Power and Progress in Science

[From the blog “The Persistence of False Paradigms in Low-Power Sciences” by Pascal Michaillat, posted on the BITSS website]
“It is commonly believed that the lack of experimental evidence typical in the social sciences slows but does not prevent the replacement of existing theories by newer, better ones.”
“In a recent paper, George Akerlof and I evaluate this belief using a simple model of scientific research and promotion. The model allows us to conduct a thought experiment. Imagine that two theories, one better and one worse, are competing for acceptance by the scientific community. Under which conditions will the better theory eventually prevail?”
“To mirror the environment in which scientific production is evaluated, we allow scientists to be slightly biased toward other scientists with similar beliefs. This type of bias is widespread in human communities. It corresponds to what sociologists call “homophily” and what social psychologists call “intergroup bias”.”
“The bias has also been observed in science. Scientists have been found to favor others from the same school of thought at every level of academic evaluation: hiring, award of grants and honors, conference invitations, tenure evaluations, and so on.”
“Using this model, we find that when a field lacks evidence to discriminate between theories, even with only a slight amount of bias, there is a risk that inferior paradigms may prevail.  Specifically, the conditions under which inferior paradigms prevail when they are in contest with better ones are these: if scientific tests lack power, or if tests are rarely used in determining admittance of a paradigm into the fellowship of established scientists, then the chances of getting trapped in an inferior paradigm are high.”
“Lack of power does not just slow scientific progress; with even the slightest bias, it may bring it to a halt.”
To read the blog, click here.

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