Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

October 31, 2011

Social psychology: like medical science (except it doesn’t kill you)

Filed under: Diederik Stapel,Psychology — Razib Khan @ 11:13 pm

I was warned off social psychology years ago by a friend (who was a research psychologist) because of the field’s propensity for ‘sexy’ results which get a lot of media play. As a lay person he doubted I could tell the fake from the reliable, the one off from the replicable. Later someone else told me about how dispiriting it was engaging in data dredging to find something publishable in a lab where they were working, even though many of the principals involved obviously assumed that the results weren’t robust. Keep that in mind when you read about the mind-boggling scientific fraud perpetrated by Diederik Stapel. It looks like he might be the Bernie Madoff of psychology. The Lehman Brothers to the Long Term Capital Management of Marc Hauser. Here’s a taste:

Stapel’s work encompassed a broad range of attention-catching topics, including the influence of power on moral thinking and the reaction of psychologists to a plagiarism scandal. The committee, which interviewed dozens of Stapel’s former students, postdoctoral researchers, co-authors, and colleagues, found that Stapel alone was responsible for the fraud. The panel reported that he would discuss in detail experimental designs, including drafting questionnaires, and would then claim to conduct the experiments at high schools and universities with which he had special arrangements. The experiments, however, never took place, the universities concluded. Stapel made up the data sets, which he then gave the student or collaborator for analysis, investigators allege. In other instances, the report says, he told colleagues that he had an old data set lying around that he hadn’t yet had a chance to analyze. When Stapel did conduct actual experiments, the committee found evidence that he manipulated the results.

Here’s the controversial thing I’m going to say: instances of flamboyant fraud are probably far less of an issue in a discipline like social psychology than more subtle biases and systematic incentives. Similarly, someone like Bernie Madoff was notable for the havoc he caused on an individual level, but he paled in the aggregate against the death by a thousand cuts that occurred as the housing market collapsed under the pall of modest “liar loans” and the like. And this isn’t just a problem with science. ‘Sexy’ social psychological research is routinely blasted by the press, and devoured by the public. Incentives matter, and Diederik Stapel is just the reductio ad absurdum of scientists who respond to the repeated 15 minutes of fame which the press provides. Most of the time it’s not so blatant, nor frankly so malicious in consequence. I doubt that there are many Diederik Stapel’s in the field, else he wouldn’t have gotten so far with bluster and bluff.

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