The Power of Inflexibility in Improving Science and Fighting COVID-19

In case you’re new to this blog, you might not be aware of the ongoing crisis of confidence—also known as the Replication Crisis—in social and life sciences, including but not limited to psychology, medicine and economics. (To learn more, see weeks I-II of my course Critical Appraisal of Research Methods and Analysis.)

In short, major problems include:

  • Less than half (exact number depending on the field) of studies can be replicated
  • Way too few studies can be computationally reproduced, that is, getting the same results from the same data and same analysis code
  • Research tends to ignore context, making generalisability difficult
  • Published studies are reported intransparently, so it’s hard to tell what was actually done – and if p-hacking practices were used (e.g. the results were cherry picked from a large pool of random data)
  • … etc.

There are several initiatives to address these concerns, but where do they spring from, and how can we eventually fix science in large scale? I’m going to suggest a solution which will rub a lot of people the wrong way. Incidentally, it is the same tool we need to fight the Coronavirus. But first, we need to understand Nassim Taleb’s presentation of the minority rule.

The basic idea is, that under particular conditions, once a stubborn niche population reaches a small level such as 3-4% of the total population, the majority will have to submit to the preferences of the minority. For example, consider a children’s party, where the organiser needs to make the decision on whether to offer milk products, as some of the guests are lactose-intolerant. Let us call these the inflexible ones: They would suffer great harm from milk products, so they avoid them. The majority of the guests, the flexible ones, can consume both lactose-free products, as well as those which contain milk. Given that the lactose-free supplies are easily available and of not significantly inferior quality, it makes the organiser’s (as well as those party guests who are inflexible) life much easier to serve no milk products at all.

As another example, during my previous life as a business person, I did a degree where my peers were about 50% Finnish, and 50% other nationalities ranging all the way from Russia to Peru. Us Finns spoke Finnish with each other, but whenever a non-Finnish person entered the group, we switched to English. The proportion of non-Finnish speakers was irrelevant, whenever it was above 0%.

So, an inflexible minority can drastically affect how the majority acts. But the infexibility can also stem from one’s worldview; if you had to decide on a daytime activity with a bunch of friends during Ramadan, and one of them was Muslim, you wouldn’t go to a steak house.

What does this mean for improving science and weakening the Coronavirus?

  • In order to promote good research, transparency advocates need to be inflexible about questionable research practices. To the point that they lose potential career opportunities – although they may, in turn, gain better ones as they can work with likeminded people.
  • In order to smash COVID-19, citizens need to be inflexible about risk behaviours. To the point that some people consider them overzealous and rigid – although it may not matter, if it leads to surviving the crash.

Both of these causes have a very important fractal, or multiscale component: Much of the action is not top-down but happens bottom-up; the individual reels in their family (or immediate research group), who then become norm-setters in their apartment building/neighbourhood (or scientific society of their research area), who again affect local governance (or scientific discipline).

But there are at least three crucial success factors for the behaviour change effect to work:

  1. The inflexible group needs to be spatially spread widely, instead of being confined in particular geographic (or intellectual) pockets, in which case the majority can just isolate and ignore them.
  2. The cost of aligning with the inflexible group needs to be small for the flexible group. For minority members to change behaviour, therefore, it may be necessary to take up some of its costs to the majority – at least initially. The other option is to move steps that are so small they are almost imperceptible.
  3. Crucially, the inflexible group… Does. Not. Budge. People always tend to say that one “must not be so strict”, but there is a reason it is not okay to steal, murder, or cheat upon your spouse “just a bit”. If the inflexibles are perceived to be flexible, after all, the majority can expect to dominate over them.
no_stretching_alora-griffiths-WX7FSaiYxK8-unsplash
No rest for the wicked, and no stretching for the inflexible! (Photo: Alora Griffiths on Unsplash)

For our case examples, spatial spread is mostly taken care of: The internet has done much to allow for the minority members to connect, while being perhaps the only ones in their own immediate vicinity passionate about their cause. So I’ll address #2-#3.

Lowering the cost of transparency: In the scientific transparency scene, this means the minority representatives need to spend tons of time learning about transparent research practices (e.g. pre-registration and data sharing, the TOP Factor, etc.). This knowledge they can then either disseminate to the rest of their research group, or act as the person who does most of the heavy lifting required in reporting reproducible work.

Lowering the cost of Coronavirus safety: The anti-Coronavirus advocates, on the other hand, need to make information easily available (as they do in endcoronavirus.org), share it, and translate it – both literally and figuratively. An example would be sharing research studies, ways to make and wear masks correctly, or how to acquire them (if you’re in Finland, check this out to have masks made for you, while donating some to healthcare workers). They may also need to learn about technicalities of video conferencing and other solutions, so that they can readily teach their peers after refusing face-to-face meetings.

Not budging in research transparency: The research transparency people obviously need to refuse co-authoring papers which contain p-hacking, hyperbole or other ways of distorting the findings to improve chances of publication. They need to refuse projects which do not plan to share analysis code (and data, within privacy constraints), ask about transparency before peer reviewing, and walk away from papers where the first author insists on presenting exploratory hypotheses as confirmatory ones, or is not willing to properly discuss constraints to generalisability, model assumptions (stationarity, homogeneity, independence, interference, ergodicity… see here if these are strange words) and sensitivity analyses.

Not budging in Coronavirus safety: The anti-Coronavirus folks need show example by performing hand hygiene, self-isolating, wearing masks, social distancing, and taking their kids off school/daycare – but also making sure their family does the same. In addition, they need to speak out when they see their friends or neighbours acting out risk behaviours, such violating the 2-meter (6-feet) physical distance requirement. They need to make it clear they are only available for meetings via video conferencing, which they’re happy to help setting up.

Remaining steadfast and vocal is not for everyone, and calling out behaviour you perceive to be wrong, can be extremely anxiety-provoking. That’s also why one needs to start with those closest to them. And it is hard to be inflexible in the beginning, when the majority norms are against you and everyone is expected to play along. The “happy” news is, that not everyone needs to be inflexible – just the small minority. (I’m putting happy in quotes, because the minority rule can be leveraged to gradually promote any fascist ideology the majority is foolish enough to tolerate.)

Hence, if you’re the type of person who feels strongly enough to be inflexible about these things, perhaps you can feel comforted by the idea that you don’t need to convert the majority: The stubborn few can create the critical mass and change the world.

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