People are becoming more skeptical everyday. Not that those people would necessarily claim to be skeptics in any definition of the word, but all any of have to do is talk to our colleagues, friends, and neighbors to get a sense of where we are now in our trust of what we hear or read. A perfect example is the [trust in the media], which is at an all-time low in the United States. This should be concerning for everyone, since this is the way that we receive news about our government, society, and the world. When people become skeptical the news, we have a problem. These people that produce and report on affairs of the day have the widest reach into our everyday lives and when we become unable to trust what we’re being told, that should not only be a wakeup call to the media themselves, but for us as well.
As bad as that may seem, it is far less insidious than what may, or seems to be occurring elsewhere. Why? Media manipulation is obvious to the most casual observer where, in other areas, we are not exposed directly to the effects of bias, or the lack of skepticism. In ways, this is far worse than those examples we are pummeled with on a daily basis not because of what it is, but because of where it happens. I recently read an essay in Psychology Today, by someone I’ve come to know slightly via social media, Dr. Lee Jussim], (@PsychRabble on Twitter)For those that don’t know of him, he’s a Social Psychologist at Rutgers University and what he has to say in his article concerning the state of skepticism in academia should be of concern to everyone. The reason is simple: The research scientists in all disciplines, perform in those illustrious Towers of Ivory, eventually becomes part of our daily lives. Unlike daily media reports, these may take years to come to fruition and of course, we have no idea how exactly any of these were developed, protocols used, or methodology.
The problem is that there are many papers published in peer reviewed journals every year, but there appears to be less of a critical review taken than maybe should happen. Does this indicate bad science? Not necessarily, but the lack of criticism in all areas of science would be indicative of sloppy science when colleagues, peers, within the same discipline won’t look at the research with more than a cursory examination. Although Dr. Jussim’s essay is focused on those in his field of expertise, it’s plain that what he is writing about may be applied more widely. We, the general public, do not normally have access to these professional journals and even if we did, do not have the expertise to critically examine what we’re reading, if we understand it at all. If we’re interested at all, we depend on the more accessible publications, like Psychology Today, to learn about the latest innovative research in those fields.
What we can’t know is how that research may or may not be accepted by the wider academic community. I’m not implying that we should all become hyper-skeptical of any of this, just that we need to apply some level of skepticism, based on what we are consuming. Dr. Jussim modified a model I believe that may be of interest and we may apply not only to science, but to our everyday lives:
This really is an excellent representation of how we should apply skepticism, from anecdotal to evidentiary, replicated research. Too many times we hear about a new study that will change our lives. A single study, yet to be confirmed by any other researchers. The same applies in. our lives when someone tells us something that just seems to not be believable. I was once a lead engineer on a project, everyone on that team, I had personally vetted for their level of expertise. They were all very experienced and had nothing in their backgrounds that I would have considered a flag. One of the team members, after we began the project, seemed to come in late a lot. He didn’t live nearby and his commute, normally would be about forty-five minutes yet, over time, I thought that his being late to work was becoming a problem for the rest of the team. Of course, I didn’t pay close attention, we were all busy, but after a while, I started documenting when this person arrived. Every day, it was thirty minutes. Every day. How is that possible? Of course, I began to question and received the usual excuse: traffic, or an accident on the highway. So, I began looking at the traffic on his route (local television in the morning, before I left my house), that may inform me if my doubts were unfounded. I gathered data, not in a scientific manner necessarily, but as a curious supervisor. In none of the days he was late (at least 3 days per week) were there any notifications of any traffic problems on his route that would delay his arrival for thirty minutes.
This may seem minor, unimportant, but the point is that after a while, I found his excuse to be unbelievable. It’s certainly possible, depending on the time of the year, that patterns of traffic, depending on weather, may indeed affect travel times. In this case, there were none. Instead of just accepting the excuse, I investigated, and in the end, I had data that could be applied to my skepticism. I was amazed at how many of my peers (other supervisors) would not have gone to the extent (simple) that I did to discover the truth.
I could have just accepted whatever I was told, and most may have, but I found the situation to be unusual. When something looks to be outside of what is considered normal, that’s when we should all begin asking questions. I’m also not condemning those in academia here. Sloppy work happens everywhere (Ever had your car serviced and it performed worse afterward?), but we need to be aware that just because the information we are receiving comes from a trusted source, doesn’t mean it is accurate, or has been otherwise confirmed. Everyone is human and is liable to make errors. How those errors are addressed is what we should all be interested in determining.