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afbeelding van Wolfgang Stroebe

Belediging voor de sociale psychologie

De gehele sociale psychologie wordt in het rapport-Stapel ten onrechte over één kam geschoren, vindt emeritus hoogleraar Wolfgang Stroebe.

The Committees investigating the Stapel fraud deserve great respect for investigating this major academic fraud. However, my admiration for their herculean effort is tempered by the fact that instead of restricting their critique to Stapel’s work, they felt the need to extend it to all of social psychology.

Their attack is particularly insidious, because they modestly start out denying any intention to make general statements about social psychology. “It goes without saying that the Committee are not suggesting that unsound research practices are commonplace in social psychology. The committee are unwilling or unable (emphasis mine) to make any statements about social psychology in general ….”.

But after a few pages they overcome their unwillingness and state that “A ‘byproduct’ of the Committees inquiries is the conclusion that… there are certain aspects of the discipline that should be deemed undesirable or even incorrect from the perspectives of academic standards and scientific integrity” (p. 54). 

So how did the committee suddenly feel able to draw such general conclusions? They justify their remarks by arguing on page 53. “Nonetheless the urgent question remains why this fraud and the widespread violations of sound scientific methodology were never discovered in the normal monitoring process in science…. Virtually nothing of all the impossibilities, peculiarities and sloppiness mentioned in this report was observed by all these local, national and international members of the field, and no suspicion whatever arose”.

This “reviewer blindness” is shocking, but sadly it is pervasive to all fields of science and not specific to social psychology. The use of this observation as an argument to attack the entire field of social psychology shows therefore a breathtaking ignorance of the vast literature on scientific misconduct.

With my coauthors Postmes and Spears, I recently summarized our findings based on an analysis of 40 major scientific fraud cases (interview in Dutch about the article here), few of which were in psychology (let alone social psychology). In a comparative analysis, we found the Stapel case most similar to those of Darsee, Schön, Slutsky, Spector and Sudbo who were all considered young superstars in medicine or physics, and were exceedingly productive and publishing data that were “too good to be true”.

Replicating a pattern already reported by Broad and Wade (1982), we found that hardly any of these frauds were discovered in the review process. “Even the most reputable journals appear to accept articles that contain glaring inconsistencies overlooked by reviewers. For example, in a publication by Darsee and Heymsfield (1981) in the New England Journal of Medicine, a family tree is reproduced that shows one 17-year-old father with children ages 8, 7, 5, and 4. .. And the investigation committee checking Darsee’s publication while he was at Emory University noted that in another article, he had claimed to have obtained at least a dozen human hearts for experimentation just hours after death, which is quite clearly impossible). Schön et al. (2000, 2001) published two articles in Science with nearly identical graphs, supposedly reflecting the measured performance of different devices..” (Stroebe et al., 2012).

It is interesting to note that although everybody wondered afterwards how this could have happened, nobody concluded that the physicists, who reviewed Schön’s articles for Nature and Science, or the medical scientists who reviewed Darsee’s publications of the NEJM were “sloppy” scientists or that their fields would deserve the degrading characterization of a “slodderwetenschap”.

Among the reasons we discussed for the pervasive reviewer blindness were that (a) fraud is extremely rare and therefore not considered by reviewers (b) who also see only isolated publications of a fraudster and (c) that fraudsters typically predict effects that are highly plausible.

The major difference between the Levelt/Noorth/Drenth Committees and the reviewers of Stapel’s manuscripts, who overlooked discrepancies that were obvious to the clever committee members, is that these reviewers were reviewing articles by a star scientist of unblemished reputation, whereas the Committee already knew that most of this research was fraudulent.

I would therefore suggest that the members of the committee read the vast literature on scientific fraud, enriched by some social psychological reading on “hindsight bias” (why people are always cleverer after the fact). They could then produce an amended version of their report, omitting all defamatory statements about social psychology. And finally, they might offer their apology to the many scientists they have insulted with their slanderous conclusions about social psychology.

© 2014