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Soft science

July 27, 2013

Elke Geraerts


Psychologist Elke Geraerts is a star. A TV and radio regular, she writes her own column, and has been called the ‘smartest woman in the Netherlands.’  She runs the Clinical Cognition Lab in Erasmus university in Rotterdam (click here), and leads a team of 40 or so young researchers. This TEDx talk (click here) is a good example of her communication style. The engaging mix of intellect and vulnerability is easy to fall for.

But what is she saying? That mental exercises can make you brighter? That overcoming stress may help you cope in future? Perhaps, but she hasn’t tested the idea?  Many successful people had troubled childhoods, but she hasn’t studied whether they were more troubled than those of less successful people.  She just repeats the platitude that what doesn’t kill us may make us stronger.

Other papers from her lab purport to show (here I paraphrase from the titles) that people can be taught to suppress memories, that victims of cyber bullying appreciate the support of a virtual cyber buddy, that by focussing your attention you can remember stuff you’ve previously forgotten.

Ring any bells?  Remember Diederik Stapels (click here), who kept on proving this sort of conventional wisdom. Now there’s another similarity.

One of her publications (click here) has been retracted at the request of her co-authors because they believe that she fiddled the data. They don’t put it quite like that, but that’s what they mean. Click here for details. It certainly looks bad that Geraerts has refused to release the original dataset.

Could this really be another Stapels’ fraud?  Perhaps, but I doubt it. More likely she just tortured the data till she got the result she wanted. It happens all the time. It’s not fraud, but it’s not science either.

Jim Thornton.

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