A popular social psychologist in the Netherlands has been exposed of committing “fraud on an astonishing scale,” forging data in dozens of scientific papers for nearly a decade.  The exposè doesn’t just destroy his reputation.  The fraud will cause “huge damage,” said Susan Fiske, a social psychologist at Princeton University,” because “His work is very central—or was.”

Diederik Stapel reported experiments he never conducted, manipulated data, and even made it up, according to Gretchen Vogel in Science this week (4 November 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6056 p. 579, DOI: 10.1126/science.334.6056.579).  The ripple effect of his fraud tainted the PhD theses of 14 students he supervised.  Some of his students were given data to analyze but never conducted an experiment.  Ironically, “Stapel’s studies encompassed a broad range of attention-catching topics, including how a position of power influences moral thinking.”  Having set such a bad example in that regard, he admitted “he ‘failed as a scientist’ and is ashamed of his actions.”

How could this level of fraud go unnoticed for so long?  Ewen Calloway, writing for Nature, said “When colleagues called the work of Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel too good to be true, they meant it as a compliment” (Nature 479, 15, 1/5/2011, doi:10.1038/479015a).  Maybe they wanted it to be true.  He was a “wunderkind” in his field, “highly published, highly cited, prize-winning, worked with lots of people, and very well thought of in the field.”  Medical Xpress added that Stapel also appeared on TV chat shows as a social psychology expert.  Some 30 papers are known to be faked, with others expected.  Stapel faces prosecution for his misdeeds.

New Scientist said this is one of the worst cases of scientific misconduct on record. Not only is Stapel ashamed; the social psychologists who were duped are ashamed. The article quoted the reaction of social psychologist Laura King (University of Missouri): “This is absolutely horrifying. We are talking about research that has major impact in the field of social cognition.”

There are bad apples in any field, and it appears Stapel acted alone in his deceit.  But in social psychology, this was a disaster waiting to happen.  According to the New Scientist article, the field is sometimes attacked for “sexy” studies “likely to titillate the media.”  Of course, we know that is the ONLY field of SCIENCE with THAT problem (9/8/2011).  Hart Blanton, an insider from the University of Connecticut, let the cat out of the bag: “‘Our field is one where a great deal of currency is placed on surprising you,’ says Blanton, who is concerned about a dynamic that encourages researchers to progress from ‘counter-intuitive to cute, to provocative, to “defies gravity”’.”  Of course, that is the ONLY field of SCIENCE with THAT problem (9/20/2011)….

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