions, that’s important too.
So here’s my point: Some core problems with the open-science movement are not a product of cult-like groupthink. Rather, it’s the opposite: this core has been structured out of a compromise with some groups within psychology who are tied to old-fashioned thinking, and this politically-necessary (perhaps) compromise has led to some incoherence, in particular the attitude or hope that, by just including some preregistration here and getting rid of some questionable research practices there, everyone could pretty much continue with business as usual.
The open-science movement has always had a tension between burn-it-all-down and here’s-one-quick-trick. Put them together and it kinda sounds like a cult that can’t see outward, but I see it as more the opposite, as an awkward coalition representing fundamentally incoherent views. But both sides of the coalition need each other: the reformers need the old institutional powers to make a real difference in practice, and the oldsters need the reformers because outsiders are losing confidence in the system.
The good news
The good news for me is that both groups within this coalition should be able to appreciate frank criticism from the outside (they can listen to me scream and get something out of it, even if they don’t agree with all my claims) and should also be able to appreciate research methods: once you accept the basic tenets of the science reform movement, there are clear benefits to better measurement, better design, and better analysis. In the old world of p-hacking, there was no real reason to do your studies well, as you could get statistical significance and publication with any old random numbers, along with a few framing tricks. In the new world of science reform—even imperfect science reform, this sort of noise mining isn’t so effective, and traditional statistical ideas of measurement, design, and analysis become relevant again.
So that’s one reason I’m cool with the science reform movement. I think it’s in the right direction: its dot product with the ideal direction is positive. But I’m not so good at politics so I can’t resist criticizing it too. It’s all good.
I sent the above to my correspondent, who wrote:
I don’t think it is a literal cult in the sense that carries the normative judgments and pejorative connotations we usually ascribe to cults and religions. The analogy was more of a shorthand to highlight a common dynamic that emerges when you have a shared sense of crisis, ritualistic/procedural solutions, and a hope that merely performing these activities will get past the crisis and bring about a brighter future. This is a spot where group-think can, and at times possibly should, kick in. People don’t have time to each individually and critically evaluate the solutions, and often the claim is that they need to be implemented broadly to work. Sometimes these dynamics reflect a real problem with real solutions, sometimes they’re totally off the rails. All this is not to say I’m opposed to scientific reform; I’m very much for it in the general sense. There’s no shortage of room for improvement in how we turn observations into understanding, from improving statistical literacy and theory development to transparency and fostering healthier incentives. I am, however, wary of the uncritical belief that the crisis is simply one of failed replications and that the performance of “open science rituals” is sufficient for reform, across the breadth of things we consider science. As a minor point, I don’t think many of the vast majority of prominent figures in open science intend for these dynamics to occur, but I do think they all should be wary of them.
There does seem to be a problem that many researchers are too committed to the “estimate the effect” paradigm and don’t fully grapple with the consequences of high variability. This is particularly disturbing in psychology, given that just about all psychology experiments study interactions, not main effects. Thus, a claim that effect sizes don’t vary much is a claim that effect sizes vary a lot in the dimension being studied, but have very little variation in other dimensions. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
Getting back to the open-science movement, I want to emphasize the level of effort it takes to conduct and coordinate these big group efforts, along with the effort required to keep together that the coalition of skeptics (who see preregistration as a tool for shooting down false claims) and true believers (who see preregistration as a way to defuse skepticism about their claims) and get these papers published in top journals. I’d also say it takes a lot of effort for them to get funding, but that would be kind of a cheap shot, given that I too put in a lot of effort to get funding!
Anyway, to continue, I think that some of the problems with the science reform movement are that it effectively promises different things to different people. And another problem is with these massive projects that inevitably include things that not all the authors will agree with.
So, yeah, I have a problem with simplistic science reform prescriptions, for example recommendations to increase sample size without any not toward effect size and measurement. But much much worse, in my opinion, are the claims of success we’ve seen from researchers and advocates who are outside the science-reform movement. I’m thinking here about ridiculous statements such as the unfounded claim of 17 replications of power pose, or the endless stream of hype from the nudgelords, or the “sleep is your superpower” guy, or my personal favorite, the unfounded claim from Harvard that “the replication rate in psychology is quite high—indeed, it is statistically indistinguishable from 100%.”
It’s almost enough to stop here with the remark that the scientific reform movement has been lucky in its enemies.
But I also want to say that I appreciate that the “left wing” of the science reform movement—the researchers who envision replication and preregistration and the threat of replication and preregistration as a tool to shoot down bad studies—have indeed faced real resistance within academia and the news media to their efforts, as lots of people will hate the bearers of bad news. And I also appreciate that the “right wing” of the science reform movement—the researchers who envision replication and preregistration as a way to validate their studies and refute the critics—in that they’re willing to put their ideas to the test. Not always perfectly, but you have to start somewhere.
While I remain annoyed at certain aspects of the mainstream science reform movement, especially when it manifests itself in mass-authored articles such as the notorious recent non-preregistered paper on the effects of preregistration, or that “Redefine statistical significance” article, or various p-value hardliners we’ve encountered over the decades, I also respect the political challenges of coalition-building that are evident in that movement.
So my plan remains to appreciate the movement while continuing to criticize its statements that seem wrong or do not make sense.
I sent the above to Jessica Hullman, who wrote:
I can relate to being surprised by the reactions of open science enthusiasts to certain lines of questioning. In my view, how to fix science is as about a complicated question as we will encounter. The certainty/level of comfortableness with making bold claims that many advocates of open science seem to have is hard for me to understand. Maybe that is just the way the world works, or at least the way it works if you want to get your ideas published in venues like PNAS or Nature. But the sensitivity to what gets said in public venues against certain open science practices or people reminds me very much of established academics trying to hush talk about problems in psychology, as though questioning certain things is off limits. I’ve been surprised on the blog for example when I think aloud about something like preregistration being imperfect and some commenters seem to have a visceral negative reaction to see something like that written. To me that’s the opposite of how we should be thinking.
As an aside, someone I’m collaborating with recently described to me his understanding of the strategy for getting published in PNAS. It was 1. Say something timely/interesting, 2. Don’t be wrong. He explained that ‘Don’t be wrong’ could be accomplished by preregistering and large sample size. Naturally I was surprised to hear #2 described as if it’s really that easy. Silly me for spending all this time thinking so hard about other aspects of methods!
The idea of necessary politics is interesting; not what I would have thought of but probably some truth to it. For me many of the challenges of trying to reform science boil down to people being heuristic-needing agents. We accept that many problems arise from ritualistic behavior, but we have trouble overcoming that, perhaps because no matter how thoughtful/nuanced some may prefer to be, there’s always a larger group who want simple fixes / aren’t incentivized to go there. It’s hard to have broad appeal without being reductionist I guess.