John Bargh’s “Transient and Ephemeral” Blogs

By Neuroskeptic | November 2, 2012 11:54 am

Leading social psychologist and Yale Professor John Bargh has been at the center of a number of controversies lately.

Most recently, researcher Brent Donnellan covered a case in which he was unable to replicate one of Bargh’s experiments, which prompted Bargh to share his original raw data with him, but on the condition that he never discussed it publicly: What’s the First Rule about John Bargh’s Data? You do not talk about John Bargh’s data

But a couple of months back, even more sparks flew over an unrelated non-replication. Some other people didn’t reproduce a different Bargh study.

In response to that non-replication, Bargh published two blog posts called “Nothing In Their Heads” and “Angry Birds”, criticizing both the study itself and the journal it appeared in, PLoS ONE. It was a combative defence of his work.

However, Bargh seems to have since decided it was a bit too defensive, because the posts have been deleted. They just vanished: to my knowledge Bargh hasn’t announced this, nor explained why.

Now interestingly enough, Bargh has just published a short paper in which he offers he thoughts on blogging – it’s rather topical…

Debate among psychologists takes place formally in the published record of journal articles and books… this is the permanent record, as opposed to the relatively transient and ephemeral world of blogs.

As I understand (and use) them, blogs are like newspaper columns or spontaneous radio interviews, and meant to be a forum wherein one can provide the interested public with opinions, feelings, and conjectures; blogs are thus a potentially valuable outlet for ideas when used and evaluated appropriately…

[but they are] personal property whereas journal articles are public property
– as illustrated by one’s ability to edit, change, or delete one’s personal blog entries and one’s concomitant inability to do the same with published works (except to make necessary corrections with the consent of the journal editor).

Fair enough. However, the fact is, a public statement is a public statement. You can change your mind, but you can’t change the past. In my book, to try to erase your past statements from the record is both deceptive – and counterproductive.

The internet never forgets… well, actually, I can’t find copies of the deleted posts (Edit: See the comments, someone has saved them), so maybe it does, however there are dozens of references to them online, many highly critical. At best, what Bargh has achieved is that his critics are now the only sources for information about his work.

Bargh’s new paper, by the way, is a response to this piece I blogged about about the question of free will.

ResearchBlogging.orgBargh, J. (2012). Social psychology cares about causal conscious thought, not free will per se British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12011

  • Matt

    It is unfortunate that the internets memory didn't get round to caching these pages. The best I could find was a copy of the comments to his angry birds post.

  • Ed Yong

    And here's the full text of Angry Birds.

    Really annoyingly, I can't find Nothing in their Heads anywhere.

  • Anonymous


    I think John is working on the transition to the new world of open access publications and blogging and twitter and everything else. A lot of academics who made their names twenty or thirty years ago are going through this process. I expect he's come to realize he may have overshot in those earlier posts, and took them down to regroup and figure out a better approach. Having studied with John for several years, I can say that he is a very honorable person, a dedicated and careful scientist, a warm and generous mentor, and not at all big-headed or mean spirited. I also happen to know that he is going through a very rough time for personal reasons, and has taken the recent online criticisms to heart. The blogging world is important, and we do need to keep looking for ways to improve the scientific enterprise — by posting about the importance of sharing data, encouraging high-quality replication attempts, and so on — but please let's also remember that we have a lot more practice at online argumentation than some older academics, and that we don't always have the full picture about what these people are going through. If you haven't spent time working in John's lab, or seen what a meticulous scientist he is, or talked with him as a friend about the blog post controversies, or asked about how his young daughter is doing, and these sorts of things, then you'll come away with an impoverished impression of this man's heart and mind. So — just take a breath and remember that John is a human being, if you can.

    A former student of John Bargh's
    (I don't normally like to post anonymously, but I don't want to get too drawn into things here. Just putting out a word of support for a kind and honorable person I've had the pleasure of working with over the years).

  • Anonymous

    Re when these pages were taken down, I found this, suggesting that they were removed by June or August (not sure about the date convention being used here).

    '8/6/12 update: These two entries to Bargh's blog have been taken down. One can see the first line or two by clicking on Google search's “cached” option, but they are no longer available in full. Bargh has another defense still posted, and referenced in my Unicorns blog post.'

  • Paul Whiteley

    An interesting post. I wonder if it would ever come to pass that instead of deleting blog entries one 'retracts' them instead?

  • Neuroskeptic

    Thanks for the comments.

    Anonymous: Thanks a lot, that is helpful.

    I appreciate the generational thing and I'm sorry to hear about those personal issues.

    My intention (and I think that of other people in this debate) isn't to “get Bargh” or whatever, but to get at the truth; a lot of people were hurt by his remarks on the non-replication and PLoS, yes, but still, I think people would be very understanding if he addressed what happened and drew a line under it; the internet doesn't forget but it does forgive.

  • omg

    Grow some thick skin and evolve.

  • omg

    If he feels a failure to replicate extends to a character assassination then he just shouldn't respond. Best response to scenarios like that is ignorance so long as you conduct your experiments with integrity there's no need to defend from negative barrage or possibly ill-intended replications.

    Personally I find print transient, I don't even read print material, just blogs. Blogs tell you how it is without the pretentious editing and selling.

  • Franky

    You may find the deleted blog posts here

  • ramesam

    In a way, don't you expect to reproduce the psych expts. of quite a few decades back now a foolhardy concept? After all the guinea pigs of the expts were not some inanimate mechanical gadgets. They were people — in fact the students. And compare the students of the present day — internet savvy, much more informed, independent-minded, less conformist, less scared of elders/parents and in a more liberal (and liberated) society. The present crop of guinea pigs will NOT behave and act as in the old, relatively conservative times.

    Is it wise to expect exact replication using the “WEIRD” student population of these days to get the results of a different time and period? You can at best relate the present results as 'trends of change' rather than condemn John and his work.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Franky: Ooh, thanks!

  • Nitpicker

    @ramesam: You raise a very interesting point here. It's probably very difficult to test this empirically. But if the modern subject population were really behaving different to the ones used in Bargh's older experiments, this would at the very least put a damper on the hypothesis that these behaviors are deep-seated. It would suggest that our behavior is much less malleable by subconscious influences.

  • omg

    Shouldn't failed replications prompt the original authors to replicate their experiments? If it works great, if not, investigate what's changed since then. I don't see what the big deal is other than the unexpected flailings of an internet newbie – how PLoS Poo Lots of Stuff. No dung is bad when utilized appropriately. Is Yale too old school? I noticed this trend in a few Yale researchers.

  • Laust

    Hi Franky,

    The file at wetransfer has expired. Could you plesae repost it?
    (PS: its awesome you archived it :) )

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No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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