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Never mind the fraud. Mind the science.

November 20, 2011

The Diederik Stapel case

  Diederik Stapel, Professor of Social Psychology at Tilburg since 2006, and Dean of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Science since 2010, has been making up data for years. Some people had long had suspicions, but firm allegations surfaced in August this year, and the boss of Tilburg, the magnificently titled Rector Magnificus, commissioned an enquiry. Here’s the interim report. It was pure fraud. Decide what you want to prove, make up the data, give it to a student to analyse and hey presto, you’re published.

But Stapel wasn’t just an obscure academic. He was famous, because he told a certain sort of person what they wanted to hear. A quick search of Pubmed reveals 45 scientific publications. Most consist of such dense jargon as to make them almost unreadable, but many have a headline message. Here’s a few.

  • Powerful people are more likely to commit adultery because they feel confident that their advances won’t be rebuffed. Psychol Sci. 2011; 22: 1191-7.
  • People are more likely to be racist when the environment is disordered, e.g. rubbish on the streets.  Science. 2011; 332: 251-3
  • Power makes us more critical of others bad behaviour, but more likely to engage in it ourselves, i.e. more hypocritical.  Psychol Sci. 2010; 21: 737-44.
  • People behave better when there are wine glasses on restaurant tables.  Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2008; 34: 1047-56.
  • We can be made to feel emotions, like happiness and sadness, without being aware of the cause.  Psychol Sci. 2008: 19: 385-91
  • Competition make us feel different from the people were compete with.  Co-operation makes us feel similar. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2005; 88: 1029-38
  • Finally, just a few weeks before his downfall, he announced unpublished research showing that thinking about meat-eating makes people antisocial.
Get the message? Conventional wisdom to some, hotly contested by others. These are questions to which there is no single scientific answer.  But Stapel provided one, dressed up in his impenetrable analysis that no-one else could question. Editorialists and politicians then waved it to justify their favoured policy. And Stapel became famous.
Yes, we should stop this sort of fraud.  But more importantly we should stop funding this sort of research. Stapel was mostly funded by the Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO), the Dutch Research Council, i.e. the poor Dutch taxpayer. No doubt British and American taxpayers are also stumping up to be told this sort of stuff. It’s propaganda, not science.
Jim Thornton
3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2011 2:31 pm

    Yeah. “Researchers” always manage to “prove” whatever whoever signs their paycheck wants them to prove. Money talks and bullshit walks.

  2. April 27, 2012 12:31 pm

    Read how the review of Stapel’s papers is going here. Two good ones retracted a couple of days ago, both from Basic and Applied Social Psychology. Love the titles! Sadly you have to pay for the full text.

    ‘‘What’s in a Name? 361.708 Euros: The Effects of Marital Name Change,’’ by Marret K. Noordewier, Femke van Horen, Kirsten I. Ruys, & Diederik A. Stapel (DOI:10.1080=01973530903539812).

    ‘‘Stereotype Disconfirmation Affect: When Sweet Hooligans Make You Happy and Honest Salesmen Make You Sad,’’ by Marret K. Noordewier & Diederik A. Stapel (DOI:10.1080=01973533.2010. 540135)


  1. Closed Stapels «

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