Psychology Literature Littered With Conclusions That Aren't Real
    By Hank Campbell | February 20th 2013 08:42 PM | 8 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    If you have watched the strange, sad decline of psychology over the last decade, you may have started to wonder if any conclusions are legitimate. With evolutionary psychology claiming voting Republican is an adaptive function and social psychologists claiming people can predict the future, there is a lot of woo getting published.

    While scientists are sort of gracious about it - psychology departments are usually in the humanities buildings, not the science ones - the downside science is only starting to realize is that it damages the credibility of all science to have nonsense lumped in.

    Motivated reasoning, selectively excluding subjects, amending the experimental procedure after designing the study, all those things are biasing studies to get more positive findings - and no one cares about replicating results, since they are too busy doing their own surveys of undergraduate students to bother. 

    The good news is, the fraud is starting to get caught and that is primarily due to young researchers who thought their field was trying to be science but found their elders are more like carnival hucksters. Sure, there is still a lot of political science 'your voting is in your genes' tripe making it through psychology peer review but that is a fad brought on by the wide-open possibilities of epigenetics. 20 years from now those people will be laughed at, and rightfully so.

    Tia Ghose at LiveScience has the takedown of psychology and also highlights some of the positive ways the ethical researchers are instituting accountability.



    Comments

    John Hasenkam
    If you have watched the strange, sad decline of psychology over the last decade, you may have started to wonder if any conclusions are legitimate. 
    Many people go into psychology wanting to help people, and all too often it seems to help themselves, to be on the wrong side of the desk. That is like physicists wanting to help the quantum. The understanding of behavior must be an end in itself but our culture inculcates so many assumptions about behavior in us that we must work very hard to strip our thinking of these influences because these are not scientific. In the same way that physics students must disavow themselves of common sense notions about reality it is high time psychologists threw down cultural themes that purport to shed light on behavior. 

    Renaisauce
    I think that the field of psychology is kind of going through an identity crisis, mostly because of this increasingly popular concept: "what we do, think and perceive is dependent upon physiological changes among populations of brain cells." From that perspective alone, modern psychology can seem a bit arcane, like describing the activity of a computer without delving much into how the computer is wired or how the software is coded. Now, I think that perspective is unfair, but I think it's a viewpoint that will be increasingly powerful as neuroscience encroaches more and more into our understanding of self and behavior. Crazy pop psych isn't exactly new (and to be fair, neither is crazy pop neuroscience), but if there is an increase in crazy psychology from years past, I think some of that could be credited to a search for relevancy in the face of an increasingly biology-based view of how people work.
    Hank
    It may be that psychology problems seem more frequent because of better literacy among the public and greater exposure - when I was a kid people were trying to take parapsychology seriously, universities had departments dedicated to paranormal stuff.  I agree about the identity crisis and I think it is old guard versus new - Smeesters and others brought down were brought down by young researchers, not their peers doing peer review. I regard that as a good sign.  A clearer line between belief and functions will, as you say, bring the field forward a lot, but their just claiming functions for everything now isn't working.
    John Hasenkam
    I think some of that could be credited to a search for relevancy in the face of an increasingly biology-based view of how people work.

    In "The Creation of Psychopharmacology"(David Healy) it is noted that behaviorist approaches to behavior modification were scorned in Europe because it was regarded as "soul destroying" and reducing human beings to robots. Which is odd given Skinner himself remarked in "On Having a Poem" ... I am not a S\R psychologist. The problem for understanding behavior is that we bring too much cultural baggage to the problem. The biological approach does help overcome that but the biological approach alone runs the risk of ignoring environmental contingencies that can be very important modifiers of behavior. So the tendency now is to "fix the brain" when the problem might be that we need to fix the environment in which brains function. As a old friend commented on my blog(my emphasis): 
    Others have also explored the common factors of successful therapeutic interventions.
    Asay and Lambert (1999) get deeply into a meta-analysis in this area and conclude that technique ranks a dismal 4th (equal with placebo effects) when measuring the effects of therapy. “Extratherapeutic factors” like lifestyle changes and social support comes first (40%), relationship with the therapist is 2nd (30%), and technique accounts for only 15% of change
    Hank
    But they are creating this new biology-based view of how people work. Psychologists are fetishizing biology more than biologists do. Biologists don't think everything is a function but a lot of modern psychologists do - what movies you want to see, who you vote for, all genetic - and all nonsense.  Just like psychologists who claim a neuroscience basis for mind-reading. Anything can be made biological if we simply suspend disbelief and do some statistics to find things common in a group.
    Renaisauce
    "But they are creating this new biology-based view of how people work."
    That's a very interesting point. But I understand why psychology would go that way. For a long time, psychology operated on the outside of a black box. They could say, "well, we don't know why, but we perceive or do things this way...". Now, in the last few decades, there's the impression that we've popped open the hood. When that happened, a lot of psychological observations were proven correct and given more meaning, because we came to know a little bit about why those observations work. The psychologists weren't on the outside of the black box anymore. So now, every theory has to connect to neuroscience in some way, because it's no longer acceptable to claim a finding about behavior without pointing to a part of the brain and saying, "...and it comes from there." Sometimes that works, but other times the still-existing mysteries of the brain become problematic and ripe for stretching or distorting. I don't know enough about the psychology field to know how accurate my perception is, but that version of events makes sense to me.
    Hank
    Right, they are just putting the cart before the horse. You can't get published being wishy-washy and no one wants to say 'we have to wait 20 years more to know enough' so they try to shroud themselves in scientific validity today - but it is still mostly surveys of college students and some statistics and calling it science.

    Since 2006 I have been cheering up evolutionary biologists with the idea that, in the future, neuroscientists are going to converge on the soul, which means the tiny minority resisting evolution are going to have a much bigger thing in science to fight. Until then we have to endure speculative nonsense from psychologists about how we evolved to like a certain kind of automobile.
    Your article and the comments remind me of long ago, in the last century, when my brother and I were university students. One evening he said to me , "You get do real science while we can do only pretend science". I was an undergrad biology major with coursework in microbiology and biochemistry and he was completing degrees in psychology and history. His point was that even though the social science fields employ a version of scientific method, they introduce subjectivity at every step. So the "adventurous research strategies" reach conclusion that are founded on assumptions and data is collected with study methods that can't be truly empirical and results are interpreted with more subjective assumptions. Even the behaviorists have to begin with an assumption that the rat's behavior, in response to a controlled stimulus, is a valid proxy human behavior.
    Our dad worked for General Motors and I now have four vehicles with a V8; has our tribe evolved to like a certain kind of automobile?