The discovery that the Dutch researcher Diederik A. Stapel made up the data for dozens of research papers has shaken up the field of social psychology, fueling a discussion not just about outright fraud, but also about subtler ways of misusing research data. Such misuse can happen even unintentionally, as researchers try to make a splash with their peers—and a splash, maybe, with the news media, too.Remember Fritz's First Law? "Half the Science in the media is wrong, and most of the other half is exaggerated?" I may have to up those estimates.
Mr. Stapel's conduct certainly makes him an outlier, but there's no doubt he was a talented mainstream player of one part of the academic-psychology game: The now-suspended professor at Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, served up a diet of snappy, contrarian results that reporters lapped up.
Consider just two of his most recent papers: "Power Increases Infidelity Among Men and Women," from Psychological Science, and "Coping With Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination," from Science—two prestigious journals. The first paper upended a gender stereotype (alpha-female politicos philander, too?!), while the second linked the physical world to the psychological one in a striking manner (a messy desk leads to racist thoughts!?). Both received extensive news coverage.