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Big Egos and Stupid Mistakes in Social Science

2016-07-17

Here is a long article about how big egos can perpetuate stupid mistakes in social science: it seems that a graduate student noticed mistakes in a paper by an established professor.  He asked to see the scientist’s data, nicely, and got nowhere.  So eventually he published a paper detailing the mistakes the professor made, and the professor got all bent out of shape about it.  This is worth reading for those who are interested in why science, especially social science, is so full of mistakes that take decades to correct.

The basic problem was that a social scientist had misread his data in a fairly obvious way: his conclusion was that conservative people tend to be more likely to be individualistic and less likely to “fall into line.”  This is the opposite of what you would think if you were just guessing, and the opposite of what most of the research literature had shown up to that point. The student, on reading this paper, thought that the scientist must have miscoded his data.  He had his advisor send an email to the scientist asking for his raw data, so he could evaluate for himself if this was the case.   He never got the data despite repeated requests.

A couple of years later, the student had graduated, and with his new job as a professor, was able to muster the resources to re-examine the data on his own.  He did the evaluation and wrote a paper, which he submitted to a journal.  But the journal sent the paper for review to the original scientist who had made the mistake.  This scientist suddenly turned around and wrote another paper correcting his own errors.   At the same time, he developed a false narrative that the student was out to get him.  Fortunately, the student wasn’t made to suffer for the scientist’s ego and back-tracking.  It’s a long story, and well worth reading, in New York magazine.

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