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The current process of the science of priming. Amateur philosophical musings.

May 2, 2013

I’ve brought up Hull’s ”Science as a process” before, so I dived into my archive, and tweeted a couple of my past posts where I have discussed his ideas. And, here I sit, again, with that book – my second copy as the first is in storage in the US, perusing the introduction, leafing through towards the end where he compare his ideas with Kuhn, with Fodor, with Kripke, and feel I need to give it a third read-through –whenever I reasonably would have time to do that.

Here from his preface:

“In the manuscript, Nelson (1973c) complained of the way that the views of Leon Croizat had been through the years by such authorities as G.G. Simpson and Ernst Mayr. I decided that the sort of thing Nelson was investigating with respect to Croizat was the sort of thing I would like to do in philosophy of science.  What is the relative importance in science of reason, argument, and evidence on the one hand, and power, prestige, and influence on the other? I thought that answers couched totally in terms of one sort of influence or the other were sure to be wrong and that the interplay between the two was likely to be fascinating.”

(emphasis mine).

And, fascinating it is.

I’ll cite him again, now from page 3 in chapter one.

Instead, to use Giere’s terminology (1988:144), my treatment is “naturalistic” if naturalism is the “view that theories come to be accepted (or not) through natural processes involving both individual judgment and social interaction.”

The system of cooperation and competition, secrecy and openness, rewards and punishments that has characterized science from its inception is both social and internal to science itself. The conceptual development of science would not have the characteristics it has without this social system. Quite obviously science is a social process, but it is also “social” in a more significant sense. The objectivity that matters so much in science is not primarily a characteristic of individual scientists but of scientific communities. Scientists rarely refute their own pet hypotheses, especially after they have appeared in print, but that is all right. Their fellow scientists will be happy to expose these hypotheses to severe testing. Science is so structured that scientists must, to further their own research, use the work of other scientists. The better they are at evaluating the work of others when it is relevant to their own research, the more successful they will be. The mechanism that has evolved in science that is responsible for its unbelievable success may not be all that “rational,” but it is effective, and it has the same effect that advocates of science as a totally rational enterprise prefer.

Even before I read this book, I was aware of the tribal nature of science. My mentor Charles used to bring up sociology of science, not as an area of research but to indicate the influence of individuals and communities on what was researched, and how. The notion has come up more than once, with other psychologists, so I surmise we, as a group are very well aware that more than experimental paradigms and data matters. Of course, we are psychologists, and aware of the loopiness of us studying ourselves, and aware of the literature on all the social biases that occur. In fact, when I was going through Bem & deJong to prepare for my theory of science lectures  (sitting lazily on the back-porch, close to the beach in Mooloolaba), I’d write in the margins “and we have data on that” for a number of philosophical suggestions (like the myth of the given).

I’m not sure how to characterize what is happening in the sciences right now. I’m, of course, very involved in what is happening in Social psychology. I’m hoping there is a transition towards better, more robust practices. It is exciting, and nerve-wracking at the same time. And, as I always do, I think about, how do we know this? What can I trust? What will make our knowledge better? Such an idealist. Art for arts sake, Science for Science’s sake.

Priming, right now, is infected. Because a narcissistic fraud spent an inordinate time weaving nice little theories scaffolded by non-existing data in just this area. But, possibly also because part of what makes science – the process – work has been spread too thin.  Go back to the quote above. “happy to expose these hypotheses to severe testing”. If it ends in the file-drawers, and if scrutiny (which may result in many nulls) is not publishable, this part breaks down. (I’m happy to hear if someone disagree with my rather hasty analysis here).

When I look at the exchanges that have taken place surrounding this – first last year with Bargh, the past couple of days with Shanks vs. Dijksterhuis, I see a great deal of that interaction between the social and the rational that Hull talks about in the first quote. In fact, I think a great deal of it could be analyzed via theories surrounding group-processes that have emerged in social psychology, evolutionary psychology and anthropology.

I find it mildly distressing, as I have friends and colleagues that span these tribes (and I’m overly sensitive as it is anyway). I wish the first, knee-jerk response would be to take up the challenge, have an experiment-off. Replicate replicate replicate, test. So far, I see ridicule, defensiveness, rallying around the ingroup, accusing the other side of not knowing what they are doing.

Although, to be fair, there is some discussion also, that I think can be productive.

And, maybe, if Hull is right, this is not, in fact, a blow, but a healthy way of churning through evidence, and eventually, through a selection process, we’ll be closer to that little t truth.

Rolf Zwaan continues his blog-series on understanding priming. (I link in both. Go read). And, like I have said before, I’m not willing to dismiss that we can respond to cues in our surroundings and in our internal systems, and adjust our behavior accordingly, with little explicit awareness.

There is a certain point in doing some of the work in isolation, as Dijksterhuis suggests – in cubicles – as the cues may very well be rather fragile. I keep thinking of the cues as atoms bouncing towards suspended pollen. A lot of the time, the effects may cancel out. Of course, then it may have no practical purpose, but I don’t think that should stop research. I see nothing practical in the awesomeness of studying space (which Feynman pointed out in his cargo cult talk. Half way down). Whether priming has a practical effect is still an open question.

But, perhaps, as Keith Laws* suggested on twitter, we are seeing a Lakatosian protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses protecting priming in the form of unknown moderators etc. (I imagine those hypotheses kind of like the oort cloud, or a belt of tumbling asteroids, but that probably leads me metaphorically wrong).

Andrew Wilson and Sabrina Golonka*, ever the ecological psychologis (and I sympathise a lot with those views) suggested “Priming is surely just a ubiquitous feature of a system that is sensitive to tasks context & takes time to assemble a task specific solution” (tweet on May 1, 2013), which, well, as I said, I wouldn’t have used exactly those words, but something like that. So, perhaps there will be a need to re-conceptualize how priming works, when it works, (and when it doesn’t work).

I’m seeing dynamical systems theory here, (but, then, I always see strange attractors and saddle points, and basins of attraction, so that may just be my metaphorical mind at work).

* I’m linking in Keiths, Andrews & Sabrina’s blogs, who I think are must-reads. Andrew and Sabrina will educate you on ecological psychology, and occasionally provide fun videos of robots. Keith spends many of his posts picking apart the use CBT for schizophrenia. And, the general state of psychology. When it doesn’t concern music. Always accompanied by a good selection of fitting music videos.

  1. Really interesting musings! It’s interesting to me to juxtapose the way the process of science unfolds when you have a tribe (within a discipline) committed to a theory, such as priming — with the process that unfolds more broadly in the discipline, as we are seeing with pushes for, and resistance to, general reforms for the field as a whole. My background in the philosophy of science is much more superficial than I’d like it to be, but it seems that the former case is taken up much more commonly than the latter (although if I’m wrong, I’d love any suggested readings).

    In other words, the interesting questions for me are about how the “sociology” plays out in a situation where scientists are not committed to a particular theory or outcome. It’s easy to be an idealist about reform — we should terminate all questionable research practices immediately — but that’s simply not a practical solution, nor is it a good one, since it’s not clear that some of the reforms being promoted would not have adverse consequences.

    Personally, I’ve found myself in a position where I strongly support reforms, but believe that reforms should be carried out in a conservative (with a small “c”, not the brand that doesn’t believe in global warming or evolution) fashion. Radical changes are not only unlikely to be effective, but also very likely to be resisted and ultimately rejected. The question really is how do we make these conservative reforms actually happen, and how do we balance the interests of science and scientists.

    Thanks for a very thought provoking post!

  2. Thanks Dave,

    I agree that the way to proceed is conservatively, but to proceed. I’m trying to make sense of things, while still feeling committed to change. (I don’t have much to lose, as I’m not terribly productive in the way that counts, I also think I’d do better in a world that allows for overly honest methods, and reporting science with all the messiness and tentativity that comes with it, but that may be my excuse).

    My theory/sociology of science is mostly for fun on the side (but fun enough that I actually teach the topic – and frequently find myself fairly alone in my enthusiasm). I’m just going through Kuhn’s classic (as a sound book, at night,), and he takes a rather long, historical perspective on change. I don’t find his take novel, which, well, it shouldn’t be as it was published in 1962, and has been quite penetrating, but it is well worth a read/listen.

    I like Steven Yearley’s “making sense of science” for a more modern overview of the science-studies area. I had read up on the science wars earlier (the stuff started with the Sokal hoax), and I was firmly on the science side (as I’m wont to be), but Yearley could nicely clarify those “enemy” ideas in a way that made sense – with good critique. I loved teaching from it, but my students didn’t (it really did not bring up psychology as the subject discipline).

    Hull is wonderful, but he was collecting the data during the 70’s. The book was printed in the 90’s? (I read it around 98-99, and again 2000). Things have likely developed.

    I think it would be fun taking a clio-dynamic/santa fe complex systems view of science, but I don’t know if anybody has, and that would be a descendant of Hull.

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