Saturday, April 27, 2013

When a Dean fakes data

The Sunday New York Times magazine has a fascinating and disturbing article The Mind of a Con Man about Diederik Stapel, former Dean of Behavioural and Social Sciences, at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He had a stellar academic career which was based on fabricating experimental data.

The article is rather long but worth reading. Here are a few of the extracts I found particularly pertinent:
Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. 
In his early years of research — when he supposedly collected real experimental data — Stapel wrote papers laying out complicated and messy relationships between multiple variables. He soon realized that journal editors preferred simplicity. 
What the public didn’t realize, he said, was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,” he said. “Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman. I am on the road. People are on the road with their talk. With the same talk. It’s like a circus.”  
Stapel’s atypical practice of collecting data for his graduate students wasn’t questioned,  [How many Deans do that ?] 
[The official report from the University stated] The field of psychology was indicted, too, with a finding that Stapel’s fraud went undetected for so long because of “a general culture of careless, selective and uncritical handling of research and data.” If Stapel was solely to blame for making stuff up, the report stated, his peers, journal editors and reviewers of the field’s top journals were to blame for letting him get away with it. The committees identified several practices as “sloppy science” — misuse of statistics, ignoring of data that do not conform to a desired hypothesis and the pursuit of a compelling story no matter how scientifically unsupported it may be.
It may be tempting for physicists and chemists to look down our noses at the social scientists, but I think these issues are just as pertinent for us. Don't forget Hendrik Schon!

As Kauzmann said: we tend to believe what we want rather than what the data tells us we should believe. Often the data is messy and inconclusive.

No comments:

Post a Comment