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Still the science of the sophomore?

Arathy Puthillam responds to a letter on psychology's WEIRDness.

09 May 2019

In her letter in the April issue, Priya Maharaj asks: 'Do scientists and scientific bodies (universities, journals, funding bodies, etc.) really believe it a worthwhile venture to reflect on their WEIRDness?' The answer seems to be no.

First, we are not questioning why mechanisms of science that perpetuate WEIRDness are thought of as reflections of universal phenomena. Measures studied and constructs developed in such countries usually find a place in the field's preeminent journals and conferences, win prestigious awards, and enjoy (and often are eligible for) large grants – all for studying such a population. McNemar observed this as early as 1946, when he commented that 'the existing science of human behaviour is largely the science of sophomores'. Yet we still try to extrapolate insights based on a narrow slice of humanity, as Mostafa Salari Rad and colleagues noted in a paper in PNAS last year. That 11.41 per cent of the 223 studies explored in their paper did not include any information about their participants 'demonstrates the scope of the problem we are addressing'. These studies presumably didn't go out of their way to include a diverse sample. Our science is still the science of North American sophomores.

We are also not allowing those who buck this trend to find space in such scientific bodies. For example, scientists trying to publish data from non-WEIRD countries are sometimes nudged towards geographical area-specific journals. Do behaviours of an Asian population deserve only to be published in an Asian journal? How is this different from orientalism – as if non-WEIRD behaviours are anomalies that need to be read within the WEIRD framework! What's worse, when WEIRD findings are not replicated in other countries, instead of questioning the theory, these studies often get diminished as 'cross-cultural'. Then, the discrepancies are often undermined by explaining them away through the problematic individualism-collectivism framework.

Thus, knowledge is created not only about, but also by, only a certain kind of individual. Their blinkers and biases may continue to play a role in what they propose is a universal phenomenon – a neo-colonialism, if you like. The need to include diversity is not just political correctness – the lack of it erodes the validity of the very science that is supposed to explain universal human phenomenon. Are we asserting, even now, that the subaltern cannot speak?

Arathy Puthillam
Monk Prayogshala