Nathan Hwang

Subdermal Scientific Delivery

Epistemic status: crap armchair theorizing.

PutANumOnIt points out that psychology is broken. Having read Robyn Dawes’ House of Cards and Andrew Gelman’s post on the replication crisis, I agree with him, it is kind of crappy that it’s been years since the replication crisis and still nothing seems to have changed.

However, I disagree with the shape of his reaction, both online and in person (I was in the same room with him and the psychology student). What he said was true and necessary, but his frustration wasn’t usefully channeled. I think that adding the 3rd Scott Alexander comment requirement[1], kindness, would have at least very minutely helped move us towards a world of better science.

Why kindness? Well, how could we fix psychology without it? Some fun ideas:

  • The government could set higher standards for the science it funds.
  • Scientific journals could uphold higher standards.
  • The universities that host the psychology professors could start demanding higher standards from the professors, like for granting tenure.
  • The APA (American Psychological Association) could publish guidelines pushing for higher standards[2].
  • Psychology curriculum writers could emphasize statistics more.

If we could do any of these with a wave of a wand, any one of these would… well, wouldn’t end the crisis, but it would push things in the right direction.

However, we don’t have a wand, so I’m not confident any of these are going to happen with the prevailing business as usual.

  • The journals, APA, and curriculum writers solutions are recursive: the psychologists themselves are integral parts of those processes. It’s possible to push on non-recursive parts, like getting a key textbook writer to include an extra chapter on probabilistic pitfalls[3], but trying to hook a key figure is difficult[4].
  • Curriculum writers set their sights on the next generation, not the current one. It seems like the curriculum is already slowly changing, but waiting for the entire field to advance “1 death at a time” is kind of slow.
  • The government is going to move slowly, and special interests like pharmaceutical companies invested in softer standards would throw up (probably non-obvious) roadblocks. Also, the APA has much more cachet with the government than me or Andrew Gelman. David and Goliath is a morality tale, not a blueprint for wild success.

    Or, more concretely, how do you get psychologists to not tell their patients to call their congressmen, because they’re being put out of a job as collateral damage in a campaign for better science?[5]

And notice that these all sum up large efforts: what does it mean to convince the government to have higher standards for the science it funds? It’s an opaque monolithic goal with an absolute ton of moving parts behind the scenes, most of which I’m blissfully ignorant of. These actions are so big that it’s easy to give in to the passive psychological warfare (ha!) and give up. It’s The Art of War, convincing people to accept defeat without even fighting by just impressing them with the apparent momentum of the problem. What could one do to turn that juggernaut?

In contrast, I want to focus on the opposite end of the scale; what if we tried to convince our lone psychology graduate student to consider better statistical methods?

But how? If you squint hard enough, it’s a sort of negotiation: we want the student to spend a non-trivial amount of time learning lots of statistics, while the student probably does not want to spend their Friday evenings reading about the how to choose Bayesian priors. We need to convince the student that they should care, if not on Friday evening, then sooner than later.

Let’s borrow some ideas from the nauseatingly self-help book “Getting Past No”:

  1. “Go to the balcony”: make sure to step back and separate the frustration at poor science from the goal of getting better science.
  2. “Step to their side”: I imagine the psychologists would like to do good science, to take pride in their work and have it stand the test of time. However, just telling someone that there’s a replication crisis isn’t helping them deal with it, it’s putting yet another item on their stack full of things all clamoring for their attention while seeming vaguely negative. And how does it go? “No one ever got fired for choosing <field standard here>”. We will want something more positive…
  3. “Build them a golden bridge”: at the very least, we need to make it easy to use the better statistical methods[6], and offer support to those that are interested. Even better would be demonstrating that the methods we’re offering are better than the old and tired methods they’re using: for example, Jaynes recounts a story in “Probability Theory”, where geological scientists accused him of cheating because the Bayesian methods he used simply could not have been that good.

You’ll note that this is super abstract and not at all a blow-by-blow playbook for convincing anyone about scientific processes. Indeed, the entire process of starting with convincing a single graduate student is to figure out what the actual playbook is. Like in startup parlance, “do things that don’t scale”: even if I directly convinced 1 psychologist a day to use better statistical methods, America mints more than 365 psychologists in a year. But, if I instead found a message that tightly fit the profession and then posted that on the internet, there would be a chance that could take off. (More on this in the Appendix.)

At some point, it’s not enough to have a message that can convince graduate students: if we want to have an impact on timescales shorter than a generation, we’ll have to solve the hard problem of changing a field while the most of the same people are working in it. So, an equally hand-wavey game plan for that scenario:

  1. Ideally, get one of their graduate students on board to provide trusted in-house expertise, and to find out what sorts of problems the research group is facing.
  2. Convince the local statistics professor to endorse you: that way, you can get past the first “this guy is a crank” filters.
  3. (¿¿¿) Somehow convince the professor to consider your methods, who probably wants to work more on his next grant application and less on learning arcane statistics. Apply liberal carrot and stick[7] to refocus their attention on the existential threat slowly rolling towards them. (???)

I expect every community organizer to roll their eyes at my amateur hour hand waving around “and then we convince person X”. However, I am confident we do need to do the hard ground work to make the revolution happen.

In the end, I think we hope to make something like one of the following happen:

  • virally spread a 80/20 payload of better statistics among psychologists, and get a silent super majority of psychologists that all adhere on the surface to current institutional norms, but who eventually realize “wait, literally all my colleagues also think our usage of p values is silly” and a fast and bloodless stats revolution can happen.
  • move the psychology Overton window enough that an internal power struggle to institute better practices can plausibly succeed, led by psychologists that want to preserve the validity of their field.
  • in the course of convincing the entire field, figure out how to actually “statistical spearphish” up and coming field leaders, so they can save their field from the top[8].

So when I heard Jacob express a deep frustration to the student conveying “your methods are bad” (true) which was easily interpretable as “you should feel bad” (probably not intended), I saw the first step of the above revolution die on the vine. Telling people to feel bad (even unintentionally) is not how you win friends and influence people! To head off an obvious peanut gallery objection, it’s not like we’re allowing bad epistemology to flourish because oh no someone might find out they were wrong and feel bad so we can’t say anything ever. It is more pragmatic: compare trying to force someone to accept a new worldview, versus guiding them with a Socratic dialog to the X on the map so they unearth the truth themselves.

Maybe the common community that includes Jacob and I don’t want to devote the absolutely ludicrous resources needed towards reforming a field that doesn’t seem to want to save itself[9]. At the very least, though, we should try not to discourage those that come seeking knowledge, as our graduate student was.

And the alternative? That’s easy, we don’t do anything. Just let psychology spew bad results and eventually crash and bleed out, taking lent scientific credibility with it. I don’t think the field is too big to fail, but it sure would be inconvenient if it did.

(And since you’re the sort of person that reads this blog, then I might add that destroying a field focused on human-level minds right as a soft AI take off starts producing human-level complexity minds might be a poor idea[10].)

However, let’s raise the stakes: what if it’s not just psychology? I have a friend working in another soft-ish science field, closer to biology, and he reports problems there too. An upcoming post will in passing point out some problematic medical research. Again, I don’t think destroying psychology would bring down the entire scientific enterprise, but I do think destroying all fields as soft as biology would. So saving psychology is a way to find out if we can save science from statistical post-modernism; as the song goes “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”.

Maybe I’ll take up the cause. Maybe not[11]. If I do, more on this later.

Appendix: Other Actions, Other Considerations

Not everything is trying to convince people in 1-on-1 chats or close quarters presentations/workshops. Especially once we figure out what the scientists need and how we can get it to them, I think we’ll need:

  • better statistical material support geared towards working scientists. Similar to the website idea floated earlier in the post, having a central place that has all the practical wisdom will make it easier to scale.
  • provide better statistical packages that aren’t arcane and insane (looking at you, R), and do The Right Thing by default, and warn when you’re doing the wrong thing and why it is wrong. However, this will likely end up being in the existing statistical ecosystems like R, since that’s where the users are. Similar to the previous point, this also includes better tutorial and usage support.

Other things would help, but are harder in ways I don’t even know how to start solving:

  • Like House of Cards recommends, we could not require therapists to do original research. That’s like requiring medical students to get unrelated undergrad degrees for a touch of class around the office: expensive, inflating the need for positive research, and of dubious help. Yes, reducing credentialism is difficult.
  • Stop requiring positive results for publication. This is the problem for most scientific fields, because you need publication to become a PhD, and you need positive results to publish because negative results aren’t exciting. So you get p-hacking to get published, because you’ve told people “lol sink or swim” and by god they’re going to bring illegal floaties.
  • Or, give negative replications more weight/publication room. This would have the negative effect that it’ll probably increase animosity in the field, and professionals don’t want that, so there will still be costs to overcome. Changing the culture to detach yourself from your results will be… difficult.

[1]  Scott Alexander’s blog, Slate Star Codex, has a comment policy requiring comments be true, necessary, or kind, with at least two of those attributes.

[2]  Sure, guidelines don’t cause higher standards directly, but it makes it much easier to convince people that pay attention, especially those that aren’t already entrenched.

[3]  This specific strategy is additionally prone to failure since teachers pick and choose what material to use from the textbook buffet, so a standalone section on statistics would likely go unused. An entire textbook using unfamiliar statistics would be an even tougher sell.

[4]  In case it’s not clear: trying to convince key figures that they should do a thing is difficult, because if they were easy to convince, then every crank that walked into their office could have the key figure off on their own personal goose chase.

[5]  Yes, there isn’t a 1-to-1 mapping between demanding better statistics and putting therapists out of their job. However, if things have to become legislative, then it seems likely the entire field of psychology will be under attack, with non-trivial airtime going towards people with an axe to grind about psychology. And heaven forbid it become a partisan issue, but when has heaven ever cared?

[6]  In this regard, Stan by Andrew Gelman and co looks pretty interesting, even if I have no idea how to use it.

[7]  Yes, carrot and stick. We’ll need to introduce discussion of negative consequences sooner or later: if not the future destruction of science, then maybe something about their legacy or pride, or whatever.

[8]  Unlikely for the same reasons included in a previous footnote, but included for completeness.

[9]  The field as a whole, not counting individual people and groups.

[10]  A thousand and one objections for why this is a bad analogy spring to mind, but I think we could agree that conditional on this scenario, it couldn’t be worse to have a functioning field of psychology than not.

[11]  Remember, aversion to “someone has to, and no one else will”.

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