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When the appeal of an exaggerated claim is greater than a prestige journal

Adam Clarke writes:

Are you aiming to write a blog post soon on the recent PNAS article of ‘When the appeal of a dominant leader is greater than a prestige leader’? The connection it points out between economic uncertainty and preference for dominant leaders seems intuitive – perhaps a bit too intuitive. The “Edited by Susan T. Fiske” usually makes me suspicious, but I couldn’t find much wrong with the content. It’d be interesting to hear your blogged thoughts on the paper.

My reply: I suppose that as an exploratory analysis it’s fine. This sort of thing could never get published in a good political science journal—it’s more of a blog post, as it were—but it’s fine to get stuff like that out there. The key in communicating this sort of result is to place it in the speculative zone.

Let’s take a look. Here’s the abstract of the paper:

We examine why dominant/authoritarian leaders attract support despite the presence of other admired/respected candidates. Although evolutionary psychology supports both dominance and prestige as viable routes for attaining influential leadership positions, extant research lacks theoretical clarity explaining when and why dominant leaders are preferred. Across three large-scale studies we provide robust evidence showing how economic uncertainty affects individuals’ psychological feelings of lack of personal control, resulting in a greater preference for dominant leaders. This research offers important theoretical explanations for why, around the globe from the United States and Indian elections to the Brexit campaign, constituents continue to choose authoritarian leaders over other admired/respected leaders.

I have no problem with the first two sentences of this abstract. But then:

– “we provide robust evidence . . .” No.
– “how economic uncertainty affects . . .” No. Strike that causal language.
– “This research offers important theoretical explanations . . .” I doubt that. But “important” is a subjective term. I guess the authors think it’s important.

And, by the way, since they mentioned the recent U.S. elections, and setting aside the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, who were those “other admired/respected leaders” who were beat out by Trump? Jeb Bush? Ted Cruz? Hillary Clinton? Were those people really “admired/respected leaders”? I don’t know that the leading anti-Brexit campaigners were so admired or respected either.

My real concern here is not political here. Rather, it’s a point of science communication: If you see an interesting pattern in observational data, it doesn’t seem to be enough to just say that. Instead you have to make inflated claims about “robust evidence” (i.e., a bunch of p-values less than 0.05 found within a garden of forking paths) and “important theoretical explanations.” Without those big claims, I can’t imagine such a paper appearing in PPNAS in the first place.

To put it another way, there’s a selection effect. If you find a cool data pattern and present it as such, you probably won’t get much attention. But if you wrap it in the garb of scientific near-certainty, there’s a chance you could hit the media jackpot. The incentives are all wrong.

One Comment

  1. gdanning says:

    Just before the election, I told a friend that one of the worst things that will happen if Donald Trump wins is that we will be inundated by pronouncements about “what it all means.” (And I was assuming that “winning the election” meant winning the popular vote). Unless and until these researchers initially do the hard work of figuring out the extent to which a vote for Donald Trump was a “vote for an authoritarian leader” as opposed to, I don’t know, a vote for the nominee of one of the only two major parties, I don’t know why anyone should care about their “analysis” of a phenomenon which might not even exist.

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