6/18/2015

Is all research really "me-search?" And is "me-search" bad?

J. Sumerau at “Write Where it Hurts” makes a provocative argument that the word “me-search” is used as a slur, and that all scientific research is, in a sense, “me-search”:
"In my experience, many scholars refer to work that engages some aspect of personhood as me-search. While this is a cute phrase, it is generally used to bolster claims to objectivity and/or to marginalize scholars who work in areas that have personal significance for them. ...On the surface, the best answers I have been able to find for this question at conferences, online, in departments, and in informal conversations suggests the therm refers to any case where someone conducts research in an area or with a population that is personally relevant to them. Based on this suggestion, me-search could actually just be considered a synonym for science. When, for example, an American demographer studies American population trends, ze is conducting me-search because ze is studying zir own population...One could even go so far as to say that if science is the study of the natural world, all science is me-search because all of us are parts of the natural world, and both influence and are influenced by this phenomena. Unless someone can find some area of study that does not influence human life or somehow become non-human prior to doing any kind of research, all research is ultimately me-search because all research seeks to make sense of the world we (or me) live in to the best of our current abilities."
Sumerau seems to be right about how the term “me-search” is used. A heterosexual psychologist who studies heterosexual couples would not be accused of doing “me-search,” while a gay man studying homosexual couples would be. Heterosexual psychologists studying mainly heterosexual couples are quite common in relationship research, and they often appear to present themselves as researching the relationship of couples in general, regardless of sexual orientation. They can get away with this because the vast majority of people are heterosexual or in opposite-sex relationships, so even if many individuals are completely different from these research participants, the average person is like them. Because homosexual couples are in the minority, a researcher studying them could not claim to be studying couples in general, even if she wanted to.

Thus, I agree that “me-search” is in the eye of the beholder. “Me-search” is a way of denigrating the subjectivity of those in the minority while ignoring that of those in the majority. However, subjectivity comes with problems that Sumerau does not even mention. The problem is not that people ask minority researchers engaged in “me-search” to question their assumptions and biases. The problem is that they are not asking majority researchers to do the same.

("Me-search” is a continuum, not a binary. Sumerau’s first example—American demographers studying American population trends—is uncontroversially “me-search,” while his last example, a physics or geology study, seems much less so. In a trivial sense, yes, studying the natural world is “me-search” because we live in the world and understanding it better will change our technology, our behavior, and the way we understand the world. But, are our identities bound up in whether the Higgs boson exists? Frankly, most of us don’t care if there is a Higgs Boson, both because the phenomenon itself is distant from our experience, and because we don’t think discovering it will have much effect on our lives. By contrast, determining whether people have free will could alter how we see ourselves and perhaps administer justice. Discovering what makes people happy would not only affect our lives, but also directly concerns our experience. Physics seems “objective” and not like “me-search” and sociology the opposite because physics is more remote from our experiences, concerns, and identities than sociology. So, I disagree with Sumerau’s claim that everything is me-search, and therefore nothing is me-search. Different research areas can involve more or less me-search, and the difference matters).

I believe “me-search” should be undertaken with a great deal of critical thinking and self-examination. When our identities are at stake, we tend to engage in two behaviors that hamper our reasoning and communication: motivated reasoning and non-constructive arguments. Guarding against these requires constant vigilance. When our identities become part of our work, the opportunities for motivated reasoning and non-constructive arguments multiply.

The first pitfall of Me-search: Motivated Reasoning
No one is immune to motivated reasoning: the tendency, when our values and identities are at stake, to cling to evidence that supports our beliefs while ignoring or rejecting counterevidence. We look for ways to discredit those with whom we disagree, while ignoring the misdeeds of our own side. If you regularly read scientific papers, for example, you might find yourself poring over tiny details of the methods and statistics in papers you disagree with, while skimming papers you want to cite to support a point you were already planning to make in your introduction. When no legitimate evidence comes to hand, people even build elaborate conspiracy theories, and if all else fails, attack their opponents' motivations. For example, in the absence of evidence that vaccines cause autism, people with this belief allege a government coverup of the evidence, or claim their opponents are funded by drug companies. Attacking their opponents' funding works because drug companies are associated with corruption and untrustworthiness, which provides a convenient excuse to ignore the researchers' message. Of course, funding isn't a magic button you press to get exactly the result you want. Just because someone is funded by a corrupt source does not mean that their results are wrong, or were obtained with unethical methods. This argument is only convincing if you are already looking for an excuse to disbelieve).

Ironically, descriptions of motivated reasoning, like this one from Skepdic.com, are often good examples of motivated reasoning themselves. They use examples that are far outside the mainstream of public opinion (or at least, educated public opinion), such as “the Apollo moon landing was a hoax,” “the Holocaust did not happen,” or “evolution is a hoax.” This makes it seem as if only conspiracy theorists and the extremely religious engaged in motivated reasoning, while educated, skeptical people—like the audience of Skepdic.com—would never fall prey to such an error. This is an example of all the key ingredients of motivated reasoning—a self-serving belief, hypersensitivity to opponents’ errors, and blindness to one’s own. No one is more susceptible to motivated reasoning than those who believe themselves immune to it. 

The second pitfall of Me-search: Destructive emotional reactions
When identities are at stake, heated disagreements can go from productive debates to feuds, or cutting off communication entirely. The intense arguments that blow up occasionally on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism’s website and facebook page are a great example.  A certain sort of non-disabled parent of autistic children has invested an identity in being an “autism mom,” a “warrior”   “fighting autism” in order to “get their kid back.” It follows directly from the messages about autism promulgated by the media and the largest autism charity, Autism Speaks. And to a parent who feels overwhelmed by parenting a child with a disability, resents it, and doesn’t feel supported, this narrative gives them control and purpose, making them feel more heroic and less helpless. The problem, of course, is this ideology comes from attacking a basic part of their child that cannot be removed, and easily leads to ignoring the child’s communication, treating them with utter disrespect, making them feel hated, traumatizing them for years, abusing them, putting them in abusive therapy, or even murdering them. When parents talk about parenting their child this way, it presses all thebuttons of autistic people who have been traumatized by parents who behaved that way. Often, autistic adults lash out. But even if they find the commendable patience to politely explain why these parents are being hurtful, the parents react even more viciously. While parents’ rhetoric is an existential threat to autistic adults’ identities, autistic adults’ claim that parents might be hurting their child hits them in the part of their identity that matters most—their role as a parent. Most react defensively, although a few have listened and have transformed the way they view their role and parent their child—a change that improved their mental health. In short, both autistic adults and nondisabled parents feel their identity is threatened and react defensively, leading to over-the-top arguments, people being banned from the community, and many of the debaters cutting off communication by blocking each other on Twitter and Facebook. Emotional reactions based on identity can prevent people from communicating and working together.

Less extreme versions of these blowups occur in research, not just in the autism community. Psychology is full of theoretical disagreements that sometimes border on personal feuds, such as the old one between Lance Rips and PhilipJohnson-Laird, or the more recent one between Isabel Gauthier and Nancy Kanwisher . Since I am closely connected with people on one side of each of these debates I will not discuss any details. Each involves a long series of papers, so I invite you to read them and see for yourself. Personally, I think that the papers would have been clearer and more inviting to read had they been written in a less emotional context.

The Benefits of Me-search
So, if bringing identity into research can lead to motivated reasoning and personal feuds, does that mean everyone should avoid doing “me-search?” I think not, for two reasons.

First, lived experience provides knowledge that might be difficult or impossible for outsiders to gain. Autistic people talked about sensory overload and other sensory processing problems for decades before neurotypical researchers took an interest. Many autistic people and parents noticed echolalia can be a first step towards generating one’s own communicative language; only a handful of neurotypical researchers, such as Barry Prizant  in the 1980’s bothered testing the hypothesis. Many proclaimed the opposite and a few recent papers still do. In fact, behavior programs have tried to discourage echolalia (e.g., this). Yet, although responsive communication from caregivers helps typically developingchildren develop language, (and also autistic children), we don’t even know if having their best language ignored or discouraged by therapists stunted generations of autistic children’s development. Autistic people have known for a long time that stimming has many positive functions; researchers are still looking for new ways to stop them from doing it through behavior modification or even drugs.

Autism viewed from the outside is different from autism experienced from the inside, and both are aspects of what autism, the phenomenon, actually is—a set of genetic, brain, mind, and behavior states. If only neurotypical clinicians research autism, then we will not have the complete picture—we will only learn about autism as viewed from the outside. While autism-viewed-from-the-outside is real and sometimes important, it is not necessarily the most important part of autism. Without understanding autism-from-the-inside, we risk confusing the outward appearance of autism with what it really is. We would not have been stuck with obviously inadequate psychoanalytic, theory of mind, or “extreme male brain”  explanations of autism for so long had autistic people been involved sooner in researching their own condition.

Me-search is also important in so-called “translational” or “clinical” research fields, where the goal is to learn something that will improve people’s lives. People in a particular group do not always focus on the same outcomes as those outside of it. For example, autistic people often want to see less emphasis on finding causes and cures, and more emphasis on services, education, and employment. By contrast, people with ME or chronic fatigue syndrome would like to see more basic biochemical research on the causes behind their symptoms.  In both cases, those with the condition disagree with those doing the research—who do not have it. When people in a specific group have a say in what outcomes are considered helpful, research is more likely to actually help them. 

Me-Search: Approach, with Caution
I support neurodivergent people researching their own and similar diagnoses, so long as they observe themselves carefully to avoid motivated reasoning and unhelpful emotional reactions. I would also like to see neurotypical psychologists and neuroscientists recognize that they are engaged in “me-search,” and take similar precautions.

We need to be careful about endorsing theories that fit our experiences regardless of the strength of the evidence. For example, many autistic and other neurodivergent people describe being sensitive and overreactive to other people’s emotions. Thus, even before learning the details, I am predisposed to support the intense world theory of autism, proposed by Kamila and Henry Markram. Intense World Theory proposes specific neural mechanisms behind this hypersensitivity, based on rodent research. They also propose a specific way of raising autistic children that contradicts findings in typically development research: Because autistic people are hyperaroused all the time, the Markrams recommend providing very little stimulation, whereas in typically developing humans and animals, deprivation of stimulation can actually cause developmental delays. While I and others may be tempted to adopt Intense World Theory because it fits experience well, it need not be the correct mechanism. Not every promising finding in rats translates to humans. Even if this mechanism is correct, that may not imply that drastically reducing sensory input is good for autistic development. For example, maybe gradual increases in exposure would help them learn to tolerate the environment better. Or maybe the optimal level of stimulation is lower than typical, but not as low as the Markrams suggest. The Markrams’ research program will have to follow two steps: demonstrating that intense world theory applies to a significant portion of autistic humans, and determining whether reduced stimulation really does help. These are separate programs requiring very different research skills, and each will likely take years.

We also need to be careful to avoid dismissing any research evidence that contradicts our experiences. When our identities are involved, we may be more tempted to explain away contradictory evidence, for example, by calling it a methodological problem. (Maybe they didn’t design their task right, or choose the right participants, or explain their task properly). This is easy to do because there are lots of small factors that go unreported that affect how a study comes out, and sometimes there really are methods problems. But we have to be willing to admit when our theories are wrong—even when they’re based on personal experience—or we’re not doing science.


Many researchers probably have difficulty acknowledging their mistakes, and not all of them do me-search. Me-search simply increases the temptation. Me-searchers might have an easier time letting go of theories based on experience if they remind ourselves that they may not be representative. What they know about themselves may not be true of the whole population they study.

Sumerau seems insufficiently concerned with these pitfalls of “me-search.” However, he or she lays bare the unequal way “me-search” is used, to discredit those in the minority and reassure those in the majority. Neurodivergent researchers who want to research similar groups need both sorts of knowledge. They need to know the sociology of terms like “me-search” so they can combat this prejudice. They also need to understand the biases that come with me-search so their identities help, not harm, their science. Armed with this knowledge, they could transform their fields.

For their part, neurotypical psychology and neuroscience researchers who study the general population need to recognize that they are doing "me-search," and are just as susceptible to biases as those in the minority. If anything, they may be more so. Because those in the majority encounter more people like themselves, they can more easily have their "people are like me" biases confirmed. If researchers recognized identity-based biases as a normal part of researching human beings, not some weird property of minority researchers, they would do better science.