Sunday, March 18, 2018

Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes


CounterPunch |  You may not recognize names like Amy Cuddy, Kristina Durante, or Brian Wansink but if you listen to NPR, watch TED talks, or read popular online news sites or local and national outlets such as the New York Times, you have probably stumbled across their work. They are among a growing number of academics who have produced one or more exciting, novel, too-amazing-to-be-true research studies that have caught the attention of the media and have been widely disseminated through American culture to the point that we may have internalized their findings as fact. Yet their work has since been debunked, shown to be unscientific and irreproducible. It is all part of what has been dubbed the “replication crisis” in science. Since replication is one of the basic tenets of science, failure to reproduce the results of a study (especially after several attempts) indicates a lack of support for the original findings. How does this happen time and time again, and what does it say about science and the news media?

Case 1 – Amy Cuddy
Amy Cuddy’s famous study on how an assertive “power pose” could elevate testosterone levels and increase a person’s confidence and risk-taking was published in the prestigious Psychological Science, one of the top journals in that field. Then a professor in the Harvard Business School, Cuddy went on to give the second most-popular TED talk ever, sign a book deal, and travel around the world commanding huge fees on the lecture circuit based on the general theme of her study. In the meantime, other skeptical researchers Joe Simmons and Uri Simonsohn questioned the veracity of her claims and Eva Ranehill and collegues failed to replicate the results of the study. One of Cuddy’s co-authors, Dana Carney, has since withdrawn her support of the study, saying “I do not believe the effects are real.” But Cuddy, having voluntarily left her academic position, still stands by her work.

In truth, not only is the power pose study a replication failure, it is a failure of peer review. No one needs a particularly specialized expertise to see some of the problems with the study. One glance at the methods section of the paper and you see the sample size of 42, hardly sufficient or statistically powerful. In addition, like in many studies, specific subjective proxies were used to indicate a much more general, supposedly objective, finding. Here, risk taking was measured by participants’ willingness to perform a certain gambling task. Yet one’s interest in gambling is not necessarily directly proportional to one’s interest in other risky activities. Further, participants’ levels of confidence were self-reported on a scale of 1-5. Self-reporting is always error prone, because your level of “2” may not be equivalent to my level of “2.” And yet, all of these subjective measurements are treated as concrete quantifiable data. Finally, the study assumed no cultural differences; demonstrations of power or confidence might not be viewed as beneficial and positive as they are assumed to be in the American culture.

You can see how the reliability of the study deteriorates under scrutiny. But no study is perfect. One of the biggest problems with this study and many similar ones is not just how unreliable the results are, but that the results are treated as generalizable to everyone everywhere. If Cuddy had defined the results as provisional and contingent upon certain assumptions, and circumstances, then her research might have been more defendable, but instead she presented her shoddy science as universal immutable fact. This practice appears to be too widespread.