the mind of a con man

“The tone of his talks, he said, was “Let’s not talk about the plumbing, the nuts and bolts — that’s for plumbers, for statisticians.””

As I got a tablet last week and immediately subscribed to the New York Times, I started reading papers from recent editions and got to this long article of April 26, by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee on Diederik Stapel, the Dutch professor of psychology who used fake data in dozens of papers and PhD theses.

“In his early years of research — when he supposedly collected real experimental data — Stapel wrote papers laying out complicated and messy relationships between multiple variables. He soon realized that journal editors preferred simplicity.”

This article is rather puzzling in its presentation of the facts. While Stapel acknowledges making up the data that conveniently supported his theses, the journalist’s analysis is fairly ambivalent, for instance considering that faking data is a “lesser threat to the integrity of science than the massaging of data and selective reporting of experiments”. At the beginning of the article, Stapel is shown going back to places where his experiments were supposed to have taken place, but he “could not find a location that matched the conditions described in his experiment”, making it sound as if he had forgotten…

“Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing (…) People are on the road with their talk. With the same talk. It’s like a circus (…) They give a talk in Berlin, two days later they give the same talk in Amsterdam, then they go to London. They are traveling salesmen selling their story.”

The above quote from Stapel is even more puzzling, as if giving the same talk in different places is an unacceptable academic behaviour, in par with faking data and plagiarism… I do give the same talk in several conferences and seminars, mostly to different people and I do not see a problem with this. If I persist in this behaviour, it will get boring to people who see the same talk over and over, and it should lead to me not being invited to conferences or seminars any longer, but there is nothing unethical or a-scientific in this. Another illustration of the ambivalence of both the character and the article. I frankly dislike this approach to fraud, a kind of “50 shades of lies”, where all academics get under suspicion that one way or another they also acted un-ethically and in their own interest rather than towards the advancement of Science…

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