Earlier this week I attended a symposium in Nijmegen on Solid Science in Psychology. It was organized mostly by social psychologists from Tilburg University along with colleagues from Nijmegen. (It is heartening to see members of Stapel’s former department step up and take such a leading role in the reformation of their field.) The first three speakers were Uri Simonsohn, Leif Nelson, and Joe Simmons of false-positive psychology fame. I enjoyed their talks (which were not only informative but also quite humorous for such a dry subject) but I already knew their recent papers and I agree with them, so their talks did not change my view much.
Later that day the German social psychologist Klaus Fiedler spoke. He offered an impassioned view that was somewhat contrary to the current replication rage. I didn’t agree with everything Fiedler said but I did agree with most of it. What’s more, he got me to think and getting your audience to think is what a good speaker wants.
Fiedler’s talk was partly a plea for creativity and weirdness in science. He likened the scientific process to evolution. There are phases of random generation and phases of selection. If we take social psychology, many would say that this field has been in a state of relatively unconstrained generation of ideas (see my earlier posts on this). According to Fiedler, this is perfectly normal.
Also perfectly normal is the situation that we find ourselves in now, a phase in which many people express doubts about the reliability and validity of much of this research. These doubts are finding their way into various replication efforts as ways to select the good ideas from the bad ones. As I’ve discussed earlier (and in the ensuing blogalog with Dan Simons, here, here, here, here, and here), direct replications are a good start, but somewhat less direct replications are also necessary to select the most valid ideas.
So I’m glad we’re having this revolution. At the same time, I confess to having an uneasy feeling. During Fiedler’s talk, I had a Kafkaesque vision of an army of researchers dutifully but joylessly going about their business: generating obvious hypotheses guaranteed to yield large effect sizes, performing power analyses, pre-registering their experiments, reporting each and every detail of their experiments, storing and archiving their data, and so on. Sure, this is science. But where is the excitement? Remember, we’re scientists, not librarians or accountants. To be sure, I have heard people wax poetic about initiatives to archive data. But are these people for real? Archiving your data is about as exciting as filing your taxes.
Creativity and weirdness are essential for progress in science. This is what Fiedler argued and I agree. Heck, people at the time must have found it pretty silly that Hermann Ebbinghaus spent hours each day to memorize completely useless information (nonsense syllables) by reciting them—with the same neutral voice inflection each time— to the sound of a metronome. Try telling that at a party when asked what you do for a living! And yet psychology would not have been the same if Ebbinghaus had decided to spend his time in a more conventional manner, for example by discussing the latest political issues in the local Biergarten, by taking his dog on strenuous walks, or by forming his own garage band (though Wacky Hermann and the Nonsense Syllables would have been a killer name).
So I agree with Klaus Fiedler. We need creativity and weirdness in science. We need to make sure that the current climate does not stifle creativity. But we also need to have mechanisms in place to select the most valid ideas. I think we can have our cake and eat it too by distinguishing between exploratory and confirmatory research, as others have already suggested.
It is perfectly okay to be wacky and wild (the wackier and wilder the better as far as I’m concerned), as long as you indicate that your research is exploratory (perhaps there should be journals or journal sections devoted to exploratory ideas). But if your research is confirmatory (and I think each researcher should to both exploratory and confirmatory research), then you do need to do all the boring things that I described earlier. Because boring as they might be, they are also unavoidable if we want to have a solid science.