We try to tell stories that are illuminated by empirical research. Not just because it is interesting to look at how people tick, but because it is important to do so. In our approach to the environment, education, economics, policy, and related topics, understanding how humans truly behave—not how we wish them to—is essential to building the most sustainable and flourishing society possible. It is equally essential to make sure that the empirical work we rely on is sound.
In his story, “The Reformation,” longtime science writer Jerry Adler (more than 100 Newsweek cover stories!) writes, “For the last several years, a crisis of self-confidence has been brewing in the world of experimental social science, and in psychology especially.” This crisis has come, as crises often do, during a moment in the spotlight.
We live at an exciting time for the social and behavioral sciences, and a time when people are unusually excited about them. This is plainly evident, from the bestseller lists (Gladwell’s David and Goliath), to the language we speak (“nudge”), to the ideas we measure our kids against (the Stanford marshmallow experiment), and even to the people selling us retirement accounts (Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist famous for happiness research, has recently starred in ads for Prudential, including one that aired during the 2013 Super Bowl). Just recently, New York magazine announced that it was starting up a new special section about social science research, called “The Science of Us.”
Rarely has so much academic work become the object of such popular enthusiasm. But popularity is a double-edged sword. As Adler describes, the public’s appetite for fast, digestible, TED Talk-friendly findings has spurred researchers to look for ever more dramatic results in their data. According to some concerned scientists, the statistical methods that underpin experimental research are increasingly being stretched to produce findings that are more exciting than reliable. And alongside all the headlines about catchy new ideas from the social sciences, recent years have seen a telltale uptick in stories about retracted research results.
Fortunately, the behavioral sciences are getting a strong dose of self-scrutiny. “A handful of mostly young researchers are at the heart of a kind of reform movement in their field,” Adler writes. “Together with a loose confederation of crusading journal editors and whistle-blowing bloggers, they have begun policing the world of experimental research, assiduously rooting out fraud and error, as if to rescue the scientific method from embarrassment—and from its own success.” For those of us who hope to steer public discourse—and public policy—by the light of empirical research, the efforts of this reform movement make for essential reading.