The replication crisis, sociology, and liberal gender politics: Or the perils of psychologization and shallow materialism

In general, I am loathe to share hot-button takes from the NPR set as I tend to find the mixture of liberal self-congratulation, the TED talk simpleton’s vision of science, and fads in sociology and social psychology to be sickening.  However, the last episode of Invisiblia really hit on a problem of the way many institutional gauges for “female empowerment” work as well as the perils of the replication crisis, although it downplays the latter.

The case study is Rwanda, where after the genocide, female empowerment and representation in civic life was decreed by the President, but as the podcast showed, private life remained incredibly patriarchal in ways that few women in US or Europe would accept, despite their countries showing up much lower on those female empowerment indexes. Part of the irony of this episode is that the episode uses the case study about the female debaters and tries to expand  it to the entire country in a rah-rah liberal feminist sort of way.  Yet Gregory Warners own reporting actually indicates that this sort of self-actualization made progress in the home more precarious, and the distinct divide between public and private life more precarious as well. In short, Warner tries to use a case study as an answer to a social problem while admitting there is no evidence for the case study working on individuals and, in addition, his own reporting seems to indicate contra-evidence at a social level.

Ironically, I was listening to this the very day I saw a recent Slate article, another smug liberal outlet that I whose shallow contrarianism in service of the Democratic party establishment I sometimes advise avoiding,  had published on the Strack smile study which prompted Amy Cuddy’s work.  Slate has also published an interesting article on the failure of the republication of Amy Cuddy work too (here’s the TED talk referenced if you must),  but the entire foundation of the Cuddy was the “Smile study” in the first place. As  points out for Slate,

How bad is this latest replication failure? It depends on your demeanor. If you read the study in an optimistic mood—let’s say, with a highlighter in your teeth and your lips pulled back into a smile—then perhaps you’d be inclined to think it’s just a local problem. Maybe there was something off about The Far Side cartoons, or the presence of the cameras, or the subject pool. In any case, you’d think the replication failure tells us this and only this: For one reason or another, one particular re-creation of one particular experiment, designed on the way to Mardi Gras in 1985, simply didn’t work.


Or maybe you’re inclined to take a slightly darker view of the research: It could be there was something wrong with the original paper. Maybe the pen-in-mouth approach had a fatal flaw, even one that might come up in every other study where it’s used. Now your forehead starts to crease with worry: What if there’s a deeper problem, still? They only did an RRR for this one specific work, but it was chosen precisely on account of its fame and influence. If the classic facial-feedback paper doesn’t replicate, then who’s to say that any other, lesser facial-feedback research would? Maybe there’s a problem with the whole idea that expressions have a direct effect on our emotions.

Almost proving Thomas Kuhn’s point despite himself, Engber shows that Fritz Strack, had already started lambasting the replication crisis before his work was directly implicated. He doesn’t take the counter-findings seriously as even the republication shows some evidence, but 9 vs. 8 is bad odds for replication. Scientific paradigms, particularly in psychology, where the infinitudes of factors become infinite themselves, don’t tend to move fast or with clear and clean experimentation patterns.

This brings us back to Warner’s Rwanda debate challenge:  He seems to miss that he too encouraging girls to succeed in the perception of the public sphere, but not necessarily at the level of their social lives.  The debaters individual attitudes may or may not have changed–although as we see above there is plenty of reasons why we should be skeptical on the long-term effects even on an individual level–but we are still conflating public with private in the way done by the Rwandan government.

A shallow approach to social psychology indicates the dangerous–and frankly faddishness–of liberal approaches to science and social advanced.  First the focus on the formal and not the social trending along lines that were obvious even to Karl Marx almost 150 years ago; secondly, the psychologization of the social as if individual scales up to social matters while also acknowledging, contradictorily, the social constrains on individual attitudes is an untenable position. This is a shallow “materialism”–a faux of love of science and “data”–to justify easy answers to incredible hard problems.  After all, if this were all just a matter of self empowerment, wouldn’t the feminist movement that Warner says had not shown significant improvement in American also have figured this out?   Probably. So why the pollyanna attitudes here when we have already acknowledged replication crisis on the first place?

The NPR mid-cult junkies will have to answer about their conflations of science and what they think it achieves on their own, but it is transparently shallow.  It does not recognize the social as a intermixed and limiting agent in material constructions of the self clearly, or if it does do it, only does so negatively.  This leads to an utterly incoherent notion of the individual.


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