Positive-outcome bias?

Here’s an intriguing contrast. 


In philosophy journals, reviewers tend to think that papers
with “positive” results are somehow superior to critical work with “negative”
results.  On the whole, the profession seems to think
this right and proper.


In medical journals, reviewers tend to think that an experiment
that shows drug X has an effect is superior to experiment that shows that drug
X has no effect even when the same
methods are used
.  (Cf., e.g. this or this.)  On the whole, the profession seems to think that this is literature bias.


  1. Very interesting. I wonder whether the two kinds of negative result (philosophical vs. medical) are the same. A negative result in philosophy is often of the form ‘B does not follow from A’. This strikes me as more similar to a medical researcher criticizing the methodology etc. of a particular study — which is different from a full-blown study that gives a negative result.
    I wonder whether, in philosophy, if you were able to show ‘A is not related to B’ (the analogue of the negative result in biomedical science), that would count as a positive contribution to philosophical discourse, and not merely negative.

  2. gualtiero

    I agree with Greg. It’s an interesting question, but the two situations are not relevantly analogous. In fact, there is a case to be made that philosophy has the opposite bias: it may be easier to publish a paper that finds something wrong with a well established view of X than a paper that proposes a novel view of X.

    Here is another way to put the point: publication bias is one thing, value of results is another.

  3. kenneth aizawa

    One form of negative result is, of course, “B does not follow from A,” but another form is “Thesis X is false”.  This kind of negative result is probably ranked as less significant than “Thesis X is true”.  (Or is it?)  Then, the parallelism seems to come back.

    I suspect that a first stab at trying to make out the difference would go something like this.  In science you can run exactly the same experimental procedure and have it produce a positive or negative result.  In philosophy, you cannot give exactly the same set of premises and have it produce a positive or negative conclusion.  So, the first step in making the distinction between philosophy and medicine might begin by noting that, in philosophy, generating a positive and generating a negative result involve somewhat different processes or procedures, where in medicine generating a positive and generating a negative result can involve exactly the same processes or procedures.  Then, one needs to have some basis for saying that the positive process involves more philosophical talent or ability.

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