Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Lying Dutchman: Fraud in the Ivory Tower

The fraud of Diederik Stapel – professor of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands – was enormous. His list of publications was truly impressive, both in terms of the content of the articles as well as its sheer number and the prestige of the journals in which it was published: dozens of articles in all the top psychology journals in academia with a number of them in famous general science outlets such as Science. His seemingly careful research was very thorough in terms of its research design, and was thought to reveal many intriguing insights about fundamental human nature. The problem was, he had made it all up…

For years – so we know now – Diederik Stapel made up all his data. He would carefully review the literature, design all the studies (with his various co-authors), set up the experiments, print out all the questionnaires, and then, instead of actually doing the experiments and distributing the questionnaires, made it all up. Just like that.

He finally got caught because, eventually, he did not even bother anymore to really make up newly faked data. He used the same (fake) numbers for different experiments, gave those to his various PhD students to analyze, who then in disbelief slaving away in their adjacent cubicles discovered that their very different experiments led to exactly the same statistical values (a near impossibility). When they compared their databases, there was substantial overlap. There was no denying it any longer; Diederik Stapel, was making it up; he was immediately fired by the university, admitted to his lengthy fraud, and handed back his PhD degree.

In an open letter, sent to Dutch newspapers to try to explain his actions, he cited the huge pressures to come up with interesting findings that he had been under, in the publish or perish culture that exist in the academic world, which he had been unable to resist, and which led him to his extreme actions.

There are various things I find truly remarkable and puzzling about the case of Diederik Stapel.
• The first one is the sheer scale and (eventually) outright clumsiness of his fraud. It also makes me realize that there must be dozens, maybe hundreds of others just like him. They just do it a little bit less, less extreme, and are probably a bit more sophisticated about it, but they’re subject to the exact same pressures and temptations as Diederik Stapel. Surely others give in to them as well. He got caught because he was flying so high, he did it so much, and so clumsily. But I am guessing that for every fraud that gets caught, due to hubris, there are at least ten other ones that don’t.
• The second one is that he did it at all. Of course because it is fraud, unethical, and unacceptable, but also because it sort of seems he did not really need it. You have to realize that “getting the data” is just a very small proportion of all the skills and capabilities one needs to get published. You have to really know and understand the literature; you have to be able to carefully design an experiment, ruling out any potential statistical biases, alternative explanations, and other pitfalls; you have to be able to write it up so that it catches people’s interest and imagination; and you have to be able to see the article through the various reviewers and steps in the publication process that every prestigious academic journal operates. Those are substantial and difficult skills; all of which Diederik Stapel possessed. All he did is make up the data; something which is just a small proportion of the total set of skills required, and something that he could have easily outsourced to one of his many PhD students. Sure, you then would not have had the guarantee that the experiment would come out the way you wanted them, but who knows, they could.
• That’s what I find puzzling as well; that at no point he seems to have become curious whether his experiments might actually work without him making it all up. They were interesting experiments; wouldn’t you at some point be tempted to see whether they might work…?
• Truly amazing I also find the fact that he never stopped. It seems he has much in common with Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi Scheme, or the notorious traders in investments banks such as 827 million Nick Leeson, who brought down Barings Bank with his massive fraudulent trades, Societe Generale’s 4.9 billion Jerome Kerviel, and UBS’s 2.3 billion Kweku Adoboli. The difference: Stapel could have stopped. For people like Madoff or the rogue traders, there was no way back; once they had started the fraud there was no stopping it. But Stapel could have stopped at any point. Surely at some point he must have at least considered this? I guess he was addicted; addicted to the status and aura of continued success.
• Finally, what I find truly amazing is that he was teaching the Ethics course at Tilburg University. You just don’t make that one up; that’s Dutch irony at its best.