How Research Design Warps Understanding of Humanity

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Research designs for corn field yield is the template for psychological research

The predominant method and approach to research in psychology, social science, and medicine is taken from an agricultural statistical (Ag Stat) research model whose basic premises were formulated in the 1930s through the 1950s. The Ag Stat model is geared to stalks of corn and ears of wheat. In this approach to research, different varieties of corn or wheat are planted in different “plots” subject to different “treatments” such as amounts of fertilizer or irrigation. The varieties and treatments are conceived as “independent variables” and the outcomes, such as yield or drought resistance, are labeled “dependent variables.” “Main effects” describe non-random differences among averages for varieties or treatments while differences from averages among stalks of corn or ears of wheat are labeled “error variance”.

What proved so successful as a model for agricultural research was applied to education, social sciences, medicine, and often became an essential condition for government grants. By the 1960s, the Ag Stat model was taught at every major university as a preferred method of scientific inquiry. The Ag Stat model continues to dominate entire disciplines. When applied to the social sciences and medicine, the model casts humans as stalks of corn or ears of wheat. Persons are members of groups (varieties) or recipients of treatments. “Effects” derive either from their membership or treatment. What is “of interest” is not the individual, but the average response. Individuality is ignored.

Ag Stat Mindset

The mindset implicit in the model elevates the scientist/experimenter to a position of control above and apart from “objects of study”. The method grants the experimenter an objectivity valued by science. Mathematical formula evaluate ratios of “variance” to yield “tests of significance”. Commercial statistical packages provide computation and publication-ready tables and figures. Government regulations and public policy in education, psychology, medicine, and science are heavily influenced by Ag Stat design and results.

The Ag Stat worldview sees humans as objects, not subjects; as uniform, not variegated; as dependent, not independent; as victims, not agents. Individual differences are wholly due to assignment or circumstance. Persons are “privileged” or “advantaged”, but, essentially all persons are the same, as corn stalks and ears of wheat are alike, which, paradoxically, is a fundamental assertion of “diversity” dogma.

One ear is like another.

Ag Stat Mindset Impact upon Public and Academic Discourse

The mindset of agricultural statistical research has become the general template for much of modern thought, a pervasive framework that under-girds scientific and public discourse. Journal publication and scientific discourse are judged by circular consistency with previous publications. It is a worldview by which a preponderance of students, educators, social science, bureaucrats, and educated elites see the world. The mindset becomes a way of thinking that extends far beyond its narrow methodology to how humans understand themselves and others.

Ag Stat and the Fragmentation of Psychology

During the last five decades, the tests employed by psychologists and social scientists largely derive from Ag Stat assumptions, that is, persons are sorted into groups, and individual differences are defined as distance from a group norm. The norm is based upon an aggregate measure not unique to any individual. Individual difference is deviation from the group. That is, mainstream psychological research has conformed itself to Ag Stat research design. Group averages reign. The once popular Rorschach and Thematic Apperception Test which gathered data unique to the individual have been eclipsed by Ag Stat compatible tests, like the MMPI and CPI, with fewer clinical students trained to administer and interpret individual tests. The irony of the Ag Stat template applied to psychology is that research in psychology has become peripheral to itself. Psychology is psychology without the psyche.

In contrast, areas of investigation once understood as specialties within psychology have matured to independent disciplines. These disciplines are generally housed in separate academic departments. Their common denominator is their interest in inner processes with specialized approaches to research and theory adapted to the area of investigation. The disciplines are psycholinguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience, and behavior biology. The paradox is that if a researcher aims to study inner processes and individuality, the researcher is better off to avoid psychology and chose a discipline whose roots are in biological, neurological, or cognitive processes.

The Ag Stat Template and Personal Responsibility

The Ag Stat template is 180 degrees opposed to the Enlightenment principles which inspired the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and Bill of Rights, and define American culture and processes. Central to the American political system and culture is belief in the right and freedom of individuals to self-determination; and to this end, citizens are granted freedom of association, rights to privacy, property, and free expression –even the right to bear arms. Freedom cuts the bonds of bondage and tutelage. Persons may pursue life and liberty for personal happiness and benefit. Individuality is prized, “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” Government is a contractual association regulated by rational constraint and debate among free persons. Freedom entails responsibility for personal and communal aims and actions. This set of beliefs has long provided the foundation of American identity.

The Ag Stat metaview is a return to authoritarian assumptions that guided human destiny prior to the Enlightenment. Individuals do not determine their fate, rather it is birth or circumstance. Free will counts for nothing. Victims do not bear responsibility for their life course. In the diversity worldview, individual “merit” is due to privilege. In accord with this view and the Ag Stat mindset, large numbers of colleges and universities have reduced or eliminated merit-based scholarships –except as screened through the presumed parameters of privilege or advantage. At some colleges, white students wear white pins to acknowledge their privilege. Merit is not vested in the individual, but in circumstance of birth or externalities.

Psychology Revised

The Ag Stat model of psychology with its emphasis upon group averages has hijacked psychology to the benefit of selected guild and special interest groups. The American Psychological Association has witnessed its membership diminish from a high of 92, 300 members in 2008 to approximately 77, 000 today. Research psychologists have resigned APA to join the Association for Psychological Science. Disciplines concerned with the mind and consciousness have established separate academic department and professional organizations.

How is psychology to recover from its capture by a research method more appropriate to corn than to people? Here are some ideas:

• Engage the inner world and the study of individuality.
• View individuals as agents.
• Examine difficult problems, such as individual consciousness and personal responsibility.
• Acquaint students and psychologists with mathematical models and theory appropriate to biological, neurological, psycho linguistic, and cognitive processes.
• Embrace multi-dimensional systems and complexity.

The movement from a research method based on averages to examination of individual persons with their inner complexity requires new methods and theories –many already pioneered by the human sciences of behavior biology, neuroscience, psycholinguistics, and cognitive science. Ag Stat psychology is already in the throes of lingering retreat. Let’s hasten it. It’s boring.

To understand human individuality is to understand humanity itself.