Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Science Is Often Flawed: It's Time We Embraced That

In his book Derailed, about his fall from academic grace, the Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel explained his preferred method for manipulating scientific data in detail that would make any nerd's jaw drop:
"I preferred to do it at home, late in the evening... I made myself some tea, put my computer on the table, took my notes from my bag, and used my fountain pen to write down a neat list of research projects and effects I had to produce.... Subsequently I began to enter my own data, row for row, column for column...3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 4, 5, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 5, 4, 3, 3, 2. When I was finished, I would do the first analyses. Often, these would not immediately produce the right results. Back to the matrix and alter data. 4, 6, 7, 5, 4, 7, 8, 2, 4, 4, 6, 5, 6, 7, 8, 5, 4. Just as long until all analyses worked out as planned."
In 2011, when Stapel was suspended over research fraud allegations, he was a rising star in social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He had conducted attention-grabbing experiments on social behavior, looking at, for example, whether litter in an environment encouraged racial stereotyping and discrimination. Yet that paper — and at least 55 others, as well as 10 dissertations written by students he supervised — were built on falsified data. Stories like Stapel's are what most people think of when they think about how science goes wrong: an unethical researcher methodically defrauding the public. But outright fraud is just one potential derailment from truth. more

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