Oct 5, 2011

Critique of MBTI Research Paper on Climate Scientists' Types

I was recently sent a link to a paper titled "Personality type differences between Ph.D. climate researchers and the general public: implications for effective communication".


This is a great example of a pseudoscience trying desperately to make itself socially and academically relevant. Behind all the academic language and references is a trivial observation: climate change researchers are, on average, more intelligent and academically-minded than the general public.

Let us scrap the MBTT for a moment and propose a new typology. In this new system people will record the number of hours a week they spend communicating with scientists and academics either through reading scientific papers and texts, writing such texts themselves, or verbally communicating with scientists.

Next, we divide the results into 16 intervals roughly as follows:

  1. 20-100 hrs
  2. 15-20
  3. 10-15
  4. 5-10
  5. 2-5
  6. 1.5-2
  7. 1.2-1.5
  8. 1.0-1.2
  9. 0.8-1.0
  10. 0.6-0.8
  11. 0.5-0.6
  12. 0.4-0.5
  13. 0.3-0.4
  14. 0.2-0.3
  15. 0.1-0.2
  16. 0-0.1

Now, we identify traits common to people of the same or similar type. It turns out, those who spend a lot of time doing, reading, or talking about science have many traits in common. They think differently than those who spend just a few minutes a week encountering science.

Next, we give climate researchers and the general public a single-question questionnaire and discover — lo and behold! — that their types are quite different from those of the general public. As we think about this discovery, it occurs to us that these two groups might experience difficulty communicating with each other. Given that "climate change messaging" and "failure to communicate the science to the public" are hot topics in the climate change policy community, we now feel we have found the answer to this problem: it's because the types of climate researchers tend to be different from those of the public at large.

Our recommendation at the end of our triumphant research paper is that climate researchers need to study our typology to better understand how they are different from the public. They need to learn how people think who do not spend more than a few minutes a week reading, writing, or talking science.

4 comments:

NaRiKo~* said...

I was guessing that "Introverted thinking" would be dominant among scientists, because of the amount of logic needed?

"Introverted intuition" would be also important because of the ability to forecast and predict.

Maybe a preferrence for the 'judging' instead of 'perceiving' function would be dominant too.

But of course, there are exceptions.

aestrivex said...

what is wrong with trivial findings? trivial findings have their place. now instead of speculating about observations that seem trivial but unverified we can speak of observations that seem trivial and was studied by these researchers who probably didn't have a very sophisticated view of personality given that they chose the MBTI and not the big five as their independent variable.

Rick said...

Science is a very broad endeavor. People may get involved with field work, equipment, organization, or theoretical research. The common traits of the scientists or researchers I know personally are intelligence and broadmindedness. Since most are in the physical scientists, they are also adventurous and experienced travelers. Researchers in other fields may have different traits (e.g. psychologists or economists). I don't know enough scientists, however, to conclude anything about their type distribution.

Note that in the study referred to, there was some self-selection among the climate researchers. Those who participated in the study were ones that participated in high-level conferences and thus had positions of influence.

- - - - -

Perhaps I didn't convey my critique of the paper very well. To most people with some knowledge of the "communication problem" referred to (from what perspective is it a problem, though?), it is no mystery why climate researchers are not the best at "messaging" to the public. 1) They are used to normal academic work and are generally not motivated to spend extra time writing/speaking to the general public, 2) They are surrounded by intelligent, well-educated people and don't have much practice interacting with the less-educated, and 3) They tend to be averse to politics and conflict.

Does the finding that a large majority of these people test as intuiters on the MBTI help explain the above? I would say, definitely not. I don't even know if these three points I gave require any explanation. If scientists were so good at communicating with the general public, would they have gone into science in the first place?

Also, does the finding that "most climate researchers are intuiters, whereas the general populace is mostly sensors" provide any constructive solution to the messaging "problem?" Again, I don't think so. Just understanding a bit more what the general public is like won't make much difference. Scientists need institutionalized communication mechanisms, representatives in political circles, and a small army of science reporters and journalists who actually are experts at messaging.

aestrivex said...

[i]Does the finding that a large majority of these people test as intuiters on the MBTI help explain the above? I would say, definitely not.


Also, does the finding that "most climate researchers are intuiters, whereas the general populace is mostly sensors" provide any constructive solution to the messaging "problem?" Again, I don't think so. Just understanding a bit more what the general public is like won't make much difference.[/i]


I agree, but I don't think that is the point. The paper operationalizes personality as MBTI and then looks at an extremely specific subject pool to determine if there are any interesting results different from the general population [i]within the context of this operationalization[/i]. Within such a context, the findings are legitimate -- frankly, this is not different from most of behavioral science. Where to me this becomes a problem is in drawing conclusions from theoretical implications of this typology -- in theory, if you think MBTI is a meaningful model of personality, then indeed you can make the case that intuition and sensing constitute a meaningful communication and processing difference which can be exploited to their ends.

Where this analysis falls apart, of course, is that in my view MBTI intuition/sensing is not a very meaningful processing difference, both because of its theoretical significance and because of the assessment techniques with which it was measured -- in essence, it could rightly be summarized much as are you are claiming, "climate researchers are more intelligent and academically minded."

This would be no different if they were to use openness from the big five, which is a scale fraught with almost the same problems in my opinion and doesn't really "exist" as an informative factor despite its widespread acceptance.

The problem with the study, in sum, does not seem to me that it is bad pseudoscience masquerading as important as you suggest -- as noted earlier, trivial findings are trivial and have their place -- but that whoever wrote and reviewed this article had an extremely unsophisticated idea of what personality means, and consequently they operationalized their measurements in such a way that the conclusions they draw from their end result look completely foolish to someone who understands any of the complexities of personality like you or i.

this is probably not very different from what you were saying, but i think there is an important difference: it is not pseudoscience, it is just stupid, completely narrow-minded science.