Olivia Goldhill and Jesse Singal report on the Implicit Association Test

A psychology researcher whom I don’t know writes:

In case you aren’t already aware of it, here is a rather lengthy article pointing out challenges to the Implicit Association Test.

What I found disturbing was this paragraph:

Greenwald explicitly discouraged me from writing this article. ‘Debates about scientific interpretation belong in scientific journals, not popular press,’ he wrote. Banaji, Greenwald, and Nosek all declined to talk on the phone about their work, but answered most of my questions by email.

This attitude seems similar to the one you have pointed out in the past, wherein certain professors (and sometimes editors) seem utterly unwilling to even countenance challenges or be open to debate about their work. This attitude strikes me as very unscientific. Oftentimes “outsiders” can recognize deficiencies where “insiders” cannot, because they come at things with a very different point of view.

My reply: I thought the linked news article, by Olivia Goldhill, was excellent.

I’ve been skeptical of the implicit association test for a long time; see for example this from 2008, long before I’d heard about any replication crisis in psychology or elsewhere.

And I agree that it’s disturbing when people say, “Debates about scientific interpretation belong in scientific journals, not popular press.” Scientists have no problem their work being uncritically discussed in the popular press, and they have no problem with the popular press speculating on the real-world implications of their important work. So why is the press suddenly shut out when the explorations turn critical? Especially given that Goldhill’s “popular press” article is much more thoughtful and sophisticated than most journal articles I’ve seen on these topics.

My correspondent replied:

Agreed! Imagine if this attitude had prevailed in the 1920s and Walter Lippmann had not been able to criticize the interpretation and use of IQ tests.

And then this, which really says it all:

In the off chance you mention this in your blog, please don’t mention who sent it to you—I don’t want to accidentally embroil myself in any controversy.

P.S. More here in this hard-hitting piece by Jesse Singal, including these bits:

The problem, as I [Singal] showed in a lengthy rundown of the many, many problems with the test published this past January, is that there’s very little evidence to support that claim that the IAT meaningfully predicts anything. In fact, the test is riddled with statistical problems . . .

One striking thing about the process of reporting that article was the extent to which Banaji tried to smear her critics . . . She also accused the test’s critics of having a “pathological focus” on black-white race relations and the black-white IAT for reasons that “will need to be dealt with by them in the presence of their psychotherapists or church leaders.”

This is the definition of a derailing tactic — shift the focus from critiques of the IAT itself, some of which in this case appeared in a flagship social-psych journal, to the ostensible moral and psychological failings of the critiquers.

Yes, I hate that tactic.

Singal continues:

The idea that journalists shouldn’t write about scientific controversies would have been highly questionable even before the replication crisis exploded onto the scene, but it’s hard to fathom why anyone would take this argument seriously in 2017. . . . Greenwald, of course, doesn’t appear to have any problems with positive coverage of the IAT.

And he concludes:

Society desperately needs more open scrutiny of scientific claims, not less, whether in scientific journals, the media, or anywhere else. Especially when it comes to claims that seem to change every two years.

I agree.


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