Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Bernie Madoff of Social Psychology

That would of course be Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands. I compare him to Bernie because he committed an astonishingly bold, massive fraud over many years that included gross betrayal of friends and colleagues. Oh yeah, he should have been caught many times but his prestige and power protected him. If you want the full story from the university investigating committee, it's here.

In case you haven't read about this and don't want to bother, basically the guy would chat up post docs and faculty colleagues to find out what research questions and hypotheses they were thinking about. Sometimes he would then work with them to design a study, write questionnaires, get funding, etc. He claimed to have relationships with high schools and universities that allowed him to recruit their students, or in a couple of cases faculty, as subjects. He'd go off to ostensibly collect the data, come back with it in a couple of months, and whaddya know, the hypothesis would be confirmed. Sometimes he didn't even bother with all that, he just said he had an old data set that was suitable, which he hadn't gotten around to analyzing, here it is. Only, he never collected any data. At all. He made it all up. Oh yeah, he also supervised dissertations based on phony data.

The really strange question is why? Bernie could have invested the money, and Stapel could have actually done the experiments. Madoff wouldn't have made 12% a year come hell or high water, and Stapel wouldn't always have found what he was looking for, but they still could have been perfectly successful. In Stapel's case, in fact, probably equally successful -- there's nothing stopping us from publishing findings we don't expect.

Just as Bernie brought about financial ruin for his customers, Stapel has brought career ruin on his students and collaborators. Even though they were perfectly innocent of the fraud, their programs of research are now destroyed and their publications will have to be retracted. Although the university says his students can keep their degrees, they are forever tainted and will no doubt find it very difficult to advance their careers. Everyone's CV will shrivel up like bacon.

He has also damaged the university, and the entire field of social psychology, which some people already consider to be a bit dodgy. (Think Marc Hauser.) The psychopathology here is really inscrutable. Yeah, the guy is some version of a psychopath but he seems to have been generally empathic and reliable in other contexts. This is just weird.


Anonymous said...

Why would you say the field of Social Psychology is dodgy? This is an honest question, as I will be entering grad school to study social cognition.

Cervantes said...

I take no position on this myself but Hank Campbell is one critic. Essentially, the rap is that the field consists mostly of a big bag of largely disconnected, unreplicated findings, that it doesn't have a strong theoretical spine or make much progress; and that it's standards of data quality and inference are not high. I haven't studied it enough to say if this is fair.

Anonymous said...

Why would you call the field of Social Psychology dodgy? This is an honest question, since I plan to research social cognition in grad school.

Cervantes said...

Is there an echo in here? said...

A great deal of worthwhile data for me!