Why The Replication Crisis Isn’t Psychology’s Biggest Problem

The last few years have seen a lot of discussion about a ‘replication crisis’ or ‘credibility crisis’ in psychology. Various scientific findings, it seems, don’t appear to be repeatable when other scientists run exactly the same experiments.

Most of the focus in this crisis is on how scientists behave: were the original experiments biased? Was the work sloppy? Was someone gaming the system or even cheating? But perhaps a more pernicious problem is deeply rooted in how people think.

Many people who practise, use and report on the science of psychology assume that thoughts, feelings, behaviours and other psychological outcomes are the result of one or two strong factors or causes. This is called a ‘mechanistic mindset’.

If we treat the brain and body like simple mechanistic systems, targeting one or two variables and leaving the rest unmeasured, then the impact of that fuller web of weak factors masquerades as a failure to replicate.

The absence of replication may, in fact, be the presence of meaningful variation. The structure of that variation can be discovered and modelled only when scientists design experiments to measure and observe it.

As such, psychology’s most cherished experimental method – the lab experiment – may need a major overhaul in order to observe and account for complexity.

Even when scientists carefully design experiments with complexity in mind, their results, when reported in the popular press, are often explained in mechanistic terms. News stories about science are simpler and more digestible when they have a pithy headline such as, “Brain circuit X causes fear” or “Gene Y causes depression”.

Is there a credibility crisis in psychology? Perhaps, but not the one that tongues are wagging about.

Psychological science may need to get its act together, not because its findings are unreliable, but because variation is being dismissed as noise rather than being investigated as something meaningful.

Psychological phenomena arise out of complexity, not from simple, mechanistic cause-and-effect.

 

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Source: Why the replication crisis isn’t psychology’s biggest problem – BBC Science Focus Magazine

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