(The link comes from Stuart Richie.) Sunstein later clarified:
I’ll take Sunstein’s word that he no longer thinks it’s funny to attack people who work for open science and say that they’re just like people who spread disinformation. I have no idea what Sunstein thinks the “grain of truth” is, but I guess that’s his problem.
Last word on this particular analogy comes from Nick Brown:
The bigger question
The bigger question is: What the hell is going on here? I assume that Sunstein doesn’t think that “good people doing good and important work” would be Stasi in another life. Also, I don’t know who are “the replication police.” After all, it’s Cass Sunstein and Brian Wansink, not Nick Brown, Anna Dreber, Uri Simonson, etc., who’ve been appointed to policymaking positions within the U.S. government.
What this looks like to me is a sort of alliance of celebrities. The so-called “replication police” aren’t police at all—unlike the Stasi, they have no legal authority or military power. Perhaps even more relevant, the replication movement is all about openness, whereas the defenders of shaky science are often shifty about their data, their analyses, and their review processes. If you want a better political analogy, how about this:
The open-science movement is like the free press. It’s not perfect, but when it works it can be one of the few checks against powerful people and institutions.
I couldn’t fit in Stasi or terrorists here, but that’s part of the point: Brown, Dreber, Simonsohn, etc., are not violent terrorists, and they’re not spreading disinformation. Rather, they’re telling, and disseminating truths that are unpleasant to some well-connected people.
Following the above-linked thread led me to this excerpt that Darren Dahly noticed from Sunstein’s book Nudge:
Jeez. Citing Wansink . . . ok, sure, back in the day, nobody knew that those publications were so flawed. But to describe Wansink’s experiments as “masterpieces” . . . what’s with that? I guess I understand, kind of. It’s the fellowship of the celebrities. Academic bestselling authors gotta stick together, right?
Several problems with science reporting, all in one place
I’d like to focus on one particular passage from Sunstein’s reporting on Wansink:
Wansink asked the recipients of the big bucket whether they might have eaten more because of the size of their bucket. Most denied the possibility, saying, “Things like that don’t trick me.” But they were wrong.
This quote illustrates several problems with science reporting:
1. Personalization; scientist-as-hero. It’s all Wansink, Wansink, Wansink. As if he did the whole study himself. As we now know, Wansink was the publicity man, not the detail man. I don’t know if these studies had anyone attending to detail, at least when it came to data collection and analysis. But, again, the larger point is that the scientist-as-hero narrative has problems.
2. Neglect of variation. Even if the study were reported and analyzed correctly, it could still be that the subset of people who said they were not influenced by the size of the bucket were not influenced. You can’t know, based on the data collected in this between-person study. We’ve discussed this general point before: it’s a statistical error to assume that an average pattern applies to everyone, or even to most people.
3. The claim that people are easily fooled. Gerd Gigerenzer has written about this a lot: There’s a lot of work being done by psychologists, economists, etc., sending the message that people are stupid and easily led astray by irrelevant stimuli. The implication is that democratic theory is wrong, that votes are determined by shark attacks, college football games, and menstrual cycles, so maybe we, the voters, can’t be reasoned with directly, we just have to be . . . nudged.
It’s frustrating to me how a commentator such as Sunstein is so ready to believe that participants in that popcorn experiments were “wrong” and then at the same time so quick to attack advocates for open science. If the open science movement had been around fifteen years ago, maybe Sunstein and lots of others wouldn’t have been conned. Not being conned is a good thing, no?
P.S. I checked Sunstein’s twitter feed to see if there was more on this Stasi thing. I couldn’t find anything, but I did notice this link to a news article he wrote, evaluating the president’s performance based on the stock market (“In terms of the Dow, 2018 was also pretty awful, with a 5.6 percent decline — the worst since 2008.”) Is that for real??
P.P.S. Look. We all make mistakes. I’m sure Sunstein is well-intentioned, just as I’m sure that the people who call us “terrorists” etc. are well-intentioned, etc. It’s just . . . openness is a good thing! To look at people who work for openness and analogize them to spies whose entire existence is based on secrecy and lies . . . that’s really some screwed-up thinking. When you’re turned around that far, it’s time to reassess, not just issue semi-apologies indicating that you think there’s a “grain of truth” to your attack. We’re all on the same side here, right?
P.P.P.S. Let me further clarify.
Bringing up Sunstein’s 2008 endorsement of Wansink is not a “gotcha.”
Back then, I probably believed all those sorts of claims too. As I’ve written in great detail, the past decade has seen a general rise in sophistication regarding published social science research, and there’s lots of stuff I believed back then, that I wouldn’t trust anymore. Sunstein fell for the hot hand fallacy fallacy too, but then again so did I!
Here’s the point. From one standpoint, Brian Wansink and Cass Sunstein are similar: They’re both well-funded, NPR-beloved Ivy League professors who’ve written best-selling books. They go on TV. They influence government policy. They’re public intellectuals!
But from another perspective, Wansink and Sunstein are completely different. Sunstein cares about evidence, Wansink shows no evidence of caring about evidence. When Sunstein learns he made a mistake, he corrects it. When Wansink learns he made a mistake, he muddies the waters.
I think the differences between Sunstein and Wansink are more important than the similarities. I wish Sunstein would see this too. I wish he’d see that the scientists and journalists who want to open things up, to share data, to reveal their own mistakes as well as those of others, are on his side. And the sloppy researchers, those who resist open data, open methods, and open discussion, are not.