Why cases of scientific fraud can affect everyone in sociology

The recent case of a Dutch social psychologist admitting to working with fraudulent data can lead some to paint social psychology or the broader discipline of sociology as problematic:

At the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson looks at the “Chump Effect” that prompts reporters to write up dubious studies uncritically:

The silliness of social psychology doesn’t lie in its questionable research practices but in the research practices that no one thinks to question. The most common working premise of social-psychology research is far-fetched all by itself: The behavior of a statistically insignificant, self-selected number of college students or high schoolers filling out questionnaires and role-playing in a psych lab can reveal scientifically valid truths about human behavior.

And when the research reaches beyond the classroom, it becomes sillier still…

Described in this way, it does seem like there could be real journalistic interest in this study – as a human interest story like the three-legged rooster or the world’s largest rubber band collection. It just doesn’t have any value as a study of abstract truths about human behavior. The telling thing is that the dullest part of Stapel’s work – its ideologically motivated and false claims about sociology – got all the attention, while the spectacle of a lunatic digging up paving stones and giving apples to unlucky commuters at a trash-strewn train station was considered normal.

A good moment for reaction from a conservative perspective: two favorite whipping boys, liberal (and fraudulent!) social scientists plus journalists/the media (uncritical and biased!), can be tackled at once.

Seriously, though: the answer here is not to paint entire academic disciplines as problematic because of one case of fraud. Granted, some of the questions raised are good ones that social scientists themselves have raised recently: how much about human activity can you discover through relatively small sample tests of American undergraduates? But good science is not based on one study anyway. An interesting finding should be corroborated by similar studies done in different places at different times with different people. These multiple tests and observations help establish the reliability and validity of findings. This can be a slow process, another issue in a media landscape where new stories are needed all the time.

This reminds me of Joel Best’s recommendations regarding dealing with statistics. One common option is to simply trust all statistics. Numbers look authoritative, often come from experts, and they can be overwhelming. Just accepting them can be easy. At the other pole is the common option of saying that all statistics are simply interpretation and are manipulated so we can’t trust any of them. No numbers are trustworthy. Neither approaches are good options but they are relatively easy options. The better route to go when dealing with scientific studies is to have the basic skills necessary to understand whether they are good studies or not and how the process of science works. In this case, this would be a great time to call for better training among journalists about scientific studies so they can provide better interpretations for the public.

In the end, when one prominent social psychologist admits to massive fraud, the repercussions might be felt by others in the field for quite a while.

0 thoughts on “Why cases of scientific fraud can affect everyone in sociology

  1. Pingback: Credibility, statistics, and the legal profession | Legally Sociable

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