Joining the communication ecosystem

Over the past four years I’ve been working on a PhD in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College. My research draws equally from the traditions of social and cognitive psychology and neuroscience. During my training, the “replication crisis” in the sciences has become the subject of many discussions, both private and popular. I have had the confusing yet wholly enriching experience of learning a set of methods and practices for isolating facts and interpreting meanings, while also learning that these methods and practices are deeply flawed and must to be subject to stringent, ceaseless critique if they are to survive.

A key feature of these discussions has been their openness. They have been conducted largely on the internet—Twitter, blogs, Facebook groups—bypassing traditional print publishing gatekeepers. One obvious upside to this approach is the accessibility of the conversation. Anyone, from interested laypeople to tenured professors, can tap into the discourse. But for me, the more profound effect of openness has been seeing how the thinking of the community has changed over time. Rather presenting as a single, tight statement that individuals must take or leave, the discourse of the replication crisis is a slow-shifting landscape of argumentation, reaction, feeling, communication. Following the crisis means seeing up close how thoughts evolve under stress.

I’ve learned from, among many others, Michael Inzlicht, who publicly shared his doubts about ego depletion research earlier this year; Sanjay Srivastava, whose Everything is fucked: The syllabus is a superb guide to the methodological and philosophical issues lying beneath the replication crisis; Simine Vazire’s writing at sometimes i’m wrong, whose casual tone belies sharp, persuasive reasoning. And also from people who have radically different views of scientific practice than my own, such as Jason Mitchell, whose On the evidentiary emptiness of failed replications was a strong driver of productive discussion. I have also been influenced by scientists who write openly about their research and the research of others, such as Niko Kriegeskorte, who publishes all his peer reviews on his blog, and Micah Allen, who regularly shares on Twitter the day-to-day details of the messy process of research.

To date, my own work has been conducted largely under the old—and I think busted—paradigm of operating in complete secrecy until publication, followed by some limited outreach to the public via the popular press. This despite the fact that I have learned more from scientists who discuss their research in the open than from scientific papers read in isolation. Well, no more. The purpose of this blog is to bring my thinking process out into the open, with the hope that it will be as useful to others as the many eloquent thinkers of open science have been useful to me.

The decision to open up my thinking arrived alongside the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America. Me and many of my close friends have wondered how America has become so profoundly divided—so much that the speech of those with different political views seems not simply wrong, but uninterpretable. Social psychology has long attempted to understand these divisions, from the seminal Robbers Cave experiment by Muzafer Sherif, to the study of minimal group formation by Henri Tajfel, to recent work on the idea of implicit bias by Mahzarin Banaji, Brian Nosek, and many others. However, as Emmett Rensin notes in The smug style in American liberalism, social psychology also has a long history of fucking things up pretty bad, offering pat, simplistic non-solutions to deep problems, and making it very hard to distinguish truth from researchers’ wishful thinking. My own research is shifting toward some of these politically charged topics, and I hope that sharing my experience of making sense of it all will be a meaningful contribution to our communication ecosystem.