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Surprising Science

Most New Psychology Findings Can’t Be Replicated. So Now What?

A massive, groundbreaking study has found that the majority of new psychology findings in the top three flagship journals can't be replicated. Where do we go from here?

The field of psychology has been shaken by a massive replication effort, which has found that out of 98 papers published in the top three psychology journals only 39 could be replicated.


From much of the coverage you’d be forgiven for thinking that this means we should discard psychology as a field. I certainly don’t believe this is the case for the simple reason that well-studied areas of psychology are full of findings that have been repeatedly tested in various different ways. Instead of resorting to cynicism, we should take this opportunity to embrace a culture of skepticism and fundamentally change the way we interpret new research findings.

Whenever you hear the words “new study,” alarm bells should ring. It isn’t new studies that you should base your opinions on; it is old studies that have been replicated again and again, and the results reported in meta-analyses and systematic reviews.

… taking a scientifically informed view of the world requires a great deal more than looking at any one study.

In that last sentence I was careful not to restrict that claim to psychology, for the simple reason that we have every indication to believe that new research is similarly difficult to replicate across many areas of science. For example, 30 percent of the most widely cited randomized controlled trials in the world’s highest-quality medical journals have later been found to be wrong or exaggerated and that number rises to five out of six for non-randomized trials — a number that is in fact worse than the rate found by the psychology reproducibility project.

So what does this mean to you, the reader, who is simply trying to distinguish fact from fiction? Obviously, it is the responsibility of researchers to make their research considerably more reliable, but this may take a very long time, and may never happen.

The solution is to take a skeptical approach to the world around us, to treat every new claim not as a problem solved, but as an open question. Questions that are best answered by looking with a critical eye at all the evidence we have. In a perfect world, I’d wholly agree with psychologist Steven Pinker that much of this responsibility lies with science journalists:

I’ve long argued that sci journalists should stop reporting single newsworthy studies = recipe for error. Only meta-analyses, lit reviews.

— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) August 30, 2015


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