That recent case of the guy suspected of using faked data for a study on how to promote support for gay marriage in a (retracted) paper, Michael LaCour, is directing a bit of limelight on our star fraudster Diederik Stapel (50+ retractions).
You write that “every psychologist has a toolbox of statistical and methodological procedures for those days when the numbers don’t turn out quite right.” Do you think every psychologist uses that toolbox? In other words, is everyone at least a little bit dirty?
Stapel: In essence, yes. The universe doesn’t give answers. There are no data matrices out there. We have to select from reality, and we have to interpret. There’s always dirt, and there’s always selection, and there’s always interpretation. That doesn’t mean it’s all untruthful. We’re dirty because we can only live with models of reality rather than reality itself. It doesn’t mean it’s all a bag of tricks and lies. But that’s where the inconvenience starts.
I think the solution is in accepting this and saying these are the tips and tricks, and this is the story I want to tell, and this is how I did it, instead of trying to pose as if it’s real. We should be more open about saying, I’m using this trick, this statistical method, and people can figure out for themselves. It’s the illusion that these models are one-to-one descriptions of reality. That’s what we hope for, but that’s of course not true.
This is our “dirty hands” argument, so often used these days, coupled with claims of so-called “perverse incentives,” to excuse QRPs (questionable research practices), bias, and flat out cheating. The leap from “our models are invariably idealizations” to “we all have dirty hands” to “statistical tricks cannot be helped,” may inadvertantly be encouraged by some articles on how to “fix” science.
Earlier in the interview:
You mention lots of possible reasons for your fraud: laziness, ambition, a short attention span. One of the more intriguing reasons to me — and you mention it twice in the book — is nihilism. Do you mean that? Did you think of yourself as a nihilist? Then or now?
Stapel: I’m not sure I’m a nihilist. ….
Did you think of the work you were doing as meaningful?
Stapel: I was raised in the 1980s, at the height of postmodernism, and that was something I related to. I studied many of the French postmodernists. That made me question meaningfulness. I had a hard time explaining the meaningfulness of my work to students.
I agree with Bartlett that you don’t have to have any sympathy with a fraudster to possibly learn from him about preventing doctored statistics, or sharpening fraudbusting skills, except that it turns out Stapel really and truly believes science is a fraud![ii] In his pristine accomplishment of using no data at all, rather than merely subjecting them to extraordinary rendition (leaving others to wrangle over the fine points of statistics), you could say that Stapel is the ultimate, radical, postmodern scientific anarchist. Stapel is a personable guy, and I’ve had some interesting exchanges with him; but on that basis, from his “Fictionfactory,” and autobiography, “Derailment”, I say he’s the wrong person to ask. He still doesn’t get it!
[i]There are several posts on this blog that discuss Stapel:
Derailment: Faking Science: A true story of academic fraud, by Diederik Stapel (translated into English)
Should a “fictionfactory” peepshow be barred from a festival on “Truth and Reality”? Diederik Stapel says no
[ii] At least social science, social psychology. He may be right that the effects are small or uninteresting in social psych.