Andrew Gelman, the professor of statistics at Columbia whose skeptical blog has done a lot over the years to better standards of statistical analysis, blogs:
We’ve been hearing a lot about glamorous scientists who go on Ted and NPR, write airport bestsellers, get six-figure speaking gigs . . . and then it turns out, first that their work does not replicate, and next that their fame and fortune were based on scientific publications that were fatally flawed. Maybe the data were fabricated, maybe the experiments never happened, maybe the data were analyzed manipulatively or incompetently, often even if everything was on the up-and-up these studies were too noisy for anything useful to be learned.
At this point we usually ask, What happened? How did this bad work get done? Or, How did it not get caught, staying aloft, Wiley E. Coyote-like, for years, with no means of support? Or, What caused the eventual fall?
But today I want to ask a different question: How did this work get all the adoring publicity in the first place? …
For example, the scandal everyone’s talking about now is a paper coauthored by two different NPR/Ted talk stars,
Two celebrity Harvard experts on dishonesty, Dan Ariely and Francesca Gino, have been accused of dishonesty. Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke with an endowed chair, and Gino is a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.
and the key result of the paper was that if people sign an honesty pledge at the top of a form, they behave more honestly than if they sign at the bottom. Even if this was all real—even if there had not been all these data problems (for example here, and that ain’t the half of it), even if this had not been part of a whole line of research with replication problems—even without all that, why did anyone really care about this stuff in the first place?
… OK, I can see how business marketers would care about this, but how does it make you a Ted talk superstar? …
How did this happen? What got these people into the stratosphere of fame? …
So I went to some of the Ted talk pages of these psychology researchers and I think I have some sense of what was going on.
Here’s one: “Are we in control of our own decisions?”
And another: “How to change your behavior for the better”
And how about this: “The Power of Why: Unlocking a Curious Mind”
And: “Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules”
It’s a three-step process: First you do research demonstrating some very specific thing. Actually, the research doesn’t even need to demonstrate it, but it needs to look like it does. Second, you parlay this into a reputation for being a brilliant, innovative academic. Third, you imply that the specific thing you found (or, to be more precise, that you claim to have found) has important general implications. That’s how you get from the angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin result, “Signing at the beginning makes ethics salient and decreases dishonest self-reports in comparison to signing at the end,” to the big ideas such as “How to change your behavior for the better.”
My guess is that a lot of academics saw Malcolm Gladwell become a celebrity public speaker for writing bestsellers that included references to one or two of their papers, and so they got to strategizing about how they could move from mere researcher to also being a famous pundit, author of airline book bestsellers, and motivational speaker. After all, they know more about psychology than Malcolm does, so why shouldn’t they have fabulous careers like his?
Their business plan tended to be:
Step 1. Discover micro-finding X
Step 2. ???
Step 3. Become famous author and public speaker on macro topic Y
Unlike with the Underwear Gnomes, however, Step 2 is pretty obvious: Do a lot of self-promotion exaggerating the importance of your micro-finding X as the skeleton key that unlocks macro topic Y.
Back during the Iraq War, I coined the term Marketing Major Postmodernism to describe the idea that I sensed was increasingly common among Republican political strategists that some egghead over in France or Germany had proved there was no such thing as truth, that it was all instead just a social construction, so … spin away, PR dudes and dudettes!