Sunday, 30 September 2012

Discovering Facts in Psychology: 10 ways to create “False Knowledge” in Psychology

There’s been quite a good deal of discussion recently about (1) how we validate a scientific fact (;;, and (2) whether psychology – and in particular some branches of psychology – are prone to generate fallacious scientific knowledge (; As psychologists, we are all trained (I hope) to be scientists – exploring the boundaries of knowledge and trying as best we can’ to create new knowledge, but in many of our attempts to pursue our careers and pay the mortgage, are we badly prone to creating false knowledge? Yes – we probably are! Here are just a few examples, and I challenge most of you psychology researchers who read this post to say you haven’t been a culprit in at least one of these processes!

Here are 10 ways to risk creating false knowledge in psychology.

1.  Create your own psychological construct. Constructs can be very useful ways of summarizing and formalizing unobservable psychological processes, but researchers who invent constructs need to know a lot about the scientific process, make sure they don’t create circular arguments, and must be in touch with other psychological research that is relevant to the understanding they are trying to create. In some sub-disciplines of psychology, I’m not sure that happens (

2.  Do an experiment but make up or severely massage the data to fit your hypothesis. This is an obvious one, but is something that has surfaced in psychological research a good deal recently (;

3.  Convince yourself that a significant effect at p=.055 is real. How many times have psychologists tested a prediction only to find that the critical comparison just misses the crucial p=.05 value? How many times have psychologists then had another look at the data to see if it might just be possible that with a few outliers removed this predicted effect might be significant? Strangely enough, many published psychology papers are just creeping past the p=.05 value – and many more than would be expected by chance! Just how many false psychology facts has that created? (

4.  Replicate your own findings using the same flawed procedure. Well, we’ve recently seen a flood of blog posts telling us that replication is the answer to fraud and poor science. If a fact can be replicated – then it must be a fact! (; Well – no – that’s not the case at all. If you are a fastidious researcher and attempt to replicate a study precisely, then you are also likely to replicate the same flaws that gave rise to false knowledge. We need to understand the reasons why problematic research gives rise to false positives – that is the way to real knowledge (

5.  Use only qualitative methods. I know this one will be controversial, but in psychology you can’t just accept what your participants say! The whole reason why psychology has developed as a science is because it has developed a broad range of techniques to access psychological processes without having to accept at face value what a participant in psychological research has to tell us. I’ve always argued that qualitative research has a place in the development of psychological knowledge, but it is in the early stage of that knowledge development and more objective methodologies may be required to understand more proximal mechanisms.

6.  Commit your whole career to a single effect, model or theory that has your name associated with it. Well, if you’ve invested your whole career and credibility in a theory or approach, then you’re not going to let it go lightly. You’ll find multiple ways to defend it, even if it's wrong, and waste a lot of other researchers’ time and energy trying to disprove you. Ways of understanding move on, just like time, and so must the intransigent psychological theorist.

7.  Take a tried and tested procedure and apply it to everything. Every now and then in psychology a new procedure surfaces that looks too good to miss. It is robust, tells you something about the psychological processes involved in a phenomenon, and you can get a publication by applying it to something that no one else has yet applied it to! So join the fashion rush – apply it to everything that moves, and some things that don’t ( No I wasn't thinking of brain imaging, but.... Hmmmm, let me think about that! (I was actually thinking about the Stroop!)

8.  If your finding is rejected by the first journal you submit it to, continue to submit it to journals until it’s eventually published. This is a nice way to ensure that your contribution to false knowledge will be permanently recorded. As academic researchers we are all under pressure to publish (, if you believe your study has some genuine contribution to make to psychological science, then don’t accept a rejection from the first journal you send it to. In fact, if you don’t think your study has any real contribution to make to psychological knowledge at all, don’t accept a rejection from the first journal you send it to! Because you will probably get it published somewhere. I’d love to know what the statistics are on this, but I bet if you persist enough, your paper will get published.

9.  Publish your finding in a book chapter (non- peer reviewed), or an invited review, or a journal special issue - all of which are likely to have an editorial "light touch”. Well, if you do it might not get cited much (, but it’s a good way of getting dodgy findings (and dodgy theories) into the public domain.

10.  Do some research on some highly improbable effects - and hope that some turn up significant by chance. ( And it won’t matter that people can’t replicate it – because replications will only rarely get published! ( The more improbable your finding, the more newsworthy it will be, the more of a celebrity you will become, the more people will try to replicate your research and fail, the more you will be wasting genuine research time and effort. But it will be your 15 minutes of fame!

Finally, if you haven’t been able to generate false psychological knowledge through one of these 10 processes, then try to get your finding included in an Introduction to Psychology textbook. Once your study is enshrined in the good old Intro’ to Psych’ text, then it’s pretty much going to be accepted as fact by at least one and maybe two future generations of psychologists. And once an undergrad has learnt a “fact”, it is indelibly inscribed on their brain and is faithfully transported into future reality!

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  1. I've posted some thoughts here: seemed a bit long to post as a response:)

  2. I totally agree with you. This is a compilation of things that have kept on annoying us during the years of internet experience. really a wonderful post, you have pointed out some superb points , I as well think this is a very important fact nowadays.

  3. 11: to make true the former 10. assertions, put them into a blog.

  4. I dont think (good) qualitative researchers do just accept what their participants say at all, and reliance on p values whether they're above or below 0.05 is a notion that needs to be killed off immediately. If p values must be used, then I'd much rather we conceived of them as a measure of strength of evidence; in which case a p of 0.055 would represent reasonable strength of evidence (as would 0.035).

    1. Oh, but I did generally agree with the rest!

  5. I don't agree that qualitative research is bad research. I think that it is important to understand the *limits* of any form of research. Qualitative research in psychology, just like quantitative research in psychology, just like any form of research in any field (I used to be a molecular biologist) does *not* tell you about the real world. It tells you what happened when this particular experiment was done in this particular way at this particular moment with this particular set of subjects. Everything beyond that is interpretation of data, and I completely agree with the importance of remaining humble and clear about what the data are saying.

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