The exposure of a decade-long career of fraud by a social psychologist two weeks ago sent the scientific community reeling. In the aftermath, another social psychologist claims that social psychology can heal itself with its own principles. Buried within her arguments, though, are Christian presuppositions.
A column in this week’s Nature (Nov 9, 479, 151 (2011) | doi:10.1038/479151a) begins, “The extensive academic fraud of Diederik Stapel has rocked science. Social psychologist Jennifer Crocker traces the destructive path that cheats follow.” (See 11/5/2011.) In her article, “The road to fraud starts with a single step,” Crocker goes on to say in her article, that destuctive path is allowing one to become accustomed to little sins one at a time, till one becomes insensitive to the magnitude of evil:
To understand fraud in science, the useful lesson is the significance of that first tiny step. Every minor transgression — dropping an inconvenient data point, or failing to give credit where it is due — creates a threat to self-image. The perpetrators are forced to ask themselves: am I really that sort of person? Then, to avoid the discomfort of this threat, they rationalize and justify their way out, until their behaviour feels comfortable and right. This makes the next transgression seem not only easier, but even morally correct.
Even though the fraud Stapel was a renowned social psychologist, Crocker believes that social psychologists are the ones to conquer fraud. “Why would someone with obvious intelligence, ambition and talent risk everything by falsifying data?” she asked. “Social psychology offers us a way to answer such questions.” For support, Crocker referred to a 1963 experiment that showed humans can become callous in inflicting pain on others. But can these physicians heal themselves? If so, how?
To understand fraud, we should think about how it begins and escalates, not how it ends. By the time such fraud is exposed, bad choices that would usually lead to only minor transgressions have escalated into outright career-killing behaviour.
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