A Proposal to the Crisis in Psychological Sciences

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The “crisis” is derived from the philosopher Edmund Husserl‘s last great work “The Crisis of European Sciences” in which he offers a philosophical critique of the modern science of the day. My argument here is that psychological science faces problems of comparable magnitude: novelty and innovation. Students and faculty alike are urged to publish ‘novel’ research and be innovative. Altogether the results have been catastrophic. Seminal, novel studies are accepted prima facie without replication; null findings are scuttled. The burden for being innovative puts such a tremendous strain on graduates and faculty alike that they often withdraw into narrower and narrower bands of data or research that they can comfortably play with. This results in studies that have serious problems with sampling, misleading the field and the public in drawing a plethora of conclusions and findings from a small or single data set. Hyper-specialization also results in research becoming practically irrelevant to all but a few or, most gravely, saying a whole lot of nothing about something. Furthermore, graduate students, faculty and whole departments are often tied to the names and reputations of a few celebrity researchers who have a serious professional and financial stake in studying a few things in fairly limited ways. In valuing novelty and innovation; the social and health sciences have created a model of ‘celebrity research’ that perversely lacks rigor and relevance but is unduly restrictive.

One proposed solution is to build a strong pathway for graduate students in psychology–most of whom detest research and will never pick it up again after graduating–into clinically relevant and meaningful research, without unduly taxing their anxieties with the imperative to do or create celebrity research. The proposal is simple: every thesis and dissertation will no longer need to be innovative–unless the student can make a strong and persuasive case to faculty for why they should be allowed to do so. Instead, each student is expected to pick a favorite study and replicate it in a way that is practicable, relevant and instructive. Students will receive help from faculty in obtaining resources and a replication plan.

Since dissertations are relatively low risk as far as academic bona fides go; one null finding is not guaranteed to be devastating to an established study. However, if 20 dissertations can be shown to produce similar null findings, then the study in question rightfully deserves to be scrutinized. To this point, dissertations are likely to publish all findings, null or not. The credibility, nuance and relevance of our science can be greatly increased with strenuous efforts at replication, data sharing and an open process of publication. Graduate schools have a captive population of eager talent, most of whom presently lack the reputation or financial purse strings to hamstring these efforts.

Moreover, this can be greatly relieving for graduate students to be exonerated from the pressure to be special, innovating and ground-breaking in their first ever serious foray into research. What unearthly pressure we uniquely torture our own progeny with—what would Freud say? Each study will be an important contribution to the rigor of psychological science and students can feel good about doing interesting research with a clear aim and methodology that they can truly learn from rather than something they half-wing and half-pinch from a preening advisor. As we know, building off of a positive experience is much more likely to lead to perseverance than surviving a mildly traumatic one. If we wish to encourage the next generation of scientist-practitioners; clinicians who are actually interested and experienced in doing important research, then we will have to incentivize the pathway.

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