I missed most of the recent discussion on replication because I’m on vacation. However, the weather’s not very inviting this morning in southern Spain, so I thought I’d try to catch up a bit on the fracas, and try to see where both sides are coming from. My current environment induces me to take a few steps back from it all. Let’s see where this goes. Rather than helping the discussion move forward, I might, in fact, inadvertently succeed in offending everyone involved.
Basically, the discussion is between what I’ll call the Replicators and the Replication Critics
Reactionaries. I realize that the Replicators care about
more than just replication. The Reactionaries are reactionary in the sense that
they Critics are opposing the replication movement. The Replicators and the
Reactionaries Critics are the endpoints of what probably is close to a continuum.
Who are the Replicators? As best as I can tell, they are a ragtag group of (1) mid-career-to-senior methodologists, (2) early-to-mid-career social psychologists and social-psychologists-turned-methodologists, (3) mid-career-to-senior psychologists from other areas than social psychology.
Who are the
Reactionaries Critics? As best as I can tell they are
mid-career-to-senior social psychologists. (If there are Reactionaries Critics who
don’t fit this bill, I’d like to hear who they are, so I can expand the
What motivates the Replicators? They are primarily motivated by a concern about the state of our field. However, purely looking at the composition of the group, it is possible that career advancement is at least a small part of the motivation as well. The Replicators are generally not the senior people in their field (social psychology) or are in an area (methodology) where they previously did not have the level of exposure (who reads the Journal of Mathematical Psychology?) that they’re enjoying now. And maybe the people from other areas, who seem to have little extra to gain from taking part in the discussion, just enjoy making snarky comments once in a while.
What motivates the
Reactionaries Critics? It is clear that senior
social psychologists are often the target of high-profile replication efforts.
They are also rattled by recent (alleged and proven) fraud cases among their
ranks (Stapel, Sanna, Smeesters, Förster). So it is not surprising that
they feel they are under attack and react rather defensively. Given the
composition of the group, they have something to lose. They have a reputation.
Not only that, they have always been able to publish in high-profile outlets
and have received a great deal of positive media attention. All of this is
threatened by the replication movement. But there is something else as well,
the Reactionaries Critics value creativity in research, maybe above anything else.
How do Replicators view original studies? They view them as public property. The data, the procedure, everything should be available to anyone who wants to scrutinize it. This leads them to be suspicious of anyone who doesn’t want to share.
Reactionaries Critics view original studies? They seem to (implicitly)
view them a bit like works of art. They are the author’s intellectual property
and the process that has led to the results requires a certain artistry that
one has to be “initiated in” and cannot easily be verbalized.
How do Replicators view replications? There is no single view. Some replication attempts are clearly efforts to show that particular (high-profile) findings are not reproducible. Other attempts are motivated because someone initially liked a finding and wanted to build on it but was unable to do so. Yet other replication efforts are conducted to examine the reproducibility of the research in an entire area. And there are other motivations as well. The bottom line, however, is that Replicators view replicability as an essential part of science.
Reactionaries Critics view replications? Given their emphasis
on creativity, they are likely to have a low opinion of replications, which
are, by definition, uncreative. Furthermore, because the process that has led
to the published results cannot be verbalized easily in their view,
replications are by definition flawed because there is always some je-ne-sais-quoi missing.
How do Replicators view
Reactionaries Critics? Reactionaries Critics are
apparently against open science and therefore probably have something to hide.
Reactionaries Critics view Replicators? A good researcher is
creative. Replications are, by definition, uncreative, ergo replicators
are unimaginative third-rate researchers who are only using replication to try to advance their own careers.
Of course these are caricatures (except in some very prominent cases). My take is that I understand why some Reactionaries feel they are under siege and that it is unfair that the spectre of Stapel is frequently raised when their research is involved. I agree that part of being a good researcher is being creative. However, the most important part of the job is to produce knowledge (which has to be based on reproducible findings). I agree that someone who only does replications, while useful, is not the most impressive researcher. On the other hand, I know that Replicators do their own original and creative research in addition to performing replications (and I see no reasons why Reactionaries couldn't do the same). There are no fulltime replicators outside of Star Trek.
It won’t be a surprise to the readers of this blog that I’m on the side of the Replicators. I think the EXPERIMENT-IS-WORK-OF-ART metaphor is untenable and at odds with what science is all about, which is openness and reproducibility, or EXPERIMENT-IS-PUBLIC-PROPERTY (I’m going all Lakoff on you today). Having said this, my sense is that the notion of replication conflicts with the
Reactionaries’ Critics' (implicit) ideas about conducting experiments. To bring
the Replicators and Reactionaries Critics closer together it might be useful to have a
discussion about what are experiments?
and what are experiments for? For
now, it would help the discussion if members of both groups abandoned the
useless REPLICATION-IS-TREBUCHET metaphor and instead adopt the, admittedly
less dramatic, REPLICATION-IS-STRUCTURAL-INTEGRITY-CHECK metaphor (which I
tried to promote in my very first post).
“Our house is on fire!” exclaimed E.J. Wagenmakers recently on Facebook. In a similar vein, but with less theatrical flair, I’d put it like this: “our foundation is not as sturdy as we might have thought. Everyone, let’s check!”
Now back to the pool.