How Social Scientists, and the Rest of Us, Got Seduced By a Good Story
by Megan McArdle
Apr 30, 2013 3:34 PM EDT
Almost two years ago, the field of social psychology was rocked by some astounding news: Diederik Stapel, one of its stars, had been faking his research. I don’t mean that he’d been subtly altering figures to give better results, or maybe running through a series of increasingly implausible modeling assumptions until they delivered the results he’d expected. I mean he’d apparently given up doing experiments entirely. Instead he imagined experiments, imagined which results would look good, and then sat down at a computer and entered those numbers into a spreadsheet.
The New York Times Magazine has an incredible article this week describing what Stapel did, and how he did it. What’s less clear is why he did it, or how he was able to get away with faking results for seven long years. …
While Stapel’s parents are wrong to excuse his cheating, they are right to some extent: the system produced this screwed up result, and Jonah Lehrer, and many of the other fraudsters who have taken us in over the years.
The Times piece strongly suggests that the field of social psychology was leaving the doors wide open and a “Welcome, Burglars!” mat on the front porch. That’s all too easy to believe if you’ve read Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s scathing open letter to some of his colleagues about the sloppiness of their research practices. Well accepted effects are turning out to be hard to replicate outside of the labs of the people who discovered them. Social Science research is vulnerable to all manner of statistical shenanigans, and a number of academics seem to be exploiting those vulnerabilities, either accidentally or deliberately.
This news story captures reasons why many are skeptical of “sciences” such as psychology and sociology. Their subjects, humans, are very complex, and those doing the studies come into their work with preconceived ideas. In this story those come together in almost the worst way: the data from this researcher’s work was too inconsistent/complex to support any conclusion; the researcher responded by cooking his data and simply making stuff up. Worse, he entangled and/or involved doctoral students he was supervising or otherwise working with in his fraud. As McArdle points out, briefly, Stapel is not unique, just recent and one who has admitted what he did rather than obfuscate or blame-shift (he’d never make it as a politician!).
At the same time, McArdle is right that “the system” to some degree encourages what Stapel did. Professors are under professional and financial pressure to produce: do research projects and publish. Universities trust their researchers, and the vaunted “peer review” process won’t catch a skilled fraudster in a field like psychology. Much of the general public views researchers with a sort of awe. And academics are in continual circle-the-wagons mode against philistine-skeptics. Guess what? As this case shows, the “philistines” are right sometimes!