Toward a More Perfect Ethical Community of Scientists

The theoretical physicist Lee Smolin's argument that there is no scientific method attracted a lot of attention yesterday, including the following reaction from reader, social psychologist and blogger Dave Nussbaum:

This view certainly resonates with me this week, as the field of psychology grapples with its methodological shortcomings, and its past and future.

Following the recent NYT magazine article about the fraud of Diederik Stapel, I wrote a piece that objected to conflating his actions with those of his colleagues, whose methods are sometimes flawed, but fall far short of fraud. From the perspective you present, the distinction could be thought of as the difference between someone who's in the ethical community and someone who is not.

Fraud aside, though, for those inside the community, it is clear that we are not currently living up to the standards that Feyerabend would have set for us. I think there are encouraging new signs that we are moving in the right direction, but a lot more progress is needed.

To me, the question is how best to make that progress? How can we update the community's ethical norms in the most effective way. We have a collective action problem where, as individuals, it is in each of our (short term) best interests to cut corners as long as everyone else is, so long as we can deceive ourselves into thinking that it's ok. Although there has been a push to update those norms, and it has caught on to some degree, there has also been resistance and apathy.

I wonder what you, or Feyerabend, might have to say about the best ways to move toward a more perfect ethical community of scientists. Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking piece.

Some links on the topics I discussed:

My article on Stapel:

My article on reforms:

Gary Marcus in the New Yorker today on the recent dust-ups in the field:

p.s. I spent a year as a post-doc in Waterloo at the UW psychology department, I'm sorry we never got the chance to meet.



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