Posting will probably be lighter than usual (even during my travels) over the next ten days, as I’m weary of arising at 4:30 to write posts, and, more important, I’m off to the Big Island soon for traveling and snorkeling. I’ll try to keep the Hili dialogues going, although it’s tough without Grania, but bear with me until July 9.
Today’s Execrable Science Story comes from Bloomberg, which you can access by clicking on the headline below:
As the article reports, 11 years ago Science published a paper by a group of psychologists that, says Bloomberg, claimed to find biological differences between liberals and conservatives. The paper is this one, and you can get a free pdf by clicking on the screenshot:
According to the paper, conservatives tended to react more to “sudden noises” and “threatening visual images.” This result, which suggests that political liberalism and conservatism spring from deep, indelible sources rather than reactions to the issues of the day, suggests that polarization will never end — that the populace will always be divided into two camps, separated by a gulf of biology.
This is the kind of paper that demands replication, and indeed, when two groups tried to replicate the results, they failed:
Fast forward a decade, though, and the claim is unraveling. In a working paper published this month, another team of psychologists attempted to repeat the experiment, and also conducted other similar experiments. They failed to find any evidence linking physical-threat perception with political ideology. But when they tried to publish their paper, Science desk-rejected it — that is, the editors refused to even send the paper out for peer review, claiming that the replication study simply wasn’t noteworthy enough to be published in a top journal. Meanwhile, another team of researchers also recently tried to replicate the original study, and failed. So even though at this point the evidence proving a biological basis for liberalism and conservatism seems to have been invalidated, it’s unclear whether this fact will make it into the public conversation.
The “desk-rejected” link takes you to a Slate article by all four of the rejected paper’s authors, who provide a good justification for publishing their paper. But it wasn’t even reviewed by Science! As the authors say in Slate:
We did not expect Science to immediately publish the paper, but because our findings cast doubt on an influential study published in its pages, we thought the editorial team would at least send it out for peer review.
It did not. About a week later, we received a summary rejection with the explanation that the Science advisory board of academics and editorial team felt that since the publication of this article the field has moved on and that, while they concluded that we had offered a conclusive replication of the original study, it would be better suited for a less visible subfield journal.
We wrote back asking them to consider at least sending our work out for review. (They could still reject it if the reviewers found fatal flaws in our replications.) We argued that the original article continues to be highly influential and is often featured in popular science pieces in the lay media (for instance, here, here, here, and here), where the research is translated into a claim that physiology allows one to predict liberals and conservatives with a high degree of accuracy. We believe that Science has a responsibility to set the record straight in the same way that a newspaper does when it publishes something that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. We were rebuffed without a reason and with a vague suggestion that the journal’s policy on handling replications might change at some point in the future.
There’s not much more to add to this. Science has behaved shamefully, with its usual hauteur and diffidence. They are a bunch of self-iimportant gits. They won’t, I suspect, even add a note to the original paper that it had failed replication; and that is the minimal thing to do to call attention to the issue.
And what if the failures to replicate don’t get published? (I hope and expect that they will.). For science to progress, false or questionable results must be put into the public domain, for that’s the only way to ensure that the truth will out. By allowing a possibly incorrect result to stand uncorrected, Science is degrading the entire scientific enterprise. Their behavior is reprehensible.
I should add that, according to the replicators, the paper’s original authors were supportive of the efforts to publish the failure of replication. It’s the damn journal—I call it a “magazine”—that’s to blame here.