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Confessions of a bad scientist

When I first switched majors to Psychology, I was intending to be a social worker or counselor. However, as I got deeper into Psychology, I was intrigued by the ability to model human information processing using information statistics and control theory (e.g., HIck-Hyman Law, Fitts Law, McRuer & Jex's Crossover Model, Signal Detection Theory). I began to think of myself as a scientist, rather than a practitioner. As a professor of Psychology, I taught undergraduate courses in experimental methods and supervised graduate research. But if I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I never quite lived up to the standards of science that I set for the students. 

The fact is, that when my intuitions conflicted with the conventional wisdom from experimental psychology, I tended to trust my intuitions, rather than the conventional wisdom. And I trusted my intuitions, even when I couldn't put those intuitions into convincing arguments. For example, very early in my career the Ecological Psychology approach of James Gibson and constructs such as affordance, optical invariant, direct perception, and attunement seemed to match my intuitions. But I wasn't able to articulate why these constructs made sense or to defend these views against the conventional wisdom of the day. This is one of the reasons I failed to get tenure in my first academic job.

When I designed experiments, I wasn't testing hypotheses, rather I was attempting to demonstrate the plausibility of my intuitions to those who were skeptical. There was a certain degree of blind faith in my intuitions - a clear confirmation bias that shaped my interpretations of both my experimental research and the literature. Looking back, it is clear that my goal was not to test my intuitions - but to defend them. 

You would think that more than 30 years as a researcher would gradually tame this tendency to trust my intuitions. You would think that I would eventually learn how to think like a scientist. However, the opposite is true. My faith in my intuitions is stronger today, than ever! This is partly due to the fact that the conventional wisdom has changed to incorporate some of my early intuitions. For example, Gibson's ideas about optical specification of relative motion have inspired innovations for robotic vision and the construct of affordance has proven to be very useful for designers. 

I have also improved my ability to give words to my intuitions. More than 30 years of teaching has helped me to select the right words, right metaphors, and right images for framing these intuitions so they don't sound quite as crazy or naive, as they first did. 

Today, I rationalize this faith in intuition as being based on many years of living. I convince myself that my personal experiences are data relevant to a science of psychology. Yes, it is a limited perspective, but it is deep! Are our everyday experiences valid as scientific data for Psychology?  Or, is this pure rationalization? Should I simply admit, that I am a poor scientist? Perhaps, I should consider changing fields to philosophy. 

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