Polyfilla Science

Screen Shot 2019-11-04 at 19.50.03.pngGap Filling

Like any other science, Psychology contain myriads of variables, A,B,C…N…X,Y,Z.  An established strategy for developing new research is for the investigator to identity ‘gaps’ in the field and to set about filling those gaps with correlational and experimental studies. The latter involve almost every possible permutation and combination of variables.

The gap filling approach is one strategy for keeping productivity high but, often, it is at the expense of developing new theories. There are more than 5 million publications listed by Google Scholar that address a gap in the literature. Another five million address theoretical integration.

Guaranteed Results

The academic world is based on quantitative measures of performance and the number of publications a researcher can claim matters [1]. This drive towards publications leads to what I call ‘Polyfilla Science’. You’ve used it, I’ve used it, everybody’s used it. It does the job perfectly well.  For every ‘hole’ investigators fill, they are almost guaranteed a peer-reviewed publication. ‘Polyfilla Science’ exists on an industrial scale, keeping hundreds of thousands of scientists busily occupied in hot competition. The ‘winners’ of the Polyfilla competition are the ones who tick the highest number of boxes and harvest the most citations.[2]

‘Polyfilla Science’ can be represented as a multidimensional matrix of cells where the task of science is viewed as filling every last cell in the matrix (see Figure).  This method of doing science is more akin to a fairground shooting gallery than to theory-driven science.  In the absence of theory, many researchers use a Polyfilla ‘shotgun’ by testing a dozen or more “hypotheses” in one shot. Popular though it is, ‘Polyfilla Science’ isn’t the only game in town, and a theory-driven approach is also available.  Theory is used to identify the principles behind questions that need answering in a process of confirmation and disconfirmation of predictions. When one considers the fact that there are one hundred thousand psychology majors in the US alone, all needing a research project, it is no wonder the Polyfilla approach is so popular.

Never-ending Process

It doesn’t matter how may gaps and holes you plug, new ones always appear.

In comparison to the scientific discoveries in other fields, Psychology has made no world-changing discoveries in the last 50 years. By this, I mean discoveries that are worth telling your grandchildren. In my opinion, the lack of significant theoretical developments, and the Polyfilla Approach, are two of the main reasons for this lack of progress.  All this needs to change.

[1] Numbers of publications, citations, grant monies, prizes, promotions and awards.

[2] One of the world’s most published and ambitious ‘Polyfilla’ psychologists told me a self-effacing story about the occasion he went for an interview at the University of Oxford. A member of the panel asked: “Dr X, you have a huge number of publications. But what does it all mean?” He didn’t know the answer and got rejected for the post.

[3] Polycell Multi-Purpose Polyfilla Ready Mixed, 1 Kg, i#1 best seller on Amazon.co.uk, 16 May 2019.


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