Scientific Fraud and DisciplinismPublished 14 September, 2011
Just about one year ago, the Wall Street Journal published a piece by Eric Felten about the scandal in which Marc Hauser was embroiled. Felton followed the usual rules of the anti-evolutionary psychology game – alluding to how the discipline seemed to “justify” rape and remarking that “speculative tales” were the hallmark of the field – in the service of arguing that because Hauser was guilty of misconduct, this somehow “spells trouble” for the entire field of evolutionary psychology.
Recently, new scientific scandals have blossomed. The Economist this past week led their Science section of the magazine with a story about two cancer researchers at Duke – Potti and Nevins – whose work seems to have come under something of a shadow. A number of errors have been discovered in their published work, and other researchers have, according to The Economist, been unable to replicate their results, and one of the researchers, Nevins, is quoted as claiming that “some of the data in the papers had been ‘corrupted,’” a word that caught my attention for some reason. Several papers have been retracted, but, I hastily add, as far as I can tell, no one seems to think that this “spells trouble” for the entire field of oncology.
Back in the field of psychology, last week Science published a story about social psychologist Diederik Stapel, who has been fired from his position at Tilburg University after admitting that he faked his data. The press release from Tilburg uses the plural, publicationS:
The Executive Board of Tilburg University has suspended Prof. D.A. Stapel from his duties with immediate effect. Dr Stapel, who is a Professor of Cognitive Social Psychology and Dean of the Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, has committed a serious breach of scientific integrity by using fictitious data in his publications.
There is an ongoing investigation, so it’s not clear which publications are affected. People who follow evolutionary psychology might be interested in the status of the recent Psychological Science paper, which claimed to speak to the ongoing debates surrounding infidelity:
Researchers have found that men are more likely to be unfaithful than women are. Such findings are typically explained with evolutionary theories, which hold that men and women use different strategies for spreading their genes and having offspring…In contrast, other researchers have proposed that this gender difference is (at least partially) a reflection of structural differences in the socioeconomic position of men and women.
The Psych Science paper reported that sex did not moderate the relationship between power and infidelity. I might note that Stapel is not the corresponding author on that paper, and I have no particular reason to suspect the data from 1,561 subjects were just made up.
Unlike Eric Felton, as far as I know, commentators on these scandals do not seem to think that what these individuals did reflects in some way on the entire discipline in which they work. I’ll be surprised if the Stapel matter leads anyone to say, out loud, for instance, that somehow his actions should lead us to believe that social psychology is a hopeless wasteland of pseudoscience, replete with superficial or vacuous theory and parlor tricks that pass for scientific experiments.
Anyway, I suppose my point is the slightly obvious one that the way that people perceive misdeeds depends on the groups to which the wrongdoer belongs. Which brings me to the television program What Would You Do?, which should be watched by anyone interested in how people respond to other people’s moral violations.
Some communities would have you believe that humans are avid third party punishers, imposing costs on those who violate a rule, even if they themselves are unaffected. WWYD stages such violations, and records the results. On Hulu, you can see what happens when an actor is placed in a park, stealing a bicycle.
At 2:13, they give the statistics, with over a hundred people passing by; just one couple intervenes. Now, that’s with a young, White actor. At 3:06, they replace the White actor with a Black one… and at 3:08 someone’s ready to call the cops. Even better is the tableau at 6:41, when they run the same scenario, but with a young woman. Do people intervene in this case? Sort of… At 7:18, a nice older man asks our young thief if she could use some help…
The point is that, perhaps not surprisingly, people use others’ moral failings differently depending on who the culprit is. If the offender belongs to a group that, for whatever reason, you’d like to punish anyway, well… in the bicycle case, it seems to me that you might call this racism, discriminating against someone on the basis of their race. When you do this because of someone’s field, that’s disciplinism.
As a little bit of an aside, some of the buzz about these scandals seems to lead people to ask… why? Why would someone fake their data just to get published in the most prestigious journals on the planet? This reminds me of one of the old Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy from Saturday Night Live:
What is it that makes a complete stranger dive into an icy river to save a solid-gold baby? Maybe we’ll never know.