In May of 1996, I lost my faith in God. I stopped believing.
As a child growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home and attending religious elementary and high schools, I was a firm theist for all of my early life. While I might have had a few years of uncertainty and ambivalence before that moment, May of that year stands out as the moment faith was no longer tenable for me. It was during that month that I read Freud’s powerful book, Moses and Monotheism, in which he contrasts the bible’s version of Moses’s story with his own historical retelling of events.
The details are unimportant for now. But, reading that book changed something in me; it changed my world, as if a veil had been lifted. After that moment, I could no longer take the bible’s words as authoritative; I could no longer abide by religious codes of conduct; I could no longer accept God’s existence. I lost faith. It took me some time to figure out how to navigate my new world, but that was when my world changed.
In October of 2011, I lost my faith in large swaths of psychological science. I stopped believing.
As a young psychology graduate student, I was a firm believer in our methods, our modes of inference, and in the substantial knowledge base that had been accumulated by the pioneers of the field. While I might have had a few moments of uncertainty and ambivalence about this or that finding or theory, October of that year stands out as the moment faith in our field was no longer tenable for me. It was during that month that I read Simmons, Nelson, and Simonsohn’s powerful False Positive Psychology paper, which demonstrates that common practices of our field—practices taught to me by my Ivy League professors—could lead us to statistically affirm patently false, sometimes absurd, hypotheses.
The details are important, but I assume you know them. I’ll never forget reading an advanced copy of the paper and feeling like a bomb had dropped. Reading that paper changed something in me; it changed my world, as if a veil had been lifted. After that moment, I could no longer read articles in the same way; I could no longer trust the standard practices of our field as I had before; I could no longer treat the field’s accumulated knowledge as sacrosanct. I lost faith in my beloved field. It took me some time to figure out what this meant for me and for my own research, but that was when my perspective changed.
Some of you might be uncomfortable with me drawing a parallel between religion and science. Science is not about faith, it’s about empirical observation and drawing one’s own conclusions, right? Well, not exactly. Science is very much a social enterprise, and individual scientists need to rely on or have faith in other scientists’ past work, be that work in creating measurement instruments, work in developing new statistical tools, or work in advancing and testing theories. When I construct a multilevel model to evaluate whether patterns of brain activity correspond to economic models, I am relying on and trusting the work of hundreds if not thousands of scientists (yes, I’m counting economists here!) who have come before me. I need to have faith in all their collective work.
More than having faith in individual findings, tools, or persons, practicing scientists need to have faith in the paradigm—the entire constellation of beliefs, values, and established ways of doing things. Without such faith, the entire enterprise falls apart. Without faith in past work, science can’t really make progress, needing to start anew with each new practicing scientist. Without faith in the existing paradigm, scientists will spend more time bickering and fighting, accusing each other of foul play, and generally not trusting one another’s work.
Thomas Kuhn explicitly compared religion to science, stating that both require uncritical faith. In the case of science, the faith is not in the veracity of any one set of conclusions or inferences, but faith in the prevailing paradigm itself. When faith in the prevailing paradigm wanes, typically because of the introduction of a competing paradigm, Kuhn talked of scientists having conversion experiences. This conversion experience—which could form the basis of a scientific revolution if enough scientists lose faith—is something like a transformation of vision, a switch in the way scientists see and understand their world. Once converted, scientists can no longer see the world with their old set of eyes.
I lost faith in psychology. Once I saw how our standard operating procedures could allow impossible effects to seem possible and real, once I understood how honest researchers with the highest of integrity could inadvertently and unconsciously bias their data to reach erroneous conclusions at disturbing rates, once I appreciated how ignoring and burying null results can warp entire fields of inquiry, I finally grasped how broken the prevailing paradigm in psychology (if not most of science) had become. Once I saw all these things, I could no longer un-see them.
Faith, however, is critical for a science’s survival. While scientists always need to be skeptical, they also need to trust. They need to have faith that the paradigm is fair, with a published literature that is reliable; they also need to trust the intentions and capabilities of their fellow scientists. I want to trust again. Looking forward, I am eager for the days when I can flip open to the latest pages of this or that journal and not feel it necessary to zoom into the methods section to evaluate power or to the results section to inspect the distribution of p-values. I look forward to a renewal of my faith, to trusting that my fellow psychologists are more or less getting it right.
Thankfully, there has been a little pot of gold at the end of my own conversion experience, something new to believe in. While I sometimes feel like I have become despondent about things, I then look at how far the field has come in less than five years, how far I have come personally. I feel optimistic about psychology’s future. There are just so many good things afoot right now, I can’t help but feel things are looking up: Replications are increasingly seen as standard practice, samples are getting larger and larger, pre-registration is something that is becoming more common, faculty applicants are increasingly asked what they are personally doing to improve their science, scientists are increasingly posting their data and analysis code, old methods are being challenged and new ones recommended, and there now exists an entire society devoted to improving our field.
Psychology has a long way to go and there are still too many of us who deny our problems or wilfully ignore them. But, things are getting better. Yes, we’re now uncovering many of our mistakes, we’re realizing that many areas of inquiry will need to start over, but man am I happy we uncovered these mistakes. It means we have an opportunity to learn from them and to improve.
I have faith in our future.