The most courageous act a modern academic can make is to say they were wrong. After all, we deal in ideas, not things. When we say we were wrong, we are saying our ideas, our products so to speak, were faulty. It is a supremely unsettling thing to do.
Of course, in the Platonic ideal, and in reality, being a scientist necessitates being wrong a lot. Unfortunately, our incentive system militates against being honest about our work. Thus, countless researchers choose not to admit or even acknowledge the possibility that they might have been mistaken.
In a bracingly honest post in response to a blog by Uli Schimmack, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, has done the unthinkable. He has admitted that he was mistaken. Here’s a quote:
“I knew, of course, that the results of priming studies were based on small samples, that the effect sizes were perhaps implausibly large, and that no single study was conclusive on its own. What impressed me was the unanimity and coherence of the results reported by many laboratories. I concluded that priming effects are easy for skilled experimenters to induce, and that they are robust. However, I now understand that my reasoning was flawed and that I should have known better. Unanimity of underpowered studies provides compelling evidence for the existence of a severe file-drawer problem (and/or p-hacking). The argument is inescapable: Studies that are underpowered for the detection of plausible effects must occasionally return non-significant results even when the research hypothesis is true – the absence of these results is evidence that something is amiss in the published record. Furthermore, the existence of a substantial file-drawer effect undermines the two main tools that psychologists use to accumulate evidence for a broad hypotheses: meta-analysis and conceptual replication. Clearly, the experimental evidence for the ideas I presented in that chapter was significantly weaker than I believed when I wrote it. This was simply an error: I knew all I needed to know to moderate my enthusiasm for the surprising and elegant findings that I cited, but I did not think it through. When questions were later raised about the robustness of priming results I hoped that the authors of this research would rally to bolster their case by stronger evidence, but this did not happen.”
My respect and gratitude for this statement by Professor Kahneman knows no bounds.
Brent W. Roberts