Trouble at the lab

The Economist:

“I SEE a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming”. Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace.

Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed. In April, for instance, a paper in PLoS ONE, a journal, reported that nine separate experiments had not managed to reproduce the results of a famous study from 1998 purporting to show that thinking about a professor before taking an intelligence test leads to a higher score than imagining a football hooligan.

A statistically powerful study is one able to pick things up even when their effects on the data are small. In general bigger studies—those which run the experiment more times, recruit more patients for the trial, or whatever—are more powerful. A power of 0.8 means that of ten true hypotheses tested, only two will be ruled out because their effects are not picked up in the data; this is widely accepted as powerful enough for most purposes. But this benchmark is not always met, not least because big studies are more expensive. A study in April by Dr Ioannidis and colleagues found that in neuroscience the typical statistical power is a dismal 0.21; writing in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Marjan Bakker of the University of Amsterdam and colleagues reckon that in that field the average power is 0.35.

Things appear to be moving fastest in psychology. In March Dr Nosek unveiled the Centre for Open Science, a new independent laboratory, endowed with $5.3m from the Arnold Foundation, which aims to make replication respectable. Thanks to Alan Kraut, the director of the Association for Psychological Science, Perspectives on Psychological Science, one of the association’s flagship publications, will soon have a section devoted to replications. It might be a venue for papers from a project, spearheaded by Dr Nosek, to replicate 100 studies across the whole of psychology that were published in the first three months of 2008 in three leading psychology journals.

Read the whole story: The Economist

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