May 21, 2024

Massive fraud by Dutch psychologist shows weak side of scientific method

The credibility of the field of social psychology is at risk, a Dutch panel has found after reviewing massive misconduct by a researcher

The credibility of the field of social psychology is at risk, a Dutch panel has found after reviewing massive misconduct by a researcher who published dozens of articles based on fraudulent data in 15 years at three universities.

Diederik Stapel was a psychologist with a long list of publications and a stellar career. He had an eye for media-friendly research topics – meat eaters are more selfish than vegetarians, for example. But in 2011, whistleblowers alerted authorities at Tilburg University about irregularities in his published papers. His reputation unravelled quickly. Stapel has admitted that he had fiddled his data and fabricated research results and has returned his PhD.

 In a sombre assessment of the case, three panels chaired by Willem Levelt found fundamental flaws in the scientific process both in the Netherlands and internationally.

“Virtually nothing of all the impossibilities, peculiarities and sloppiness mentioned in this report was observed by all these local, national and international members of the field, and no suspicion of fraud whatsoever arose… from the bottom to the top there was a general neglect of fundamental scientific standards and methodological requirements.”

They also criticised the editors and reviewers of leading international journals. “Not infrequently reviews were strongly in favour of telling an interesting, elegant, concise and compelling story, possibly at the expense of the necessary scientific diligence.”

For social psychologists, the conclusion of the report is damning, almost apocalyptic: “A ‘byproduct’ of the Committees’ inquiries is the conclusion that, far more than was originally assumed, there are certain aspects of the discipline itself that should be deemed undesirable or even incorrect from the perspective of academic standards and scientific integrity.” Predictably, the Executive Committee of the European Association of Social Psychology attacked the report’s conclusions as “slanderous”.

This is not just a local disaster, but one which will ripple internationally. “I see a train wreck looming,” wrote Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in an open email to psychologists who work in social priming, one of Stapel’s areas: “your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research”.

The journal Perspectives on Psychological Science last month had a special issue on the field’s crisis of confidence. It focused on the key issue of replicability. John P. A. Ioannidis, of Stanford University, points out that the authority of science depends upon its ability to self-correct errors. But as the Levelt report revealed, reproducing the results of other researchers is uncommon. Researchers are far more interested in startling new results which will attract more funding. “The self-correcting paradigm … seems to be very uncommon,” Ioannidis writes. ~ Science Insider, Nov 28

Michael Cook
Creative commons
research fraud
social priming
social psychology