Occasionally I remind myself (and you, dear reader) that some psychological research studies are, like any other kind of research studies, prone to inaccuracy. This can be due to biased researchers or funding sources or simply and innocently due to inadequate sample sizes or inaccurate data collection or analysis. But I just read about some outright forgery.
Like most people, I believe that the majority of researchers want to make breakthrough discoveries in order to help make the world a better place. But I also believe that ego gratification enters into ambition too. And frankly, that is perfectly normal.
Most people want to feel that their work is meaningful and that they have contributed something important to the world. Remember that famous study (no irony intended), where researchers gave individuals the chance to do meaningful or seemingly pointless tasks for pay? To the best of my memory, the outcome was as follows: the subjects who were assigned pointless tasks (such as raising their arms up and down for no reason), ended up quitting the study—they just couldn’t take it, even though they were being paid.
Of course, there’s meaning-meaningingfulness and then, there’s fame/money meaningfulness.
So it’s not surprising that on occasion someone in any field might subconsciously weight data or push forward somewhat dubious findings because he is longing to make a splash. Perhaps once in a career. But to consciously make-up findings? Again and again? It seems unlikely.
That’s what is so entirely disturbing about this news story. Diederik Stapel, a leading social psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, has apparently spent years falsifying research data.
Sciencemag.org reports that:
The investigators found “several dozens of publications” in which fictitious data has been used. Fourteen of the 21 Ph.D. theses Stapel supervised are also tainted, the committee concluded.
Investigators are looking into over 150 studies (!) as well as Stapel’s students’ thesis projects. What they have found so far is sickening.
Stapel simply provided his students over the years with completely falsified raw data from make-believe “studies” and told them to analyze and interpret the “findings.” His students graduated without ever having to design studies or collect data!
When he occasionally did have access to real data he altered the findings in order to make his “research findings” more exciting and newsworthy. Stapel has been hailed as a really top-notch social psychologist by the press and his Dutch peers, and his studies were considered groundbreaking.
Although clearly Stapel, who has recently apologized, was uniquely corrupt, we have to remember: as consumers we can’t take the viewpoints of “experts” at face value. It is helpful if an expert in any field, whether it be the social sciences, physics or even journalism, is held to a certain level of standards about what he or she is publicizing.
We have to ask: Is this incontrovertible fact? Is it educated opinion? Or is it simply personal opinion? Opinion’s fine—just don’t call it fact.
Fortunately, we can often tell the intent of what we’re reading/viewing by the context whether it be blog, news program, or something in between. But occasionally (or even more than occasionally), we can’t. Reader and journalist, beware.
For more on flawed studies, see PsychCentral.
Photo of Sharpie™ vs. Shoupie Marker by DangApricot.