the ‘decline effect’ doesn’t work that way

Over the last four or five years, there’s been a growing awareness in the scientific community that science is an imperfect process. Not that everyone used to think science was a crystal ball with a direct line to the universe or anything, but there does seem to be a growing recognition that scientists are human beings with human flaws, and are susceptible to common biases that can make it more difficult to fully trust any single finding reported in the literature. For instance, scientists like interesting results more than boring results; we’d rather keep our jobs than lose them; and we have a tendency to see what we want to see, even when it’s only sort-of-kind-of there, and sometimes not there at all. All of these things contrive to produce systematic biases in the kinds of findings that get reported.

The single biggest contributor to the zeitgeist shift nudge is undoubtedly John Ioannidis (recently profiled in an excellent Atlantic article), whose work I can’t say enough good things about (though I’ve tried). But lots of other people have had a hand in popularizing the same or similar ideas–many of which actually go back several decades. I’ve written a bit about these issues myself in a number of papers (1, 2, 3) and blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), so I’m partial to such concerns. Still, important as the role of the various selection and publication biases is in charting the course of science, virtually all of the discussions of these issues have had a relatively limited audience. Even Ioannidis’ work, influential as it’s been, has probably been read by no more than a few thousand scientists.

Last week, the debate hit the mainstream when the New Yorker (circulation: ~ 1 million) published an article by Jonah Lehrer suggesting–or at least strongly raising the possibility–that something might be wrong with the scientific method. The full article is behind a paywall, but I can helpfully tell you that some people seem to have un-paywalled it against the New Yorker’s wishes, so if you search for it online, you will find it.

The crux of Lehrer’s argument is that many, and perhaps most, scientific findings fall prey to something called the “decline effect”: initial positive reports of relatively large effects are subsequently followed by gradually decreasing effect sizes, in some cases culminating in a complete absence of an effect in the largest, most recent studies. Lehrer gives a number of colorful anecdotes illustrating this process, and ends on a decidedly skeptical (and frankly, terribly misleading) note:

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.

While Lehrer’s article received pretty positive reviews from many non-scientist bloggers (many of whom, dismayingly, seemed to think the take-home message was that since scientists always change their minds, we shouldn’t trust anything they say), science bloggers were generally not very happy with it. Within days, angry mobs of Scientopians and Nature Networkers started murdering unicorns; by the end of the week, the New Yorker offices were reduced to rubble, and the scientists and statisticians who’d given Lehrer quotes were all rumored to be in hiding.

Okay, none of that happened. I’m just trying to keep things interesting. Anyway, because I’ve been characteristically lazy slow on the uptake, by the time I got around to writing this post you’re now reading, about eighty hundred and sixty thousand bloggers had already weighed in on Lehrer’s article. That’s good, because it means I can just direct you to other people’s blogs instead of having to do any thinking myself. So here you go: good posts by Games With Words (whose post tipped me off to the article), Jerry Coyne, Steven Novella, Charlie Petit, and Andrew Gelman, among many others.

Since I’ve blogged about these issues before, and agree with most of what’s been said elsewhere, I’ll only make one point about the article. Which is that about half of the examples Lehrer talks about don’t actually seem to me to qualify as instances of the decline effect–at least as Lehrer defines it. The best example of this comes when Lehrer discusses Jonathan Schooler’s attempt to demonstrate the existence of the decline effect by running a series of ESP experiments:

In 2004, Schooler embarked on an ironic imitation of Rhine’s research: he tried to replicate this failure to replicate. In homage to Rhirie’s interests, he decided to test for a parapsychological phenomenon known as precognition. The experiment itself was straightforward: he flashed a set of images to a subject and asked him or her to identify each one. Most of the time, the response was negative—-the images were displayed too quickly to register. Then Schooler randomly selected half of the images to be shown again. What he wanted to know was whether the images that got a second showing were more likely to have been identified the first time around. Could subsequent exposure have somehow influenced the initial results? Could the effect become the cause?

The craziness of the hypothesis was the point: Schooler knows that precognition lacks a scientific explanation. But he wasn’t testing extrasensory powers; he was testing the decline effect. “At first, the data looked amazing, just as we’d expected,” Schooler says. “I couldn’t believe the amount of precognition we were finding. But then, as we kept on running subjects, the effect size”–a standard statistical measure–“kept on getting smaller and smaller.” The scientists eventually tested more than two thousand undergraduates. “In the end, our results looked just like Rhinos,” Schooler said. “We found this strong paranormal effect, but it disappeared on us.”

This is a pretty bad way to describe what’s going on, because it makes it sound like it’s a general principle of data collection that effects systematically get smaller. It isn’t. The variance around the point estimate of effect size certainly gets smaller as samples get larger, but the likelihood of an effect increasing is just as high as the likelihood of it decreasing. The absolutely critical point Lehrer left out is that you would only get the decline effect to show up if you intervened in the data collection or reporting process based on the results you were getting. Instead, most of Lehrer’s article presents the decline effect as if it’s some sort of mystery, rather than the well-understood process that it is. It’s as though Lehrer believes that scientific data has the magical property of telling you less about the world the more of it you have. Which isn’t true, of course; the problem isn’t that science is malfunctioning, it’s that scientists are still (kind of!) human, and are susceptible to typical human biases. The unfortunate net effect is that Lehrer’s article, while tremendously entertaining, achieves exactly the opposite of what good science journalism should do: it sows confusion about the scientific process and makes it easier for people to dismiss the results of good scientific work, instead of helping people develop a critical appreciation for the amazing power science has to tell us about the world.

One thought on “the ‘decline effect’ doesn’t work that way”

  1. Good point. It seems to me that using range estimates of the effect size (e.g. confidence intervals) instead of point estimates would reveal the ‘decline effect’ for what it is – normal error variance with insufficient power.

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