Post-Modern Science In Crisis

  • Date: 21/03/16
  • Daniel Engber, Slate

“We have a bunch of half-baked ideas. We run a bunch of experiments. Whatever data we get, we pretend that’s what we were looking for.”

David Peterson would like to know why psychology has fallen into crisis. The discipline now seems rife with shoddy data. A recent, large-scale effort to reproduce experiments found that more than half of 100 major papers could not be replicated. Even certain bedrock findings—including those that spawned entire subfields of research—now appear to be unstable. What, exactly, led us to this point?

Peterson has some clues. The graduate student in sociology at Northwestern University has spent parts of the past four years conducting an ethnographic study of about a dozen different research labs. The subjects of his research were at times distressing in their honesty. “You want to know how it works?” one graduate student told him. “We have a bunch of half-baked ideas. We run a bunch of experiments. Whatever data we get, we pretend that’s what we were looking for.”

That quote comes from Peterson’s most recent academic paper, published in January, which describes the 16 months he spent visiting three developmental psychology labs. The behavior he documents provides some useful insight into how rank-and-file scientists bend the rules of research in subtle and unsubtle ways.


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