A Dim View of Criticism

There’s been a lot of great discussion over at Andrew Gelman’s blog in the wake of Susan Dominus’s piece in the NYTimes about Amy Cuddy and power posing. I wrote about it here when the story broke, and Andrew has since published a number of posts about criticism in science (see this one and this one in particular). It reminded me of a post I wrote six years ago while reading Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, which I want to re-purpose for this blog today.

Lewis’s book is about the Wall Street outsiders and oddballs who “shorted” (i.e., bet against) the subprime mortgage market and made a killing when it finally collapsed. Interestingly, after they had decided that the market was going to collapse, it was not, actually, a straightforward matter to bet against it. Had they thought that a company was going to go bust, there’d be a standard way of making money on that belief: they could borrow stock in the company, sell it, and then wait for its share price to crash. At that point, they buy back the shares (cheap) and pay off their debt. But, as Lewis points out, things were very different with mortgage bonds:

To sell a stock or bond short you need to borrow it, and [the bonds they were interested in] were tiny and impossible to find. You could buy them or not buy them but you couldn’t bet explicitly against them; the market for subprime mortages simply had no place for people in it who took a dim view of them. You might know with certainty that the entire mortgage bond market was doomed, but you could do nothing about it. (29)

I had a shock of recognition when I read that. Back in those days, I was working very hard to find a way to “bet against” a number of stories that have been told in the organization studies literature. I have now somewhat resigned myself to the fact that there’s no place in that literature for people who take a dim view of them. While some people say encouraging things to me in person about what I do, there isn’t really a genre (in the area of management studies) of papers that only points out errors in other people’s work. You have to make a “contribution” too. In a sense, you can buy the stories people are telling you or not buy them but you can’t explicitly criticize them.

Back then, I thought about this in terms of the difference between faith and knowledge. Knowledge is a belief held in a critical environment, while faith is a belief held in an “evangelical” environment. The mortgage bond market was an evangelical environment in which to hold beliefs about housing prices, default rates, and credit ratings on CDOs. There was no simple way to critique the “good news”. So it took some dedicated outsiders to see what was really going on. These were people who insisted on looking at the basis of the mortgage bonds that were being pooled and traded on Wall Street in increasingly exotic ways.

One of these guys was Steve Eisman, who was a notoriously cantankerous personality. (He was fictionalized brilliantly by Steve Carell in the movie.) He recalls meeting Ken Lewis, the CEO of Bank of America. “[The CEO’s on Wall Street] didn’t know their own balance sheet … I was sitting there listening to [Ken Lewis]. I had an epiphany. I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, he’s dumb!’ A lightbulb went off. The guy running one of the biggest banks in the world is dumb” (TBS, p. 174). Yes, or perhaps he was just working in an evangelical rather than critical environment. Here, “any old balance sheet” will do … as long as you think it’s bringing good news.

I think, sadly, the same thing can be said about various corners of the social sciences today. Amy Cuddy’s work is being defended by many as “good news”, and there is little room in the mainstream literature to publish critiques (and replications with null results) that suggest that power posing does not have the effect it claims to have. As in the case of the housing bubble, these things can be more easily discussed now that there actually is a crisis, but we mustn’t forget the incredible amount of hard work that was done by Uri Simonsohn, Joe Simmons, Lief Nelson, Andrew Gelman and others to reach this point. It was and still is a somewhat thankless task and, unlike Burry and Eisman, they don’t stand to make a billion dollars on their bet. Fortunately, the work of the Amy Cuddys and Brian Wansinks of the world isn’t likely to bring the global economy to its knees either.

It is sad, however, that so many social scientists take such a dim view criticism. Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard–who was, incidentally, born in the year of a financial crisis–raised the question of the sense in which sin is simply ignorance. If so, he asked, is it

the  state of  someone  who  has  not  known  and  up  until  now  has  not been  capable  of  knowing  anything  about  truth,  or  is  it  a  resultant,  a  later ignorance? If it is the latter, then sin must essentially lodge somewhere else than in ignorance. It must lodge in a person’s efforts to obscure his knowing. (The Sickness Unto Death)

Dominus tells the story of Amy Cuddy as someone who was following all the rules until the rules suddenly changed. That may be partly true. But a lot of the problems in the social sciences today, and the reason that they have gathered themselves into something like a full blown crisis, is, I fear, that people have been making a real effort to obscure their knowing, as Kierkegaard put it. Or perhaps they’re just not, as Andrew somewhat charitably suggests, making the effort to do something difficult (statistics, scholarship) well.  I hope that the social sciences will stop taking such a dim view of criticism going forward and give more space in the literature to people who take a dim view of underpowered studies with overblown publicity. Kierkegaard’s works are traditionally divided into “edifying” and “existential” discourses. Perhaps all of us need to be both evangelists of science and critics of it? Perhaps we need to be evangelists for criticism?

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