Thursday, May 29, 2014

My Take on Replication

There are quite a few comments on my previous post already, both on this blog and elsewhere. That post was my attempt to make sense of the discussion that all of a sudden dominated my Twitter feed (I’d been offline for several days). Emotions were runing high and invective was flying left and right. I wasn’t sure what the cause of this fracas was and tried to make sense of where people were coming from and suggest a way forward. 

Many of the phrases in the post that I used to characterize the extremes of the replication continuum are paraphrases of what I encountered online rather than figments of my own imagination. What always seems to happen when you write about extremes, though, is that people rush in to declare themselves moderates. I appreciate this. I’m a moderate myself. But if we were all moderates, then the debate wouldn’t have spiralled out of control. And it was this derailment of the conversation that I was trying to understand.

But before (or more likely after) someone mistakes one of the extreme positions described in the previous post for my own let me state explicitly how I view replication. It's rather boring.
  • Replication is by no means the solution to all of our problems. I don’t know if anyone seriously believes it is.
  • Replication attempts should not be used or construed as personal attacks. I have said this in my very first post and I'm sticking with it.
  • A failed replication does not mean the original author did something wrong. In fact, a single failed replication doesn’t mean much, period. Just like one original experiment doesn’t mean much. A failed replication is just a data point in a meta-analysis, though typically one with a little more weight than the original study (because of the larger N). The more replication attempts the better.
  • There are various reasons why people are involved in replication projects. Some people distrust certain findings (sometimes outside their own area) and set out to investigate. This is a totally legitimate reason. In the past year or so I have learned that that I’m personally more comfortable with trying to replicate findings from theories that I do find plausible but that perhaps don’t have enough support yet. I call this replicating up. Needless to say, this can still result in a replication failure (but at least I’m rooting for the effect). And then there are replication efforts where people are not necessarily invested in a result, such as the reproducibility project and the registered replication projects. Maybe this is the way of the future. Another option is adversarial replication. 
  • Direct vs. conceptual replication is a false dichotomy. Both are necessary but neither is sufficient. Hal Pashler and colleagues have made it clear why conceptual replication by itself is not sufficient. It’s biased against the Null. If you find an effect you'll conclude the effect has replicated. If you don’t, you’ll probably conclude that you were measuring a different construct after all (I’m sure I must have fallen prey to this fallacy at one point or another). Direct replications have the opposite problem. Even if you replicate a finding many times over, it might be that what you’re replicating is, in fact, an artifact. You’ll only find out if you conduct a conceptual replication, for example with a slightly different stimulus set. I wrote about the reliability and validity of replications earlier, which resulted in an interesting (or so we thought) “diablog” with Dan Simons on this topic (see also here, here, and here).
  • Performing replications is not something people should be doing exclusively (at least, I’d recommend against it). However, it would be good if everyone were involved in doing some of the work. Performing replications is a service to the field. We all live in the same building and it is not as solid as we once thought. Some even say it’s on fire.


  1. Hi Rolf,
    Just a little media perspective to soothe your nerves ;-)
    Do not let the extremes of social media misguide you. The extremes you saw before posting your blog were there, on social media. The extreme answers you might have received concerning your blog, are real as well. But they are a minority. Most readers/followers truly are moderates (in a good sense).
    Try to imagine your readers as a full classroom. If you would ask your classroom for reactions, only a few would speak out and you'ld notice they represent a minority. If you would ask the same classroom to respond with tweets, the silent group (still maybe a majority) would not stand out.

    1. Hi Tim, great point. My nerves are fine, by the way. A long time ago my mother said "one thing that is good about getting older is that you don't care what other people think." I find this to be very true. Being a tenured full professor probably helps too.;) I find that extreme responses have zero effect on me but I do care about not being misunderstood.