If your entire career was based upon an influential theory that you had founded, would you be willing to falsify it so that science could progress? Or would you be more likely to cling to your theory, in order to maintain status and financial wealth?
It has been suggested that falsification is the crux of the scientific method (Popper, 1959). Although most researchers would more than likely insist that they would allow their research to be falsified and built upon, in reality this isn’t always the case. As suggested by Kuhn (1970), scientists are more likely to cling to theories, ignoring anomalies so their findings withstand time. Researchers can become so enticed in their work that the failure of their theory remains unknown to society.
An example of this is Money’s (1975) research on gender. Money was respected as an expert in his area, and concluded that gender was a learnt process. His research was based on one case study in particular, a boy named David Reimer. After having his penis accidently removed, Reimer was brought up as a girl, under Money’s advice. Money treated this case as a success, and was renowned for his findings. However in reality the case was anything but successful, with Reimer displaying masculine traits (Diamond & Sigmundson, 1997), and eventually identifying himself as male. The clinical notes suggested that Reimer never really accepted his sex reassignment as a girl, so why did Money insist on producing papers boasting success?
This case study highlights one of the issues with psychological research. According to the BPS (2009) code of ethics, research should be done in an honest and accurate manner, with findings correctly presented and limitations openly recognised. This is the principle of integrity, and if the scientific world is unaware of the flaws of a study such as Money’s, incorrect theories will continue to be widely accepted.
Not only is this detrimental to the scientific world, incorrect theories that influence how society is treated can be harmful, and even fatal. For example in Money’s case study, the psychological stress of the research is suggested to have caused both Reimer and his twin brother to commit suicide. This highlights the BPS (2009) ethical principle of responsibility. Psychologists are responsible for protecting their participants from any mental, physical or emotional harm. This was not done, and inevitably, Money was so absorbed in the success of research that the responsibility and integrity of his research were dismissed.
Therefore, researchers must remain objective in their research. The desire for status or funding can damage not only the integrity and scientific value of the research produced, but also have unethical detrimental consequences. Furthermore, uncritically accepted ideas can do harm if they influence how people are treated. The BPS (2009) sets standards for UK psychology to ensure tragic mistakes such as the Reimer case are prevented, and the use of the scientific method protects research and society from flawed, subjective reasoning (Machado & Silva, 2007). Despite these improving the situation, there is no magic answer, and there will always be a chance that benefits to the researcher will bias research.
British Psychological Society (2009). Code of ethics and conduct. Leicester: British Psychological Society.
Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, H. K. (1997). Sex reassignment at birth: A long term review and clinical implications. Archives of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 151, 298-304.
Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press Ltd.
Machado, A., & Silva, F. J. (2007). Toward a richer view of the scientific method. American Psychologist, 62, 671-681.
Money, J. (1975). Ablatio penis: Normal male infant sex-reassigned as a girl. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 4(1), 65-71.
Popper, K. R. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. London: Hutchinson.
For further information, there is a BBC Horizon documentary on the case of David Reimer, which can be seen here.