I finally had a chance to fully read the 2012 Tilberg Report* on “Flawed Science” last night. The full report is now here. Here are some stray thoughts…
1. Slipping into pseudoscience.
The authors of the Report say they never anticipated giving a laundry list of “undesirable conduct” by which researchers can flout pretty obvious requirements for the responsible practice of science. It was an accidental byproduct of the investigation of one case (Diederik Stapel, social psychology) that they walked into a culture of “verification bias”. Maybe that’s why I find it so telling. It’s as if they could scarcely believe their ears when people they interviewed “defended the serious and less serious violations of proper scientific method with the words: that is what I have learned in practice; everyone in my research environment does the same, and so does everyone we talk to at international conferences” (Report 48). So they trot out some obvious rules, and it seems to me that they do a rather good job.
One of the most fundamental rules of scientific research is that an investigation must be designed in such a way that facts that might refute the research hypotheses are given at least an equal chance of emerging as do facts that confirm the research hypotheses. Violations of this fundamental rule, such as continuing an experiment until it works as desired, or excluding unwelcome experimental subjects or results, inevitably tends to confirm the researcher’s research hypotheses, and essentially render the hypotheses immune to the facts…. [T]he use of research procedures in such a way as to ‘repress’ negative results by some means” may be called verification bias. [my emphasis] (Report, 48).
I would place techniques for ‘verification bias’ under the general umbrella of techniques for squelching stringent criticism and repressing severe tests. These gambits make it so easy to find apparent support for one’s pet theory or hypotheses, as to count as no evidence at all (see some from their list ). Any field that regularly proceeds this way I would call a pseudoscience, or non-science, following Popper. “Observations or experiments can be accepted as supporting a theory (or a hypothesis, or a scientific assertion) only if these observations or experiments are severe tests of the theory” (Popper 1994, p. 89).  It is unclear at what point a field slips into the pseudoscience realm.
2. A role for philosophy of science?
I am intrigued that one of the final recommendations in the Report is this:
In the training program for PhD students, the relevant basic principles of philosophy of science, methodology, ethics and statistics that enable the responsible practice of science must be covered. Based on these insights, research Master’s students and PhD students must receive practical training from their supervisors in the application of the rules governing proper and honest scientific research, which should include examples of such undesirable conduct as data massage. The Graduate School must explicitly ensure that this is implemented.
A philosophy department could well create an entire core specialization that revolved around “the relevant basic principles of philosophy of science, methodology, ethics and statistics that enable the responsible practice of science” (ideally linked with one or more other departments). That would be both innovative and fill an important gap, it seems to me. Is anyone doing this?
3. Hanging out some statistical dirty laundry.
Items in their laundry list include:
- An experiment fails to yield the expected statistically significant results. The experiment is repeated, often with minor changes in the manipulation or other conditions, and the only experiment subsequently reported is the one that did yield the expected results. The article makes no mention of this exploratory method… It should be clear, certainly with the usually modest numbers of experimental subjects, that using experiments in this way can easily lead to an accumulation of chance findings….
- A variant of the above method is: a given experiment does not yield statistically significant differences between the experimental and control groups. The experimental group is compared with a control group from a different experiment—reasoning that ‘they are all equivalent random groups after all’—and thus the desired significant differences are found. This fact likewise goes unmentioned in the article….
- The removal of experimental conditions. For example, the experimental manipulation in an experiment has three values. …Two of the three conditions perform in accordance with the research hypotheses, but a third does not. With no mention in the article of the omission, the third condition is left out….
- The merging of data from multiple experiments [where data] had been combined in a fairly selective way,…in order to increase the number of subjects to arrive at significant results…
- Research findings were based on only some of the experimental subjects, without reporting this in the article. On the one hand ‘outliers’…were removed from the analysis whenever no significant results were obtained. (Report, 49-50)
For many further examples, and also caveats ,see Report.
4. Significance tests don’t abuse science, people do.
Interestingly the Report distinguishes the above laundry list from “statistical incompetence and lack of interest found” (52). If the methods used were statistical, then the scrutiny might be called “metastatistical” or the full scrutiny “meta-methodological”. Stapel often fabricated data, but the upshot of these criticisms is that sufficient finagling may similarly predetermine that a researcher’s favorite hypothesis gets support. (There is obviously a big advantage in having the data to scrutinize, as many are now demanding). Is it a problem of these methods that they are abused? Or does the fault lie with the abusers. Obviously the latter. Statistical methods don’t kill scientific validity, people do.
I have long rejected dichotomous testing, but the gambits in the laundry list create problems even for more sophisticated uses of methods, e.g.,for indicating magnitudes of discrepancy and associated confidence intervals. At least the methods admit of tools for mounting a critique.
In “The Mind of a Con Man,”(NY Times, April 26, 2013) Diederik Stapel explains how he always read the research literature extensively to generate his hypotheses. “So that it was believable and could be argued that this was the only logical thing you would find.” Rather than report on believability, researchers need to report the properties of the methods they used: What was their capacity to have identified, avoided, admitted verification bias? The role of probability here would not be to quantify the degree of confidence or believability in a hypothesis, given the background theory or most intuitively plausible paradigms, but rather to check how severely probed or well-tested a hypothesis is– whether the assessment is formal, quasi-formal or informal. Was a good job done in scrutinizing flaws…or a terrible one? Or was there just a bit of data massaging and cherry picking to support the desired conclusion? As a matter of routine, researchers should tell us. Yes, as Joe Simmons, Leif Nelson and Uri Simonsohn suggest in “A 21-word solution”, they should “say it!” No longer inclined to regard their recommendation as too unserious, researchers who are “clean” should go ahead and “clap their hands”. (I will consider their article in a later post…)
*The subtitle is “The fraudulent research practices of social psychologist Diederik Stapel.”
 “A ‘byproduct’ of the Committees’ inquiries is the conclusion that, far more than was originally assumed, there are certain aspects of the discipline itself that should be deemed undesirable or even incorrect from the perspective of academic standards and scientific integrity.” (Report 54).
 Mere falsifiability, by the way, does not suffice for stringency; but there are also methods Popper rejects that could yield severe tests, e.g., double counting. (Search this blog for more entries.)
 “It goes without saying that the Committees are not suggesting that unsound research practices are commonplace in social psychology. …although they consider the findings of this report to be sufficient reason for the field of social psychology in the Netherlands and abroad to set up a thorough internal inquiry into the state of affairs in the field” (Report, 48).
 Philosopher, Janet Stemwedel discusses the NY Times article, noting that Diederik taught a course on research ethics!
 From Simmons, Nelson and Simonsohn:
The Fall 2012 Newsletter for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Popper, K. 1994, The Myth of the Framework.
Many support our call for transparency, and agree that researchers should fully disclose details of data collection and analysis. Many do not agree. What follows is a message for the former; we begin by preaching to the choir.
Choir: There is no need to wait for everyone to catch up with your desire for a more transparent science. If you did not p-hack a finding, say it, and your results will be evaluated with the greater confidence they deserve.
If you determined sample size in advance, say it.
If you did not drop any variables, say it.
If you did not drop any conditions, say it.
A course in research ethics for statistical methods could be based on these findings, with a complementary group of case studies from social science, environmental studies, and medicine.
The revelations of these Committees remind me of the discussion that arose from a post on “bad statistics”
Katrin Hohl, my criminologist friend, had said that ‘p-hacking’ was entirely normal. It’s as if they start with a theory and set out to dredge the data in its support.
Someone just wrote me that an outfit called The European Association of Social Psychology claims the Tilburg Report is itself guilty of “verification bias” and is calling for its retraction until amended. (I guess I had heard something about that earlier…)
http://www.easp.eu/news/Statement EASP on Levelt_December_ 2012.pdf
So is this more dirty laundry, and if so, whose?
Going by Kahneman, it might be only parts of social psychology (priming research) that “regularly proceed” as pseudosciences. How much dirty laundry before the charge sticks?