Charles R. Twardy

Follow @ctwardy on

A few good things in psychology

❝   So if you hear that 60% of papers in your field don’t replicate, shouldn't you care a lot about which ones? Why didn't my colleagues and I immediately open up that paper's supplement, click on the 100 links, and check whether any of our most beloved findings died? _~A. Mastroianni_

HTT to the well-read Robert Horn for the link.

After replication failures and more recent accounts of fraud, Elizabeth Gilbert & Nick Hobson ask, Is psychology good for anything?

If the entire field of psychology disappeared today, would it matter? …

Adam Mastroianni, a postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School says: meh, not really.

At the time I replied with something like this:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There’s truth to this. I think Taleb noted that Shakespeare and Aeschylus are keener observers of the human condition than the average academic. But it’s good to remember there are useful things in psychology, as Gilbert & Hobson note near the end.

I might add the Weber-Fechner law and effects that reveal mental mechanisms, like:

  • 7±2
  • Stroop
  • mental rotation
  • lesion-coupled deficits
  • some fMRI.

Losing the Weber-Fechner would be like losing Newton: $F = m a$ reset default motion from stasis to inertia. $p = k log (S/S0)$ – reset sensation from absolute to relative.

7±2 could be 8±3 or 6±1, and there’s chunking. But to lose the idea that short-term memory has but a few fleeting registers would quake the field. And when the default is only ~7, losing or gaining a few is huge.

Stroop, mental rotation, deficits, & brain function are a mix of observation and implied theory. Removing some of this is erasing the moons of Jupiter: stubborn bright spots that rule out theories and strongly suggest alternatives. Stroop is “just” an illusion – but its existence limits independence of processing. Stroop’s cousins in visual search have practical applications from combat & rescue to user-interface design.

Likewise, that brains rotate images constrains mechanism, and informs dyslexic-friendly fonts and interface design.

Neural signals are too slow to track major-league fastballs. But batters can hit them. That helped find some clever signal processing hacks that helps animals perceive moving objects slightly ahead of where they are.

~ ~ ~

But yes, on the whole psychology is observation-rich and theory-poor: cards tiled in a mosaic, not built into houses.

I opened with Mastroanni’s plane crash analogy – if you heard that 60% of your relatives died in a plane crash, pretty soon you’d want to know which ones.

It’s damning that psychology needn’t much care.

Perhaps There are no statistics in the kingdom of God.