“In 1997 Latanya Sweeney dramatically demonstrated that supposedly anonymized data was not anonymous,” but “Over 20 journals turned down her paper . . . and nobody wanted to fund privacy research that might reach uncomfortable conclusions.”

Tom Daula writes:

I think this story from John Cook is a different perspective on replication and how scientists respond to errors.

In particular the final paragraph:

There’s a perennial debate over whether it is best to make security and privacy flaws public or to suppress them. The consensus, as much as there is a consensus, is that one should reveal flaws discreetly at first and then err on the side of openness. For example, a security researcher finding a vulnerability in Windows would notify Microsoft first and give the company a chance to fix the problem before announcing the vulnerability publicly. In [Latanya] Sweeney’s case, however, there was no single responsible party who could quietly fix the world’s privacy vulnerabilities. Calling attention to the problem was the only way to make things better.

I think most of your scientific error stories follow this pattern. The error is pointed out privately and then publicized. Of course in most of your posts a private email is met with hostility, the error is publicized, and then the scientist digs in. The good stories are when the authors admit and publicize the error themselves.

Replication, especially in psychology, fits into this because there is no “single responsible party” so “calling attention to the problem [is] the only way to make things better.”

I imagine Latanya Sweeney and you share similar frustrations.

It’s an interesting story. I was thinking about this recently when reading one of Edward Winter’s chess notes collections. These notes are full of stories of sloppy writers copying things without citation, reproducing errors that have appeared elsewhere, introducing new errors (see an example here with follow-up here). Anyway, what’s striking to me is that so many people just don’t seem to care about getting their facts wrong. Or, maybe they do care, but not enough to fix their errors or apologize or even thank the people who point out the mistakes that they’ve made. I mean, why bother writing a chess book if you’re gonna put mistakes in it? It’s not like you can make a lot of money from these things.

Sweeney’s example is of course much more important, but sometimes when thinking about a general topic (in this case, authors getting angry when their errors are revealed to the world) it can be helpful to think about minor cases too.


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