Claude Fischer points me to this paper by David Peterson, “The Baby Factory: Difficult Research Objects, Disciplinary Standards, and the Production of Statistical Significance,” which begins:
Science studies scholars have shown that the management of natural complexity in lab settings is accomplished through a mixture of technological standardization and tacit knowledge by lab workers. Yet these strategies are not available to researchers who study difficult research objects. Using 16 months of ethnographic data from three laboratories that conduct experiments on infants and toddlers, the author shows how psychologists produce statistically significant results under challenging circumstances by using strategies that enable them to bridge the distance between an uncontrollable research object and a professional culture that prizes methodological rigor. This research raises important questions regarding the value of restrictive evidential cultures in challenging research environments.
And it concludes:
Open evidential cultures may be defensible under certain conditions. When problems are pressing and progress needs to be made quickly, creativity may be prized over ascetic rigor. Certain areas of medical or environmental science may meet this criterion. Developmental psychology does not. However, it may meet a second criterion. When research findings are not tightly coupled with some piece of material or social technology—that is, when the “consumers” of such science do not significantly depend on the veracity of individual articles—then local culture can function as an internal mechanism for evaluation in the field. Similar to the way oncologists use a “web of trials” rather than relying on a single, authoritative study or how weather forecasters use multiple streams of evidence and personal experience to craft a prediction, knowledge in such fields may develop positively even in a literature that contains more false positives than would be expected by chance alone.
It’s an interesting article, because usually discussions of research practices are all about what is correct, what should be done or not done, what do the data really tell us, etc. But here we get an amusing anthropological take on things, treating scientists’ belief in their research findings with the same respect that we treat tribal religious beliefs. This paper is not normative, it’s descriptive. And description is important. As I often say, if we want to understand the world, it helps to know what’s actually happening out there!
I like the term “open evidential culture”: it’s descriptive without being either condescending, on one hand, or apologetic, on the other.