Motivated Reasoning Is Disfiguring Social Science

Motivated Reasoning Is Disfiguring Social Science – Quilletteby Chris Ferguson – Feb 2019

I think “motivated reasoning” is usually “financially motivated reasoning” when a financial interest motivates a researcher to “discover” findings that support their source of funding.

This also drives today’s increasingly common “research bias” which I’ve covered in several previous posts:

Many people in the general public believe that organizations such as the APA or American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are neutral, objective scientific organizations or that they are even part of the government.

From the “opioid crisis,” we’ve learned that neutrality and objectivity hardly exist anymore. Thanks to the corporatization of medicine, profit has become its highest goal and money interests are corrupting scientific research

But they are largely professional guilds wherein members like me pay dues to support their profession.

As a result, such organizations tend to market their fields much like any business markets its products.

Impressive sounding science brings the field prestige, captures the attention of policy makers and helps members with grants, newspaper headlines, and career advancement.

And marketing is all about business concerns, like customer base, market share, and of course, profit margins.

But failing to understand this basic fact may cause the general public to overestimate the degree of objectivity with which such organizations speak when talking about research.

Ideologically loaded statements have become more common in recent years.

The bottom line is that professional guilds such as the APA and AAP have a demonstrable track record of unreliability when speaking on matters of science.

Just like the marketing of any other product or service, it’s designed to persuade, not to be truthful, and to put as much of a positive spin as possible on the product, whether it be “Molly’s Maids” or “Molly’s Interventional Pain Management”.

This means that parents, the general public, and policy makers may base decisions on erroneous pseudo-scientific claims that can’t be backed by good data.

Perhaps the most egregious issue is when such bodies simply pretend no controversy exists in fields that are, in fact, highly controversial.

This behavior, known as “citation bias,” has been described by some scholars as one of the seven deadly sins of research scholarship.

As professors, we would give a student a failing grade for such behavior in an academic paper. And yet professional guilds engage in such behavior on a fairly regular basis, at least with respect to behavioral research.

Why does this happen? There are a number of possible explanations.

The first is a lack of intellectual diversity.

It’s been known for decades that the social sciences are heavily weighted with individuals who identify as sociocultural liberals or progressives.

The second is the culture of institutions.

Although they are typically non-profits, they increasingly behave like businesses rather than academic centers. As such, they do not appear to foster an appropriate level of critical thinking, skepticism, caution, or solicitation of opposing views.

This is a recipe for conformity and groupthink.

This is a problem even for those of us who agree with the in-group. It leads to sloppy thinking when ideas aren’t aggressively challenged and people aren’t forced to find thorough supporting evidence.

Third, and related, the review processes these resolution statements undergo is obviously failing.

Often, on council, advocates for a position will boast that a resolution passed through multiple boards and committees, all internal to the APA. …which expose the failure of such organizations’ review process, not any superior quality of the resultant product.

Worryingly, professional guilds are producing resolution statements with increasing frequency.

This is a frightening reality. Because standardized medicine is much cheaper to provide, we’re seeing various organizations and agendas publishing their own versions of standard guidelines for more and more aspects of our medical care.

Do the 2010s really require so many more policy statements than did the 1990s? I doubt it.

Increasingly, they resemble products produced by a business, and so they should be treated by the general public as if that is what they are: the advertising may not always tell the full story.

That’s because they *are* products produced by a business; healthcare is now almost completely owned by corporations (hospitals, private equity groups, investors, etc.).

Failing to be honest about a research field’s inconsistencies and shortcomings makes the whole project look like an instrument in a fear-mongering culture war.

Advocacy efforts are always defined by their loudest and most extreme voices, and these can become detrimental to the cause over time as they become increasingly militant.

Social science is being poorly represented by groups like the APA and AAP. I recommend that, for the time being, parents, policy makers, and the public should, at best, treat resolution statements with a grain of salt and perhaps ignore them altogether.

If only we could ignore the CDC opioid prescribing guidelines!

They are verifiably a product of the “motivated reasoning” of the secret group of anti-opioid activists that compiled them.

Changing this state of affairs would take a major cultural change at these organizations and, having been given a glimpse on the inside, it’s difficult to imagine this happening any time soon.

I wonder if we aren’t due for some kind of “major cultural change” as our current situation is tearing us apart, most often along the lines of money.

Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida.  He is author of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong and the Renaissance mystery novel Suicide Kings. You can follow him on Twitter @CJFerguson1111


3 thoughts on “Motivated Reasoning Is Disfiguring Social Science

  1. canarensis

    Truly egregious examples of this can be found in “journal” articles extolling the wonderfulness & efficacy of things like acupuncture. They’re “researched” by, basically, “Bob’s Acupuncture Parlor,” overseen by the Foundation for Promotion of Acupuncture, read by a bunch of practicing acupuncturists, printed in the Journal of Acupuncture Advocacy, & cited by other acupuncturists. Like several of the flaks on the Oregon Chronic Pain Task Farce, who are forcing through a policy to ban all pain meds & replace them with…. (drum roll please) acupuncture (& other “alternative” methods, practitioners of which are also on the Task Farce).

    Somehow those “journals” never mention the really negative effects of acupuncture, like infection, losing broken needle bits in the patient, and exacerbation of symptoms. They also dodge the truth that even people who get some benefit, get it only fleetingly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Too many people are forgetting that treatments like chiropractic or acupuncture must be continued essentially forever because their benefit doesn’t last. That’s why the insurance companies don’t want to pay for it, and they’re probably justified because it’s not effective. They shouldn’t have to cover every crazy idea that somebody comes up with to cure some ailment.


  2. Pingback: Less research is needed | EDS and Chronic Pain News & Info

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