The New York Times recently published Susan Dominus’ piece, When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy. The article describes the replication crisis from the vantage point of its refraction through Amy Cuddy’s professional and personal life. The writing is incredible. Dominus talks about the changing rules of science, about a professional life that surged and then came apart, and about the other side, the methodologically inclined folks who care about sorting out the gross errors in our research practices. It also discusses tone, and social media, and it raises questions about gender and power. The overall picture is Cuddy as a charming, graceful, daring young woman who has never lost the ability to extend warm support to those less privileged than her. She was caught in a storm that couldn’t be tempered, and was trampled by jeering social media crowds led by a handful of brazen (and perhaps even slightly autistic?) statisticians.
Personally, I like to be reminded (as many times as necessary) that there are real people on the receiving end of methodological criticism. I can only imagine how gut-wrenching it must be to have one’s work picked apart so publicly – and criticized so relentlessly.
The article raises the issue of anger towards people who are perceived as doing bad science, and then waves it away with an all too easy explanation: it was a question of a woman not knowing her place. How dare she become so prominent? At the same time, paradoxically, Cuddy is described as essentially helpless in her dealings with the researchers who were criticizing her. If they wouldn’t give her a phone call, she had no choice but wait for their thoughts to appear (again and again) on the world wide web. If they chose to be critical, she was powerless to respond in a way that would turn the conversation into something constructive. And the rules changed around her, just like that. The world just toppled like a house of cards, and she was a victim with no say in the matter.
This view, which I assume Dominus soaked up from Cuddy’s perspective (and then presented it as fact), is a perfect illustration of Cuddy’s infuriating response to the reasons why her research was being called out – there are no good reasons, everyone’s so mean. But in fact it was only after Cuddy ignored multiple failed replications as well as detailed methodological criticism and carried on in publicly promoting power posing as a scientifically grounded claim, that she became a poster child for bad research. She gave the impression that she does not care about the science. The NYT article reflects that as well, with it’s lack of discussion on why findings that seemed reasonable at one time now appear seriously problematic – and why talking about this is important for the scientific endeavour.
The question of gender bias struck a chord with many readers, and was the most featured theme in at least the first ~200 comments. One person wrote this (emphasis mine), and NYT picked it for showcasing:
The article briefly mentions that gender is an issue in science, but it seems to me to be a core one here. As the article says, Cuddy engaged in behavior common to the field before the changes. So is it a coincidence that the one person whose tenure was lost, whose research career was lost, whose life was so heavily affected, is a young woman who dared to be ambitious and confident? It seems to me that her science chose an easy target for punishment, one that would excite those who like to attack women for getting above themselves.
This person concluded from the article that Cuddy was being singled out, and that careers of male scientists were not being affected. This is not the case (Bargh, Bem, Forster, Strack, Kanazawa, Kahneman, and others have been called out), especially with Brian Wansink’s career currently spiraling out of control in much the same way, for much the same reasons. (Brian Wansink is a tenured professor at Cornell, and his research on food consumption behaviour is used for policy-making in school lunchrooms across America.)
But still – could it be that the combination of Cuddy’s gender and her fame is what makes the attacks at her especially vicious? It could be. Gender bias is pervasive. It can be subtle but persistent, it’s often unintentional, and it’s notoriously difficult to self-diagnose. I would not discount it out of hand. It’s a good question.
But why people are so angry is also an important question, and it deserves a fairer assessment. Cuddy and Wansink genuinely do make people angry. Does bad science or bad reasoning make some people angry on its own? I think so, but why is that? Did something in Cuddy’s (and other researchers’) responses play a role in the runaway process of social media criticism? Is it the claims themselves, which appear unscientific but are promoted as science – that Cuddy and Wansink are both offering two-minute fixes to serious problems such as social injustice or obesity? I wish the article had looked into this question with a more open mind, without the hint at personal inferiority of those of us who feel this anger. So far the gentlest suggestion is that critics might be well meaning but they are socially inept nerds, insufficiently acquainted with basic social etiquette let alone the workings of complex power dynamics. (Maybe I am being harsh on Dominus here; my text is inspired by the angry comments as well, which I read at the same time.)
I want to end this post by saying that I agree with Dominus that tone matters a great deal. Curbing tone is a serious asset in scientific discussion. It’s hard not to get worked up when you think something is just plain wrong, but toning down the exasperation goes a long way towards getting the point across: it eases the other person into the right cognitive and emotional stance to take in our criticism. Whenever the other side gets defensive or angry, it’s time to assess if we are communicating well. But tone is a two-way street, where criticism and responses to criticism both play a role in the dynamic. For the moment it still feels like Cuddy and the methods people are worlds apart.