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  • Sloppy science: one step away from fraud

    - “If you really want to be a crook, don’t chose social science, you’d better become a banker.” In his reaction to the large fraud case in social psychology, professor Dan Ariely gives insight in how cheaters explain away their behavior.

    “Mostly it is the same in all areas of cheating. It depends on the measure of rationalization the cheater is capable of. It’s not a cost-benefit question. And successful social scientists especially run the risk of trusting themselves too much.”

    Ariely: “One time we did an experiment, something about group decision making, and one guy scored really low. Then I remembered, there had been one drunk guy, and I thought ‘let’s take him out’. Here is the thing: when that crossed my mind, I didn’t think of myself as a cheat, but I thought I was helping science along.”

    In the end the drunk guy remained in the population, but it made Dan Ariely think. “If the rules are flexible, people get the chance to interpret the facts in a short-term selfish way. This is just about being human.”

    Fraud shock waves

    This week in The Netherlands, the Levelt Committee published a thorough report on the scientific fraud committed by Diederik Stapel, which came to light early September 2011. The fraud sent shock waves across the academic world in the Netherlands and internationally.

    The Stapel case brought some ugly characteristics of the scientific culture to light. “It involved a more general failure of scientific criticism in the peer community and a research culture that was excessively oriented to uncritical confirmation of one's own ideas and to finding appealing but theoretically superficial ad hoc results. […] These ‘sloppy science methods’ were found on a large scale in the work of Mr Stapel and his co-workers.”

    The Levelt report remarks that, “Several co-authors who did perform the analyses themselves, defended the serious and less serious violations of proper scientific method with the words: that is what I have learned in practice; everyone in my research environment does the same, and so does everyone we talk to at international conferences.”

    Joy of discovery

    This is exactly what Dan Ariely calls ‘fraud being contagious’. Ariely: “I have talked a lot to cheaters and they invariably tell me that after the first step, the next one is much easier. And it gets easier for others too, especially if the cheater has some authority. That’s why it is so important that people avoid taking that first step.”

    In his own research group Dan Ariely therefore created “Incredible strict rules that cannot be bypassed. So if you don’t want a drunk guy, exclude that category beforehand, but never change the rules along the way.”

    Another way of solving the puzzle is to change the incentive structure. “If you’re so close to getting significant results, fraud becomes more tempting. What I try to do in my research group is to direct attention from publishing the results to the learning experience. Focus on the joy of discovery instead of the outcome.”

    “Another thing is the funding structure: when funding cycles are very short, the incentive to cheat - albeit for altruistic reasons - increases. No professor likes to sack half of the reseachers on a yearly basis."

    Dan Ariely was interviewed at a Denkproducties seminar on November 29.