Thursday, May 9th, 2013
Certain specialties, while critical, are fragile because they have so many naysayers. Psychology is one of them. I believe in its effectiveness so much I wish I’d studied to be a psychologist.
When a once respected PhD like Diederik Stapel, a social psychologist, fakes tests to gain fame it’s as bad for the field as the damage charlatans do for currently incurable diseases. Because naysayers think psychology [and its offshoots] is so much bunk, when a star is caught red-handed can’t you just hear the “I told you so!”
I read about Stapel in Yudhijit Bhattacharjee’s “The Mind of a Con Man,” in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. The reporter notes that such fraud is nothing new in science which I know firsthand. As a newbie PR person in a then unfamiliar field I uncovered a clinician who had invented test results that a pharmaceutical client was about to tout. I always thought that this was the exception and was disheartened to read in the Times article, “But the scientific misconduct that has come to light in recent years suggests at the very least that the number of bad actors in science isn’t as insignificant as many would like to believe.”
Stapel, a Dutchman, blamed the media, in part, for the path he chose. Bhattacharjee wrote: “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. ‘They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler,’ Stapel told me. Before long, he was striving to write elegant articles.”
This I don’t buy. Much of my business involves simplifying my clients’ sometimes complicated or technical information for industry trade and consumer audiences which, like me, thousands do daily without fakery. That’s what links, footnotes and charts are for.
Bhattacharjee continued, “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.”
Does every salesman lie? In addition, Stapel doesn’t think much of the public’s brains if he believes we know nothing about scarce resources, competition and budgets/funds for projects in his or any business.
The fake studies also marred the work of countless doctoral students for whom Stapel conducted studies though the universities where they and Staple were involved didn’t find the students guilty. Yet earlier in the article Bhattacharjee commented about the students, “They don’t appear to have questioned why their supervisor was running many of the experiments for them. Nor did his colleagues inquire about this unusual practice.”
Toward the end of the article Bhattacharjee wrote: “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.’”
Are you especially dismayed when people in a field that’s supposed to help others do more to help themselves thereby leaving subjects at risk, giving ammunition to the “I told you so” crowd? Is the media to blame for scientists who cheat because editors look to cover simple subjects and conclusions? It’s hard to get grants and financial support for scientific research: a viable excuse for faking a study, yes or no?