Ideas

Ideas | Pardis Sabeti

For better science, call off the revolutionaries

Bullet breaking a light bulb, 3D rendering isolated on white background
Associated Press

Even in science, revolutions often go far beyond reason. This year, let’s hope that scientists of all stripes — but especially social psychologists — will slow down and start approaching one another with greater respect.

For decades, the field of social psychology has captured the public imagination with high-profile research into how humans interact. Will people obey authority figures even when it involves hurting others? How do stereotypes shape human interactions? Are facial expressions of emotion universal across cultures? All of these are questions that social psychology tries to answer. But the field is in the midst of a revolution that could end up destroying new ideas before they are fully explored — a cautionary tale not just for this field, but for all of science.

Spurred by new methods and statistical techniques, a group of “revolutionaries” — scientists and Internet bloggers both inside and outside the field — have taken it upon themselves to weed out “faulty” science. In forums such as the websites Data Colada, Replicability-Index, and Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, scholars are being urged to focus on replicating the results of past studies and to reconsider their own findings if subsequent research undercuts them. Done responsibly, the revolution is something all scientists could agree is fundamental to advance the field, enabling robust and verifiable discoveries about human psychology, behavior, and biology.

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Like many revolutions, however, it has not been a peaceful one. Perhaps most striking is the attack on a 2010 study by Dana Carney, Amy Cuddy, and Andy Yap on the effects of “power posing.” The study reported that taking on physical positions that embody power, like standing with hands on hips and feet spread apart, can change whether a person feels powerful and acts accordingly. Since then, the implications of this research have been well scrutinized: Dozens of other studies have considered various aspects of power posing. Not all have lent support to every aspect of the idea, but the effect of specific poses on people’s feelings of power has been replicated in 17 independent studies, with promising evidence of effects on many other psychological states in many more.

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For better or worse, social psychology research, even when it comes with caveats, tends to attract a lot of popular attention. The paper on power posing received widespread recognition, especially after Cuddy’s TED talk about her work became wildly popular, racking up over 40 million views.

That visibility also made the original paper a particular target of the revolution. Two critics dismissed the power posing research as “tabloid fodder.” Yet the limitations of the 2010 research, like small sample sizes, were remarkably normal for work published at that time. Indeed, most social psychology experiments conducted before the revolution, and many since then, share the same kinds of limitations.

When an entire field seems to shift in a new direction, as social psychology has, researchers need room to openly debate emerging norms and to recalibrate their work if necessary. Yet the criticisms of Cuddy and of other researchers swept up in the revolution have been so rife with vitriol that it has left researchers wary of publishing new findings or replications of previous findings for fear of the vicious type of reproach that they’ve witnessed. It has led others, like Carney, to disavow their own work in sweeping terms, and threatens to drive other serious scientists, like Cuddy, from the field.

Cuddy is not alone. Angela Duckworth’s work on the importance of grit in educational success — a big idea that’s inspired new ways of thinking about education — has been under seemingly constant attack. Although some critics have raised constructive concerns, others have loudly and effectively misrepresented her claims and the state of the science, dismissing her and the concept of grit altogether. Other good scientists and their work have been attacked by their peers with the same kind of take-no-prisoners zeal that leaves no room for thoughtful responses from those on the receiving end: Roy Baumeister and his work on ego depletion, Simone Schnall’s research on embodied cognition, Kristina Durante’s studies of how women’s menstrual cycles relate to decision-making, Barbara Fredrickson’s work on happiness, and Fritz Strack’s research on facial feedback, among others. These novel ideas are important because they awaken new thinking. They are not finished, and their authors don’t claim that they are.

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When these scientists try to share an evidence-based response to an attack from the revolutionaries, they’ve been shouted down; branded as “defensive,” “dishonest,” “sloppy,” “incompetent,” and “in deep denial”; seen their work dismissed as “pseudoscience,” “junk science,” and “mockworthy”; and unfairly accused of being “anti-replication” and motivated by greed. The attacks on these scientists have become so personal and so threatening that there may be no one in the field willing to speak up on their behalf.

Good science requires a spirit of collaboration, not domination. The debate in social psychology involves some essential criticism of past scientific practice, but revolutions can also lead to a bandwagon effect, in which bullies pile on and bystanders fearfully turn a blind eye. Especially as more disagreements among researchers surface in social media rather than professional publications, there is an insidious temptation to mistake being critical for being right, and to subordinate humility and decency to a “gloating sense of ‘gotcha,’” as the journal Nature put it.

There is a better way forward: through evolution, not revolution.

My own field of human genetics witnessed a massive shakeup in the early 2000s. For decades, generating data on the human genome and genetic variation had been painfully slow, so geneticists did the best they could with what they had. Researchers would exhaustively explore the limited available data, often running many different tests to find signals linking genes to disease. With advances in genomics and better corrections for testing multiple ideas, it became clear that some of the results they previously found were just statistical flukes. In light of this, many of even the most widely heralded results, from juvenile diabetes to anxiety disorders, did not hold up.

By and large, leaders in my field consciously chose to evolve through greater rigor and collaboration rather than by “gotcha.” We engaged other geneticists as if they came from an honest place. We returned to an agnostic baseline, rather than one of irrational loyalty to — or abnegation of — previous research conducted under earlier norms. We updated the literature incrementally, shared data, and worked together to establish standards. The field continually corrected itself.

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We emerged more engaged, productive, successful, and united. A generation of trainees went on to faculty posts and tenure. An academic field blossomed, and an industry was built. Most importantly, numerous discoveries were made that have improved human health, in areas including autoimmune disease, diabetes, macular degeneration, and beyond. These accomplishments were possible because our field built on its history, and the scientists who helped create it, even if their processes were not yet perfect.

The field is in the midst of a revolution that could end up destroying new ideas before they are fully explored — a cautionary tale not just for this field, but for all of science.

The challenges that psychology faces are probably harder than those we geneticists faced. Psychology deals with subtle phenomena that are highly sensitive to social and environmental factors (Was the experimenter friendly? Was it raining that day?). The field lacks the kind of funding needed for really large sample sizes. Worst of all, psychology’s revolution is playing out under the harsh lens of social media, which moves quickly and tends to amplify the loudest, not necessarily the most measured, voices. This means that there is an even greater need for the entire field to manage its revolution — encouraging communication and collaboration between researchers and their critics, consciously promoting both civility and rigor.

As a scientist, I am interested in seeing how rigorous investigations shed light on psychological phenomena, including power posing. It will require more effort to elucidate the mechanisms by which power posing affects people. Some hypotheses, such as the idea that specific poses temporarily alter hormone levels in a person’s body, may or may not bear out. To answer questions like these, we would need to test more people in a variety of ways — and have scientists who are willing and have the support to carry out the work.

As a human being with 36 stainless steel plates and rods in my body due to a vehicular accident, I can believe that our bodies affect our feelings, moods, behaviors, and physiology. I would hypothesize that we will soon learn a lot in this area. This is an extraordinary time in the field of social psychology. We may finally have the tools, data, and perspective to answer questions that affect all of us so intimately — but only if the revolution holds itself to the same high scientific standards that it promotes, rather than shunning so many researchers that none are left to explore these fundamental questions.

Pardis Sabeti, a computational geneticist, is a professor of biology at Harvard and an institute member at the Broad Institute.