The sin of bad science

Image of Simon Kuper

Diederik Stapel, who ranks among the 10 greatest academic fraudsters in history, has barely left his house in a year. “I’ve lost everything,” the disgraced former psychology professor tells me over the phone from the Netherlands. He is almost bankrupt. His family cannot afford to take baths. He says he sometimes considers suicide. He has tarnished his own discipline of social psychology. And he has become a national pariah. “I thought I’d gradually be able to go outside,” he says, “but the opposite is true, especially since it’s become clear the critics won’t give up.”

I worry that he will never come back from his disgrace. Different societies deal differently with sinners, and the Dutch seem particularly unforgiving.

Stapel was at school with me. I wrote for the school magazine, which he edited. In the small Dutch town where we grew up, we also played for the same football club. I was three years younger and hardly knew him, but I remember a giant boy who (unusually for our school) smiled in the corridors at people he didn’t know.

I’d forgotten him until, last year, “The Lying Dutchman” became world news. It turned out that he’d serially made up his academic findings – for instance, his article in the revered journal Science claiming that people are more likely to use discriminatory stereotypes in a dirty setting such as an uncleaned train station, or his finding that carnivores are egotistical. He hadn’t done the research; he’d just invented everything. Fraud has been detected in at least 55 of his academic papers, and in 10 PhD theses that he supervised. The Dutch media still bash him daily. Social psychology is almost equally damaged: an academic investigation of Stapel labels it “a sloppy science”.

Stapel’s new book, Ontsporing (which translates as “Off the Rails”), tries to explain his fraud. In part, he says, he was a mediocre academic who made up interesting results because he wanted to be a star. In part, he says, he became “addicted” to invention. But in part, he still can’t explain it. People’s actions have complicated causes. And as a social psychologist (though he’ll never work in the field again), he is very conscious of the “fundamental attribution error”: the mistaken belief that people’s personalities determine their behaviour. Often, it’s context that shapes behaviour.

Stapel’s context was the field of social psychology. Very few social psychologists make stuff up, but he was working in a discipline where cavalier use of data was common. This is perhaps the main finding of the three Dutch academic committees which investigated his fraud. The committees found many bad practices: researchers who keep rerunning an experiment until they get the right result, who omit inconvenient data, misunderstand statistics, don’t share their data, and so on. The investigation comes soon after Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in economics, told psychologists who study social priming: “Your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research.”

There is “great unrest in social psychology about how work is done,” says Frank van Kolfschooten, a Dutch expert on academic cheating. “Some people say the Stapel case is the best thing that could have happened to social psychology, because it provides an impulse to examine these issues.”

Social psychology might recover. However, Stapel might not. A country’s way of dealing with sinners is often shaped by its religious heritage. In Catholicism, sinners can get absolution in the secrecy of confession. That may help explain why in Italy Silvio Berlusconi cheerily sins on without ever showing public contrition. Freshly sentenced to jail for tax fraud, he’s running for prime minister again.

In many American versions of Protestantism, the sinner can be “born again”. You sin, but then you embrace Jesus, and He cleanses you. That tradition allows American sinners to return. President Bill Clinton was impeached over the Monica Lewinsky affair. But later he admitted everything, toured the country apologising to his supporters, and is today probably America’s most respected politician. Politically, he was born again. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum, “There are no second acts in American lives”, is false.

Stapel’s misfortune is to be Dutch. The dominant Dutch tradition is Calvinist, and Calvinism believes in eternal sin. Calvinist sinners cannot save themselves. This stringency may deter people from sinning: the Netherlands ranks ninth in Transparency International’s corruption perception index, just below the mostly Lutheran Scandinavian countries.

But the downside to not forgiving sinners is that there are almost no second acts in Dutch lives. Stapel told me, “In newspapers and on blogs people say, ‘People like him don’t deserve a second chance.’ The question is whether you will be granted anything. Perhaps in five or 10 years, but that’s a very long time.”

In a chilling passage in the book, he tells his two daughters that it might be better if he weren’t there any more. He wrote the scene knowing it would evoke horror, but his prospects are genuinely bleak. I do worry.

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