Lisa Feldman Barrett: Failure to Replicate Research is Not Cause for Alarm!

Dear Commons Community,

Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times allaying concerns about the failure to replicate research in the field of psychology.  Her piece is in response to an initiative called the Reproducibility Project at the University of Virginia which recently reran 100 psychology experiments and found that over 60 percent of them failed to replicate — that is, their findings did not hold up the second time around. The results, published last week in Science, have generated alarm (and in some cases, confirmed suspicions) that the field of psychology is in poor shape.  Barrett writes:

“…the failure to replicate is not a cause for alarm; in fact, it is a normal part of how science works.

Suppose you have two well-designed, carefully run studies, A and B, that investigate the same phenomenon. They perform what appear to be identical experiments, and yet they reach opposite conclusions. Study A produces the predicted phenomenon, whereas Study B does not. We have a failure to replicate.

Does this mean that the phenomenon in question is necessarily illusory? Absolutely not. If the studies were well designed and executed, it is more likely that the phenomenon from Study A is true only under certain conditions. The scientist’s job now is to figure out what those conditions are, in order to form new and better hypotheses to test.”

She concludes:

As with any scientific field, psychology has some published studies that were conducted sloppily, and a few bad eggs who have falsified their data. But contrary to the implication of the Reproducibility Project, there is no replication crisis in psychology. The “crisis” may simply be the result of a misunderstanding of what science is.

Science is not a body of facts that emerge, like an orderly string of light bulbs, to illuminate a linear path to universal truth. Rather, science (to paraphrase Henry Gee, an editor at Nature) is a method to quantify doubt about a hypothesis, and to find the contexts in which a phenomenon is likely. Failure to replicate is not a bug; it is a feature. It is what leads us along the path — the wonderfully twisty path — of scientific discovery.”

Dr. Barrett is correct in her response.  The world is constantly evolving and the people who inhabit it are not at all uniform. Research that focuses on the human condition is subject to great variation depending upon the circumstances, setting, and time.



Comments are closed.