It's More Than Okay to Question the Canon (and those who uphold it)

Last week we published Kris’ blog post about myths and misconceptions relating to a number of social science studies. Coincidentally, an article from the New York Times titled "Psychology Itself is Under Scrutiny" appeared in her Twitter feed. The author of the article, Benedict Carey, cautioned against dismissing classic studies too quickly. Sara and Kris each had strong reactions to the article (and a nearly two hour phone call discussing it). It occurred to us that we were very much engaged by the topic, and though it’s a bit different from our previous blog posts, we decided to capture a bit of each of our responses for this week’s blog. We encourage you to read the article and form your own opinions, then let us know what you think!  (And if you don't have enough time to read the whole article, read the first four paragraphs to see both of the moments we'll be discussing).

I had reactions to several parts of Benedict Carey’s article, but I think I might go with the very first thing that jumped out at me, which happened in the subheading of the article:

 

"Many famous studies of human behavior cannot be reproduced. Even so, they revealed aspects of our inner lives that feel true."

 

Carey presents several classic studies that are being questioned today (the Marshmallow Test among them, which I also discussed in my blog post last week) for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons is that attempts to replicate them have been unsuccessful. Then he expands on that subheading saying, "Psychology has millions of amateur theorists who test the findings against their own experience. The public’s judgments matter to the field, too."

 

 

In a nutshell, my response is that “feeling true” is not a high enough bar. A significant number of parents “feel” vaccines cause autism and anecdotal examples help these parents “feel” their fears are justified. A significant number of people “felt” that some humans were only worth 3/5 of other humans. We can get into a lot of trouble – the return of previously banished diseases, the erasure of humanity - when we go on what “feels” true.

 

Another tricky part about what “feels true” is that our beliefs, once established, are very hard to shake even in the face of compelling evidence. A myriad of studies on confirmation bias say people tend to ignore evidence that conflicts with what they already believe and give extra weight to evidence that corresponds with what they already believe. I’ll admit confirmation bias also “feels true” to me, based on my Facebook and Twitter experiences, but I have confidence that it’s a real thing based on the number of times the work has been successfully replicated. When something “feels true,” that’s a great reason to study it to see if it is true.

My final thought is that studies are sometimes misinterpreted and what becomes part of the so-called canon is a misunderstanding or mis-characterization. A few days ago I picked up Alfie Kohn’s 2016 book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child, and lo and behold, he also discusses the Marshmallow Test. Kohn brings up the crucial point that the Marshmallow Test is typically (and incorrectly) used to express the idea that children who can delay gratification do better. That’s certainly how Carey’s bullet point presented it. It was not, however, what Walter Mischel (the original researcher) said the experiment demonstrated. Mischel was not interested in whether children could delay gratification but was studying the strategies children used when they tried. A take-away Mischel actually found was that “self-denial and grim determination” were among the least effective strategies children tried. That’s such a different piece of information to work with as I think about my students and how to help them.

 

-Kris

There are a variety of points in Carey’s article where I feel like his word choice is inflammatory.  Here’s one sentence that really exemplifies this for me: “Often the original results cannot be reproduced, and the entire contentious process has been colored, inevitably, by generational change and charges of patriarchy.”  (Note: I feel really strongly that the language we use to convey our thinking is critical.  If you haven’t read the initial article, the thrust of Carey’s work isn’t talking about upholding studies even though they marginalize particular subgroups; instead, it’s about the threshold for “throwing out” studies that can’t be replicated.  Regardless, I was so struck by his style (at times I found it entirely overshadowed his substance), so I’m commenting on one instance of that).

 

The first part of this sentence is accurate; there are many psychological studies where the results cannot be verified by a replication of the experiment.  It’s the second part of his clause, and particularly the phrase “charges of patriarchy,” that I find frustrating.  America is a patriarchy; men have always had power and authority and been the majority of folks designing, implementing, and enforcing the law.  (And while women do have the ability to get a college education, own property, and obtain employment, the system in which we’re all living is one where there’s still debate over women having bodily autonomy, in which women get catcalled for walking outside their door, and where Hispanic women make 54% of what a white man does (Asian women, who face the smallest pay gap, still only make 87% of what a white man makes)). 

 

The idea of “charges of patriarchy” feels to me like an incendiary way of saying that a marginalized group of people (most directly women, but you could easily sub in racialized people or disabled people or transgender people) aren’t able to call out a study for the problematic assumptions researchers make in their quest to figure out what’s true.  Context is essential, but when we decide to disregard criticism, belittling it because it’s only harming a minority group, we’ve stopped trying to understand time and place and have moved into stereotyping and enacting bias. 

 

So yeah, I’m a feminist, and I think all teachers (and all people) should identify that way, too.   The goal of feminism is equity and justice for women (ALL women, regardless of gender identity, race, ability, and other categories of marginalization), and if you’re teaching students, even, and maybe even especially in an all-male setting, you should believe in equity & justice for women, as well.  Language creates our reality (thanks, Deb Merriam), and the more we passively read and seemingly go along with phrases like “charges of patriarchy,” the more we reinforce the status quo.  Teaching should be about helping your students become more human.  Watch your language; your students most definitely are.

 

-Sara

We could go on with more of our thoughts, but we'd really love to hear from you.  What does this raise for you?  Share your comments with us on Facebook, or Tweet @AstraInnovate!

 

 

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