Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


academic-journals

Academic journals in a university library. (PHOTO: DOTSHOCK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

U.S. Excels at Producing Suspect Behavioral Science

• August 26, 2013 • 12:00 PM

Academic journals in a university library. (PHOTO: DOTSHOCK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The mythbusters of academe take on soft science from the United States, and find a propensity toward aggrandizement.

Alexis de Tocqueville, bless his oft-cited little pen, first suggested “American exceptionalism,” the idea that the U.S. of A. is qualitatively different from other nations. AE has had some tough slogging of late, with commentators on the left and center arguing it never or no longer exists, while those on the right wring their hands over American erosion. Even our scandals du jour generate another round of navel gazing.

But a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looking at scientific research offers a backhanded endorsement of American exceptionalism, arguing that in the publish-or-perish world of so-called soft science (I hear the gritting of teeth already), results from U.S.-based research tend to be more extreme in their results. When there can be some ambiguity in the findings, we’re No. 1!

While on its face reporting significant findings more often could seem like a good thing, it’s at best statistically suspect (especially because it’s concentrated in behavioral fields) and worst scientifically suspect. The University of Edinburgh’s Daniele Fanelli and Stanford’s John P.A. Ioannidis suggest this “U.S. effect” can be traced to two independent sources: the nature of behavioral research and the tenor of American academe. Both suggestions are damning, even if they’re not exactly new.

The publication of false, exaggerated, and falsified findings is believed to be more common in research fields where replication is difficult, theories are less clear, and methods are less standardized, because researchers have more “degrees of freedom” to produce the results they expect. Behavioral methodologies, in particular, have been considered at higher risk of bias at least since the 1970s. The intuitive assumption that theoretical and methodological “softness” might increase the prevalence of expectation biases is supported by direct studies of the literature, which suggest that the proportion of papers reporting “positive” outcomes increases moving from the physical to the medical and social sciences and, independent of discipline, is higher among social and behavioral studies on people, compared with nonbehavioral studies and studies on nonhuman behavior.

And on the U.S. in particular?

Many concerns have been expressed, in particular, for the “publish-or-perish” philosophy that has long characterized research in the United States and is increasingly taken up in other countries. Such concerns are increasingly supported by evidence. Researchers working the United States report, in surveys, higher pressures than those in most other countries. At least two independent meta-analyses, one in economics and one in genetic association studies, had noted signs of a larger publication bias among papers from the United States (or North America). The proportion of reported positive results has increased in recent years in most social and biomedical sciences and is greater in US studies, particularly among the most academically productive states.

And let’s not even open Pandora’s box on that whole WEIRD thing….

The messengers of this latest missive are old, and dab, hands at ferreting out chronic research problems. Fanelli has been publicly critiquing flaws in the sociology of science, soft and hard, for more than half a decade, while Ioannidis is a long-standing and high-profile critic of research shortcomings. Papers like “Why Most Discovered True Associations Are Inflated” and “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” have emanated from his pen for some time. While they may not be subtle, both gentlemen are credible, not cranks, who want to save science from its own expectancy bias.

As Ioannidis told The Atlantic: “Science is a noble endeavor, but it’s also a low-yield endeavor. I’m not sure that more than a very small percentage of medical research is ever likely to lead to major improvements in clinical outcomes and quality of life. We should be very comfortable with that fact.”

In this latest piece, they tracked down 82 recent meta-analyses (a sort of study of studies) in genetics and in psychiatry, the former chosen as an essentially quantitative field and the latter a qualitative one. They then compared how the individual findings in each of the studies that were contained in the meta-analysis—there were 1,172 in all—deviated from the grouped results.

Between the biological and the behavioral studies, the behavioral ones were “significantly more likely to report extreme effects” as a whole, while behavioral results from the U.S. in turn were much more likely to exceed the expectations of their original hypothesis—especially when there were accompanying biological parameters to act as a check.

The biological studies, on the other hand, did not share this propensity and deviated mostly due to sampling errors and showed greater issues when the number of subjects or samples in the study was small, itself a known bias in research. Oddly enough (or suspiciously enough), small-study effects were less pronounced in work from the U.S.

The researchers don’t suggest any intentional agency on the part of their U.S. colleagues, but they do suspect there’s a flawed system at play, in which the researchers’ expectations are amplified by their field’s diverse and often non-standardized methodologies and complex subject matter (which Daniele and Ioannidis term its “level of softness”).

“Our preferred hypothesis is derived from the fact that researchers in the United States have been exposed for a longer time than those in other countries to an unfortunate combination of pressures to publish and winner-takes-all system of rewards,” they write. “This condition is believed to push researchers into either producing many results and then only publishing the most impressive ones, or to make the best of what they got by making them seem as important as possible, through post hoc analyses, rehypothesizing, and other more or less questionable practices.”

Being good academicians themselves, the duo are careful not to overstate their own findings, arguing that what they found definitively applies only to what they found, and may not be broadly applicable—although it probably is.

While the U.S. was the victim of this particular blast, its unwelcome exceptionalism is probably merited only through how it fails, not that it fails. The researchers suggest that given enough statistical firepower, they could find biases peculiar to other countries’ research, much as it’s already been identified in some research from Asia—which in turn may be generated by trying to turn some Western heads by reporting spectacular results.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.