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Observing many researchers using the same data and hypothesis reveals a hidden universe of uncertainty

Breznau, Nate; Rinke, Eike Mark; Wuttke, Alexander; Nguyen, Hung HV; Adem, Muna; Adriaans, Jule; Alvarez-Benjumea, Amalia; ... Żółtak, Tomasz; + view all (2022) Observing many researchers using the same data and hypothesis reveals a hidden universe of uncertainty. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America , 119 (44) , Article e2203150119. 10.1073/pnas.2203150119. Green open access

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Abstract

This study explores how researchers' analytical choices affect the reliability of scientific findings. Most discussions of reliability problems in science focus on systematic biases. We broaden the lens to emphasize the idiosyncrasy of conscious and unconscious decisions that researchers make during data analysis. We coordinated 161 researchers in 73 research teams and observed their research decisions as they used the same data to independently test the same prominent social science hypothesis: that greater immigration reduces support for social policies among the public. In this typical case of social science research, research teams reported both widely diverging numerical findings and substantive conclusions despite identical start conditions. Researchers' expertise, prior beliefs, and expectations barely predict the wide variation in research outcomes. More than 95% of the total variance in numerical results remains unexplained even after qualitative coding of all identifiable decisions in each team's workflow. This reveals a universe of uncertainty that remains hidden when considering a single study in isolation. The idiosyncratic nature of how researchers' results and conclusions varied is a previously underappreciated explanation for why many scientific hypotheses remain contested. These results call for greater epistemic humility and clarity in reporting scientific findings.

Type: Article
Title: Observing many researchers using the same data and hypothesis reveals a hidden universe of uncertainty
Location: United States
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2203150119
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2203150119
Language: English
Additional information: © 2022 the Author(s). Published by PNAS. This open access article is distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Keywords: analytical flexibility, immigration and policy preferences, many analysts, metascience, researcher degrees of freedom, Humans, Uncertainty, Reproducibility of Results, Research Personnel, Data Analysis
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education > UCL Institute of Education
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education > UCL Institute of Education > IOE - Social Research Institute
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Education
UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of Engineering Science
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of Engineering Science > Dept of Security and Crime Science
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10158608
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