Service of “I Told You So”

May 9th, 2013

Categories: Cheating, Psychology, Scams, Told You So

Told you so

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.”

social psycologyStapel, 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.”

SalesmanDoes 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.”

fake brandToward 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?

Measure human behavior

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4 Responses to “Service of “I Told You So””

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    Pointing the finger of blame at others for ones mistakes has been going on for centuries. The media is to blame for being irresponsible or stupid and the scientists are to blame because they cheat. This is followed by the public being to blame because of its bovine nature followed by blind belief of the written word.

    Advice? Turn to the Science Channel whose mantra is: “Question everything.” The programs may not be totally accurate, but the entity is wise enough to know that, spread the word, and encourage learning.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    As I read your comment I thought I should have called this post “Whom Can You Trust?” You can’t expect a science or medical writer to check research results by conducting a similar experiment or study before writing about it or publishing work by a clinician. There should be a SNOPES for these people since they can’t be trusted to police themselves.

  3. JPM Said:

    Human beings are of infinite complexity. I always thought that this was a good thing, and I also thought an elegant response, like organized golf, and medicine as it used to be, “We’ll police ourselves,” was even better.

    A couple of weeks ago, the world’s best paid golfer inadvertently cheated because he did not know a rule that it was his responsibility to know. He should have disqualified himself. The judges let him off with a lesser penalty because the only way they found out that he had broken the rule was when he innocently discussed what he had done in a television interview. To make matters worse, his case was complicated by issues of possible prejudice. Soon golf will be like every other sport — full of cheaters.

    Your post about fakery in Social Psychology studies is only one more example of what I have been increasingly seeing and hearing lately. It pays to be skeptical about anything that comes out of the medical world these days, including perhaps what the distinguished department head of one of our most prestigious medical schools said to me recently: “If you want to get a good doctor, find somebody over 60!” However, I fear that he may be right.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    JPM,

    You’d think that people in certain fields, with benefit of education, would know better. They should also realize that it’s far better and less costly to police yourself–more satisfying as well.

    As for the incident you cite re. the golfer who didn’t realize he’d made a mistake, while as you note ignorance is no excuse–he was culpable of an error–at least on the face of things he didn’t try to cheat overtly as the social psychologist so blatantly did.

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