The mind of science.

Science has become a business - Comment on 2013 April 27

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What the public didn’t realize was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,” he said. “Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing.” Read more:

Today I read a report about a scientist who is a con man and this report brings some nice insights into the science environment.

The man is a psychologist. He committed fraud, was caught und now makes money out of his con man past.

Here extracts from what I read, first from the article itself and then from reader’s letters:


The mind of a con man

Diederik Stapel, a Dutch social psychologist, perpetrated an audacious academic fraud by making up studies that told the world what it wanted to hear about human nature.

In 2010, Stapel became dean of the university’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Stapel was an academic star in the Netherlands and abroad, the author of several well-regarded studies on human attitudes and behavior. That spring, he published a widely publicized study in Science about an experiment done at the Utrecht train station showing that a trash-filled environment tended to bring out racist tendencies in individuals. And just days earlier, he received more media attention for a study indicating that eating meat made people selfish and less social.

After he got home that night, he confessed to his wife. A week later, the university suspended him from his job and held a news conference to announce his fraud. It became the lead story in the Netherlands and would dominate headlines for months. Overnight, Stapel went from being a respected professor to perhaps the biggest con man in academic science.

Right away Stapel expressed what sounded like heartfelt remorse for what he did to his students. “I have fallen from my throne — I am on the floor,” he said, waving at the ground. “I am in therapy every week. I hate myself.”

Stapel’s fraud may shine a spotlight on dishonesty in science, but scientific fraud is hardly new. The rogues’ gallery of academic liars and cheats features scientific celebrities who have enjoyed similar prominence. The once-celebrated South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk stunned scientists in his field a few years ago after it was discovered that almost all of the work for which he was known was fraudulent. The prominent Harvard evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser resigned in 2011 during an investigation by the Office of Research Integrity at the Department of Health and Human Services that would end up determining that some of his papers contained fabricated data.

Every year, the Office of Research Integrity uncovers numerous instances of bad behavior by scientists, ranging from lying on grant applications to using fake images in publications. A blog called Retraction Watch publishes a steady stream of posts about papers being retracted by journals because of allegations or evidence of misconduct.

Each case of research fraud that’s uncovered triggers a similar response from scientists. First disbelief, then anger, then a tendency to dismiss the perpetrator as one rotten egg in an otherwise-honest enterprise. But the scientific misconduct that has come to light in recent years suggests at the very least that the number of bad actors in science isn’t as insignificant as many would like to believe. And considered from a more cynical point of view, figures like Hwang and Hauser are not outliers so much as one end on a continuum of dishonest behaviors that extend from the cherry-picking of data to fit a chosen hypothesis — which many researchers admit is commonplace — to outright fabrication. Still, the nature and scale of Stapel’s fraud sets him apart from most other cheating academics. “The extent to which I did it, the longevity of it, makes it extreme. Because it is not one paper or 10 but many more.”

Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth,” he said. He described his behavior as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high.

The universities investigating him were preparing to come out with a final report a week later, which Stapel hoped would bring an end to the incessant flogging he had received in the Dutch media since the beginning of the scandal. The report’s publication would also allow him to release a book he had written in Dutch titled “Ontsporing” — “derailment” in English — for which he was paid a modest advance. The book is an examination of his life based on a personal diary he started after his fraud was made public. Stapel wanted it to bring both redemption and profit, and he seemed not to have given much thought to whether it would help or hurt him in his narrower quest to seek forgiveness from the students and colleagues he duped.

In his early years of research — when he supposedly collected real experimental data — Stapel wrote papers laying out complicated and messy relationships between multiple variables. He soon realized that journal editors preferred simplicity. “They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler,’ ” Stapel said. Before long, he was striving to write elegant articles.

Stapel reflected on why his behavior had sparked such outrage in the Netherlands. “People think of scientists as monks in a monastery looking out for the truth,” he said. “People have lost faith in the church, but they haven’t lost faith in science. My behavior shows that science is not holy.”

What the public didn’t realize, he said, was that academic science, too, was becoming a business. “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,” he said. “Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman. I am on the road. People are on the road with their talk. With the same talk. It’s like a circus.” He named two psychologists he admired — John Cacioppo and Daniel Gilbert — neither of whom has been accused of fraud. “They give a talk in Berlin, two days later they give the same talk in Amsterdam, then they go to London. They are traveling salesmen selling their story.”

The experiment — and others like it — didn’t give Stapel the desired results, he said. He had the choice of abandoning the work or redoing the experiment. But he had already spent a lot of time on the research and was convinced his hypothesis was valid. “I said — you know what, I am going to create the data set,” he said.

Sitting at his kitchen table in Groningen, he began typing numbers into his laptop that would give him the outcome he wanted.

“I tried to make it random, which of course was very hard to do.”

He went back and tweaked the numbers again. It took a few hours of trial and error, spread out over a few days, to get the data just right.

The results were published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2004. “I realized — hey, we can do this.”

Stapel’s career took off. He published more than two dozen studies while at Groningen, many of them written with his doctoral students.

And yet as part of a graduate seminar he taught on research ethics, Stapel would ask his students to dig back into their own research and look for things that might have been unethical. “They got back with terrible lapses. No informed consent, no debriefing of subjects, then of course in data analysis, looking only at some data and not all the data.” He didn’t see the same problems in his own work, he said, because there were no real data to contend with.

At the end of November, the universities unveiled their final report at a joint news conference: Stapel had committed fraud in at least 55 of his papers, as well as in 10 Ph.D. dissertations written by his students. The students were not culpable, even though their work was now tarnished. The field of psychology was indicted, too, with a finding that Stapel’s fraud went undetected for so long because of “a general culture of careless, selective and uncritical handling of research and data.” If Stapel was solely to blame for making stuff up, the report stated, his peers, journal editors and reviewers of the field’s top journals were to blame for letting him get away with it. The committees identified several practices as “sloppy science” — misuse of statistics, ignoring of data that do not conform to a desired hypothesis and the pursuit of a compelling story no matter how scientifically unsupported it may be.

The adjective “sloppy” seems charitable. Several psychologists admitted that each of these more common practices was as deliberate as any of Stapel’s wholesale fabrications. Each was a choice made by the scientist every time he or she came to a fork in the road of experimental research — one way pointing to the truth, however dull and unsatisfying, and the other beckoning the researcher toward a rosier and more notable result that could be patently false or only partly true. What may be most troubling about the research culture the committees describe in their report are the plentiful opportunities and incentives for fraud. “The cookie jar was on the table without a lid” is how Stapel put it to me once. Those who suspect a colleague of fraud may be inclined to keep mum because of the potential costs of whistle-blowing.

When Stapel’s book came out, it got a mixed reception from critics, and it angered many in the Netherlands who thought it dishonorable of him to try to profit from his misdeeds. Within days of its release, the book appeared online in the form of PDFs, posted by those who wanted to damage his chances of making money.


So that was from the article and now from the reader’s letters:


If Staple’s ambition says a lot about science as a business, then the credulity of his reviewers and colleagues speaks volumes about science as a religion. The sacred trust people place in science and the scientific method is sadly misplaced. The awe evoked by science popularizers like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t all that different than the pomp and ceremony that surrounds the pope. And yet, it really should be the night sky that moves us, not the flattering self-portrait that science paints of ourselves and our intellects.

Simply put, science isn’t all that different than other human endeavours wherein people compete for prizes. Stop putting scientists on a pedestal.


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