How New York Times Got Swindled by Sociology Fraud


In September, social psychology professor Diederik A. Stapel was fired by Tilburg University after an investigation revealed he had falsified, lied and invented data in more than 30 experiments. Prior to Stapel’s downfall, his work had attracted highly favorable international attention including multiple citations in the Times of New York (which happily repeated Stapel’s bogus scientific evidence proving that advertising works by making “women feel worse about themselves” and that conservative politics causes hypocrisy) and the Times of Los Angeles (which parroted an absurd study on racism and tidiness, about which more in a moment). 

True to form, Stapel made it clear that competitive pressure and lack of regulation were to blame for his fraud. “I did not withstand the pressure to score, to publish, the pressure to get better in time,” Stapel told a Dutch paper. “I wanted too much, too fast. In a system where there are few checks and balances, where people work alone, I took the wrong turn. I want to emphasize that the mistakes that I made were not born out of selfish ends.”

At the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson looks at the “Chump Effect” that prompts reporters to write up dubious studies uncritically: 

 The silliness of social psychology doesn’t lie in its questionable research practices but in the research practices that no one thinks to question. The most common working premise of social-psychology research is far-fetched all by itself: The behavior of a statistically insignificant, self-selected number of college students or high schoolers filling out questionnaires and role-playing in a psych lab can reveal scientifically valid truths about human behavior. 

And when the research reaches beyond the classroom, it becomes sillier still. 

Consider this recent study by Stapel, demonstrating the relationship between “disorder” and white racism and homophobia... 

The experiment began after janitors at the Utrecht railroad station went on strike. Stapel and colleagues leapt into action. As the garbage in the station piled up, they cornered 40 white passengers. One by one the travelers were asked to take a seat in a row of folding chairs. They were given a questionnaire. If they filled it out, they were told, they would get a piece of chocolate or an apple as a reward.

The questionnaire asked to what degree the travelers agreed with stereotypes about certain types of people. (Are gays “creative and sweet” or “strange and feminine” or “impatient and intelligent”?) And then came the twist! Stapel had planted a person at the end of the row of chairs—sometimes a black person, sometimes a white. Researchers measured how far away from the person each respondent chose to sit. Meanwhile, thanks to the questionnaire, they could measure the degree of racism or homophobia each was feeling. On average, the travelers sat 25 percent closer to the white man than to the black man.

In time the janitors came back to work. The station was cleaned spick-and-span. Stapel and his gang returned and performed the experiment again, on another 40 white travelers. There in the tidy environment, their questionnaires showed they were less racist and homophobic than their counterparts from the earlier experiment. And on average, they sat the same distance from the white person as the black person. Hence, as the headline read: “Messy surroundings make people stereotype others.”

But Stapel, as an internationally respected social psychologist, wasn’t satisfied. So he designed another experiment to confirm his finding. The Stapel gang went to a wealthy neighborhood. They threw a bicycle on the ground, tore up paving stones, and, as the L.A. Times noted, parked Stapel’s Subaru on the sidewalk. Chaos! Disorder! Forty-seven passersby were collared, given a new questionnaire to test their racism, and asked to donate money to (I’m not making this up) a charity called “Money for Minorities.”

Then the bike was removed. The stones were replaced. Stapel moved his Subaru. Now it was just a nice, rich, tidy neighborhood. More passersby were collared, more questionnaires were filled out, and—here’s the scientific finding—less racism and homophobia were revealed. And the passersby in the tidy neighborhood gave more money to minorities on average: to be precise, 0.65 euro more.

Social psychologists around the world gazed on these findings when they were published this spring. They gave their chins a good, firm tug. “This need for order matters a lot more than we might have thought,” a Duke psychologist told the Times.

Did Stapel fake his research? Did he and his students really make all those people fill out forms for an apple? Did Stapel really cross-tabulate the data? Did he really park his car on the sidewalk? 

Who cares? The experiments are preposterous. You’d have to be a highly trained social psychologist, or a journalist, to think otherwise. Just for starters, the experiments can never be repeated or their results tested under controlled conditions. The influence of a hundred different variables is impossible to record. The first group of passengers may have little in common with the second group. The groups were too small to yield statistically significant results. The questionnaire is hopelessly imprecise, and so are the measures of racism and homophobia. The notions of “disorder” and “stereotype” are arbitrary—and so on and so on.

Described in this way, it does seem like there could be real journalistic interest in this study – as a human interest story like the three-legged rooster or the world’s largest rubber band collection. It just doesn’t have any value as a study of abstract truths about human behavior. The telling thing is that the dullest part of Stapel’s work – its ideologically motivated and false claims about sociology – got all the attention, while the spectacle of a lunatic digging up paving stones and giving apples to unlucky commuters at a trash-strewn train station was considered normal. 

Courtesy of Jpod.

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  • ||

    It can never be cited or read too often.

    http://neurotheory.columbia.ed....._cult.html

  • ||

    I wanted too much, too fast. In a system where there are few checks and balances, where people work alone, I took the wrong turn. I want to emphasize that the mistakes that I made were not born out of selfish ends.

    He didn't want fame or tenure. He just wanted to help the world understand how evil conservatives were. The man is a martyr.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    "the mistakes that I made were not born out of selfish ends"

    That, right there, is comedy gold. The man is a horrible liar.

  • wareagle||

    The man is a martyr.
    ------------------------
    aren't they all. Academics, victimized by the publish-or-perish system. That they created. There is something Burkean in this..about teh human being separated from his natural condition by things of his own making, like stupid ways of determining the competence of professors.

  • Spartacus||

    These are not mistakes. A mistake is when you type "teh" instead of "the". What this guy has done is engage in an deliberate, ongoing scheme to defraud, well, just about everybody. He should be sentenced to teach in an American middle school for the rest of his career.

  • Sevo||

    "He should be sentenced to teach in an American middle school for the rest of his career."

    Naah. He should be sentenced to *attend* one as a student.

  • Invisible Finger||

    “I wanted too much, too fast... the mistakes that I made were not born out of selfish ends.”

    Even his apology is a fraud.

  • Joe M||

    “I did not withstand the pressure to score, to publish, the pressure to get better in time,” Stapel told a Dutch paper. “I wanted too much, too fast. In a system where there are few checks and balances, where people work alone, I took the wrong turn. I want to emphasize that the mistakes that I made were not born out of selfish ends.”

    That's straight out of an Ayn Rand novel. Not being born out of selfish ends is exactly what made them mistakes, she would say.

  • ||

    That quote sounded like it came directly out of Atlas.

  • Mike M.||

    The backpfeifengesicht, it is strong with this one.

  • Messkin||

    On average, the travelers sat 25 percent closer to the white man than to the black man... In time the janitors came back to work. The station was cleaned spick-and-span.

    Funny.

  • G.L.Piggy||

    This man has given the word "selfish" a new meaning.

    The methodology in these experiments is hair-raising. But just to buy into the frame of the experiment, chaotic and messy conditions raise the level of *misanthropy*. The experiments didn't control for - among other things - the degree to which respondents hated fellow whites, fellow straights, and the world in general.

  • Russ 2000||

    while the spectacle of a lunatic digging up paving stones and giving apples to unlucky commuters at a trash-strewn train station was considered normal.

    Perhaps the field only attracts lunatics.

    I mean Social psychology, not journalism. OK, journalism attracts mostly lunatics too but every once in a while a Balko shows up.

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    And Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    This is bat country.

  • Abdul||

    In fairness, when I'm in a disordered environment, I am far more likely to think of Chinese people as bad drivers.

  • jtuf||

    In September, social psychology professor Diederik A. Stapel was fired by Tilburg University after an investigation revealed he had falsified, lied and invented data in more than 30 experiments.

    This is shocking. Given what passes for statistical analysis in the social sciences, there is no excuse for inventing data. Social scientists have statistical tools for making any data they college match their hypotheses.

  • My Myself and I||

    The Times didn't get swindled. To be deceived, they would have had to actually care if it was true or merely useful.

  • mofo||

    A good rule of thumb: If it has 'science' in the name, it isnt one.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Thinking about that, your idea is not that horrible of an indicator.

  • Bee Tagger||

    At the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson looks at the “Chump Effect” that prompts reporters to write up dubious studies uncritically:

    I swear, if he even uses made-up data to make his point, I'm going right back to Stapel.

  • ||

    Please change the headline. Social psychology is NOT sociology.

  • Disappointed||

    19 comments and not one always-hilarious "punchable face" joke.
    You boys are slipping.

  • Zeb||

    Mike M.|12.1.11 @ 11:04AM|#

    The backpfeifengesicht, it is strong with this one.

  • Zeb||

    Fuck, I think I just replied to rather.

  • Sevo||

    “I did not withstand the pressure to score, to publish, the pressure to get better in time,” Stapel told a Dutch paper. “I wanted too much, too fast. In a system where there are few checks and balances, where people work alone, I took the wrong turn."

    Corrected version:
    'I'm a pathetic excuse for a moral agent' Stapel [should have] told a Dutch paper. 'I've never grown up; I'm a liar and a cheat besides'

  • ||

    I want to emphasize that the mistakes that I made were not born out of selfish ends.

    Let me guess; he was doing it for me.

  • ||

    How many people stopped their cars and scolded him for leaving his bicycle on the ground, instead of putting it in the rack?

  • ||

    I don't think the reviewer knows what "statistically significant" means. If his results didn't have p-values less than .05 I'm quite sure they wouldn't have been published and social psychologists wouldn't have taken them seriously.

    Also, medical research is typically done on young volunteers as well... feel free to panic about that.

  • MJ||

    Blaming lack of of regulations is one of the reasons he committed fraud? Having pride in your work is not enough to prevent him from publishing bogus research? Because of him real scientists may have to put up with extra bureacratic nonsense.

  • han||

    And when the research reaches beyond the classroom, it becomes sillier still.

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