The puzzle: Why do scientists typically respond to legitimate scientific criticism in an angry, defensive, closed, non-scientific way? The answer: We’re trained to do this during the process of responding to peer review.

January 13, 2018

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

[image of Cantor’s corner]

Here’s the “puzzle,” as we say in social science. Scientific research is all about discovery of the unexpected: to do research, you need to be open to new possibilities, to design experiments to force anomalies, and to learn from them. The sweet spot for any researcher is at Cantor’s corner. (See here for further explanation of the Cantor connection.)

Buuuut . . . researchers are also notorious for being stubborn. In particular, here’s a pattern we see a lot:
– Research team publishes surprising result A based on some “p less than .05” empirical results.
– This publication gets positive attention and the researchers and others in their subfield follow up with open-ended “conceptual replications”: related studies that also attain the “p less than .05” threshold.
– Given the surprising nature of result A, it’s unsurprising that other researchers are skeptical of A. The more theoretically-minded skeptics, or agnostics, demonstrate statistical reasons why these seemingly statistically-significant results can’t be trusted. The more empirically-minded skeptics, or agnostics, run preregistered replications studies, which fail to replicate the original claim.
– At this point, the original researchers do not apply the time-reversal heuristic and conclude that their original study was flawed (forking paths and all that). Instead they double down, insist their original findings are correct, and they come up with lots of little explanations for why the replications aren’t relevant to evaluating their original claims. And they typically just ignore or brush aside the statistical reasons why their original study was too noisy to ever show what they thought they were finding.

So, the puzzle is: researchers are taught to be open to new ideas, research is all about finding new things and being aware of flaws in existing paradigms—but researchers can be sooooo reluctant to abandon their own pet ideas.

OK, some of this we can explain by general “human nature” arguments. But I have another explanation for you, that’s specific to the scientific communication process.

My story goes like this. As scientists, we put a lot of effort into writing articles, typically with collaborators: we work hard on each article, try to get everything right, then we submit to a journal.

What happens next? Sometimes the article is rejected outright, but, if not, we’ll get back some review reports which can have some sharp criticisms: What about X? Have you considered Y? Could Z be biasing your results? Did you consider papers U, V, and W?

The next step is to respond to the review reports, and typically this takes the form of, We considered X, and the result remained significant. Or, We added Y to the model, and the result was in the same direction, marginally significant, so the claim still holds. Or, We adjusted for Z and everything changed . . . hmmmm . . . we then also though about factors P, Q, and R. After including these, as well as Z, our finding still holds. And so on.

The point is: each of the remarks from the reviewers is potentially a sign that our paper is completely wrong, that everything we thought we found is just an artifact of the analysis, that maybe the effect even goes in the opposite direction! But that’s typically not how we take these remarks. Instead, almost invariably, we think of the reviewers’ comments as a set of hoops to jump through: We need to address all the criticisms in order to get the paper published. We think of the reviewers as our opponents, not our allies (except in the case of those reports that only make mild suggestions that don’t threaten our hypotheses).

When I think of the hundreds of papers I’ve published and the, I dunno, thousand or so review reports I’ve had to address in writing revisions, how often have I read a report and said, Hey, I was all wrong? Not very often. Never, maybe?

So, here’s the deal. As scientists, we see serious criticism on a regular basis, and we’re trained to deal with it in a certain way: to respond while making minimal, ideally zero, changes to our scientific claims.

That’s what we do for a living; that’s what we’re trained to do. We think of every critical review report as a pain in the ass that we have to deal with, not as a potential sign that we screwed up.

So, given that training, it’s perhaps little surprise that when our work is scrutinized in post-publication review, we have the same attitude: the expectation that the critic is nitpicking, that we don’t have to change our fundamental claims at all, that if necessary we can do a few supplemental analyses and demonstrate the robustness of our findings to those carping critics.

And that’s the answer to the puzzle: Why do scientists typically respond to legitimate scientific criticism in an angry, defensive, closed, non-scientific way? Because in their careers, starting from the very first paper they submit to a journal in grad school, scientists get regular doses of legitimate scientific criticism, and they’re trained to respond to it in the shallowest way possible, almost never even considering the possibility that their work is fundamentally in error.

P.S. I’m pretty sure I posted on this before but I can’t remember when, so I thought it was simplest to just rewrite from scratch.

P.P.S. Just to clarify—I’m not trying to slam peer review. I think peer review is great; even at its worst it can be a way to convey that a paper has not been clear. My problem is not with peer review but rather with our default way of responding to peer review, which is to figure out how to handle the review comments in whatever way is necessary to get the paper published. I fear that this trains us to respond to post-publication criticism in that same way.

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