Research

A Joke Syllabus With a Serious Point: Cussing Away the Reproducibility Crisis

August 15, 2016

Courtesy of Sanjay Srivastava
Sanjay Srivastava, associate professor of psychology at the U. of Oregon: "It’s funny when academics swear because we’re supposed to be stuffy. But it also captured this emotion that people are having right now."

Psychology researchers are having an uneasy moment, with scholars and news outlets alike fretting over the field’s shortcomings.

The so-called reproducibility crisis — a belief that too many scientific studies would crumble if subjected to further scrutiny — has hit the discipline especially hard. Last year Brian Nosek, a University of Virginia professor, made waves by finding that less than 40 percent of psychological studies from 2008 could be reproduced.

More recently an article in Slate detailed how an influential psychological experiment about self-control had been debunked. The article included a quote from Michael Inzlicht, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, that spoke volumes about the mood within the field: "Meta-analyses are fucked," he said.

Sanjay Srivastava, associate professor and associate department head of psychology at the University of Oregon, has been thinking about his field’s weaknesses for a while. So much so that when he read Mr. Inzlicht’s quote, he realized he had enough material for a whole seminar. "PSY 607," he called it: "Everything is Fucked."

Mr. Srivastava posted the course syllabus Thursday to his blog, "The Hardest Science."

"In this class we will go a step further and say that something is fucked if it presents hard conceptual challenges to which implementable, real-world solutions for working scientists are either not available or routinely ignored in practice," reads the syllabus. Among the topics that meet those criteria: significance testing, replicability, publishing, and the entire scientific profession.

The course is structured like most seminars, with assigned reading for each week followed by an in-class discussion. It even throws students a few curveballs, like Week Seven. That week’s assignment reads, "Interlude: Everything is fine, calm the fuck down," and includes two corresponding readings.

Though the syllabus lists office hours, assigned readings, and breaks down the course’s grading scale, for now students will have to reach Mr. Srivastava on Twitter. That’s because the class doesn’t exist — at least, not yet.

Mr. Srivastava spoke with The Chronicle on Friday about how his syllabus has started a broader conversation on road bumps in psychological research. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

Q: Why did you publish this syllabus?

A. I should say, in case it’s not clear, that it’s not a real course.

You know, I have the quote in there from Mickey Inzlicht that meta-analysis is fucked, and when that came out in that article people were teasing him about it. But it reflected this idea that there is a hard problem in dealing with meta-analyses.

A little while later, another one of the papers that made it into the syllabus came out by Jake Westfall, and Tal Yarkoni, and I made a joke on social media. I was like, "Oh first meta-analysis is fucked, now this." That just kind of got the wheels turning. I had it in the back of my mind for a while. I started making a mental list, really as a joke, as a joke and not a joke, right?

You know, calling things "fucked" is kind of a joke. The other day, I was sitting and [thought], Let me write down all the things that have been percolating in my head. I thought this would make a funny syllabus.

Q: What did you think of Daniel Engber’s Slate article that sparked the idea of creating the joke syllabus?

A. As a piece of journalism I think it’s terrific. It really captures very well this moment that psychology is at right now. We’ve been having this period of really intense introspection in the field.

There’s been a lot of attention saying, Are there things in our research methods, are there things in our professional practices, that are problematic? It’s been part of the field, and a conversation that I’ve been pretty interested in and trying to contribute to for probably about five years now.

Mickey’s quote — "This is fucked" — it’s funny. It’s funny when academics swear because we’re supposed to be stuffy. But it also captured this emotion that people are having right now, which is, Look I’m a psychologist, we’re academics, we’re dedicating our lives to studying this stuff, and there are these really hard conceptual problems that are not just abstractions right now.

Q: How did you pick the readings for your syllabus? Were you already using them?

A. Some of them I’ve assigned in my own classes. I’ve had my lab read them. I co-organize a research-methods brown-bag here at the University of Oregon where a bunch of these things are discussed.

When I actually sat down and said, Haha, I’m going to make a syllabus, I didn’t have to go do research and get on Google Scholar. I wouldn’t have done the blog post if it took that much work.

Many of the most recent readings are people who have been part of this discussion. And the older readings, Paul Meehl and Jacob Cohen, are two people who are cited over and over and over again on these issues. These are things that I’ve been talking with people about.

Q: While your college may not offer this class next semester, it brings up relevant points. Do you hope to teach a similar class soon? Or incorporate this into your other courses?

A. I could imagine taking this and making it a real seminar. I’m guest-lecturing in our first-year graduate-student seminar and talking about some of these issues.

I don’t know if I could get away with using the course title. I might be able to: Oregon has a pretty impressive academic-freedom policy. I could try it, but certainly I would have a lot of support from my colleagues on the subject matter. A lot of my colleagues are teaching similar things.

Q: Do universities need to teach more courses looking introspectively into their fields?

A. Absolutely, 100 percent. My own perspective is these are really important issues, and being aware of these issues can have an immediate impact on how somebody thinks about research, on how they go about designing studies, analyzing studies, planning a research program.

The joke in the syllabus is "fuck" means either it’s unsolvable or nobody is implementing the solution. The reality is we don’t have a perfect solution to most — probably any — of these things, but there are things that we can do better. I’m actually quite optimistic.

I’m part of a brand new society called the Society for the Improvement of Psychological Science that was created to work on a lot of these kinds of issues. There’s a ton of interest in the field. It probably is a part of a lot of graduate education already.

Q: What kind of feedback have you gotten about the syllabus?

A. It’s very psychology-focused in terms of what authors are on there, what readings are on there. I expected I’d get a chuckle out of some of my colleagues in psychology.

I’ve been watching a lot of my Twitter mentions and seeing people in completely other fields. It seems to have tickled people. Even though most of these readings are psychologists talking about these issues, they are really sort of broad, basic issues.

Publication bias is an issue for every scientific field. It’s cool that people are facing these challenges everywhere and there’s something about the "we’re fucked" framing that resonates with people. When you run into a hard problem, everyone has that moment.

It’s not just psychologists and it’s not just my friends that have had that moment.

Q: What do you hope people take away from the syllabus? Do you hope people pull material for their own classes?

A. I wrote it mostly to amuse. It’s a funny framing of a bunch of serious issues.

What I try to do when I talk with colleagues, when I teach students about these things, I want to engage people with these issues and try to make things better. And I don’t think I’m going to be the cause of that, but I think it might get these issues some attention and that’s great.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.