Uncommon Ground

Twitter, blogs, and scientific critiques

Susan Fiske is a very well known and very well respected social psychologist. This is the opening paragraph of her Wikipedia biography:

Susan Tufts Fiske (born August 19, 1952) is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at the Princeton University Department of Psychology.[ She is a social psychologist known for her work on social cognition, stereotypes, and prejudice. Fiske leads the Intergroup Relations, Social Cognition, and Social Neuroscience Lab at Princeton University. A recent quantitative analysis identifies her as the 22nd most eminent researcher in the modern era of psychology (12th among living researchers, 2nd among women). Her notable theoretical contributions include the development of the stereotype content model, ambivalent sexism theory, power as control theory, and the continuum model of impression formation.

She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013, and she is a past President of the Association for Psychological Science. You may have heard that the current APS President, Susan Goldin-Meadow, invited Fiske to share her thoughts on “the impact that the new media are having…on our science [and] on our scientists.” The draft column provoked heated responses from, among others, Andrew Gelman, Sam Schwarzkopf, and Neuroskeptic. Fiske favors judging throuh

monitored channels, most often in private with a chance to improve (peer review), or at least in moderated exchanges (curated comments and rebuttals).

Gelman, Schwarzkop, and Neuroskeptic prefer open forums. As Gelman puts it,

We learn from our mistakes, but only if we recognize that they are mistakes. Debugging is a collaborative process. If you approve some code and I find a bug in it, I’m not an adversary, I’m a collaborator. If you try to paint me as an “adversary” in order to avoid having to correct the bug, that’s your problem.

There’s a response to the responses on the APS site. It reads, in part,

APS encourages its members to air differing viewpoints on issues of importance to the field of psychological science, and the Observer provides a forum for those deliberations, Goldin-Meadow notes.

“Susan Fiske is a distinguished leader in the field and I invited her to share her opinion for an upcoming edition of the magazine,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that many on social media view her remarks as an attack on open science, when her goal is simply to remind us that scientists sometimes use social media in destructive ways. APS fully expects and welcomes discussion around the issues she raises.”

Of course scientists sometimes use social media in destructive ways. We’re human after all, and we sometimes make mistakes. But we also sometimes – I would argue more often – use social media in constructive ways. It was a blog post by Rosie Redfield that started unraveling the fantasy of arsenic life (in which NASA-sponsored scientists claimed that arsenic could substitute for phosphorous in the DNA or an unusual bacterium). Arguably we wouldn’t be talking about the replication in science at all, or at least we wouldn’t be talking about it nearly as much, if it weren’t for blogs that published some vigorous critiques of widely reported scientific results that turned out to be much more weakly supported than it initially appeared.

Put me in the Gelman, Schwarzkopf, Neuroskeptic camp. It behooves us to behave respectably if we use social media to critique a study. All of us are human. All of us make mistakes. Making a mistake isn’t something to be ashamed of. It’s to be expected if you’re pushing forward at the edges of knowledge. As Schwarzkopf put it:

I can’t speak for others, but if someone applied for a job with me and openly discussed the fact that a result of theirs failed to replicate and/or that they had to revise their theories, this would work strongly in their favor compared to the candidate with overbrimming confidence who only published Impact Factor > 30 papers, none of which have been challenged.

P.S. I notice that Goldin-Meadow’s column in the September issue of APS Observer is titled “Why preregistration makes me nervous.”

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