The lying scientist who wanted more cookies

The lying scientist who wanted more cookies
A professor who committed academic fraud 
said one reason he cheated was because he could: 
"The cookie jar was on the table without a lid."

An article in The New York Times Magazine examines the case of Diederik Stapel, a former professor of social psychology in the Netherlands who became a celebrated scientist for all the wrong reasons. Instead of collecting real data for his experiments, he either altered it or completely made it up.

His fakery affected at least 55 published papers and 10 dissertations written by graduate students working on their Ph.Ds.

Mr. Stapel figured out he could fake studies by working backwards, deciding on the results he wanted, and then doing the math to come up with those results.

There were rumours of fraud about him, and concerns about why he collected data himself instead of letting his graduate students do the work.

…in the spring of 2010, a graduate student noticed anomalies in three experiments Stapel had run for him. When asked for the raw data, Stapel initially said he no longer had it. Later that year, shortly after Stapel became dean, the student mentioned his concerns to a young professor at the university gym. Each of them spoke to me but requested anonymity because they worried their careers would be damaged if they were identified.

The professor, who had been hired recently, began attending Stapel’s lab meetings. He was struck by how great the data looked, no matter the experiment. "I don’t know that I ever saw that a study failed, which is highly unusual," he told me. "Even the best people, in my experience, have studies that fail constantly. Usually, half don’t work."

The professor approached Stapel to team up on a research project, with the intent of getting a closer look at how he worked. "I wanted to kind of play around with one of these amazing data sets," he told me.

The professor said wryly about the experiment that "Everything worked really well", but when he looked at the data he smelled fraud.

The professor consulted a senior colleague in the United States, who told him he shouldn’t feel any obligation to report the matter. But the person who alerted the young professor, along with another graduate student, refused to let it go. That spring, the other graduate student examined a number of data sets that Stapel had supplied to students and postdocs in recent years, many of which led to papers and dissertations. She found a host of anomalies, the smoking gun being a data set in which Stapel appeared to have done a copy-paste job, leaving two rows of data nearly identical to each other.

Mr. Stapel’s own graduate students finally took him down.

The two students decided to report the charges to the department head, Marcel Zeelenberg. But they worried that Zeelenberg, Stapel’s friend, might come to his defense. To sound him out, one of the students made up a scenario about a professor who committed academic fraud, and asked Zeelenberg what he thought about the situation, without telling him it was hypothetical. "They should hang him from the highest tree" if the allegations were true, was Zeelenberg’s response, according to the student.

When the students told Dr. Zeelenberg, the truth was out.

So if you’re a lying scientist and you want to commit a similar fraud, take a lesson from Mr. Stapel:

The key to why Stapel got away with his fabrications for so long lies in his keen understanding of the sociology of his field. "I didn’t do strange stuff, I never said let’s do an experiment to show that the earth is flat," he said. "I always checked this may be by a cunning manipulative mind that the experiment was reasonable, that it followed from the research that had come before, that it was just this extra step that everybody was waiting for." He always read the research literature extensively to generate his hypotheses. "So that it was believable and could be argued that this was the only logical thing you would find," he said. "Everybody wants you to be novel and creative, but you also need to be truthful and likely. You need to be able to say that this is completely new and exciting, but it’s very likely given what we know so far."

Read more: The Mind of a Con Man, The New York Times Magazine>>

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