Anyone remember Stapel?:
Some readers will recall the case of the Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel, former dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Tilburg University, who was publicly exposed in 2011 for faking his data in several dozen published papers about human behavior that had made him famous – and who, after being caught, decided to publish a book about his con, detailing how and why he’d done it. Uncommon Descent ran a story about the case (see here), and another story about how it was exposed (see here), while James Barham discussed it at further length over on his blog, TheBestSchools.org, in an article entitled, More Scientists Behaving Badly. A story about the case appeared in The New York Times last week: The Mind of a Con Man, by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee.
The case has become something of an academic scandal, not merely because of the fraud perpetrated by Stapel, who doctored his data in at least 55 of his own papers, as well as 10 Ph.D. dissertations written by his students, but also because it cast the entire field of behavioral psychology into disrepute.
An illuminating 2013 piece from the New York Times:
Several times in our conversation, Stapel alluded to having a fuzzy, postmodernist relationship with the truth, which he agreed served as a convenient fog for his wrongdoings. “It’s hard to know the truth,” he said. “When somebody says, ‘I love you,’ how do I know what it really means?” At the time, the Netherlands would soon be celebrating the arrival of St. Nicholas, and the younger of his two daughters sat down by the fireplace to sing a traditional Dutch song welcoming St. Nick. Stapel remarked to me that children her age, which was 10, knew that St. Nick wasn’t really going to come down the chimney. “But they like to believe it anyway, because it assures them of presents,” he told me with a wink….
The experiment — and others like it — didn’t give Stapel the desired results, he said. He had the choice of abandoning the work or redoing the experiment. But he had already spent a lot of time on the research and was convinced his hypothesis was valid. “I said — you know what, I am going to create the data set,” he told me. More.
Science or just common sense?
One problem with social psychology’s claim to be a science is that the “edgy” findings so often turn out to be suspect. No surprise there because if they defy normal experience, they probably are suspect.
Put another way, it is easier to tell mature people something about particle physics that truly surprises them (but is true) than it is to tell them something about human nature that truly surprises them (and is also true).
Many people are genuinely surprised to discover that the elementary particles of our universe are non-local. They can be in two places at once. But never mind; that is not something most of us usually deal with in ordinary life. But when social psychologist Diederik Stapel claimed to demonstrate that untidy environments cause more racism, the public was in a better position to judge.
One wishes responsible researchers in any discipline well as they pick up the pieces after a debacle like this.
But let’s not forget, if people honestly believe that our brains are shaped for fitness, not for truth, everything would be fine if Stapel could just silence his critics and get away with it.
Many disciplines face that choice today.
See also: If peer review is working, why all the retractions?
Hat tip: Nancy Pearcey
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