The Mind of a Con Man
By YUDHIJIT BHATTACHARJEE
Published: April 26, 2013
One summer night in 2011, a tall, 40-something professor named Diederik Stapel stepped out of his elegant brick house in the Dutch city of Tilburg to visit a friend around the corner. It was close to midnight, but his colleague Marcel Zeelenberg had called and texted Stapel that evening to say that he wanted to see him about an urgent matter.
... “What’s up?” Stapel asked, settling onto a couch. Two graduate students had made an accusation, Zeelenberg explained. His eyes began to fill with tears. “They suspect you have been committing research fraud.”
Stapel was an academic star in the Netherlands and abroad, the author of several well-regarded studies on human attitudes and behavior. That spring, he published a widely publicized study in Science about an experiment done at the Utrecht train station showing that a trash-filled environment tended to bring out racist tendencies in individuals. ...
On his return trip to Tilburg, Stapel stopped at the train station in Utrecht. This was the site of his study linking racism to environmental untidiness, supposedly conducted during a strike by sanitation workers. In the experiment described in the Science paper, white volunteers were invited to fill out a questionnaire in a seat among a row of six chairs; the row was empty except for the first chair, which was taken by a black occupant or a white one. Stapel and his co-author claimed that white volunteers tended to sit farther away from the black person when the surrounding area was strewn with garbage. Now, looking around during rush hour, as people streamed on and off the platforms, Stapel could not find a location that matched the conditions described in his experiment.
“No, Diederik, this is ridiculous,” he told himself at last. “You really need to give it up.” ...
In reality, Stapel had simply made up all the data for this, his most popular study, and at least 54 others. He never carried out the studies; he just typed plausible sounding numbers into his computer.
Not surprisingly, the quasi-bogus field of "priming" attracted Stapel, where, apparently, he first started to get creative.
While there, Stapel began testing the idea that priming could affect people without their being aware of it. ... The experiment — and others like it — didn’t give Stapel the desired results, he said. He had the choice of abandoning the work or redoing the experiment. But he had already spent a lot of time on the research and was convinced his hypothesis was valid. “I said — you know what, I am going to create the data set,” he told me.
Sitting at his kitchen table in Groningen, he began typing numbers into his laptop that would give him the outcome he wanted. He knew that the effect he was looking for had to be small in order to be believable; even the most successful psychology experiments rarely yield significant results. The math had to be done in reverse order: the individual attractiveness scores that subjects gave themselves on a 0-7 scale needed to be such that Stapel would get a small but significant difference in the average scores for each of the two conditions he was comparing. He made up individual scores like 4, 5, 3, 3 for subjects who were shown the attractive face. “I tried to make it random, which of course was very hard to do,” Stapel told me.
Doing the analysis, Stapel at first ended up getting a bigger difference between the two conditions than was ideal. He went back and tweaked the numbers again. It took a few hours of trial and error, spread out over a few days, to get the data just right.
He said he felt both terrible and relieved. The results were published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2004. “I realized — hey, we can do this,” he told me.
Stapel’s career took off. He published more than two dozen studies while at Groningen, many of them written with his doctoral students. They don’t appear to have questioned why their supervisor was running many of the experiments for them. Nor did his colleagues inquire about this unusual practice.
In 2006, Stapel moved to Tilburg, joining Zeelenberg. Students flocked to his lab, and he quickly rose in influence. In September 2010, he became dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. He could have retreated from active research to focus on administration, but, he told me, he couldn’t resist the allure of fabricating new results. He had already made up the data for the Utrecht train-station study and was working on the paper that would appear in Science the following year. Colleagues sought him out to take part in new collaborations. ...
The key to why Stapel got away with his fabrications for so long lies in his keen understanding of the sociology of his field. “I didn’t do strange stuff, I never said let’s do an experiment to show that the earth is flat,” he said. “I always checked — this may be by a cunning manipulative mind — that the experiment was reasonable, that it followed from the research that had come before, that it was just this extra step that everybody was waiting for.”
Obviously, with his famous study of white racism at the Utrecht train station, it helps to deliver lessons that the world wants to hear. The problem for honest social scientists is that large parts of reality are more or less off limits. Nobody wants to hear honest, wide-ranging truths about race these days.
For example, to this day, we constantly read denunciations of the IQ researcher Sir Cyril Burt (1883-1971), despite the murkiness of the story. Why? Because his results disputed the idea that heredity plays no role of intelligence. Similarly, the saintly Arthur Jensen was largely shoved down the memory hole so that we had to get a drive going just to get the great man obituarized when he died last year.
Yet, we see the 1960's work of Rick Heber of the Milwaukee Project enthusiastically cited in the NYT a generation after Heber went to prison for fraud.
In Nicholas D. Kristof's 4/15/2009 column in the NYT, he wrote:
Professor Nisbett strongly advocates intensive early childhood education because of its proven ability to raise I.Q. and improve long-term outcomes. The Milwaukee Project, for example, took African-American children considered at risk for mental retardation and assigned them randomly either to a control group that received no help or to a group that enjoyed intensive day care and education from 6 months of age until they left to enter first grade.
By age 5, the children in the program averaged an I.Q. of 110, compared with 83 for children in the control group. Even years later in adolescence, those children were still 10 points ahead in I.Q.
The term Milwaukee Project is the popular title of a widely publicized program begun in the mid-1960s as one of many Great Society efforts to improve the intellectual development of low-achieving groups. It was headed by Rick Heber of the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison, who was also director of the generously funded Waisman Institute in Madison. The Milwaukee Project was a small study with some 20 experimental subjects and 20 control subjects. It was not reported on by the investigators in any refereed scientific journals, yet its cost was some $14 million, mostly in federal funds, and its fame was international, since it claimed to have moved the IQs of its subject children from the dull-normal range of intelligence to the superior range of intelligence. ...
Enthusiasm, controversy, and scandal subsequently surrounded the history of the project. Its claimed success was hailed by famous psychologists and by the popular media. Later in the project, Heber, the principal investigator, was discharged from UW, Madison and convicted and imprisoned for large-scale abuse of federal funding for private gain. Two of his colleagues were also convicted of violations of federal laws in connection with misuse of project funds. …. However, the project received uncritical acceptance in many college textbooks in psychology and education.
Why? Because there is a market for lies.