After a long time of silence (surprise, PhDs are stressful and juggling side projects is difficult), I finally had time to write down an interview that I did last year for the series about critical people. This interview is special. First of all, it was conducted with two people, who second of all, are very critical, and third of all are a couple. In this interview, we talked about what it takes and how it feels to be critical, what you should be critical about and how this couple manages to work together on being critical and merges their expertises.
Laura Bringmann and Markus Eronen have not only been together in their private life but also published together for a long time. While Laura’s focus is on statistics and methodology used in (clinical) psychology, specifically network analysis and the use of individualized assessment measures, Markus’ background is in philosophy. Philosophy is very critical by its nature, Markus explained. However, this discipline is usually not finding solutions and that is what Laura is good at. The merge of their different specializations led to refreshing perspectives on science, such as The Theory Crisis in Psychology: How to Move Forward, Don’t blame the model: Reconsidering the network approach to psychopathology, Heating up the measurement debate: What psychologists can learn from the history of physics or Back to Basics: The Importance of Conceptual Clarification in Psychological Science.
Laura and Markus both agreed to see themselves as critical. “Would anyone say about themselves as not being critical? It almost becomes a buzzword”, Markus said during our interview. “But I am very critical!” Laura responded with laughter.
They Argue for a Focus on Validation, Conceptualization, and Theory
The Field Focuses on Open Science….
Many researchers have focused on criticism about science that is not transparent, and critical reformers promote Open Science. The NWO also increasingly funds open science practices. Laura and Markus explicitly say that this is not their focus. Transparency solves some problems that science is facing (including aspects of reproducibility), but these are neither the problems they are most interested in nor do they consider transparency alone enough to counteract crises. They miss funding for theoretical research and studies focusing on measurement and validation.
… but the Problems Might Lie in Conceptualization, …
Markus explained that the problem in psychological science lies more in theories and conceptualizations. “People now suggest that they just teach psychologists to make better theories. We say in that paper that that’s maybe also not the best way to go because making good theories in psychology is really difficult. Maybe there are reasons why there are no good theories yet. We should also try to understand why it is so difficult and then we can maybe move forward”, Markus said. “And then the conceptualization really comes in”, Laura adds.
Laura and Markus are especially critical of the conceptualizations in psychopathology. Markus asked: “when we talk about personality types, or symptoms or disorders, are those really good categories, are they well defined, are they validated?” While you might show correlational evidence for these concepts, validity in general is very hard to demonstrate.
… Time-Dependency, …
Because many tend to interpret the concepts as reality, Markus stressed to look at their history to understand their time-dependence: “All the concepts we’re talking about, someone came up with and thought it was a good idea”. However many concepts that were used in the past (such as female hysteria or neurasthenia) are now not only politically questionable but not validated or used anymore. Laura and Markus explained that this is also happening in other disciplines, such as the natural sciences. In physics, for example, you had the caloric theory of heat. “But these theories were still clear, something you could test”, Laura elaborated. Markus added: “Maybe that’s part of the problem in psychology. Because the concepts are so vague, they fit with any kind of data, basically. You cannot show why it is exactly wrong.”
… and Complexity
Markus expressed that another problem of psychological science is the complexity of phenomena. “They become convoluted. Like self-efficacy. They have a very complex theoretical framework around them, which is not really based on anything.” Laura added that the complexity in conceptualisation and/or analysis in psychopathology contributes to the mismatch between the real world phenomena and psychological theories. She thinks that “when people write in a very difficult way, it looks nice, but the more complex it gets, the less likely that it is well conceptualized”. She views understandability as another layer of transparency.
Funnily enough, Laura said that it is also harder to be critical of complex theories and concepts. The more complex your work gets, the more implicit assumptions are involved. Markus agreed that “implicit assumptions are more apparent in less concrete work”. For the sake of making science that is easier to understand and criticize, we should therefore focus on making it simpler instead of building more complex constructs (Back to Basics: The Importance of Conceptual Clarification in Psychological Science).
Experiences with Being Critical (About Yourself)
Being Critical about Yourself…
Laura’s doctoral dissertation was also about some more complex analysis. It was an important step toward the use of network data applied to psychopathology. However, later Laura and Markus also questioned its actual usefulness and applicability. Generally, in contrast to some other critical researchers who are critical of other people’s work, Laura and Markus try to focus on their own work or their own field of research. Laura explained that “we’re really also looking in the mirror, I would say. […] As I have a close insight into my own work, I find it easier to be critical about my own things”. She would like for more researchers to show honesty and vulnerability.
However, Laura stressed that there might be a mismatch between how critical people actually are and how critical they are perceived when looking at research output: “If you talk to people and you ask very direct questions, people are often more [critical about their own work]. It’s the end product that needs to be shiny.” Markus added: “It’s also partly the fault of the publishing system. Journals don’t want these super nuanced articles where every step is explained.”
.. is Difficult but Rewarding
Laura mentioned that being critical of her own research is just like being critical of yourself in any other domain of your life. “Human beings themselves are often not critical or self-reflective. […] Maybe it’s also a nice thing to not be very critical about yourself or about your research. It gives you a lot of anxiety and stress”, she explained. However, just as it is good for your self-development to be reflective and critical of yourself, doing the same to your research might improve it and consecutively have a positive impact on the field in the long run.
The articles that Laura and Markus wrote together were tough in the beginning. Laura explained that it was frustrating at times, but in the end, the articles are having an influence on the field. “Just a little bit, but they are”, Laura smiles. The response and feedback are mostly positive, which was really rewarding, Markus agreed. He added that especially as a philosopher it is “unique and exceptional” to contribute to writing such articles. “That’s always what I wanted: to use philosophy in a way that is also useful for science.[…] In a very small way I have been able to advance science”, he explains.
Considerations on Being Critical (About Yourself)
Being Too Critical Can Be Inhibiting
However beneficial being critical can be, being too critical might get you stuck and paralyzed. Markus argued: “If you’re too critical of your own work, you cannot produce anything anymore”. “Awww, I never do that”, Laura said and both laughed. They told me that they have seen very critical people dropping out of academia because they were not moving forward. You should try to find a balance between very and a little less critical articles. Markus suggested that not always needing to offer solutions might help in this case. In philosophy, it is common practice to “throw out an idea and leave it for other people to discuss”, which is also fine.
“We try to not throw people under the bus. That’s mostly not necessary, you shouldn’t do that.” Not only with other people they find it important to be constructive while being critical, but also with themselves. Having this critical, but constructive approach might influence the field in the long run. “I think I did already change things together with other people, talking about this and writing about this”, Laura said. The community of people that are critical and constructive of themselves and their own field of research almost feel like family and made Laura want to stay in science.
The Privilege It Needs to Be Critical
Maybe not everyone can be critical. Markus explains that they are in a very lucky position. “We can be critical because we are not forced to publish so much anymore. We do not have so much pressure, for example from our supervisor or something”. They are in a secure position and therefore able to do critical and slow science.
But also mentally you need to have certain prerequisites for being critical. ”I’m not even sure if everyone can do that or if they have the time to do it or if they have the philosophical mind to do it. It takes a lot of analytical skill.”, Laura notes. For example, with complicated models, it takes methodological, statistical and mathematical knowledge to really understand what’s going on and then it takes philosophical knowledge to really critically analyze the arguments. Probably that is why their unique collaborations are so successful.
During the interview, I learned about which viewpoints make it seem easy or not so easy to be critical, especially of your own work. I also learned about a new perspective to look at psychological concepts, especially being aware of their time-dependency. It becomes clear that the interplay of methodology and philosophy is very fruitful to be critical in psychological science. Laura says: “The best science is if you choose the right people and you give them all the freedom to develop beautiful things, multidisciplinary things. And you let them do their thing, let them do slow science. I think that is a way you can create a really nice environment to work in science.”- “Nice ending.”, Markus replied and I fully agree.