Truth, Beauty and Scientific Fraud

The New York Times did a long piece on a scientist, a psychologist to be precise, one Stapel, who ran decades of fraudulent experiments.  In explaining his motives, “[h]e insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions.  His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive.  ‘It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty – instead of the truth.’”

So Stapel implicates the institutions of science itself in his fraud, at least partly.  It seems like in these scientific fraud cases, there turns out to be more trust by scientists in each others’ work than is theoretically supposed to be the case.  So they might check each other’s work, but not really verify the inputs, for instance.

As for Stapel’s motive, and that of the academic journals, there is nothing wrong by itself with wanting beautiful results.  In fact, scientists seem to define elegant as orderly and simple, which is what they’re going for- models that are consistent with all data, but are simpler than just a list containing all the data.  The only thing Stapel did wrong was making up his own order, rather than finding the order that actually governs the universe.  Truth is a subset of beauty, and he only went for the latter.  It’s only natural that journals will only publish an elegant result, since that’s the only thing of note.  All truth is beauty, but not all beauty is truth.

“Stapel alluded to having a fuzzy, postmodernist relationship with the truth, which he agreed served as a convenient fog for his wrongdoings.  ‘It’s hard to know the truth,’ he said.  ‘When somebody says, “I love you,” how do I know what it really means?’  At the time, the Netherlands would soon be celebrating the arrival of St. Nicholas, and the younger of his two daughters sat down by the fireplace to sing a traditional Dutch song welcoming St. Nick.  Stapel remarked to me that children her age…, 10, knew that St. Nick wasn’t really going to come down the chimney.  ‘But they like to believe it anyway, because it assures them of presents.’”

So Stapel holds that truth is difficult, perhaps impossible, to know, yet for this very reason he was willing to declare that he had found truth when he had not done so (because who is to say what is and is not truth.)  His discussion of Santa Claus again suggests that we can’t handle the truth, that we want to be fooled, and perhaps are only making a scapegoat of him to mask the degree of our own delusions.*

The example Stapel uses to support the idea that truth is unknowable, that of the problematic meaning of love, deals with difficulties finding meaning, but he traded on the trust of an institution that promises to remove such difficulties through a very precise, neutral language.  Indeed, one of his themes is that science is, in practice, about communication.  Well, of course it is.  But he means communication in the sense of marketing and public relations, not the ways that scientists are theoretically supposed to communicate their findings.

Stapel then notes, probably correctly, that people’s anger at him comes because he threatens their faith in science.  Science is of course supposed to be a process that has a lack of faith in any particular scientist, assuming he might very well be committing fraud, showing bias, and so forth.  It is supposed to work like a good political or economic institution, giving morally average people incentives to good behavior by rewarding those who prove someone else’s work wrong, or prove common biases wrong.  People may in practice be confusing faith in the institutions of science to root out fraud with faith in a particular scientist’s integrity, but the Stapel episode could challenge people’s belief in either.


Staple explains how he got away with what he did: “I didn’t do strange stuff, I never said let’s do an experiment to show that the earth is flat…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….You need to be able to say that this is completely new and exciting, but it’s very likely given what we know so far.”


To demonstrate penance, Stapel told the reporter that he hates himself and is in therapy.  His redemption comes through his writing a book based on his diary after the experience of being found out. 

Stapel told his wife Marcelle about his fraud.  She was upset, because when Stapel had devoted himself to his work at the expense of her, she had thought it was for science, and finding out that it wasn’t made her feel cheated.  Nevertheless, compartmentalized his fraud and concluded that he was good in other respects- he was fine when he wasn’t doing science.  “Marcelle described to me how she placed Stapel inside an integrity scanner in her mind,” the reporter writes- which is strange to me, since what she describes is more or less the opposite of what I understand integrity to mean.

The couple next told their kids.  There is no indication that they found it shocking or surprising that he could do such a thing.  They immediately sought to establish whether the situation would affect them personally.  They first asked, sensibly enough, if Stapel was going to die, and apparently the parents said no, though Stapel did in fact become suicidal.  They asked if the parents would get divorced or if they would have to move, and again the answer was no.  After establishing that their own lives would not be affected in the ways that could reasonably be expected, they concluded that the problem was an abstract one, and fell back on cliché: you always tell us it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. 

* Yet when his parents defend him by blaming the system, he rejects the idea.


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