It matters who does science

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In the (freely available) editorial that opened the June 2, 2023 edition of Science, H. Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of Science, reminds us that “it matters who does science” (Thorp, 2023, p. 873). His point is that scientists are human, humans make mistakes, therefore scientists make mistakes. And we should just own that. Science is riddled with mistakes.

Thorp urges us to use the phrase “trust the scientific process,” because it suggests that “science is what we know now, the product of the work of many people over time, and principles that have reached consensus in the scientific community through established processes of peer review and transparent disclosure” (Thorp, 2023, p. 873). Science is the process, not just a collection of known facts—or a collection of theories that tie the known facts together into a (semi-)coherent whole.  

Thorp also notes that when a working group of scientists all have the same preconceived notions, their biases may affect the research questions they ask, how they try to the answer those research questions, and how they may interpret the results. However, when people with different lived experiences and cultural backgrounds are part of the research process, “scientific consensus can be reached faster and with greater reliability” (Thorp, 2023, p. 873).  Yes, science is riddled with mistakes, but the greater diversity of experiences we bring to science the faster we can rid ourselves of these mistakes and reduce the number of mistakes we make going forward.

I’m reminded of some of my favorite psychologists whose lived experiences led them to ask the research questions they are now famous for. Mamie and Kenneth Clark asked young Black children to choose the doll they would like to play with: a Black doll or a white doll. The children chose the white doll. That research, which was presented to the U.S. Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall, influenced the outcome of what we now know as Brown vs. Board of Education. Anyone could have done that research, but only Black psychologists thought to ask the question.

Lillian Gilbreth, the mother of industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology, became interested in efficient kitchens after 1920s sexism resulted in dropped business contracts after her husband’s death. Again, anyone could have done research into how to create an efficient kitchen, but only a female psychologist thought to ask the question.

In a more recent example, researchers have been uncovering the factors that contribute to racial disparities in sleep quality, such as racial disparities in shift work, exposure to light and air pollution, and acculturation stress. Sure, we can tell people to get better sleep, they need to sleep in a quiet, dark, cool room, but what if they live in an urban environment with plenty of middle-of-the-sirens, ambient street lighting, and no air conditioning? And what if they work the night shift? What if what’s keeping them awake is worrying about whether their boss’s racism is keeping them from getting raise or promotion? Researchers who are asking these questions include Girardin Jean-Louis, Dayna Johnson, Carmela Alcántara, and Alberto Ramos (Pérez Ortega, 2021).

After covering research methods in Intro Psych, ask your students to read Thorp’s editorial. Next, invite your students to consider their own lived experiences. What research questions would they ask?

 

References

Pérez Ortega, R. (2021). Divided we sleep. Science, 374(6567), 552–555. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.acx9445

Thorp, H. H. (2023). It matters who does science. Science, 380(6648), 873. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.adi9021

 

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.