Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Liars Figure

"Figures don't lie, but liars figure."
Attributed to Mark Twain

I retired at the right time. After spending my adult life as a social psychologist, mostly working on problems with organizational and social relevance, I read that  the field is rife with both outright fabrication of data and highly questionable research practices, which amount to the same thing. You can read summaries and commentaries here, in a special issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, which the Association for Psychological Science (APS) has made freely available. It is to the great credit of APS that they have been at the forefront of this discussion.

Why should anyone outside of the ivory tower care about any of this? Unlike biomedical research, in which fraud is also rampant, faking the results of psychological research only affects other pointy-headed academic geeks, right? Nobody dies, as they have through, say, lack of vaccination or the use of ineffective, possibly toxic, cancer treatments.

Not quite. Even if we discount the waste of grant money and other taxpayer's dollars (see "The New Plantation"), which frankly pale in comparison to other government boondoggles like Solyndra, there are reasons for concern. For one thing, social policies are built on or justified by this research. In social psychology quite a bit of effort is devoted to finding "biases" of various sorts. It is vastly easier to publish an article claiming to document some racial, ethic or sex-based bias than one showing even-handed judgement. This makes the case for all sorts of interventions, from affirmative action to "diversity" programs. Besides the direct waste of time and resources these involve, they are toxic to both organizations and the people they purport to help. Who benefits? Race-baiting politicians, "minority spokesmen," and bureaucratic drones. And, naturally, the academics, who reap grants, tenure, promotion and so forth. I'm willing to bet that a close examination of these studies would reveal many cases of highly selective reporting, questionable statistical treatments, discarding of "incorrect" data and other methodological sins sufficient to keep a battalion of imps busy punishing the authors in some deep circle of the Inferno.

Then there's the new cottage industry of finding fault with conservatives. Like bias, it's fashionable to discover various unfortunate tendencies among the right-wing. They're "not open to experience," overly concerned with "purity," "rigid," and so forth. This in contrast with liberals and progressives, who are, well, progressive. One wonders how much data-massaging, cherry-picking, and other fraudulent manipulations are involved. Nobody knows because nobody asks about the validity of popular results. Conservative-bashing is very popular in social psychology. 

I don't know the situation in organizational psychology because nobody's looked at the literature that closely. I'm willing to bet that it isn't much different---a few cases of outright fraud and a great deal of data manipulation to the same ends. Here, though, the implications may be worse, because the use of questionable selection methods and ineffective or toxic interventions have immediate effects on people's lives. Foolish management policies may be laughable in Dilbert but they're very different when one has to live under them or, worse, be unemployed because of them. It's even more dire when police and the military are affected by the same nonsense. Then, people do die.

All of this affects me personally because I'm not sure how much of my theoretical work, based on a lot of others' published research, has been tarnished by fraud. Then there's the advice I've given to people who train military, police and armed citizens (and that I've told my own students of self-defense), likewise based on published research. Most of it is fundamentals, phenomena and principles that seem well-validated over many years and volumes of research. The operative word here is "seem." Suddenly, I don't know. When people go into harm's way they need the very best we can give. I'm not sure I'm doing that any more.

I have no solutions. The authors in the Perspectives issue offer some, but I'm dubious. Incentives for fraud are built into the structure of academia; they can't be removed while it stands. The great edifice of knowledge to which I thought I had contributed a brick or two turns out to be a shaky lashup at best, a scrapyard outhouse at worst. 

The hell with it. I'm going to the range, where at least the holes I shoot in my targets mean something.

1 comment:

  1. So what you're saying is that psychological research methods parallel those in the physical sciences, which (to cite the most obvious case) give us faulty 'data' to prove that no matter what changes we see in the weather, they all stem from Glowbull Warming, and that in turn is caused exclusively by human activities. That big hot bright ball we see in the sky has nothing to do with it.

    My question is along the lines of a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. Jack writes that "social policies are built on or justified by this research". But is that the case? Are the toxic social policies the result of biased research, or is it the other way around?

    Many of these researchers rely on grant money. The bureaucratic establishment brings their own set of prejudices - among them the conservative-bashing Jack correctly notes. That same leftist cabal decides who gets the grant money. Will it go to honest studies where the outcome is uncertain - or to less ethical but more liberal groups who can be counted on to deliver the results the bureaucrats need to justify more regulations, programs, and control over all of us?

    I think the answer's obvious. So which came first - the policies or the studies? It's difficult to say, but you can make a good case either way.


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