Who wrote this article?

Jordan Anaya
Jan 23, 2018 · 7 min read

Nominally, this article is solely written by Pardis Sabeti, nominally a “superstar human geneticist”. But what is a geneticist doing commentating on social psychology? Was this article really written without contributions from others? Perhaps from people in the field of social psychology?

Déjà vu

While reading the piece I couldn’t help but get the sense it sounded familiar. This in particular stuck out:

the effect of specific poses on people’s feelings of power has been replicated in 17 independent studies

Where had I seen the number “17” before? Oh yeah, Amy Cuddy likes to use that number:

Image for post
Image for post

I tried to find if this number was published somewhere, for the possibility Sabeti had found the number elsewhere. But the only place I can find this statement is in Cuddy’s tweets. It’s difficult to imagine that Sabeti did not get this number from Cuddy’s Twitter account, or from direct discussions with Amy Cuddy.

Sabeti ends her piece with this:

only if the revolution holds itself to the same high scientific standards that it promotes

That sounded an awful like a recent tweet from Amy Cuddy:

The wording here is disturbingly similar. Clearly Sabeti’s article is influenced by Amy Cuddy’s Twitter timeline, or through direct communication with her.

Do Cuddy and Sabeti know each other?

It seems unlikely Sabeti would decide to write an article about social psychology after simply reading some tweets by Amy Cuddy, so it is worthwhile to investigate if they may have a stronger connection.

The two of them have previously tweeted at each other:

Image for post
Image for post

Okay, I tweet at a bunch of people I don’t know so that doesn’t prove anything.

BUT, both of them were faculty at Harvard.

Okay, Harvard is a big place, that also doesn’t prove anything.

BUT, they both had an appointment to the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

Okay, a school within a university is also a big place.

BUT, in the piece Sabeti discussed her ATV accident, which sounds similar to Cuddy’s car accident, and expresses her interest in power posing research.

It’s hard to imagine that these two people, who worked at the same school within the same university, who experienced similar trauma, and tweet at each other, do not know each other.

Indeed, on Facebook Amy Cuddy refers to Sabeti as her friend:

Image for post
Image for post

The Boston Globe connection

Is it a coincidence that this piece appeared in the Boston Globe? I don’t see any previous pieces by Sabeti in the Globe, but I do see a recent article by Amy Cuddy, along with a couple flattering interviews, and some free publicity.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that Cuddy might have some contacts at the Globe, and could get one of her famous friends to write an opinion piece that defends her work and denounces her critics.

Is it a coincidence that Cuddy was one of the first people to tweet out a link to the article?

Image for post
Image for post

It’s almost as if she was expecting the article to come out.

It should be said that other social psychologists at Harvard were also very quick to tweet their support for the article.

Obviously I don’t know how this article came about, or how much influence Amy Cuddy or others had on the contents of the article, but it is unethical to present the piece as an outside researcher’s take on what’s happening in social psychology when in fact it is just a friend sticking up for a friend.

Even the title of the article exposes the author’s bias. “Revolutionaries” attacking established researchers echoes the sentiment and wording of Susan Dominus’s piece “When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy”, which portrayed Amy Cuddy as someone who simply played by the rules and was unfairly attacked. Another hint that Sabeti was influenced by this biased article is this nugget by Sabeti:

Two critics dismissed the power posing research as “tabloid fodder.”

A similar statement also appears in the Dominus piece, suggesting Sabeti may have read it there:

Image for post
Image for post

The problem with biases is they often lead to work which is, well, biased and not accurate.

I’m reminded of another piece from the all boys club at Harvard, which downplayed the contributions of Berkeley to CRISPR and contained numerous errors. I’m also reminded of a plagiarized article about blockchain that had to be retracted because it contained fundamental errors.

When an article is written for the wrong reasons, or by someone without expertise in an area, it is likely to contain mistakes or misleading statements, and Sabeti’s piece is filled with them.

Daniel Lakens has already taken to Twitter to point out the (in)accuracy of some of the links Sabeti uses as evidence for personal attacks by the so-called revolutionaries, but it is worthwhile to take a closer look.

Sabeti writes:

Image for post
Image for post

The first link leads here, and it does in fact refer to Cuddy as defensive. However, I’m not sure how comments like this from Cuddy could be interpreted as anything but defensive:

Image for post
Image for post

But if calling someone like this defensive is an “attack”, then I guess Sabeti’s first reference is justified.

The second link is wrong on multiple accounts. It leads here, but the string “dishonest” doesn’t appear anywhere in the post, it only appears in a comment by Carol Nickerson in which she says that she does not think Cuddy is dishonest. So the reference actually says the opposite of what Sabeti claims.

The “sloppy” link leads here, where Gelman says “maybe they were just sloppy” in reference to the power posing work. The interesting thing is it was Dana Carney who collected the data, not Amy Cuddy, so if anyone was sloppy it would have been Dana Carney, and Carney herself admitted on her own website the problems with her data collection. So this is actually a case of a researcher taking the criticism to heart, not an attack.

The “incompetent” link sends us to yet another Gelman post where he writes “Incompetence is not so bad — all of us are incompetent at times — but, as scientists, we should try to recognize the limitations of our competence.” That doesn’t sound like an attack to me.

The “deep denial” link is by Gelman again, where he does say Cuddy is in deep denial. But as with the “defensive” link, I think it is fair to characterize Cuddy’s reaction to the Ranehill failed replication as “deep denial”.

The “pseudoscience” quote was just used in the title of one of Gelman’s posts, and in the comments he specifically writes “I never said that psychology is a pseudoscience, nor did I ever intend to imply this.”

The “junk science” just comes from a comment on Gelman’s blog. I wonder if Sabeti would want comments on her articles attributed to her.

The “mockworthy” reference is accurate, but I’m not sure that it can be classified as an attack directed at someone responding to revolutionaries.

The “anti-replication” reference is also accurate, but there really is a group of psychologists who don’t value replications, so I wouldn’t say that this adjective is “unfair”.

In addition to these questionable references, Sabeti has a couple truly bizarre statements in her piece.

For example, regarding the criticized research she writes:

These novel ideas are important because they awaken new thinking. They are not finished, and their authors don’t claim that they are.

So when Amy Cuddy gives a TED talk, writes a book, and goes on multiple TV shows saying there’s science behind her claims, what is that? When Fritz Strack offers to have his work replicated because it is a “textbook finding”, what is that? When Angela Duckworth writes a book, gives a TED talk, and has her ideas instituted in schools, what is that?

I’m also not sure I would classify work which was so questionable CNN took down their article covering it as an idea with value.

The irony is that if Sabeti was actually a regular reader of Gelman’s blog she would probably agree with him. Referring to her field of genetics, she writes:

We returned to an agnostic baseline, rather than one of irrational loyalty to — or abnegation of — previous research conducted under earlier norms.

As an avid reader of Gelman’s blog, I can attest that Gelman always says that the hypothesis of the work he is criticizing may be true, but the data collected and analyses performed do not provide evidence for or against the hypothesis, i.e. we should be agnostic. For example, in this post Gelman even discusses the possibility that Wansink’s hypotheses are correct, yes, even Wansink.

I’d like to think that if Sabeti was more familiar with the field of social psychology she would not have written her article. While it is noble to publicly defend a friend, I sincerely hope the quality of her opinion piece is not representative of her other work.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store