“Social priming” has been the punching-bag of psychology for the past few years.
The term “social priming” refers to the idea that subtle cues can exert large, unconscious influences on human behaviour. The classic example of a social priming effect was the “professor priming” study in which volunteers who completed a task in which they had to describe a typical professor, subsequently performed better on a general knowledge task. In other words, as the authors put it, “priming a stereotype or trait leads to complex overt behavior in line with this activated stereotype or trait.”
Although it was a booming research area for many years (that professor priming paper has 756 citations), social priming has lately come under heavy criticism. Many researchers have failed to replicate previously claimed effects. The field’s reputation also suffered when Diederik Stapel, a high-profile social priming researcher, was exposed as a fraud who faked data in dozens of studies.
Writing in STAT last week, Julie Rehmeyer discussed the release of raw data from the PACE study, a clinical trial which has long been controversial amongst the very population it studied: people with chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME).
Rehmeyer, a CFS/ME patient herself, reports:
Under court order, the [PACE] study’s authors for the first time released their raw data earlier this month. Patients and independent scientists collaborated to analyze it and posted their findings Wednesday on Virology Blog, a site hosted by Columbia microbiology professor Vincent Racaniello. The analysis shows that if you’re already getting standard medical care, your chances of being helped by the treatments are, at best, 10 percent. And your chances of recovery? Nearly nil.
The new findings are the result of a five-year battle that chronic fatigue syndrome patients — me among them — have waged to review the actual data underlying that $8 million study.
Earlier this month a British tribunal ruled that London’s Queen Mary University (QMU) should comply with a 2014 Freedom of Information Act request and share the (anonymized) raw data from the PACE study. The PACE researchers and the university had long resisted this move, but following the ruling, QMU admitted defeat. The data is now available here.
There has been an enormous amount written about PACE. Here’s my take: in my view, releasing the data was the right thing to do and should have been done all along. But what does the data show? How well does it support what the PACE authors claimed? Is the study “bad science” as Rehmeyer puts it?
The journal Neurology published a unique and touching paper today: it’s by artist Susan Schneider Williams, the widow of actor Robin Williams, who died by suicide in August 2014. It’s titled The terrorist inside my husband’s brain, the ‘terrorist’ being Lewy Body disease (LBD), the neurodegenerative disorder that, as Schneider Williams recounts, destroyed his life.
A draft article due to appear in APS Observer caused widespread outrage this week. Susan Fiske, the former president of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), writes that bloggers and other online critics of psychology papers are running wild:
New media (e.g., blogs, twitter, Facebook posts) are encouraging uncurated, unfiltered trash-talk. In the most extreme examples, online vigilantes are attacking individuals, their research programs, and their careers. Self-appointed data police are volunteering critiques of such personal ferocity and relentless frequency that they resemble a denial-of-service attack that crashes a website by sheer volume of traffic.
Fiske goes on to call critics “bullies”, “destructo-critics” and, most notoriously, practioners of “methodological terrorism.” She says that these offenders “destroy lives” because they “attack the person, not just the work” and that “our colleagues at all career stages are leaving the field because of the sheer adversarial viciousness.”
Now, many people have responded to Fiske’s piece already (see Andrew Gelman, Sam Schwarzkopf, and many more.) Many people are unhappy at the use of language such as ‘terrorism’ to describe people who are just posting their thoughts about papers online.
However, I want to take a different tack.
Let’s suppose that Fiske is right and that some individuals, while pretending to be discussing science, are actually engaged in the targeted personal harassment of particular scientists. If that’s the case, what should we do?
In my view, we should name names (or pseudonyms!): we should hold the offenders accountable with reference to specific examples of their attacks. After all, these people (Fiske says) are vicious bullies who are behaving in seriously unethical ways. If so, they deserve to be exposed.
Yet Fiske doesn’t do this. She says, “I am not naming names because ad hominem smear tactics are already damaging our field.” But it’s not an ad hominem smear to point to a case of bullying or harassment and say ‘this is wrong’. On the contrary, that would be standing up for decency. If terrorists really are among us, we need to know who they are.
Another reason why I think Fiske (and anyone else in a similar position) should name names is that it helps to draw boundaries. Fiske acknowledges that not all bloggers are bad: “Not all self-appointed critics behave unethically.” So who are the ethical ones? It would help to know some examples of the ‘good’ critics because we could then know where Fiske draws the boundary seperating good criticism from bad. As it stands, Fiske’s denouncations can easily be read as aimed at the vast majority of those who debate science online.
In summary, I want to know who Fiske is calling a “destructo-critic” so I can judge the accuracy of the label. Am I one?
Retraction Watch reveals that a ‘contrarian’ paper on climate change has been withdrawn after it emerged that the authors submitted it under pseudonyms – in fact, their own names spelled backwards:
The withdrawn paper, about predicting surface temperatures of planets, appeared in Advances in Space Research in August, 2015, and is authored by ‘Den Volokin’ and ‘Lark ReLlez’… climate scientist Gavin Schmidt pointed out on Twitter that the authors’ names are eerily similar to another pair who have published climate papers together: Ned Nikolov and Karl Zeller.
Writing in PLoS Biology, neurobiologist Thomas C. Südhof discusses Truth in Science Publishing: A Personal Perspective. Südhof is a Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford. A veteran scientist, he’s been publishing since 1982.
So what’s the state of science publishing as Südhof sees it?
To what extent does brain structure correlate with different psychological traits? An interesting new paper from Massachusetts General Hospital researchers Mert R. Sabuncu and colleagues uses a new method to examine what the authors call the ‘morphometricity’ of various behaviours and mental disorders.