Science is Not Blind

Did you know that a study showed that white people tend to sit farther away from black people when the surrounding area is cluttered with garbage than when the area is clean and well-kept. Another study shows that people eat more M&Ms from a cup on which the word "capitalism" is printed than from a cup on which the same letters are printed, but jumbled. Crazy, right?

It's amazing how our environment subconsciously influences our behavior! Even so, I don't think many of us are surprised by these conclusions. Both studies follow after well-supported observations in social psychology and both were published in well-regarded scientific journals.

Not only that, both studies were later shown to be based entirely on lies. Total frauds.

Transient

On April 26th, The New York Times published a fascinating article, "The Mind of a Con-Man." In the piece, science journalist Yudhijit Bhattacharjee profiled a European academic's fall from grace. Diderik Stapel, an acclaimed expert on human behavior and a prominent academic dean, was found to have fabricated data on dozens of studies, including data used unknowingly by his doctoral students.

The article serves as a great character sketch of what motivates a person to large-scale fraud and how they rationalize their crime, both before and after it's exposed. Listen to Stapel's process and his reasoning.

The experiment — and others like it — didn’t give Stapel the desired results, he said. He had the choice of abandoning the work or redoing the experiment. But he had already spent a lot of time on the research and was convinced his hypothesis was valid. “I said — you know what, I am going to create the data set,” he told me.
Sitting at his kitchen table in Groningen, he began typing numbers into his laptop that would give him the outcome he wanted. He knew that the effect he was looking for had to be small in order to be believable; even the most successful psychology experiments rarely yield significant results. The math had to be done in reverse order: the individual attractiveness scores that subjects gave themselves on a 0-7 scale needed to be such that Stapel would get a small but significant difference in the average scores for each of the two conditions he was comparing. He made up individual scores like 4, 5, 3, 3 for subjects who were shown the attractive face. “I tried to make it random, which of course was very hard to do,” Stapel told me.
Doing the analysis, Stapel at first ended up getting a bigger difference between the two conditions than was ideal. He went back and tweaked the numbers again. It took a few hours of trial and error, spread out over a few days, to get the data just right.

Inevitably, Stapel continued lying when he learned he could get away with it. He published at least 55 fraudulent papers over about ten years. Why did he get away with it?

The key to why Stapel got away with his fabrications for so long lies in his keen understanding of the sociology of his field. “I didn’t do strange stuff, I never said let’s do an experiment to show that the earth is flat,” he said. “I always checked — this may be by a cunning manipulative mind — that the experiment was reasonable, that it followed from the research that had come before, that it was just this extra step that everybody was waiting for.” He always read the research literature extensively to generate his hypotheses. “So that it was believable and could be argued that this was the only logical thing you would find,” he said. “Everybody wants you to be novel and creative, but you also need to be truthful and likely. You need to be able to say that this is completely new and exciting, but it’s very likely given what we know so far.”

Basically, he just gave people what they wanted. While Stapel's fraud might be some of the most audacious, the article notes that his actions are not entirely unique. The journalist interviewed several other social psychologists who said it is not uncommon for scientists to misuse statistics, ignore data that hurts one's hypothesis, or stop a study short once a hypothesis is confirmed. In theory, such shenanigans should be caught by "peer-reviewed" journals, but in Stapel's words, "science is a business, too."

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We can all relate to liars because we have all been tempted to lie and have all, on many occasions, lied ourselves. It's easy to imagine the frustration and loss from investing months, even years, on a project only to have to throw it all away and start over. It's easy to imagine that frustration and loss pushing us to rationalize the decision to lie. We can imagine it because it's normal to us.

However, this story shocks us more than other lying stories because we live in a culture that idolizes science as completely trustworthy. We've been trained to ascribe objectivity to anything that sounds scientific. Begin a sentence with "Studies show" and it must be true. Add some statistics, and any position feels irrefutable. But this story reminds us that objective science is always authored by subjective people. Science is not blind because people are.

Even though the vast majority of scientists are not fabricating data, they are still people -- people who are heavily invested in their fields and research, in their systems of thought and prejudices. This doesn't mean we should doubt everything we read, but it does help us to be aware of bias in interpreting data. Bias in the scientist's mind, as well as our own.