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“Methodological terrorism”


Methodological terrorism is when you publish a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, its claim is supported by a statistically significant t statistic of 5.03, and someone looks at your numbers, figures out that the correct value is 1.8, and then posts that correction on social media.

Terrorism is when somebody blows shit up and tries to kill you.


  1. Z says:

    Did you find the image of a bomb container with BIC written on it before or after deciding to write this post? I’m guessing before, but if after, how did you luck upon the image?

  2. I really dislike this kind of hyperbolic language, too. Other examples: calling unauthorized immigration an “invasion,” insisting it’s not just a metaphor; calling copyright violations “piracy”; and the term “paper terrorism” for nonviolent Alinsky-style tactics when used by the Right.

    • Xi'an says:

      Yes, I do too, because it sort of anesthetizes the magnitude of the real thing. I had a similar reaction to the recent Négationnisme Économique by Cahuc and Zylberberg…

    • leoboiko says:

      I don’t like it when they call copyright infringement “stealing”. One of those things is not like the other.

      But “piracy” plainly backfired. “Everyone wants to be a pirate” (just look at The Pirate Bay’s visual presentation).

      • I’d suggest reading Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of “steal”. But I could see someone making a semantic stand around the word “take”.

        • Yes. I think there’s plenty of room to say that “taking my CD” and “making a copy of my musical recording” are not the same thing. In the second case, yes you come into possession of some music, but unlike the CD instance, the person who you “take” the copy from does not lose possession.

          Laws surrounding physical objects are necessarily heavily influenced by the conservation of mass. Laws surrounding encoded information not so much.

          It’s interesting to note that M-W actually added an extra definition “to wrongly take and use (another person’s idea, words, etc.)” suggesting that they don’t think that the first two definitions apply.

        • For an alternate view I’d suggest reading Benjamin Tucker’s essay on the fundamental difference between property in concrete objects and “property” in abstractions:

          Here’s an excerpt:

          “I take it that, if it were possible, and if it had always been possible, for an unlimited number of individuals to use to an unlimited extent and in an unlimited number of places the same concrete things at the same time, there never would have been any such thing as the institution of property. Under those circumstances the idea of property would never have entered the human mind, or, at any rate, if – it had, would have been summarily dismissed as too gross an absurdity to be seriously entertained for a moment. Had it been possible for the concrete creation or adaptation resulting from the efforts of a single individual to be used contemporaneously by all individuals, including the creator or adapter, the realization, or impending realization, of this possibility, far from being seized upon as an excuse for a law to prevent the use of this concrete thing without the consent of its creator or adapter, and far from being guarded against as an injury to one, would have been welcomed as a blessing to all, – in short, would have been viewed as a most fortunate element in the nature of things. THE RAISON D’ETRE OF PROPERTY IS FOUND IN THE VERY FACT THAT THERE IS NO SUCH POSSIBILITY, – IN THE FACT THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE IN THE NATURE OF THINGS FOR CONCRETE OBJECTS TO BE USED IN DIFFERENT PLACES AT THE SAME TIME. This fact existing, no person can remove from another’s possession and take to his own use another’s concrete creation without thereby depriving that other of all opportunity to use that which he created, and for this reason it became socially necessary, since successful society rests on individual initiative, to protect the individual creator in the use of his concrete creations by forbidding others to use them without his consent. In other words, it became necessary to institute property in concrete things.”

          (Emphasis added.)

          Tucker’s view was that “intellectual property” laws necessarily violate one’s property rights in concrete objects.

          • Bill Murdock says:

            In this world where each creation is usable by all simultaneously, does it still take effort to create? Then, if that effort is not shared equally by all (through magic, of course), who will create? Why not wait until someone else creates and then enjoy the fruit without the effort?

            See, this kind of mental exercise does no one any good. If there was no scarcity then all problems would melt away, not just problems with “property.” Wouldn’t that be grand? The only problem is that scarcity is the only universal law. So good luck with that.

        • mark k says:

          The “IP isn’t real property” is a common enough theme. In extreme cases I’ve talked to people who believe even thinking in “property” terms is the results of modern, pseudo-Orwellian campaigns to control the terminology. And for sure lots of aspects of modern IP are insane–especially the infinitely extended terms around copyright here in the US–and laws are much more formal.

          But thinking of “secrets” and other purely abstract things as “property” goes way back. You have the Shakespearean quote about robbing someone of their good name being worse than stealing their purse, and the Venetian glassblower who decided he wanted to share his knowledge with foreigners best tend to his affairs. The instinct obviously that you’re being deprived of something–credit, reputation, a secret’s exclusivity–and this was something people often felt, well, proprietary about.

          • Andrew says:

            Interesting discussion thread, here.

          • Trade-secrets and “good names” are various kinds of monopoly, as are copyrights and patents. The fact that one loses monopoly power when they are taken away “harms” you. Or is it just that the “harm” you are doing by extracting monopoly rent on a non-scarce good is being undone?

            Whatever your interpretation of that case, the law of conservation of mass is a physical law that is inviolable. You can’t eat my sandwich while I also eat my sandwich. Clearly there’s a categorical difference between “widely disseminating copies of an mp3” and “going around with a gun and taking sandwiches from people who are about to eat them”

            One does and one does not involve the physical principle of conservation of mass.

            • mark k says:

              Tying it to “conservation of mass” is begging the question. Saying property has to be physical is of course the question; property laws weren’t justified based on physical principles. Sure, they are “different categories” but whether that’s different categories of things we call “property” or not is arbitrary. There’s a categorical difference between many types of property, obviously (e.g., a plot of land and a tennis racket, for example–one is immovable and can be destroyed).

              I don’t have a huge amount invested in the outcome of the argument, my main point was that there’s a long tradition of people thinking about “IP” in property terms that predates the modern laws.

              As to the “doing harm” or “undoing harm,” this question is not limited to IP. Any transfer has winners and losers which will benefit someone and hurt others, and if you think the original allocation was unjust or is currently counter-productive it “undoes harm.”

    • thisisntimportantatall says:

      I think it’s not just hyperbolic, it’s emotionally vivid. The difference being that evoking vivid emotional imagery aims to bypass people’s rational thinking.

    • Adam says:

      War on _____ gets used way too often. I’m pretty sure war means widespread death and destruction.

  3. mark says:

    I assume that you are referring to Susan Fiske’s diatribe against those who dare call out inferential errors made in papers on *gasp* social media.

  4. Shravan says:

    In essence, there comes a point for some scientists when they consider themselves too big to fail. Susan Fiske has reached that point, so just telling her that a t-value was wrong won’t cut it.

  5. A.P. Salverda says:

    Could someone post a link to Fiske’s diatribe?

  6. Shravan says:

    Andrew, it’s time to write a peer-reviewed article demolishing the statistical errors in that key work of Amy Cuddy. And while you are at it, might as well take a look at Fiske’s own statistical errors. Social psychologists need re-educated, as they say in the midwest. It’s because people know that nobody will force them to retract their papers if they publish made-up t-values that people keep doing this and openly fight back.

    • Andrew says:


      Is it worth the trouble? I’ve sometimes had difficulty publishing such letters to the editor. Meanwhile, lots of people read this blog. Also I can’t imagine anything will get these people to retract their claims. Failed replications don’t work. Pointing out multiple researcher degrees of freedom doesn’t work. In Fiske’s case, it didn’t even work to point out major miscalculations of z-statistics. I think we just have to hope that future researchers will feel less committed to their published claims and will recognize that science is a process of continual learning.

  7. Shravan says:

    Andrew, you realize what this means, right? Statistics is now a weapon of math destruction. (Apologies to Cathy O’Neil).

  8. AJ says:

    “Methodological terrorism” is a great example of concept creep,when terms related to harm are pinned to more innocuous phenomena to serve some sort of agenda:

  9. Nick says:

    In view of your choice of definition, I guess that makes me the original methodological terrorist. Where do I go to get the matching orange clothing?

  10. Hjined says:

    I am a layman who happened here nearly by chance, and after a quick perusal of comments I wonder…

    how on earth is the median IQ of this blog’s readeship?

    Must be ≥135. I can already smell the racial discrimination in the air…
    bunch of racists!


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