The recent news that Dana Carney, the lead author of the original “power pose” study no longer believes in this effect has grabbed headlines. And in January 2016, Slate published an article whose headline trumpeted the claim that the original study was “the latest example of scientific overreach.”
Many people are surprised, and maybe a bit angry, that scientists were wrong. Maybe the millions of people who watched the TED Talk feel a bit foolish because they unnecessarily struck silly poses in the mirror before going on a job interview!
The sky is falling, Chicken Little! How can we trust anything that researchers say?!
There’s just one problem with such a reaction: this saga is a pristine example of science working the way it’s supposed to!
How Do We Know Anything?
I’ll back up a bit. There are many ways of gathering knowledge. One method is to appeal to authority. If an expert says something is true, then it must be true! After all, an expert gets to be an expert by studying hard and learning everything there is to know on a topic. That must mean that they’re usually right…right?!
Another method is to engage in philosophical inquiry, such as reasoning. If something makes sense, and follows established rules of logic, then it’s surely true!
A third method is through non-systematic observation. If you see something happen a few times, then it must always work that way!
As useful as these methods can be in everyday life, there are limitations to each. Appeal to authority is especially useful in cases of great ambiguity (such as deciding whether or not some action is morally correct). But, authorities aren’t always right. Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines were never invaded by communist forces — falsifying the “domino theory” that spurred American military involvement in Vietnam. The eventual U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam did not result in a string of communist invasions of other surrounding countries, as some government leaders, like Eisenhower and Johnson, feared. In case you’re curious, Vietnam remains a Communist country in name, though not in economics.
Neighboring Laos also remains Communist, though it was actually a communist country before the U.S. military began fighting in Vietnam.
Philosophical inquiry has long yielded interesting and important insights. But times change, and so do people’s interpretations. Descartes’ idea that we can’t necessarily trust that anything exists outside of our own being (“I think, therefore I am”) was revolutionary at the time of its original publication in 1637. But in 2016, 17 years after the movie The Matrix dramatized and popularized this very notion, it’s not seen as such a profound insight. Philosophical ideas such as Plato’s “ideal forms” have long been abandoned, persisting only in classes on the history of philosophy (and on Wikipedia).
Non-systematic observations can also be very helpful, especially as children. By watching what goes on around us, we learn about the world. But this method can be flawed as well. To use a contemporary example: why does one person think someone is reaching for a gun, while another person who witnesses the same event believes that the person is surrendering? Is one person lying? If so, which one? And if each witness honestly believes that he or she is telling the truth — who is right?
Even combining two or more of these approaches can yield a less-than-satisfactory conclusion. When I was young (around 5 or 6 years old), I believed that trees caused the wind to blow. After all, in my backyard, I’d often see the trees start to move, just before I felt the wind on my skin. This occurred again and again, so it was entirely reasonable to deduce that, since they would start to move before I felt the wind, trees must therefore be the source of wind. So, my youthful conclusion was logical, and was also supported by repeated observations.
It was also wrong. Wind actually comes from the movement of air out of an area of high pressure, and into a lower-pressure area (just in case you didn’t already know that).
Another example comes from doctors, hundreds of years ago, who believed that people got sick because the “four humours” of the body (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) were out of balance. Therefore, they would frequently attach leeches to suck some blood out of the sick patient, in order to restore the balance of humours in the body.
When the afflicted individual got better, this was taken as support for their idea: the patient got better because the balance of humours had been restored. When the afflicted individual didn’t get better, this was interpreted as an instance of the individual being so sick that nothing could cure them!
Thankfully, modern medicine knows better. (Leeches! *shudder*)
Refresher: The Scientific Method
The scientific method was devised as a way to systematically observe and document the natural world, in order to determine what is repeatable and what is not. Appeals to authority are therefore not needed, as anybody (if properly trained and equipped) can observe phenomena that others have described. The proper application of the scientific method prevents blunders such as the ones I described in the previous three paragraphs. The best scientific tests involve changing some variable (called an “independent variable”) in order to determine whether a change in the independent variable has an effect on something else that you’re observing (called a “dependent variable”).