Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Fraud or apathy: What is academia’s biggest threat?

Diederik Stapel committed a truly massive fraud. And he wasn’t even very good at it. As we know now, he completely made up the data of many – and probably most – of his (very prominent) academic publications.

I have written about him before, because obviously he forms both a fascinating and worrying case. It is worrying not because it makes me suspect there are probably more of such massive fraud cases that currently remain undetected – his fraud was so huge that I have trouble imagining – perhaps naively – that it is not unique. However, I have much less trouble imagining that for every case like Stapel’s, there are probably many more of much smaller fraud, which could easily add up to something even bigger.

Stapel made up all his data regarding pretty much all his publications – and got away with it for a long time. How many people might there be out there who make up only parts of their data for some of their publications…?

It is like cases of insider trading, or rogue investment bank traders; the cases that come out in the open are often colossal cases of fraud (although there is a bit of attention bias), involving billions of pounds, not seldom committed in a rather clumsy way. For every immense, clumsy case of insider trading, how many smaller, more sophisticated villains might there be…?

But there is another reaction to the Stapel fraud that makes me worried. Newspapers that reported on and described his fraud often gave examples of his experiments. For example, he would predict and “find” that people exposed to the world “capitalism” in an experiment would be less inclined to share their M&Ms with others and, instead, selfishly stuff them into their own drooling mouths.

On newspaper websites, people would comment on these articles, and their reactions were remarkably consistent; they never said “tsss, he committed fraud with something as important like that…” (a reaction I imagine they would have had had it concerned a clinical trial of a new cancer drug); invariably, their reaction would be “that’s what these scientists spend our tax money on?! silly things like that!?” and “that’s the kind of stuff that makes someone a famous professor?!”

People seem to not care at all that he made up his data because, to them, it concerned stuff they find completely trivial, irrelevant and infantile. They are not outraged by his fraud; they couldn’t care less.

Now, I am not saying I completely agree with them (I would find it interesting – and potentially even important – if putting people in a capitalist frame of mind would automatically make them act more selfishly) but I am wondering whether apathy and an active disinterest might not be even more threatening to the long-term prospects of social psychology as a field than fraud. To the general audience, their research appears trivial and unimportant.

Stapel has now written a book – I guess largely because he simply needs the money, now that his career prospects in academia have been truncated – detailing his descent into fraud. Perhaps in his next book he can tell us – and the world at large – why his experiments would have been important and worth doing (for real). And hence why people should be outraged by his fraud, because currently, they’re not.