A scientist with an attitude problem

“I don’t know that I ever saw that a study failed, which is highly unusual,” he told me. “Even the best people, in my experience, have studies that fail constantly. Usually, half don’t work.”

Those are the words of a young professor of social psychology, as reported by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee in a captivating article on the ten-year fraud career of Diederik Stapel. Stapel falsified 55 research papers and theses in social psychology from 2000 to 2011. Before then, in 2010, a young professor just hired at the University of Tilberg began attending Stapel’s group’s research meetings, where as he says, he was struck by how infrequently “failed” studies were presented.

The problem, of course, is that well-designed studies don’t fail — only hypotheses can fail. The idea that studies “fail” if they don’t support a desired outcome is disturbing. It’s especially disturbing that in a long-form article about the career of a research fraudster, it comes not from the fraudster, but from a young up-and-comer in the field. Although I hope that this attitude isn’t reflective of the field as a whole, I fear that it might be. Incentives matter, as they say, and I worry for the integrity of scientific progress if scientists’ attitudes towards failure are anything like what’s espoused in this quote.


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