Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Social Psychology as Pseudo-Science

A couple of months ago famed Dutch social psychologist Prof. Diederik Stapel was revealed to be a fraud, a pseudo-scientist who made up his data

Stapel has since apologized, relinquished his doctorate, and resigned his position.

The incident has led social psychologists to do some serious soul-searching and hand-wringing. After all, their credibility and authority rests on the assumption that their research is hard science. Everyone knows, when you call something hard science the world bows down in servile obeisance.

Now, it appears that some social psychologists are providing something other than scientific knowledge about human behavior.

Writing in the Weekly Standard Andrew Ferguson claims that lay people, especially media writers, are far too willing to accept social psychological research as hard science. In his word, they are chumps.

Ferguson explains: “Lots of cultural writing these days, in books and magazines and newspapers, relies on the so-called Chump Effect. The Effect is defined by its discoverer, me, as the eagerness of laymen and journalists to swallow whole the claims made by social scientists. Entire journalistic enterprises, whole books from cover to cover, would simply collapse into dust if even a smidgen of skepticism were summoned whenever we read that ‘scientists say’ or ‘a new study finds’ or ‘research shows’ or ‘data suggest.’ Most such claims of social science, we would soon find, fall into one of three categories: the trivial, the dubious, or the flatly untrue.”

Apologists for social psychology try to explain it away by invoking the pressure to publish. Unfortunately, there seems to be more to it. And there is more to journalistic gullibility.

Journalists are not just innocent dupes. They have allowed the Stapels of this world to get away with shoddy and even faked research because the conclusions coincide with what they journalists really believe.

It isn’t just the mantle of science. Social psychologists tell opinion makers what they want to hear. It allows them to present their opinions as fact.

You might have guessed that the pseudo-research invariably arrives at politically correct and culturally leftist conclusions. It “proves” that we are all racists, sexists, and homophobes, beset with unconscious prejudices that only the trained eye of the social psychologist can reveal.

Also, fake science has “proven” that advertising directed at women, especially the kind that involves cosmetics and shoes, lowers women’s self-esteem.

If this research is fake, then we can kiss Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth good-bye.

Stapel also conducted fake research “proving” that people who eat meat are more boorish and anti-social than vegetarians.

And then there was the study “proving” that people who had more power were more likely to be hypocrites.

Since this study appeared in 2009, it was timely. Ferguson reports: “Stapel and his colleagues’ research revealed that powerful people were more likely to be ‘moral hypocrites.’ And which powerful people did the researchers have in mind? ‘Politicians [who] use public funds for private benefits while calling for smaller government’ and CEOs ‘accepting executive bonuses while simultaneously asking for government bailouts’.” 

Stapel was allowed to get away with his fraud because he helped promote a political and cultural agenda.

He is surely not the only social psychologist who plays fast and loose with data.

Prof. Erik-Jan Wagenmakers of the University of Amsterdam has proposed a list of studies that he considers dubious, at best.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports: “Unlike most other critics, [Wagenmakers is] not afraid to call out specific papers that he thinks are bogus: ‘Through prestigious publications and extensive media coverage,’ he writes in a draft of a new paper, ‘the general public has been informed that engineers have more sons and nurses have more daughters, ... that people choose spouses, places to live, and professions because they share letters with their name (e.g., Jenny marries Jim, Phil moves to Philadelphia, and Dennis becomes a dentist, ... that people make better decisions when their bladder is full, ... that ovulation makes it easier for women to distinguish heterosexual from homosexual men, ... and that brief exposure to an image of the American flag can push people toward the Republican end of the U.S. political spectrum, even when the flag image was presented eight months earlier’."

It continues: “[Wagenmakers] can't swear all those studies are wrong. ‘But even using common sense, a lot of these hypotheses are unlikely, a priori, and you should collect a lot more evidence in order for them to be accepted’."


JP said...

I'm more surprised that he actually got caught faking the data than the fact that he faked the data.

There will always be a job for Court Intellectuals.

I'll bet I could design a social psychology experiment to back me up on that one.

Anonymous said...

I would encourage people to keep in mind that it is inappropriate to paint all of psychology with such a broad brush. Yes, Social Psych is a dubious area of research. They are the most clique-like and least statistically rigourous of all the areas of psychology. However, even within their ranks, there are very good research programs (few as they may be) and outstanding researchers. I would be cautious about dismissing the field -- which I know was not the intent of this blog. However, it still needs to be said that there is some value in the empirical line of inquiry.

Anonymous said...

Saying that psychology is a pseudoscience is pretty outrageous especially since you are a life coach
Coaching is a pseudoscience...
Psychology is a science

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Try learning how to read... the reference is to some studies that have been shown not to be science. No one ever suggested that coaching was science.

Unknown said...

Psychology/Psychiatry is bullshit. Its basis is from philosophy. Its theroies are unproven/unprovable. Its motive is profit. Its basically a religion.

A few hundred years ago if someone was schizophrenic they were possessed by demons and had it tortured out of them by priests.

A little bit later if someone was schizophrenic they were tortured by psychiatrists.

Now, if someone is schizophrenic its assumed to be a chemical imbalance and the only cure is dangerous mind numbing drugs. Big pharma and psychiatrists make billions.

We still dont know what causes mental illness and we still have no cures or really even effective treatment. We have dangerous mind numbing and very profitable drugs that dont work.