November 5, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Psych-Man Fraud Exposed

A popular social psychologist in the Netherlands has been exposed of committing “fraud on an astonishing scale,” forging data in dozens of scientific papers for nearly a decade.  The exposè doesn’t just destroy his reputation.  The fraud will cause “huge damage,” said Susan Fiske, a social psychologist at Princeton University,” because “His work is very central—or was.”

Diederik Stapel reported experiments he never conducted, manipulated data, and even made it up, according to Gretchen Vogel in Science this week (4 November 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6056 p. 579, DOI: 10.1126/science.334.6056.579).  The ripple effect of his fraud tainted the PhD theses of 14 students he supervised.  Some of his students were given data to analyze but never conducted an experiment.  Ironically, “Stapel’s studies encompassed a broad range of attention-catching topics, including how a position of power influences moral thinking.”  Having set such a bad example in that regard, he admitted “he ‘failed as a scientist’ and is ashamed of his actions.”

How could this level of fraud go unnoticed for so long?  Ewen Calloway, writing for Nature, said “When colleagues called the work of Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel too good to be true, they meant it as a compliment” (Nature 479, 15, 1/5/2011, doi:10.1038/479015a).  Maybe they wanted it to be true.  He was a “wunderkind” in his field, “highly published, highly cited, prize-winning, worked with lots of people, and very well thought of in the field.”  Medical Xpress added that Stapel also appeared on TV chat shows as a social psychology expert.  Some 30 papers are known to be faked, with others expected.  Stapel faces prosecution for his misdeeds.

New Scientist said this is one of the worst cases of scientific misconduct on record. Not only is Stapel ashamed; the social psychologists who were duped are ashamed. The article quoted the reaction of social psychologist Laura King (University of Missouri): “This is absolutely horrifying. We are talking about research that has major impact in the field of social cognition.”

Update 11/28/2012:  A year later, Stapel apologized (see Medical Xpress), saying he had failed as a scientist, was sorry for the fraud he inflicted, and that the truth would have been better off without him.  The article stated that during his heyday he had been the “darling” of the psychology establishment.

Update 11/29/2012:  Science Insider reported in more detail on Stapel’s apology, but stressed that the investigative report points out bigger problems: “They paint an image of a ‘sloppy’ research culture in which some scientists don’t understand the essentials of statistics, journal-selected article reviewers encourage researchers to leave unwelcome data out of their papers, and even the most prestigious journals print results that are obviously too good to be true.”  The article includes a link to the investigative report and quotes portions of it.

There are bad apples in any field, and it appears Stapel acted alone in his deceit.  But in social psychology, this was a disaster waiting to happen.  According to the New Scientist article, the field is sometimes attacked for “sexy” studies “likely to titillate the media.”  Of course, we know that is the ONLY field of SCIENCE with THAT problem (9/8/2011).  Hart Blanton, an insider from the University of Connecticut, let the cat out of the bag: “‘Our field is one where a great deal of currency is placed on surprising you,’ says Blanton, who is concerned about a dynamic that encourages researchers to progress from ‘counter-intuitive to cute, to provocative, to “defies gravity”’.”  Of course, that is the ONLY field of SCIENCE with THAT problem (9/20/2011).

What qualifies as a “science,” anyway?  How did social psychology ever get in the tent?  The word science stands for too little, because it attempts to stand for too much.  If you follow some vague “method” (consistency not required), know how to decorate it with some mathematical symbols, and publish in so-called scientific journals of some sort, you might be welcomed into the tent as a card-carrying “scientist” along with your snake-oil booth.  Remember that Stapel said he failed as a scientist, not as a preacher, teacher or charlatan.  We would like to assume that other scientists are skeptical of their colleagues, but look how many in this field were astonished – even horrified – that they, too, had been duped.

An important take-home lesson from this fraud is that science, no matter how you define it, requires morality. The Medical Xpress article spoke with irony about how Stapel published papers about “how people in positions of power can have their moral compass go askew.”  Stapel acknowledged a moral compass exists, but didn’t calibrate his very well.  Exercise:  Describe how a scientist should calibrate his or her own moral compass.  Explain whether the calibration standard can evolve or not.

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  • Hannes says:

    That’s a coincidence! I know a psychologist, specialized in statistic psychology, who has studied a short time under Stapel at the University of Tilburg. Lucky for him he did his final graduate project under a different professor! So scientists are sinners after all also…

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