Careening careers

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.


  1. Natasha

    I understand what you are referring to and I agree that the article did not present both sides. We will also never know the exact cause of people’s treatment of Amy Cuddy, because we will never be able to experimentally determine causation, and therefore we can not confirm that it really was her gender that influenced people’s responses.

    So the best thing we can do is compare different situations, to understand whether people treated her any differently than they did other people who committed similar actions (i.e., Bem, Wansink, Strack, Baumeister, etc.). Across the statistics and methodology groups, blogs, and forums I have participated in, discussions about Amy Cuddy turned to her personality, her honesty, her accident, her claims about her deficits and her recovery, and her personal life. With these conversations came huge fights about tone policing, with people getting into their own ad hominem attacks at each other over what the other side was saying about Amy Cuddy.

    We can also look at the amount of time spent on this one piece of work that has become representative of the entire movement in psychology, and we can speculate on why this specifically inspired so much anger. Was it timing? Status? The TED talk? Being stubborn in the face of evidence to the contrary? Gender? Or all of the above?

    We can’t be blind to the numerous similar situations where gender has been a factor, because that would be burying our heads in the sand. Robust research on objective treatment (not implicit bias) of women in the workplace, on the internet, and in academic settings shows us that criticism of women tends to be more about their personality (based on workplace performance reviews), they are rated lower when they perform identically and their gender is known (based on orchestra auditions and teaching evaluations), and their areas of expertise are discounted (based on resume evaluations). Situations like “gamergate” and the daily experiences of women on Twitter mirror a lot of the research-irrelevant criticism that Amy Cuddy received. To be clear, I am NOT accusing any researchers or commenters of individual-level misogyny or sexism – I’m seeing a lot of that on Gelman’s comments, but that’s not what I’m trying to say here.

    There are psychologists and statisticians who have become (understandably) frustrated by the barrage of bad science. But the problem happens when some of those people throw away common courtesy and fight against being decent human beings while trying to get a point across. Your call to be a decent person to other people (unfortunately not self-evident) is a good start. I think there is more we can do as supporters of good scientific practices (these are general suggestions that I can also follow more often, and I’d like to know your thoughts):

    – just like people of colour are forced to do, denounce people who are taking things too far and directing the conversation away from the science and towards personal attacks. I hate the term “methodological terrorists”, but if excessively negative, complaining people are making things personal, shut that down.
    – as an alternative to shutting people down when they are saying something irrelevant about a person who has done bad science, redirect the conversation back to the relevant dimensions of that person’s work.
    – be constructive, as many researchers in psychology do not have adequate stats and research design training, and the examples they see may be doing the very things we don’t want. If you can make a complex concept clear so people can do better science, please share. Us students are watching, and we could always learn more.
    – share your stats knowledge, your tips for gathering high-quality data, and/or other approaches to good science (e.g., example analysis plans, easy-to-use and -adapt code for those of us who are terrible at programming)
    – continue, of course, to hold science to the highest standards.

    Thanks for continuing this discussion!

    • Thank you for taking the time to respond. This is just a quick note to say I’m about to board a plane with kid and without laptop or wifi on the other side. I think you raise some important issues and I *will* respond, in about one week. If other comments come in I’ll just quickly approve them.

    • Misogyny and sexism are no doubt frequent problems but I honestly can’t say I have seen any evidence that the treatment of Amy Cuddy was any more extreme than, say, Brian Wansink. Of course that could just be because I didn’t follow the debate about her work very closely. As you say, it is impossible to prove causation here anyway.

      I fully agree with Ana’s post that the NYT article is a bit misleading about the underlying issues. As others have pointed out, the rules didn’t really change. Science is just starting to focus more on being scientific (I hope so anyway).

      I have voiced my exasperation about the tone debate before but I have also always been clear that ad hominems and personal attacks are unacceptable (and also really counter-productive). The whole debate is a massive mess and none of this has been scientific. I appreciate and agree with most of Gelman’s defense of his criticisms but at the same time I feel he is a bit relentless in his approach – and I have enough compassion in my heart to understand why Amy Cuddy feels the way she does (even though I disagree with her).

      Anyway, thanks to Ana for this post and you for your thought provoking comment.

    • Hi Natasha,

      Regarding gender, I think Dan Engber’s piece is a really good complement to Dominus’ article:

      I find it really hard to take this particular case and discuss bias properly. For example, you say how Cuddy’s injury was brought into the discussions on methods blogs. My knee-jerk response to that is that it is Cuddy herself who brought her injury to the foreground when she gave her TED talk on power posing. It did not belong in a scientific discussion really, but she used it to capture attention (which is OK), gain sympathy (also OK), and to boost her scientific points (not OK). But it feels SO wrong to be examining the discussion of her injury even here, even if ‘she started it’. So I get why people cringe at the methodologists going into some of these topics, even in cases where it can be argued that they are objectively doing nothing wrong, nothing different from what she did.

      My feeling is that her use of the power posing finding to create a tale that goes way beyond the science is what irks so many people. I say that as a huge fan of popular science. It’s not the dilution that I mind, or the simplification, or the presence of narration, it’s more the ‘life hack’ approach and the amount of speculation that went with the finding.

      (The original study actually found an effect in men and not women, or maybe it was a greater effect in men than women, something Cuddy completely ignores when talking about her research. It really gives the impression, again and again, that she doesn’t care about the data, that the numbers are there just as a matter of convenience. Many people find that infuriating.)

      To get to your list, I think the sharing of knowledge is important, but more important (and often missing) is the part of taking people by the hand and guiding them through these new research practices. We are currently starting a task force here in Oxford to deal with robust research issues (in empirical sciences in general), and one of our main efforts will be to offer guidance on the many steps to working reproducibly. We can’t go into all the labs and work with all the students, but we’ll at least try to create an easy to use website with all sorts of issues one might come across, and solutions people have offered so far. Hopefully not too grueling statistically (e.g. instead of saying ‘these are some papers on how to do power calculations’, to say something like ‘with a within-subject design and a single t-test, our rough estimate is that you’re probably OK with N=30’). Of course this is people just volunteering their free time so it will take a while. For now I want to say, I agree that support is needed more than criticism.

  2. Dave Meyer

    Dear Ana,

    Your blog post about this NYT Book Review article is, at least for me, a welcome addition to the prevailing discussion: a much needed balancing to how Dominus chose to spin the story. E.g. It’s good to have the points made that (a) some males — in fact, by far more males than females — have been getting called out for QRPs, and that (b) Amy Cuddy is at least partly responsible for having brought all of this on herself (cf. D. Carney).

    In addition, it might be suggested for further consideration that:

    1. Sometimes expressing appropriate well-justified controlled anger can serve a useful function; it may call apt attention to the seriousness of a substantive problem and the high costs that are at stake, e.g. loss of a field’s scientific credibility. The Dalai Lama occasionally expresses such anger; Buddhists call this being a ‘fierce Bhodisattva’. Cuddy’s misguided behavior warranted getting called out through such fierceness, and it seems like that’s at least part of the basis for the previous anger expressed toward her.

    2. It’s always possible too that some of the anger expressed toward her stemmed from sexism and her being female. Obviously, base rates suggest such might be so. BUT, I’d like to see more concrete objective evidence, visible to the naked eye — not just offered in terms of subjective impressions — that Cuddy specifically, in particular, has gotten mistreated because of being female. Is there any such objective evidence in this particular case? Is Wansink female?!? How about Strack?!?

    In any case, thanks again for your thoughtful blog.

  3. If anyone has commented last week and their comment didn’t show up, I’m very sorry – I’ve had a huge influx of spam in my comments (9000 in the last week!) and I’ve been away so I couldn’t deal with it properly. If I’ve missed your comment could you please send me the name you posted under to neuroanatody at gmail (dot com) and I will fish it out.

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