John Tierney is a science journalist for the New York Times and he has an issue with psychology. Specifically, he has a problem apparently with cognitive dissonance (a feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in your mind at the same time). And he thinks an economist — who hasn’t actually published any peer-reviewed research on this issue — might have proven decades’ worth of psychological research wrong.
The challenge is that without peer-review, science is just one expert’s opinion against another’s in the court of public opinion. Sway an influential journalist like Tierney into your camp, and suddenly the media spotlight is on you and other media outlets report your findings as fact. When they’re not — they’re just opinion.
Worse, I think Tierney inadvertently contributes to the problem with an apples to oranges comparison. He cites the “Monty Hall Problem” as a prime example of the underlying basis for the fundamental flaw in the psychological research on cognitive dissonance. But the Monty Hall Problem is really a logic puzzle, and not the same one used at all by modern researchers who examine cognitive dissonance.
He acknowledges this fact near the end of his article (hey, bury the stuff you disagree with at the end of the article when most of your readers have already stopped reading):
That view is shared by Laurie R. Santos, one of the Yale psychologists who did the monkey experiment.
“Keith nicely points out an important problem with the baseline that we’ve used in our first study of cognitive dissonance, but it doesn’t apply to several new methods we’ve used that reveal the same level of dissonance in both monkeys and children,” Dr. Santos says. “I doubt that his critique will be all that influential for the field of cognitive dissonance more broadly.”
Which is precisely the point. Chen, an economist, doesn’t really have a grasp into the vast amount and sheer complexity of the decades’ worth of cognitive dissonance experiments in psychology that have been conducted since the one he’s trying to discredit (which was run in 1956 — over 60 years ago!).
Not to say an economist or any scientist couldn’t come to understand the modern methods used for detecting cognitive dissonance in research today. Only to say it’s a bit of a leap to say, “Hey, I think I’ve proved this one study may be incorrect, and by the way, I think this proves the entire area of research incorrect (although I haven’t actually reviewed the hundreds of studies myself).”
So to Tierney and Chen, I say, “Interesting. Now show me the peer-reviewed, published research, and show me how that generalizes to more modern approaches of looking at this concern, and then get back to me.” Because without such actual, well, research, Chen’s opinion is just an interesting footnote in this area of psychological research at this time.
The article: Cognitive Dissonance in Monkeys – The Monty Hall Problem
The comments: TierneyLab – Monty Hall Meets Cognitive Dissonance
Play the game yourself: The Monty Hall Problem (assuming its been programmed correctly and without bias)