Deiderik Stapel is back in the news, given the availability of the English translation of the Tilberg (Levelt and Noort Committees) Report as well as his book, Ontsporing (Dutch for “Off the Rails”), where he tries to explain his fraud. An earlier post on him is here. While the disgraced social psychologist was shown to have fabricated the data for something like 50 papers, it seems that some people think he deserves a second chance. A childhood friend, Simon Kuper, in an article “The Sin of Bad Science,” describes a phone conversation with Stapel:
“I’ve lost everything,” the disgraced former psychology professor tells me over the phone from the Netherlands. He is almost bankrupt. … He has tarnished his own discipline of social psychology. And he has become a national pariah. …
Very few social psychologists make stuff up, but he was working in a discipline where cavalier use of data was common. This is perhaps the main finding of the three Dutch academic committees which investigated his fraud. The committees found many bad practices: researchers who keep rerunning an experiment until they get the right result, who omit inconvenient data, misunderstand statistics, don’t share their data, and so on….
Chapter 5 of the Report, pp 47-54, is extremely illuminating about the general practices they discovered in examining Stapel’s papers, I recommend it.
Social psychology might recover. However, Stapel might not. A country’s way of dealing with sinners is often shaped by its religious heritage. In Catholicism, sinners can get absolution in the secrecy of confession. … …In many American versions of Protestantism, the sinner can be “born again”. …Stapel’s misfortune is to be Dutch. The dominant Dutch tradition is Calvinist, and Calvinism believes in eternal sin. …But the downside to not forgiving sinners is that there are almost no second acts in Dutch lives.
But it isn’t just old acquaintances who think Stapel might be ready for a comeback. A few researchers are beginning to defend the field from the broader accusations the Report wages against the scientific integrity of social psychology. They do not deny the “cavalier” practices, but regard them as acceptable and even necessary! This might even pave the way for Stapel’s rehabilitation. An article by a delegate for the 3rd World Conference on Research Integrity (wcri2013.org) in Montreal, Canada, in May reports on members of a new group critical of the Report, including some who were interviewed by the Tilberg Committees:
“Flawed Science and Diederik Stapel: Priming for a Backlash?”
That Stapel’s “too good to be true” findings went undetected for so long despite being peer reviewed in nearly all the respected international journals in his field, speaks to a wider culture of flawed science in social psychology and related fields, according to a Report issued by several Committees investigating the fraud. (Report p.48). Those accusations are now being challenged by a group of researchers in social psychology, calling themselves the Integrity Group (IG). The Report found “when interviewed, several co-authors…defended the serious and less serious violations of proper scientific method with the words: that is what I have learned in practice; everyone in my research environment does the same, and so does everyone we talk to at international conferences” ( Report, p. 48). The Integrity Group is building an even stronger defense of their practices against the Report’s charges and is expected to take the case to court.
A number of professors were willing to speak to us anonymously, insofar as their case is a developing one, and will not be presented to legal bodies until June or July 2013….
We asked an IG member who had been a co-author for a comment on Stapel’s interview with Tilberg’s Noort Committee: “Mr Stapel observed in this connection in his interview with the Noort Committee that he was personally convinced that he was helping his PhD students. By his own account the collection of the data was the greatest chore in research, which PhD students must be helped through as quickly as possible. The paradox involved in ‘helping’ through falsification became apparent to him only later” (Report, p. 41).
Asked whether he excused the behavior of Stapel, the co-author shook his head: “Not collecting data was bad, that was his mistake. The data collection, he is right, is a chore, and he saved all of us a lot of time, especially his Ph.D students. He was reacting to the pressure to expedite the research process, allowing very fast production and speedy publications. That’s why he was hired.”
The senior social psychologist leading the Integrity Group spoke harshly against the Committee’s criticisms of statistical practices, alleging that for the most part they are “perfectly acceptable” and used throughout the social sciences. We asked him to comment on the Committee report condemning, as “verification bias,” the practice of handling non-statistical significance between treated and control groups by comparing it instead with a control group from a different experiment, where the desired statistical significance is obtained ( Report, p. 49).
“This practice is perfectly valid because they are all equivalent random groups after all. The Committee members are not social psychologists and they overlooked this simple statistical fact.”
Another researcher protested the Committee’s criticism of the common practice of omitting groups of respondents if the findings did not confirm the initial hypotheses:
“I told the Levelt Committee why we omitted the subjects (students) we did, they were just answering whatever came into their heads, and were not taking the study seriously. The judgment we bring to decide which subjects to leave out is not ad hoc, because we state our hypothesis in advance.”
This was echoed by the one of Stapel’s junior co-authors:
“When I was interviewed by the Committee, I explained that we omitted subjects who do not behave as expected. The Committee members asked if we put this in the publication. Why would we? The Journals do not want that. The committee misunderstands the basic philosophy of research here: we know or have a very good idea of which theories are true, which are believable. We consider interesting hypotheses to test; data are collected to see how these theories predict. We omit items that do not behave as expected because they represent a falsification of our assumption about the design of experiment. When we find something wrong, we change it and replace it with data that can serve the purpose of showing how the theories hold true”.
Another senior social psychologist defended the practice of going along with supervisors who “urged that the data be sold as effectively as possible.” All students, the co-author explained, are discouraged from including reports that could “undermine the data, which might make editors and reviewers suspicious. If they asked any questions the missing data would be provided later.”
“The goal is to show where the hypothesis holds, so it is of no use to include data or subjects where the agreement is not found, for any reason. Would they want a physicist to use data that went against their theories or that showed errors? No of course not, yet when we omit such data, we are accused of sloppy science. This is unfair.”
Only one member of the IG said he had been in touch with Stapel since he resigned. “I was planning a research study that he happened to have data on from many years ago, but they were never used. It’s beautiful data, and clean, not part of the fraud. I will publish the paper myself, while normally I’d make him a co-author.”
We asked what he thought of the description Stapel gives in “Off the Rails” of the time he first altered his data:I was alone in my fancy office at University of Groningen.… I opened the file that contained research data I had entered and changed an unexpected 2 into a 4.… I looked at the door. It was closed.… I looked at the matrix with data and clicked my mouse to execute the relevant statistical analyses. When I saw the new results, the world had returned to being logical. (Stapel, p. 145)
“I have much sympathy with the desire to fix the data, to make the world rational again” he replied. “It is natural for a scientist. The journals want a clear and compelling story, and they tell us to omit anything that gets in the way.”
One of the PhD students was philosophical: “If the experiment does not confirm the hypothesis, it is our fault, and we do it over til it works right. We change the subjects or the questionnaire, we find which responses are too small and must be fixed. It is not the fault of the hypothesis. I read this in Kuhn, that’s what we all believe*.
To read the full article, go here. For a less extreme criticism of the Tilberg report see here. Also timely.
*Kuhn, T (1962), Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
The Kuhn reference is a nice touch! But I thought “I was alone in my fancy office” strained credulity. Shouldn’t it be something like, “I was toiling against the forces of oppression seeking to deprive the world of my amazing findings…”?