Responsibility in using the word ‘research’

4 July 2013 by Pete Etchells, posted in Bad Psychology, News

One of the most annoying things you get asked when you tell people that you’re a psychologist is “Cool! Can you read my mind?” Well, no – I’m not a psychic, but that wouldn’t help, because psychics can’t read people’s minds either. However, it belies a deeper image problem that psychology has; sometimes, it’s not entirely clear what ‘psychologists’ actually do.  Given the diverse range and quality of the psychological research that the mainstream media often presents, this is probably not much of a surprise.

On the other hand, as I’ve written about many times before, we all know that psychology as a discipline is going through some internal strife at the moment. Many questions are being asked about the robustness of psychological data and research practices. In response, there’s now a growing swell of support for new types of peer-reviewed journal articles. Initiatives such as Registered Reports, instigated at Cortex, aim to mitigate problems such as publication bias, low statistical power and significance fishing by introducing a peer review stage of methodologies and analyses prior to the study being conducted. It’s a brilliant idea that other journals are starting to emulate and implement, including  Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, Perspectives on Psychological Science, with Human Movement Science and Experimental Psychology apparently to follow. Things are looking up, and it feels like a great time to be a psychologist.

Unless your name is Geoffrey Miller.

Miller gained infamy in early June when, in a moment of astoundingly offensive bigotry, posted this from his twitter account:


He was quickly condemned by many, some of whom notified Miller’s departmental chair at the University of New Mexico:


It goes without saying that Miller should be ashamed of himself. It was a stupid, hateful thing to say, and hopefully one that doesn’t reflect the student appointment policies of any academic institution, not just UNM’s. But it’s not the only stupid thing that he’s said in this whole debacle. After apologising on twitter and locking his account down, Miller then claimed that the tweet was ‘part of a research project’.  A recent investigation into this claim has found no evidence that any such project actually exists.

Aside from the fat-shaming tweet, this is what further annoys me about Miller’s behaviour. By claiming that it was all a part of his research, he attempted to deflect responsibility of his actions onto the scientific process, and in doing so called into question the integrity of psychological research. “Because research” is not a shield that absolves you of responsibility; it’s an obvious and puerile attempt to get out of trouble. As a result, it undermines the very hard and thoughtful work of many psychologists who are trying to do solid scientific research - and improve the research process itself - by suggesting that all you need to do for a psychological study is write a few tweets and see what happens.  Psychology is already having a hard enough time as it is; it doesn’t need to be further tarnished by selfish, off-the-cuff remarks.



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