Scientifically Feckless

Andrew Gelman’s blog has introduced me to Paul Meehl. Wow! He is off the hook, as the kids said a few decades ago. From “Why summaries of research on psychological theories are often uninterpretable,” Psychological Reports, 66, 195-244, 1990 (pdf):

It would help if we could reduce the pathological emphasis on publication rate in regard to salary, tenure and promotion. One reason for the uncritical reliance on mere null hypothesis refutation as if it constituted a respectable test of the substantive theory is that it is a pretty safe way to spend one’s time enroute to a publication. The change in the expectations of how much a student will have published already before his PhD between now and when I was in graduate school 45 years ago is frightening. The pressure is so great that I know students who are not intellectually dull or morally careless, who have sat in my office and said explicitly that while it was subject X that really interested them, they were putting in for a grant to study subject Y “because that’s safer, and I’m sure to get grant support.” I think this is pitiable and destructive. It is not only bad for the student’s mental hygiene but in the long run it has a cancerous impact upon the discipline. But speaking either as a clinician or as an observer of the social scene, I am at a loss to suggest any remedy for it given the insane requirement today that nobody can be promoted or tenured in the academy unless he continues to grind out many papers [cf. the provocative and insightful book by Mahoney (1976)]. In evaluating faculty for raises, promotion, and tenure, perhaps there should be more emphasis on Science Citation Index counts, Annual Review mentions, and evaluation by top experts elsewhere, rather than on mere publication yardage. The distressing thing about this is that while academics regularly condemn “mere publication count,” a week later in a faculty meeting or a Dean’s advisory meeting they are actually counting pages in comparing Smith with Jones. This is a disease of the professional intellectual, resting upon a vast group delusional system concerning scholarly products, and I know my recommendations in this respect have a negligible chance of being taken or even listened to seriously. Since the null hypothesis refutation racket is “steady work” and has the merits of an automated research grinding device, scholars who are pardonably devoted to making more money and keeping their jobs so that they can pay off the mortgage and buy hamburgers for the wife and kids are unlikely to contemplate with equanimity a criticism that says that their whole procedure is scientifically feckless and that they should quit doing it and do something else. In the soft areas of psychology that might, in some cases, mean that they should quit the academy and make an honest living selling shoes, which people of bookish temperament naturally do not want to do.

Indeed. Meehl would have been a great blogger!

David Kane
Preceptor in Statistical Methods and Mathematics
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