JC reflections: Why our philosophies matter to science

“We all have our philosophies, whether or not we are aware of this fact, and our philosophies are not worth very much. But the impact of our philosophies upon our actions and our lives is often devastating.” Karl Popper, Objective knowledge (1972)

This opinion piece was inspired by our two-weekly Journal Club on the topics of the ‘researcher’s degrees of freedom’ (see Simmons, J. P., Nelson, L. D., & Simonsohn, U. (2011). False-positive psychology: Undisclosed flexibility in data collection and analysis allows presenting anything as significant. Psychological science, 22(11), 1359-1366.) and the replication crisis in psychology (see Open Science Collaboration. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science, 349(6251).). It narrates a personal reflection of Katrien, a last-year psychology student, on the matter of how our philosophies shape our (scientific) world.

When asked what science is all about, most researchers would agree that science is the continual search for ‘truth’. Scientists are looking for that something out there in the world that, by using language (be it words or mathematical symbols), they try to capture and share. It’s all about these ideas that we create with the hope that they match reality – a reality which we oftentimes do not have direct access to.

What however tends to be overlooked is that the process leading to the acknowledgment of these concepts isn’t as rational as one would like it to be. Science belongs to a social fabric[1], and as such it emerges from discussion with colleagues, from getting a grant, from being approved by publishers, from getting cited, and so on. For the researchers among the readers, it won’t sound much surprising if I were to say that working as a scientist parallels being embraced by others. How we value research, what we select to be relevant and what we believe is necessary is thus probably as important, if not more, as the capacity to make fancy analyses. But this belief-system is often disregarded. As an illustration, I challenge you, my very dear reader, to answer this question: what makes you choose to read one article or to disregard another? Or to go and pursue one research project compared to another? In other words: what philosophy did you choose to work with? It might be that you don’t quite know. Why? Because how we go on to do what we do is not something we are told to actively think of. Sometimes, something just seems interesting.

Is this a problem? Well, it might be. I think that in some instances neglecting questioning why we work on a topic might lead us, in our pursuit for truth and ultimately for aiding other human beings, astray. For all we know, we could be living right now on Planet F345 as Ioannidis described in ‘why science is not necessarily self-correcting’: a place where people publish just to get published and are rewarded for the most exuberant ideas without acquiring better insights into the way our world is truly functioning. Actually: this world might already overlap ours. From confirmatory biases, to the ‘researchers degrees of freedom’ and p-hacking, the field of psychology seems to have been soiled by unfounded ‘new discoveries’. It’s a well-known phenomenon among academics, but the problem is far from being fully resolved: there seems to remain an impetus to describe fantasized creatures instead of proving or disproving their existence. How come? Is this just a feature of how our mind is functioning? Are we naturally captivated by these marvellous stories that might explain everything we want? As if scientists nowadays would be like these disenchanted children discovering who really placed the gifts under the Christmas tree.

I would however argue that these tendencies are just a reflection of the philosophies that we are working with, even though we might not be aware of them. People for instance rarely look at these childish theories getting debunked with as much sadness as one would approach their own research falling apart. In fact: maybe it is here where our problem lies. Maybe we should have this same rather amused and proud attitude towards our own falsified hypothesis.

The idea isn’t mine. The thought that acknowledging our wrongs should be more important than defending our opinions was already brought forward by Karl Popper more than half a century ago, and it personally became a leitmotiv that I have placed in my own life: dare to be mistaken, for if you don’t, you don’t know how to improve.

As a 22-year-old aiming at an academic career, I used to feel that psychology was doomed. Psychology seemed filled with ‘gurus’ and other great orators who in fact did not seem to know much about the human psyche. The field resembled Ioannidis Sci-Fi’s description terrifyingly well. I was for instance a second-year bachelor student of psychology when I first encountered the term ‘replication crisis’: apparently, only a handful of so-called ‘scientific’ findings could be reproduced – so what? Yes, it is a thing, but a thing in most scientific fields as well; nothing much to make a fuss about. Later on that day, a professor went on to explain ego-depletion (an effect that was recently shown to be non-replicable) and another one said that it is important not to kill ‘intrinsic motivation’ due to ‘extrinsic rewards’ (another disputed phenomenon). I often felt disturbed by this during pre-exam periods: I knew the field had been shaken, but it felt as if I should not worry about this too much. I had to learn something of which the trustworthiness could seriously be questioned, so what?

I recently started to become more optimistic. I do sense that a greater shout-out has been given to well-powered studies, replications start to be seen as an important building-block to the accumulation of knowledge and many solutions for tackling biased reporting have also been proposed, both in the field of cognitive modelling as in more traditional psychological research. Most important of all, I also realized that these challenges will probably never be solved. Science is not merely the resolution of an equation; it is a complex and ill-defined problem. It is only by exploring different paths and reiterating what we think and how we do things that we might find something that could be ‘good enough’.

But we do need to think and argue about it.

So, I personally invite my very dear reader to come back to the question of what motivates you in your field and to discuss it with friends and colleagues, or (of course) with me! I would be eager to know how you think about thinking (ideally). This last sentence probably doesn’t make any sense but I’m really glad you made it until the end; so, do let me know!

From Calvin and Hobbes

[1]For the readers more interested in this aspect, I recommend the work of the anthropologist Bruno Latour (e.g. “Laboratory life”) who depicted the lives of scientists in a similar vein as he would describe a tribe in Papua New Guinea.