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Science meets Philosophy: Interview with Simine Vazire

by Anna Alexandrova

What has your research been about in the past and now?

Since I started grad school in 2001, I've been interested in how accurate people's self-views are.  As a psychologist, I'm surrounded by research that relies on people's self-reports, and takes them at face value. I'm really curious about the accuracy of those measures, from a methodological standpoint (if someone says they're not lonely, is that accurate?), and also, from a more theoretical (philosophical?) standpoint, I'm interested in why people may not always see themselves clearly. Why might people have blind spots in their self-views?

More recently, I'm also doing meta-research – research on research.  This includes thinking and writing about research practices, and also studying trends in peer review, the published literature, etc. 

As an empirical psychologist, what role has philosophy played in your work?

Philosophy has probably played a bigger role in my work than many psychologists', mainly because I've been close with a few philosophers over the years.  Specifically, John Doris influenced a lot of my thinking and exposed me to many ideas in philosophy, related to self-knowledge and related topics.  More recently, I've been trying to learn more about philosophy of science to better understand what the goal of scientific research is, so that we can improve our practices to be more in line with those goals.

Can you tell us about your the current efforts in your discipline to reform the methods of research and inference?

Some people call it a "replicability crisis", and I have, in the past, too.  But lately I've been calling this the "credibility revolution" (a phrase I stole from a 2010 economics paper by Angrist & Pischke).  This is partly because I think we're past the "crisis" part, and because it's about more than replicability.  Failures to replicate were one of the main warning signs that triggered the crisis, but that wouldn't have been enough.  Around the same time that we started trying to systematically and rigorously replicate psychology findings in top journals, several groups of researchers were demonstrating how common research practices could lead to very high rates of false positives.  These included individual researchers' practices (e.g., cherry-picking results (i.e., p-hacking), Hypothesizing After Results are Known (HARKing), etc.), as well as structural problems (e.g., journals disincentivizing transparency, null results, replications, incremental studies, as well as status bias and other forms of bias and conflicts of interest).  Once we got a handle on the causes of irreproducibility, we were able to work towards improving our practices and structures.  This included doing meta-science to understand which practices lead to better outcomes, changing journal policies, hiring policies, etc., to reward better practices, and organizing to help improve training and resources for researchers. For example, I started the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science (together with Brian Nosek) to serve as a service organization to help people develop and disseminate tools for improving research practices.  In the last five years, we've seen incredible changes – this new society, new journals, much more transparent and open research practices, more pre-registration, and much more criticism of research.  Social media has helped spread these changes, and has helped level the playing field, allowing people who want to critique the status quo share their views and ideas through non-traditional venues.

What has your role been in this movement and what are your personal views about the solutions to these various problems?

I've had a few roles in this movement.  One is as the co-founder of SIPS.  I've also been editor-in-chief of a social/personality psych journal and senior editor of an open access psych journal for the last few years, which has given me an interesting vantage point on the changes in the field.  I've also been on a few executive boards of societies and other panels that faced challenges regarding how to respond to the crisis/revolution.  Speaking just for myself and not for any of those organizations/societies, I think these changes are amazing.  It is such an exciting time to be a psychological scientist.  We need to continue empirically studying the effects of the changes and reforms, but I'm optimistic that they will lead to a more robust, and more fair, science.  The more we can have transparency and scrutiny of scientific claims, the sounder the (surviving) claims will be. 

Many of the method issues debated psychology today, obviously touch on classic questions in philosophy of science, such as falsification, confirmation, inference, etc. In your experience has philosophy of science been relevant to making progress in reforming methods of psychology?

Yes, philosophy of science has been extremely relevant.  Many of us feel that a big part of what got us into this mess is a lack of training about what science is for, and what the fundamental values and goals of science are.  Scientists, like all humans, experience a lot of external pressures, and it can be tempting to see the hoops we have to jump through (getting a job, getting grants, getting tenure, getting cited) as the ends in themselves.  But if we take a minute to step back and ask ourselves why we're doing this, and what values should we hold sacred above all else (i.e., what can we not sacrifice without leaving the realm of science?), we would quickly realize that maximizing citation count or grant dollars is a potentially corrupting goal.  This is starting to sound more like ethics than philosophy of science, but I think the more we have a clear understanding of what makes science science, the easier it will be to have scientific integrity. 

Are there questions to which you wish philosophers of science contributed more?

I think it would be unfair for me to comment on this because I really don't know enough what philosophers of science have contributed.  I'm sure there's a lot of relevant stuff I don't know about.  So I guess what I wish is that there was better communication between philosophers of science and those of us interested in improving research practices.  Even as someone who has spent a lot of time around philosophers, I have a really hard time understanding a lot of philosophy written for philosophers.  So I think that what we need is extensive efforts to translate the philosophy of science that philosophers know into something researchers can understand and use.  That would be awesome. 

Profile: Simine Vazire

Simine Vazire is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis and is the director of the Personality and Self-knowledge Lab. She received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2000 and her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006. Before joining the faculty at UC Davis in 2014, Simine was the Saul and Louise Rosenzweig Chair in Personality Science at Washington University in St. Louis, and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University in 2013-2014. She serves as an Editor-in-Chief of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, is a senior editor at Collabra: Psychology and associate editor at Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science. In 2017 she became a winner of an international Leamer-Rosenthal Prize for Open Social Science for her efforts to advance reproducibility, openness and credibility in the social sciences.

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