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Doomed to repeat it.

August 2, 2013

The other day, Emily Nagoski linked in her latest blog on Twitter, where she asks, what if “the latest science” isn’t what you need to read about?

Hers is about sex (she calls herself sex-nerd. Follow her to satiate your scientific curiosity about sex). She brings up sex manuals from the 20’s, the Hite Report (which is contemporary with my teens), and how it seems like it could be done now. How do we forget?


My forays into fixing science also made me happily cross paths with Fred Hasselman, who has a feature on his blog called “respect your elders”. I think most of us involved in fixing science knows full well that there have been Cassandras (usually male) talking about the problems with psychological research, but he brings it in full force by linking to and citing them.

He was the person linking in the wonderful Paul Meehl series (which I’m now on my second listen-through pass). Done in 1989. Same year as I went back to school. In another post he quotes a lot of questions posed by Tukey that seem very contemporary. From 1954. My parents weren’t even married then.

What is this? Why can’t we keep track of our past?

Other examples – the big article about emotion in Boston Globe, focusing on Lisa Feldman-Barrett. Paradigm shift? Everything we know has been wrong? (Nice commentary here). Now, I enjoy LFB’s research (except when she attacks the universality strawman). But, there is no paradigm shift. A dimensional – not categorical (which speaks nothing about universal) view has been going on since the 40’s, and is quite contemporary. Some proponents: Schlossberg (40’s) Osgood (late 50’s) Tellegen (60’s, ongoing), Lang (70’s ongoing). And, of course Russell, who probably should be considered one of the intellectual fathers of LFB, if we go by the Hullian ideas of scientific inheritance. Even if I’m more categorical, my reading of the literature (much from the 80’s 90’s and early 2000) suggests that both conceptualizations are important and neither wins. It all depends on what your questions are. I think, rather, we are now poised to ask questions we could not ask earlier (perhaps). But, those questions have hung around a long time.

Another area that truly alarms me in its blindness to history is in clinical.  It seems (for the moment) to be confined to the UK, and which is much better documented and argued by Keith Laws and HuwTube. But, it reminds me of the argument I was reading in the late 70’s when I first was interested in psychology, and the Left fell in love with Laing and letting the mad out in the street, and the right concurred – for just about diametrically opposite reasons (in my strawman rendition). Or the damned horrors of the mid to late eighties where everybody had a repressed memory to recover of past childhood sexual abuse, and people dug up the McMartin preschool to find remains of satanic sexual practices that only took place originally in a deranged mind, and then in the minds of children who either ended up convinced, or agreed just to get the badgering to stop? Of course, it spawned Elizabeth Loftus, and much interesting research on how memory works, but there were some real victims there at the hands of earnest but irresponsible therapists. Just within the past few days, Swedens very own manufactured Serial Killer has been exonerated, and an inquest will be started on what went wrong. (And, as has been pointed out, 8 murderers are still out there). Of course, one could turn around and blame psychiatry, but I was hanging with the psychologists, and it was there too. (Incidentally, Sweden was not at the fore-front of this craze. When I first heard about the Thomas Quick affair, I had come far enough in my studies, and read enough about memory construction that I immediately disbelieved it. Rather sad being proven right. A quirky coincidence I just found out. He was born in the Village where my grandparents lived until I was 9. Small world).

Why don’t we know our history? Even as shallow a history as mine, and I’m now 54 so middle aged, but not exactly ancient.

The new is interesting, yes. But, we do need to anchor ourselves in what has come before! Perhaps we need to move ahead much more slowly. Much much much more slowly. Avoid our love of the new, like fashion (at my age, you’ve seen them come back several times, and stop caring as much anyway). I’m struck by a passage by Meehl where he talks about Skinner (who he personally knew and had argued with) about the knowledge not being ready! And, later again, how Meehl talks about that there are plenty of interesting questions to ask that we just don’t know enough right now to actually ask.

I understand the lure of the New New thing. To go where nonone has gone before. It is also encoded in how we do things – the request for the novel. Something added. Something New! But, when the new becomes like fashion, not like extending frontiers, it becomes stale and outmoded, just like fashion. And, we make the same mistakes over and over again.

One Comment
  1. “I understand the lure of the New New thing. To go where nonone has gone before. It is also encoded in how we do things – the request for the novel. Something added. Something New! But, when the new becomes like fashion, not like extending frontiers, it becomes stale and outmoded, just like fashion. And, we make the same mistakes over and over again.”

    I don’t understand the lure of the “new thing”. Not in science anyway. I thought science was about trying to find out things that have some form of truth-value to it (leaving aside if that is even possible, and if so how). I find it strage that “new” is even used in science, the word itself: “new”. Why is that used? What is scientific about it?

    So, let’s say the past few decades have been filled with all kinds of “new and exciting” findings and “research-paradigms”. Let’s see how incredibly valuable this has been then, form a scientific perspective of course (not reasoning from the individual scientists’s perspective, or from journals’ persepctive) this approach has possibly been then:

    “Why most published research findings are false”

    “False positive psychology: undisclosed flexibility in data collection and analysis allows presenting anything as significant”

    Click to access simmons_et_al_2011.pdf

    Oh, snap…

    Why don’t the scientists (or should I say “fashion designers”) that think “new” is more important than “scientifically sound and useful” go write their “new” ideas in a diary? They could print it as a booklet, or magazine, or something like that (maybe they don’t even have to collect data, or do any subsequent analyses), and it can go on the shelves at a magazine/book-store (just like a fashion magazine).
    That way, they can still be all “new” and “exploratory” and right on “the cutting edge of science”, without wasting too much money, time, and effort themselves and, very importantly I would think, also without wasting other scientists’ money, time, and effort. This is because other scientists would know that the articles in the diary are not very well investigated yet, and they could make a more useful estimate as to whether they would view that information as belonging to the scientific record, or whether it is best seen as more of a diary entry.

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