The State of Reproducibility in Experimental Philosophy

Over at Feminist Philosophers, Dan Hicks casually mentions in a comment:

I haven’t had too many interactions with folks interested in experimental philosophy, but based on those interactions it seems like (1) x-phi folks are modeling their methods explicitly on these kinds of studies in psychology, while (2) not being aware of or responsive to the epistemic crisis surrounding these methods in psychology. So I would encourage x-phi folks to check out the links above.

Despite some initial defensiveness, I’ve come to think that Hicks’s remarks are actually quite reasonable for those philosophers who haven’t really kept up with the nitty-gritty happenings in experimental philosophy. Having heard about the replicability crisis in psychology, it is easy to assume that experimental philosophy is susceptible to the same problems. Having not kept up with the nitty-gritty happenings in experimental philosophy, it is easy to assume that experimental philosophers are unaware of or unresponsive to these issues.

The point of this post is to dispel those assumptions.

To be clear, my aim in writing this post isn’t really to pick on a casual comment, but to give a more general state of the art on what experimental philosophy, as a community, is doing and has been doing about methodological and epistemological issues related to reproducible science.

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To start thinking about issues with reproducibility, we can go back to the context of Hicks’s comment: a “sexy” result from a low-powered social psychology study that says you can reduce implicit bias in your sleep. The replicability crisis in psychology has, in large part, to do with with replicating findings of a similar sort. As such, having learned about the replicability crisis, a philosopher is prima facie reasonable to cast a skeptical eye toward experimental philosophy findings.

The skeptical eye, I take it, has to do with a companions-in-guilt charge. Experimental philosophy often borrows methods from (social) psychology; since there’s a crisis in psychology, would it be such a surprise if experimental philosophy doesn’t suffer from the same methodological and epistemological issues?

There is something to the companions-in-guilt charge, but we should clarify who the companions really are. It’s not just psychology that suffers from a replicability crisis. It’s also cancer research, pharmaceutics, political science, behavioral economics, etc. In other words, there is a replicability crisis in science. So, philosophers should worry about experimental philosophy… insofar as and as much as they are worried about science.

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 Is there reason to be more worried about experimental philosophy compared to psychology and other sciences? Not only do I think the answer to that question is ‘no’, but I think we in fact have reasons to be relatively optimistic about experimental philosophy.

The experimental philosophy community has been aware of the issues that underlie the replicability crises even before their recent publicity. For a long time (in a young research program), Joshua Knobe (and later Christian Mott) has maintained the experimental philosophy replication page, which documents experimental philosophy findings that have (and have not) replicated well. Looking at the replication page, one can see that the majority of effects in experimental philosophy have, in fact, been well-replicated. (The big exception is the cluster of demographic effects.) So, not only are experimental philosophers aware of methodological and epistemological issues with replicability, they have already taken some steps to address it.

The replication page is one exemplar of a broader pattern. The community, in general, is very welcoming to cumulative research practices, which encourage internal corrections and challenges. For example, on this very blog there was an extended discussion about the replicability of an age effect. For example, Chandra Sripada and Sara Konrath shared their data so that David Rose, Jonathan Livengood, Justin Sytsma, and Edouard Machery can re-analyze it to challenge Sripada and Konrath’s interpretation. For example, Adam Feltz and Florian Cova have systematically examined the moral responsibility and free will literature via a meta-analysis.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. In the earlier days of experimental philosophy (and to a lesser extent even today), many people ran their online studies using Knobe’s Qualtrics account. So everyone can in principle see what everyone else is working on, and even download the data if they wanted. In my view, the general culture of transparency discourages outright frauds like data manipulation or even faking data.

In addition to a general culture of transparent and cumulative research, experimental philosophers may also be in a better position than, say, psychologists because, well, they’re philosophers. And philosophy has a long tradition of thinking about the relationships between experiments, statistical inference, theory confirmation, etc. Some experimental philosophers are also philosophers of science who are attentive to such issues. For example, Edouard Machery has written about the interpretation of null results. But even the experimental philosophers who don’t also specialize in philosophy of science will have some exposure to these issues. And, based on the attendance at the Preconference Workshop on Replication in the Sciences at SPP, experimental philosophers are very keen to learn even more about these issues from both philosophers of statistics like Deborah Mayo, as well as methods experts from diverse cognate fields.

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None of this is to say that current practices of experimental philosophy are anywhere near perfect. There is much more we can all do to do better: post data on repositories, run better powered studies, check with statistical and methodological consultants, keep up with latest best practices, etc. [I also have some thoughts about how to make the experimental philosophy replication page even more useful, but I’ll save that for another occasion.] But we can acknowledge the need for improvements in the future, while also acknowledge the efforts for improvements in the past. We can recognize how far experimental philosophy still has to go, with respect to the methodological and epistemological issues associated with the replicability crises, while also recognize how far it has come.

[Much of this post is based on a talk at the 2014 Experimental Philosophy UK Workshop. I thank the organizers for giving me the occasion to think more systematically about these issues.]

[x-posted at The Experimental Philosophy Blog; please comment there!]