Researcher offers ridiculous reasons for refusing to reassess work in light of serious criticism

Jordan Anaya writes:

This response from Barbara Fredrickson to one of Nick’s articles got posted the other day.

Alex Holcombe has a screenshot of the article on Twitter.

The issue that I have with the response is that she says she stands by the peer review process that led to her article getting published. But Nick’s critique also underwent peer review! (I assume letters to the journal undergo peer review but see Nick’s tweet here.)

So what’s different between the peer review process that makes her article infallible and Nick’s peer review process that makes his article so bad it’s not worth responding to?

I dunno, but Fredrickson’s reasons for not responding to the criticism (which, by the way, is full of specifics) are absolutely bizarre. She writes:

Readers should be made aware that the current criticisms continue a long line of misleading commentaries and reanalyses by this set of authors that (a) repeatedly target me and my collaborators, (b) dates back to 2013, and (c) spans multiple topic areas. I [Fredrickson] take this history to undermine the professional credibility of these authors’ opinions and approaches.

OK, let’s go through this carefully:

– “a long line …”: These authors have found many problems in the published work by Fredrickson and collaborators.
– “misleading”: That’s cheap talk given that Fredrickson provides zero examples of anything misleading that was written.
– “repeatedly”: Again, the authors found many problems, also the articles in question are still in the published record. Given that this work continues to be cited, if it has errors it should continue to be criticized.
– “target”: Is it “targeting” to point out errors in published papers? If so, why is this a bad thing.
– “dates back to 2013”: OK, so some errors by Fredrickson et al. have been pointed out for several years, so they’re old news. But the articles in question are still in the published record. Given that this work continues to be cited, if it has errors it should continue to be criticized.
– “spans multiple topic areas”: Huh? Is there a rule that people are only supposed to write about one topic area?

This is weird, weird stuff, and as always it makes me sad, more than anything else. Fredrickson is a prominent figure in her field and has a secure job. She could admit her errors and move on. But no, it’s never back down, never admit error. It’s so so sad, to think that someone is in a position to learn from error but refuses to do so. I’ve seen this enough that it hardly surprises me. But I still find it upsetting.

Again, even setting all substance aside, it’s bizarre that Fredrickson proposes that the critics be discounted because they been making these criticisms for several years. The published work is part of a stream of work that is many years old, hence it’s no surprise that the criticism is many years old too.

P.S. Above I wrote that Fredrickson didn’t “respond to” the criticism. Let me clarify that in this case I think a reasonable response would be for her to:

1. Retract the published claims, and
2. Thank the critics for tracking down the problems in those published papers.

That would put her in position to do:

3. Correct the supplementary record (not just in journal articles but also in books, lectures, etc., explain what went wrong so that people don’t mistakenly believe those erroneous published claims), and
4. Do some new research trying to figure out what’s really going on, without getting fooled by statistical noise or fake math.

Step 4 is what it’s all about. The ultimate goal is to help people, right?