Weekend reads: “The best scientist in jail story since Galileo,” replication is “charming and naive”

booksAnother busy week at Retraction Watch. Here’s what was happening elsewhere:

11 thoughts on “Weekend reads: “The best scientist in jail story since Galileo,” replication is “charming and naive””

    1. I’ll second that!

      Also, psychology is not a physical science. I worry far more about non-replicating biomedical studies and pre clinical trials (which are also not physical sciences)- and a few things I’ve seen in the chemistry and physics literature- than I do about psychology.

      Besides, if you want to learn about human behavior, read a Greek tragedy. It’s a lot cheaper, and probably more accurate.

      1. “psychology is not a physical science.” Highlighting psychology does mean that coverage of the physical sciences is swamped. If you show most people two very similar figures in a paper from physical science papers they will say something like they do not know anything about the subject and cannot even take a look, but if there is something about psychology (about which they are also not trained) they feel free to wax lyrical. Perhaps the latter shows that they do not take psychology seriously, but it does have the effect of generating much comment. Funnily enough these same people do take art seriously because if you ask them what they think about a painting they will also say that they do not know anything about the subject, when in fact it does not need special knowledge.

        1. “if there is something about psychology (about which they are also not trained) they feel free to wax lyrical”

          This is true, many people- not just physical scientists- do enjoy being “backseat drivers” for psych. The reason I personally don’t take psychology too seriously is because I have taken several college level psychology courses, I read a reasonable amount neuroscience/neurobiology literature, and know many psychology PhDs who also do not take it seriously. (My undergraduate school has a highly ranked and very crowded psychology department, so I would up with a lot of psych major buddies.)

          I view it as an interesting discipline that gets wildly oversold on a routine basis in the popular media- humans do so like to hear about themselves. Just because psychology is not *yet* a physical science does not mean we should stop researching the topic altogether, my joke about the Greek tragedy aside. (Although I firmly believe people today should read more about the Greek concept of hubris.) I see psychology today as being where chemistry was a few hundred years ago, mostly because we do not yet have the right tools to properly dissect the mind both on a sub-cellular level and an emergent, networked level over populations of cells.

      2. I’m not trying to be crude, but here is my assessment of psychology. In 1978 the psychology class I took was taught by a female professor who had taken part in a published study of men’s public restroom behavior – apparently observers documented that in large restrooms with multiple urinals, those using the facilities would always leave an empty urinal between themselves and others if available. We had to read about, discuss, and then be tested on the reasons for the rather complicated male public restroom etiquette. Huh? My essay on the final exam was brief and went something like this: “We men leave a space between us when choosing urinals because it is much more natural to stand to urinate with our legs spread apart.”

  1. That article about “Negative Psychology” by Jim Coan stands out through the names it omits: Diederik Stapel, Marc Hauser, Dirk Smeesters, Lawrence Sanna, and, at least potentially, Jens Förster. Non of these cases would ever have been busted if there hadn’t been a healthy dose of negative psychology around. You could even say these guys got away with their act much too long as there was not enough of it. A great deal of this negative psychology is first class science writing, like Neuroskeptic debunking the statistic anomalies of the Jens Förster case. By the way, that Humboldt Fellowship includes an annual salary of 180.000 Euros (about 245.000 Dollars). It would be nice to see such an award not only for outstanding science, but also for outstanding exposure of scientific misconduct.

  2. I appreciated very much Jim Coan’s essay and have these two reactions: Given what we know about experimenter bias, I do worry about what, at times, seems to be an adversarial attitude on the part of some of those who seek to replicate others’ work. In my view, such an attitude is counterproductive. As I wrote on another list (lest I be accused of self-plagiarism!), I believe that efforts at replication need to be guided by a genuine spirit of scientific cooperation, curiosity, and discovery and not by some other hidden agenda (e.g., professional competition, jealousy, being on a ‘debunking’ mission). Efforts to replicate must always be neutral, if not amicable, but never adversarial. Admittedly, these are all lofty goals, but I am afraid that an alternative approach will lead us astray of our true goals: To find truth.

    Also, Coan wrote: “Because Negative Psychology makes such hay from snark and outrage, and because fraud of the kind the Neuroskeptic is worried about is rare …”. Sure, the consensus in the research integrity (RI) community is that outright data fabrication and falsification are relatively rare, but the RI literature has also repeatedly shown that too many of us commit all sorts of ‘scientific misdemeanors’ (e.g., inappropriate data handling, incomplete or misleading methods) with some frequency and, as Zigmond and Fischer (2002) have pointed out, in the aggregate, these misdemeanors can also do great harm. No, we need to clean up our act and root out both, the major felonies (i.e., fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism) and the many other misdemeanors that occur, all of which are probably contributing in no small way to the continuing decline in the public’s trust in science. Yes, we need replication; it is a cornerstone of science, but we better go about it the right way.


    Zigmond MJ, Fischer, BA. Beyond fabrication and plagiarism: The little murders of everyday science, Science Engineering Ethics, 8:229-234, 2002.

    1. A colleague from another list alerted me to this paper, which reports a failure to replicate some recent findings from Germany indicating that individuals with last names that denoted a noble meaning (e.g., King, Emperor) were more likely to have managerial positions than others, . http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/05/27/0956797614533802.full.

      What’s noteworthy about this replication is that it was a joint effort on the part of the original authors and a critic of that original work. My sense is that this joint effort embodies the values that I described in my earlier post about how efforts at replication should proceed..

  3. The most positive consequence of negative psychology might be if all working scientists were just a little more cautious about what they put into print. The problem isn’t fraud so much as bad motivation. If we were all a bit more worried about being made fun of for getting it wrong, the flood of irreproducible work might dry up a little.

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