A good quote

“Ah, there’s nothing more exciting than science. You get all the fun of... sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention... Science has it all.”- Principal Skinner

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Other Person's Hunchback

 There's an old Italian saying, "you can only see the other person's hunchback." This applies to how we see ourselves in relation to other people in so many ways......but none more telling than in defining our own biases. Over and over again, studies show that we see more bias in other people's decision-making than our own. And it isn't that we're over-estimating how much bias is in other people's decision-making, it's that we underestimate our own - we don't see our own hunchback.

A new study by Carnegie Mellon (HERE) shows how pervasive this is. The authors sum it up this way: “People seem to have no idea how biased they are. Whether a good decision-maker or a bad one, everyone thinks that they are less biased than their peers,” said Carey Morewedge, associate professor of marketing at Boston University. “This susceptibility to the bias blind spot appears to be pervasive, and is unrelated to people’s intelligence, self-esteem, and actual ability to make unbiased judgments and decisions.”

So if people are incapable of being objective decision-makers, how can we do objective research? The answer is, maybe we can't - not with perfect detachment. The best we can do is develop controls to limit the power of our biases when it comes to interpreting our data and drawing conclusions. Peer review helps.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Social Scientists as Attention Hogs - A bad idea who's time has come?

In this NY Times article, an ugly truth is exposed: the desire for popular press attention has influenced journals in the social sciences to inflate results. These are technical journals, designed to add to science's body of knowledge through rigorous study and peer reviewed results. But the need to "make a splash" is overtaking the boring and careful nature of good science.

In addition to the impulse to make a splash now being exhibited by journal editors, authors themselves are under pressure to "make it big," whether due to pressures from universities (who often grant tenure based on a faculty member's publication success, not teaching ability) or from grant-writers who want to see a lot of "bang-for-the-buck."

When I started in grad school, it was the beginning of the digital age of publishing in journals. In the old days, we'd have to make multiple copies of a manuscript (yes, on paper) and mail them to the editors in a big envelope. The editor would then turn around and mail multiple copies to experts in the field for review. Then get the comments back (again, on paper)....it was slow.

High-speed internet, email, and digital submissions and mark-ups made everything faster. But researchers began to complain that maybe it was too fast. Was the need for speed good for science?  Was it encouraging sloppy reviewing and publication of dubious results, because everyone was moving too quickly to think hard about the content they were reviewing?

It's not an easy question to answer, and it's an uncomfortable one. I don't know the answer, except to note that the Times article points out that researchers today are complaining about how slow the publications process is - a sign that things aren't going to slow down any time soon.