August 29, 2018

WHICH MAKES EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY DOUBLY DUBIOUS:

A Novel Defense of Bad Social Psychology Studies (ANDREW FERGUSON, July 31, 2018, Weekly Standard)

In the last 10 years, thanks to several whistle-blowing researchers working independently, the prison experiment and its findings have been largely discredited. The editor of at least one popular textbook has removed mentions of it. It turns out that the behavior of college students in role-playing exercises under the watchful eye of their professors doesn't tell us much about the behavior of ordinary people in the real world, no matter how powerful or powerless they are. This has surprised social psychologists. Many of them still refuse to believe it.

Carey also mentions another famous, and much cuter, experiment called the Marshmallow Test. It, too, he notes glumly, has been subverted by further examination. In the marshmallow test, young and adorable children were filmed as they tried not to eat marshmallows. The researchers concluded that children who were taught the ability to delay gratification would, thanks to this single trait, grow up to have happier and more successful lives. On the basis of the marshmallow experiment, policymakers over the next generation developed character-building programs that became all the rage in the fad factories of public education. Teach a kid self-control when he's 5, went the thinking, and 20 years later you'll have a college graduate on your hands.

Anyone uncontaminated by social science would understand this proposition to be laughably mechanical and simplistic. And even social scientists are now seeing that the study was severely limited in application. Almost all the kids in the test were white and well-to-do; the results didn't take into account family stability, the level of parents' education, the behavior of peers, or any of the other infinite factors that form a child's character. For nearly 30 years the "marshmallow effect" was science. Now it's folklore.

Carey could have picked dozens of other examples. Every few weeks, it seems, another established truth of social science comes a cropper. But Carey is a man of faith, as believers in social science must be. He doesn't want to let go. He is wounded by critics who think the replication crisis somehow undermines social psychology's standing as science. "On the contrary," he writes. The crisis proves social science is self-correcting, just the way real sciences are.

"Housecleaning is a crucial corrective in science," Carey writes. This is true. He also says "psychology has led by example." This is not true. A science cannot correct itself unless its findings are subjected to replication, but even now such self-examination is rare in social science--indeed, it is often deemed seditious. Reformers and revisionists who question famous findings are subjected to personal and professional abuse from colleagues online and elsewhere.

Still, Carey insists, psychology is a science. It's just not a science in the way that other, fussier sciences are science. "The study of human behavior will never be as clean as physics or cardiology," he writes. "How could it be?" And of course those farfetched experiments aren't like real experiments. "Psychology's elaborate simulations are just that."

These are large concessions, but Carey doesn't seem to realize how subversive they are. Those "elaborate simulations" are held up by social scientists as experiments on a par with the controlled experiments of real science. We are told they reĀ­-create the various circumstances that human beings find themselves in and react to. The only reason anyone pays attention to social psychology is that its findings are supposed to be widely, even universally, applicable, as the findings of the physical sciences are. Otherwise it's unlikely news outlets would hire reporters to write about social science.

Carey's defense of social psychology fits the current age. It is post-truth, as our public intellectuals like to say. "[Social psychology's] findings are far more accessible and personally relevant to the public than those in most other scientific fields," Carey writes. "The public's judgments matter to the field, too."

Okay, but are the findings true? Carey's answer is: Who cares? The headline over his piece summarizes the point. "Many famous studies of human behavior cannot be reproduced. Even so, they revealed aspects of our inner lives that feel true."



Posted by at August 29, 2018 6:19 PM

  

« GROW THE POSSIBLE BIGGER: | Main | CRUSADER STATE: »