What Do We Want our Scientific Discourse to Look Like?

I was recently quoted in an article appearing in the Observer, a publication of Association for Psychological Science. In the article Alison Ledgerwood quotes from a diverse set of voices in psychology on the topic of scientific discourse in part in response to Susan Fiske’s piece in the Observer. Fiske takes issue with methodological critics of psychological science (who she referred to as “methodological terrorists” in an earlier draft circulated online). Her article promoted many responses (see here) and a call led by Ledgerwood to write a more diverse (and less status-driven) article for the Observer on the topic. True to form, Alison quoted my writing fairly, and elegantly brought together many other contributions.

Here, I provide my small contribution in its entirety.

We would serve each other, and science as a whole, better if we treated critique and communication of science as an open and humble process of discovery and improvement. To this end, I would like to see our scientific discourse focus more on methodology and evidence. This is easier said than done. Criticisms of the science are often construed as criticisms of the scientist. Even when we, as scientists, appreciate the criticism and recognize its scientific value, it still evokes concerns that others will lose trust in us and in our research. It is no wonder people are distressed by methodological criticism. However, focusing our discourse on methodology and evidence, with more awareness of how tone and context influence others’ perceptions of the scientist whose work is under the microscope, will help ensure healthy development of our science. Second, I would like to see an increase in open and humble scientific discourse. Openness may make our mistakes and shortcomings more apparent, and it may make it easier for others to critique our work, but it will surely improve our science. If we simultaneously place more value on humble communication, I expect criticisms will feel less personal and be easier to swallow as well. Finally, as a graduate student, I feel vulnerable publicly stating my thoughts on criticism and openness in science, which speaks to the climate of our discourse. It is essential that we have a communication environment in which graduate students, post-docs, and junior faculty from all backgrounds are rewarded for humbly and openly presenting methodologically sound ideas, research, and criticisms.


impression management and open science

I love this Charles H. Cooley (1902, p. 320) quote on how self-presentational concerns have institutional and professional forms (including in science, gasp!)

If we never tried to seem a little better than we are, how could we improve or “train ourselves from the outside inward?” And the same impulse to show the world a better or idealized aspect of ourselves finds an organized expression in the various professions and classes, each of which has to some extent a cant or pose, which its members assume unconsciously, for the most part, but which has the effect of a conspiracy to work upon the credulity of the rest of the world. There is a cant not only of theology and of philanthropy, but also of law, medicine, teaching, even of science—perhaps especially of science, just now, since the more a particular kind of merit is recognized and admired, the more it is likely to be assumed by the unworthy.

The unveiling of fraudulent research among highly acclaimed scientists along with the advent of new computing and archiving technologies has driven a recent (depending on how you measure it) push from within the scientific community for more “open” practices. The debate around open science and reluctance in adopting its practices are rarely discussed in terms of interpersonal processes. However, discussions of open science are discussions about the presentation of scientific research to other scientists and the public. I think the relevance of impression management processes to calls for more openness in science is an area worth exploring in more detail. I’d like to write more on this, please post in the comments if you know of anyone who has written on this topic.


Coole, C.H. (1902). Human nature and the social order. New York, NY: C. Scribner’s sons.

Where are data on gun violence?

Much of the recent coverage of gun violence in this country points to a lack of data available on the topic. The absence of these data, or at least the inaccessibility of them, points to inherent prejudice. In an age where we collect data on literally everything and use it daily to help explain phenomena and change our world it is telling that it is hard to find good data on gun violence, particular gun violence as it relates to race, sex, age and mental health.

There are some projects working to remedy this. I’d like to see the gun violence archive project expanded. The project started in 2014 as an offshoot of a crowdsourced initiative by Slate, which documented incidents of gun violence after Newton. We need a tool on this website to visualize the data they collect. Maps of incidents that can be tabulated by different variables would help bring to light the normality of gun violence and the prevalence of racially charged incidents. In light of recent events it is noteworthy that this project collects data on “officer involved shootings”. However the project fails to capture officer involved shootings of unarmed person(s). Instead the project counts the following categories under “officer involved shootings”…

  1. Officer shot
  2. Officer killed
  3. perpetrator shot
  4. perpetrator killed
  5. perpetrator suicide at standoff

This is problematic because the method of collection presumes that someone shot or killed by an officer is a perpetrator (someone who has committed a crime). While the project has an “armed” category described in their glossary it doesn’t collect data on “unarmed” incidents. Further, race/ethnicity, age, sex, and mental health status are conspicuously absent from the glossary for this project. These data should be collected!

The data we collect and how we collect it tells us a lot about what we value.

We need to value data on gun violence with an eye toward race, sex, age, and mental health. We need to translate data into graphics and stories to help explain what the heck is going on. And we need to use data and story to inform how we change. Otherwise, I’m afraid outrage will fade, and the status quo will resume until the next everyday tragedy goes viral.

Free Reproducible Research Course Online

This is a repost from Political Science Replication, Free Reproducible Research Course Online.

In an excellent move to bring reproducible research to everyone for free, Johns Hopkins University now offers a four-weeks course on Coursera. The course provides videos and exercises to learn statistical analysis tools that allow others to replicate your work easily. The course starts May 5.

I’m afraid to say data IS doomed to be the mass(es) noun.

An old professor drilled it into my head, “the word ‘data’ is plural. It is a count noun, so you never say ‘data is’ only ‘data are’.” However, most people say ‘data is’ because it just sounds better (the hip-nerds at FiveThirtyEight thinks so and their Twitter poll agrees).

I suspect that the computer-age is changing how we talk about data. As data increasingly becomes a part of every day life, it seems natural to use the word ‘data’ as a mass noun, synonymous with ‘information’. For example, “Data is increasing at an incredible rate.”

This is simplistic preliminary evidence, but notice in the graph below that usage of ‘data is’ and ‘data are’ starts to converge in the early 1980’s when personal computers are gaining traction in the market. Like most tendencies in language and culture rules shift to align with use. While I much prefer ‘data are’, the people have spoken (over the last thirty years), ‘data is’ works in some situations. The question is will the masses continue to blindly use data as a mass noun in situations where it is clearly countable? Undoubtably, yes. I’m afraid to say data is doomed to be the mass(es) noun.

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Why do academics work so much?

Fascinating quote pulled from a post by the Thesis Whisperer on addiction and its relationship to drive, risk-taking, and laziness in academics. See the full article, Why do academics work so much?

I used to think that this fundamental laziness meant that I couldn’t be addicted to my work, but now I’m not so sure. In his article “Addicts are Superhuman” Tom Matlack claims that being an addict and being lazy are not mutually exclusive. Matlack draws on research about addicts who manage not to kill themselves (what a cheerful topic) by Prof David Linden. Apparently addicts have problems with dopamine pathways which means, as Matlack puts it, they “want pleasure more, but like it less”. Matlack goes on to claim that “greatness doesn’t cause addiction, but addictive qualities actually cause greatness”.

Matlack’s argument rests on an attitude towards risk. Addicts are risk takers in pursuit of pleasure, but are less satisfied when they get it. If you have an addictive personality, and work is your pleasure, then your tendencies can be harnessed on the production of new ideas. I have to acknowledge that, for myself at least, this rings true. The ‘high’ that I get, for example, from publishing a blog post or getting a paper accepted in a journal, doesn’t last very long therefore I am always restless, looking for new ideas to get my next ‘hit’.

How does laziness figure in this formula? Matlack adds in a rider:

“The obsessive character trait is often combined with an ADHD-like (or in fact, diagnosed ADHD) hyper focus followed by non-focus or, in fact, an inability to change focus or keep everyday things in perspective”

Hyper focus followed by non-focus? This describes my long holiday experience perfectly! Since I read this article I’ve been wondering if all of us academics are wired a bit strangely. Hyper focus and risk taking are certainly traits I see a lot in my co-workers. Maybe this is part of the reason why we work so much?

This rings true for me as well. What do you think?

Lisa Wade on Academic Blogging

The Office Hours Podcast recently featured Professor Lisa Wade of Sociological Images. Worth a listen. Though I would like to hear more of her view on recognition (or lack thereof) from her school and academic community for her blogging efforts. I was disappointed to hear that she didn’t mention it in her application for tenure. Why shouldn’t there be some metric for new media that serves the college community? It brings mostly good PR to the school and serves as a valuable teaching tool for colleagues. Perhaps it is fair to classify it as a hobby, and section it off from paid scholarly work, but it is time consuming and provides clear benefit to the school and field. A more nuanced follow-up conversation on this topic would be interesting.