There is a story that the high priests of secular society like to tell themselves, and it goes something like this: As human beings advance in knowledge, we tend to shun the destructive, discriminatory superstitions of the past in favor of far more enlightened understandings obtained through the rigors of the scientific method. In the hard sciences there is, of course, abundant evidence of real progress, though the progress is often not from superstition to science but from bad science to better science. Medicine today is unquestionably superior to the practices of ages past. A Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a miracle machine compared with an old DC-3. Our telephones are the stuff of science fiction compared with the rotary models of my childhood.
The “science” of human behavior, however, represents something else entirely. In the fields of psychology and sociology, social scientists have long sought to explain human behavior and optimize the human experience without regard to faith, or in open opposition to faith. Ancient moral norms are discarded in the name of a more scientific approach to human self-actualization, and people eagerly lap up studies that provide “secret keys” to success or “hidden insights” into humanity.
Then there are concepts that purport to explain why we are the way we are. For example, for years the concept of “ego depletion” has gained currency in scientific circles. Put simply, ego depletion — as explained by Slate’s Daniel Engber — is the assertion that “we all have a limited supply of willpower, and it decreases with overuse.” In other words, acts of self-denial can literally decrease your mental stamina.
All this is fascinating, except that it may well be wrong. Social science — especially psychology — is in the grip of a ‘replication crisis.’
To be clear, the notions discussed above don’t come out of nowhere. Indeed, they’re typically backed by interesting studies with fascinating fact patterns. In the world of implicit bias, the so-called Implicit Association Test is extraordinarily influential. There are a number of variations on the test, but it ordinarily asks a person to make very fast decisions based on limited information — combined with a shifting and confusing interface — that purport to show how you react without really thinking.
You can take a test now, in fact — just this morning I took the test that purported to demonstrate whether I associate weapons more with black people than white people. The answer? I allegedly have a “moderate” bias associating black people with dangerous objects. But how much was the test measuring my bias, and how much was it measuring the fact that I had trouble quickly tapping keys accurately?
All this is fascinating, except that it may well be wrong. Social science — especially psychology — is in the grip of a “replication crisis.” In other words, other researchers are often unable to replicate the results of the field’s most famous and influential studies. This means that much-hyped psychological findings are sometimes simply nonsense, and people who order their lives (or, heaven forbid, public policy) around such findings are often sadly (and typically unintentionally) deceived.
Take power poses, for example. A coauthor of one of the most famous of the supporting studies now says that “since early 2015 the evidence has been mounting suggesting there is unlikely any embodied effect of nonverbal expansiveness (vs. contractiveness) — i.e., ‘power poses’ — on internal or psychological outcomes.” Consequently, she flatly declares, “I do not believe that ‘power pose’ effects are real.”
Similarly, a leading researcher of ego depletion wrote an anguished post earlier this year noting that the phenomenon may not even exist:
I have spent nearly a decade working on the concept of ego depletion, including work that is critical of the model used to explain the phenomenon. I have been rewarded for this work, and I am convinced that the main reason I get any invitations to speak at colloquia and brown-bags these days is because of this work. The problem is that ego depletion might not even be a thing. By now, many people are aware that a massive replication attempt of the basic ego depletion effect involving over 2,000 participants found nothing, nada, zip. Only three of the 24 participating labs found a significant effect, but even then, one of these found a significant result in the wrong direction!
But what of implicit bias? Surely it’s a real thing that hurts people in the real world, right? Yet in a forthcoming paper by the University of Virginia’s Gregory Mitchell and the University of Pennsylvania’s Philip E. Tetlock, the authors write:
It is . . . difficult to find a psychological construct that is so popular yet so misunderstood and lacking in theoretical and practical payoff. Scholarly discussions of prejudice fail to agree on how implicit prejudice connects to other forms of prejudice; it is unclear whether different measures of implicit prejudice measure the same thing; the meaning of “implicit” in the phrase “implicit prejudice” is contested; and implicit measures of prejudice are no better at predicting behavior, even “microaggression” (small, barely visible slights), than are traditional explicit measures of prejudice.
In other words, use extreme caution when applying even the most popular psychological concepts to your personal life, to the corporate world, and to public policy. Even the most confidently stated assumptions can be wrong. Indeed, earlier this year a Harvard researcher shocked himself and much of the political world with a finding — in his study, at least — that police officers were more likely to shoot white suspects.
So why tie this phenomenon back to faith? Why bring Christianity into the equation? It’s simple. For generations Americans have been taught by word and deed that there is a better way, that the lessons of the Judeo-Christian tradition should be discarded as so much oppressive hocus-pocus. Ancient moral teachings aren’t just false, they’re destructive. With my own eyes I’ve seen Christians — even pastors — refuse to make cultural and moral arguments based on scripture alone. Unless science is also on their side, they’ll keep quiet. Science, after all, is the universal language. Faith is divisive.
In reality, “science” is often leading us astray — and for reasons that the biblically literate can easily predict. It turns out that human beings are self-interested, that we’re drawn to quick fixes and splashy results. It turns out that we’re mistake-prone and often make entirely arbitrary judgments. And it turns out that we really, really like to see results that confirm our own righteousness and virtue. In other words, scientists don’t offer an escape from the fallen world; they’re part of the fallen world.
None of this means that social science is useless. There is enormous value in studying human behavior, and we can learn lessons from rigorous, replicated studies. But the keys are rigor and replication. Parents are notorious for chasing down the latest fads, eager to guarantee the most positive outcomes for their children. And reporters and writers are all too happy to feed the beast. But always remember, new “knowledge” is often nonsense, and every new revelation must be treated with the skepticism it so richly deserves.
— David French is a staff writer at National Review Online.