Op-Ed Calls for Civility in Psychological Science, Draws Mixed Reactions

A world-renowned geneticist’s newspaper opinion article about the discourse surrounding rigor in social psychology research is sparking a mix of kudos and criticism among scientists and journalists.

In a January 21 article in The Boston Globe titled “For better science, call off the revolutionaries,” Harvard University professor Pardis Sabeti points to “a current group of scientists and internet bloggers,” spurred by new methods and statistical techniques to attempt to weed out faulty psychological science. She argues that some of these efforts have mushroomed beyond criticisms of past research into personal attacks against the scientists behind those studies. She cites several examples of psychological scientists being subjected to personal attacks, much of it on social media, over findings that don’t hold up in subsequent replications and methodological reviews. This, she says, has left researchers “wary of publishing new findings or replications of previous findings for fear the vicious type of reproach that they’ve witnessed.”

“[T]he 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,” Sabeti writes.

Sabeti is best known for leading a group that used advanced genomic sequencing in 2014 to identify a single point of infection from an animal reservoir to a human in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. That work led her to be named one of TIME Magazine’s Persons of the Year in 2014 and one of its most influential people in 2015.

Her Globe piece drew considerable attention on Twitter, with some calling it “compelling” and “sensible” and others describing it as “one-sided” and “misinformed”.  Harvard colleagues, including APS William James Fellow Steven Pinker and APS Fellow Daniel Gilbert lauded the piece on the social media site. Gilbert called it one of the “smartest essays about the politics of social psychology that I’ve ever read.”

But APS Fellow Brian Nosek, co-founder and director of the Center for Open Science and a leader in the drive to increase reproducibility in research, tweeted that he disagreed with Sabeti’s characterization of the efforts to improve scientific rigor, saying they have been mostly “positive, respectful, exciting, & forward-looking.”

Psychological scientist Christopher Soto of Colby College in Maine shared on Twitter a letter he sent to the Globe in response to Sabeti’s article, inviting other researchers to follow his lead. In his letter, Soto writes that although a few researchers have made unfair attacks against colleagues, “many more have worked to improve psychological science through civility and rigor.”

In her Globe article, Sabeti contrasts the “revolution” in social psychology to a major shakeup in the field of human genetics in the early 2000s. Advances in genomics research called into question previous findings on genes linked to illnesses such as juvenile diabetes and anxiety disorders, she says, but leaders in her field “returned to an agnostic baseline, rather than one of irrational loyalty –or abnegation of – previous research conducted under earlier norms.”

But in a January 23 Slate article, award-winning science journalist Daniel Engber writes that most of the examples of incivility that Sabeti cites in her piece come from Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman and anonymous commenters on his blog. Engber, along with several scientists posting on Twitter, also challenged Sabeti’s characterization of the changes in genomics being rancor-free.

For information on APS’s role in replication initiatives in psychological science, click here.

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