Power Poses & Why Methodological Criticism ≠ Bullying

A recent in-depth article in the New York Times dug into the controversy surrounding Amy Cuddy, the research on ‘Power Poses’, and subsequent failures to replicate the research. The piece by Susan Dominus was nuanced and provided a decent summary of the criticisms leveled at the research and how it was oversold. However, the primary goal of the article seemed to be in offering a sympathetic profile of Cuddy, detailing her sincerity/professionalism, and highlighting that some of the attacks she had received veered into abuse, bullying, and misogyny.

The article raises valid concerns about the treatment of women online and in male dominated academic circles. However, where I think it misses the mark is in the tendency to equate thorough methodical critique with vindictive bullying. I was heartened to see that I was not the only person to think so, as this excellent article in Slate by Simine Vazier makes clear. Vazier’s article is worth reading in full but for some personal highlights:

On the thankless work of replication

Doing the hard work of checking each other’s discoveries is not glamorous. And when scientists bother to do it, the response is rarely gratitude—instead, efforts to point out legitimate errors in methodology are often met with accusations of bullying. Indeed, science’s dirty little secret is that scientists are often actively hostile to the very mechanism that science depends on: self-correction.

On the harm of conflating criticism and bullying

Cuddy’s story is an important story to tell: It is a story of a woman living in a misogynistic society, having to put up with internet bullies who I have no doubt have cruelly and unreasonably criticized her life and career. But it is also a story of a woman experiencing completely appropriate scientific criticism of a finding she published. Conflating those issues, and the people delivering the “attacks,” does a disservice to the fight for gender equality, and it does a disservice to science.

I strongly agree with Vazier’s points and would also point to the response by Andrew Gelman on his blog. He features quite prominently in the article and is presented unflatteringly as someone who is only brave enough to be critical when dealing with people online. A featured comment beneath the NYT piece illustrates the impression that many NYT readers were left with after reading the piece:

People like Andrew Gelman don’t care about science, they care what Cuddy says because she is a female who must apologize, abase, and atone for her presumption in thinking she is equal. “Scientific integrity” is just the cudgel. Gelman’s cowardly refusal to contact or engage with Cuddy personally is typical of these social media bro bullies.

But Gelman’s response (and his heroic efforts in the comment section of his blog) is not characteristic of the pantomime villain that the NYT commenter conjures up. For instance, in reference to the article he states on his blog:

I think Dominus’s article is fair, given the inevitable space limitations. I wouldn’t’ve chosen to have written an article about Amy Cuddy—I think Eva Ranehill or Uri Simonsohn would be much more interesting subjects. But, conditional on the article being written largely from Cuddy’s perspective, I think it portrays the rest of us in a reasonable way. As I said to Dominus when she interviewed me, I don’t have any personal animosity toward Cuddy. I just think it’s too bad that the Carney/Cuddy/Yap paper got all that publicity and that Cuddy got herself tangled up in defending it. It’s admirable that Carney just walked away from it all. And it’s probably a good call of Yap to pretty much have avoided any further involvement in the matter.

As anyone who follows Gelman’s work knows, he does genuinely care about scientific integrity and appropriate use of statistics- a  more valid critique to level would be that he cares about these things too much! Indeed, this is his only major objection to the NYT piece:

The only thing that really bugged me about the NYT article is when Cuddy is quoted as saying, “Why not help social psychologists instead of attacking them on your blog?” and there is no quoted response from me. I remember this came up when Dominus interviewed me for the story, and I responded right away that I have helped social psychologists! A lot. I’ve given many talks during the past few years to psychology departments and at professional meetings, and I’ve published several papers in psychology and related fields on how to do better applied research, for example hereherehereherehereherehere, and here. I even wrote an article, with Hilda Geurts, for The Clinical Neuropsychologist! So, yeah, I do spend some time helping social psychologists.

Gelman deserves credit for the efforts he has made to reform problematic research practices but as Vazier highlightsd often such efforts are unfairly conflated with bullying (and in this instance being a misogynist). It should go without saying but, I have not noticed any gender bias in Gelman’s critiques of bad research, if anything he has probably been more critical of male researchers simply due to gender disparities prevalent in academia.

In short, while I think the NYT piece is still worth reading I do worry that out of context it might do more harm than good for the reputations of those leading (sorely needed) efforts to reform methodological practices in science.

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