Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reporters Lap Up Fake Science

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.

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.
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.

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