NYT: When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy As a young social psychologist, she played by the rules and won big: an influential study, a viral TED talk, a prestigious job at Harvard. Then, suddenly, the rules changed.

New York Times:

Cuddy felt ill when Simmons and Simonsohn published the post with the headline: “Reassessing the Evidence Behind the Most Popular TED Talk.” As illustration, they used a picture of Wonder Woman. Cuddy felt as if Simmons had set them up; that they included her TED talk in the headline made it feel personal, as if they were going after her rather than the work.

The post, which Simonsohn distributed to his email list of hundreds, quickly made the rounds. “People were sending me emails like I was dying of cancer,” Cuddy says. “It was like, ‘We send our condolences,’ ‘Holy crap, this is terrible’ and ‘God bless you; we wish we could do something, but obviously we can’t.’ ” She also knew what was coming, a series of events that did, in fact, transpire over time: subsequent scrutiny of other studies she had published, insulting commentary about her work on the field’s Facebook groups, disdainful headlines about the flimsiness of her research. She paced around, distraught, afraid to look at her email, afraid not to. She had just put together a tenure package and worried that the dust-up would be a continuing distraction.

Cuddy did not like seeing her work criticized in a non-peer-reviewed format, but she wrote a bland statement saying, essentially, that she disagreed with their findings and looked forward to more research on “this important topic.” Carney reassured Cuddy in the months after the Data Colada post that their paper would eventually be vindicated — of course the effects were real; someone would prove it eventually.

Eventually, the Data Colada post caught the eye of another influential blogger, Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, whose interest in Cuddy’s work would prove durable, exacting and possibly career-changing for Cuddy. Gelman wields his sizable influence on the field from afar, on his popular blog andrewgelman.com, where he posts his thoughts on best statistical practices in the sciences, with a frequent emphasis on what he sees as the absurd and unscientific. Gelman, who studied math and physics at M.I.T. before turning to statistics, does not believe that social psychology is any more guilty of P-hacking than, say, biology or economics. But he has devoted extensive attention to the field, especially in more recent years, in part because of the way the media has glorified social-psychology research. He is respected enough that his posts are well read; he is cutting enough that many of his critiques are enjoyed with a strong sense of schadenfreude.

Four months after the Data Colada post, Gelman, with a co-author, published an article in Slate about Carney and Cuddy’s 2010 study, calling it “tabloid fodder.” Eventually, Cuddy’s name began appearing regularly in the blog, both in his posts and in comments. Gelman’s writing on Cuddy’s study was coolly dismissive; it bothered him that Cuddy remained fairly silent on the replication and the Data Colada post. For all he knew, Cuddy was still selling the hormone effect in her speaking gigs and in her best-selling book, “Presence,” which he had not read. Had he looked, he would have been annoyed to see that Cuddy did not include a mention of the Ranehill replication. But he might have been surprised to see how little of the book focused on power posing (just a few pages).

On his site, Cuddy’s name, far from the only one he repeatedly invoked, became a go-to synecdoche for faulty science writ large. When he saw that Cuddy had been invited to speak at a conference, he wondered why the organizers had not invited a bunch of other famous figures he clearly considered bad for science, including Diederik Stapel, who had been accused of outright fraud.

His site became a home for frequently hostile comments from his followers. “She has no serious conception of ‘science,’ ” one posted. Another compared Cuddy to Elizabeth Holmes, the Theranos chief executive under investigation for misleading investors. Though Gelman did encourage his readers to stick to the science, he rarely reined anyone in. In one exchange in July 2016, a commenter wrote, “I’ve wondered whether some of Amy Cuddy’s mistakes are due to the fact that she suffered severe head trauma as the result of a car accident some years ago.” Gelman replied, “A head injury hardly seems necessary to explain these mistakes,” pointing out that her adviser, Fiske, whom he has also criticized, had no such injury but made similar errors.

Gelman, whom I met in his office in late June, is not scathing in person; he is rather mild, soft-spoken even. Gelman was vague when asked if he felt there was anything unusual about the frequency of his comments on Cuddy (“People send me things, and I respond,” he said). He said it was Cuddy who was unrelenting. He later emailed me to make sure I was aware that she attacked him and Simmons and Simonsohn on a private Facebook page, without backing up her accusations with evidence; he was still waiting for a clear renunciation of the original 2010 paper on the hormonal effects of power posing. “I would like her to say: ‘Jeez, I didn’t know any better. I was doing what they told me to do. I don’t think I’m a bad person, and it didn’t get replicated’ — rather than salvaging as much as she can.”

Gelman considers himself someone who is doing others the favor of pointing out their errors, a service for which he would be grateful, he says. Cuddy considers him a bully, someone who does not believe that she is entitled to her own interpretation of the research that is her field of expertise…

On Sept. 26, 2016, Amy Cuddy woke up and checked her phone to find a chilling text from a friend. “I’m so sorry,” it said. “Are you O.K.?” She felt a familiar dread, something closer to panic. For the past year, she had mostly stopped going to social-psychology conferences, feeling a chill from her community. Another social psychologist had told her that a graduate student asked if she really was friends with Cuddy. When she responded, “Yes,” the young woman asked, “Why?”

It was the kind of information Cuddy wished she did not have; her closest friends were told to stop passing on or commenting about that kind of thing, but acquaintances still did it. She felt adrift in her field. She worried about asking peers to collaborate, suspecting that they would not want to set themselves up for intense scrutiny. And she felt betrayed, not just by those who cut her down on social media, in blog posts, even in reviews (one reviewer called her “a profiteer,” not hiding his contempt), but also by some of those who did not publicly defend her. She was not wrong to think that at least in some cases, it was fear, rather than lack of support for her, that kept people from speaking up. Two tenured psychology professors at Ivy League universities acknowledged to me that they would have publicly defended some of Cuddy’s positions were they not worried about making themselves targets on Data Colada and elsewhere…

If Amy Cuddy is a victim, she may not seem an obvious one: She has real power, a best-selling book, a thriving speaking career. She did not own up fully to problems in her research or try to replicate her own study. (She says there were real hurdles to doing so, not least of which was finding a collaborator to take that on.) But many of her peers told me that she did not deserve the level of widespread and sometimes vicious criticism she has endured. “Amy has been the target of mockery and meanness on Facebook, on Twitter, in blog posts — I feel like, Wow, I have never seen that in science,” Van Bavel says. “I’ve only been in it for 15 years, but I’ve never seen public humiliation like that.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Science. Bookmark the permalink.