Monday, April 29, 2013

The Academic Liar

Have you ever told a story that was not strictly true?  I don’t mean an outright lie, but a story with a few invented or exaggerated details.  If you did, you probably weren’t producing a fraudulent resume or committing perjury.  You were probably just trying to entertain the other people around the table.  Something happened and you exercised a little poetic license. 
If so, then you may be able to appreciate the fate of Diederik Stapel.  Here, submitted for your approval, is this story from the New York Times:
Stapel was an academic star in the Netherlands and abroad, the author of several well-regarded studies on human attitudes and behavior. That spring, he published a widely publicized study in Science about an experiment done at the Utrecht train station showing that a trash-filled environment tended to bring out racist tendencies in individuals. And just days earlier, he received more media attention for a study indicating that eating meat made people selfish and less social.
It turned out that Stapel’s studies were based on fabricated data.  After what must have been a Hellish ordeal, he finally confessed to fraud. 
A lot of commentary on the story has focused on the question of how pervasive such frauds are in academic research.  There have certainly been a lot of cases in recent years.  This has led some to question whether peer review has any value.  Perhaps academics have been lazy at the job of policing one another or, worse, aren’t really interested in a system that is carefully policed. 
I think that this is asking too much of peer review.  If a journal sends me a piece on Xenophon, I can tell them whether it is cogently written and argued, whether it reflects the relevant source materials and accurately translates the Greek.  I have to rely, however, on the information and materials that I have access to.  If the author cites a journal written in German, I will have to take his word for what it says.  When a paper supposedly based on an experiment is peer reviewed, the reviewer is unlikely to know whether the experiment was actually performed and the data accurately recorded. 
What interests me at the moment is the question why people do such things.  The penalty for getting caught is rather severe in terms of reputation and career.  You have to wonder how often Stapel woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it before he was exposed in broad daylight.  So why did he take the risk? 
Most of the celebrated cases of academic fraud involve telling some part of the larger public something that it dearly wants to hear.  Historian Michael Bellesiles became an instant celebrity when he published a book demonstrating that gun ownership was relatively rare before the Civil War.  That was music to the ears of the gun control intelligentsia.  It turned out to be a fraud.  His spectacular rise was followed by an equally spectacular fall, complete with rescinded prizes and academic ostracism.  The temptations of fame and fortune are obvious enough but we should not overlook the simple desire to be liked. 
We human beings have a very strong inclination to tell people something that gratifies them.  They will gratify us in return.  The human ability to laugh at a joke, one of our most basic communicative reactions, surely seems to have evolved precisely in this niche: telling jokes around the fire.  It ties the story teller and his audience together and elevates the status of the one by entertaining the other.  If it is reasonable to assume that human beings were simple before they became complex, the true tale probably predates the tall one.  In recounting again and again the glories of the hunt and the hilarity of the guy getting trampled by the damn mammoth, first in crude pantomime and then in crude language, the story tellers quickly learned to embellish the tale. 
Before we condemn this inclination to exaggeration, we might note that what I have just imagined is probably the origin of all poetry.  Writers of fiction are, in one sense, liars by profession.  If it is not a lie to tell a story so long as it is tagged as fiction by the Library of Congress, it is nonetheless true that fiction long predates the invention of that category.  Perhaps the consummate raconteur would be a better man if he were more literal but he would likely be limited in his art. 
Here, I dare say, the virtue of virtue is evident.  Whether it is ever permitted to tell a big fish story at the bar, making up data in a profession paper is another kettle of fish.  It is easy to understand how the temptation to lie was originally selected for and why it persists to this day.  It is no more difficult to understand how it can be, metaphorically, fatal to the scholar and to the scholarly enterprise in which he participates. 
If Aristotle is right, the virtuous man is not tempted to lie.  He is not so tempted because he hates liars and more so the thought that he might be a liar more than he craves any advantage that the lie would afford him.  Such virtue is not easy to achieve.  Today’s story informs us that academics and researchers, not to mention the rest of us, would be advise to cultivate it. 
Hat tip to Steven Peterson for the story. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Evolution of Virtue 7


Here I reply to a second question posed in my recent exchanges with Miranda: if virtuous deeds are what virtuous persons do and virtuous persons are those who do virtuous deeds (as I have argued) how do we know discover virtue is?  Surely we need to know that in advance in order to recognize the one and the other.  
In chapter two of Moral Origins, Christopher Boehm considers the nature and evolution of psychopathy.  The psychopath is a person who is incapable of “internalizing” the moral rules by which his social fellows live.  He doesn’t feel the least bit inclined to follow those rules and indeed may be unable to do so.  Nor does he feel at all distressed or regretful about the damage he does to his victims. 
Boehm considers first a number of cases where psychopathy was the result of an injury to the prefrontal cortex.  This is apparently the spot in the brain where our moral circuitry resides.  Whereas most of us are kept reasonable responsible and reliable by our moral emotions, these “morally damaged minds” could not provide such a service.   
The result is a life that is an utter mess.  Unable to evaluate and control their own impulses, they became friendless and wretched.  The most famous case, Phineas Gage, ended up as a sideshow freak. 
Here, I submit, both the beauty and utility of moral virtue is glaringly apparent.  Without it, one cannot be a good friend and partner, a good husband or father, or even provide well for oneself.  One cannot lead a decent human life.  All one needs to know to begin to recognize virtuous deeds and virtuous persons is the difference between sickness and health.  Given that, the difference between moral mediocrity and moral excellence (which is what virtue means) is not problematic. 
Boehm turns next to the “born psychopath.”  He notes an alarming estimate that such individuals may be as common as one is every seven hundred.  That suggests that some selection pressure is keeping their amoral traits in the gene pool.  What might that mean?
Consider the hawks in the previous post on the prisoner’s dilemma.  Unlike the cases mentioned above, born psychopaths are not always behaviorally dysfunctional.  They are often highly intelligent and can be very good at pretending to have moral passions that they do not genuinely feel.  They are nature’s conmen and predators.  I recall an episode of This American Life were it was suggested that they make very good CEO’s of competitive companies. 
Whether the advantages of intelligence and a drive to dominion outweigh the utterly alone and loveless existence that is the fate of such persons, I will not address here.  I would only note that I have trouble imagining that any morally healthy person would choose to be like that.  What I will submit is that, apart from a possible economic niche that might actually be useful to the rest of us, the born psychopaths are enemies of nearly all of us. 
Such creatures frequently become monsters.  They lie, steal, cheat, and kill without remorse.  Sometimes they become serial killers and there is no telling how many of them are out there.  They probably flourish in war and especially in civil war.  I don’t doubt but that they make excellent tyrants. 
For those of us who are not psychopaths, who have the normal pallet of moral emotions, who want to love and have friends and families and fellow citizens, the psychopath is an enemy.  If such a being is preserved by natural selection, then that is one of the burdens of our species.  It is no more difficult to see that he is bad than it is to see the difference between health and sickness.  Likewise, it is easy enough to see the virtues of ordinary morality and the utter beauty of moral virtuosity. 
Ps.  Tonight I reread Aristotle’s discussion of tyranny in the Politics, Book E, sections 10 & 11.  Aristotle considers how tyrannies are maintained and proposes two ways that are almost the opposite of one another.  The first is familiar to anyone who knows much about modern totalitarianism.  Keep the population weak, divided, and fearful.  Cut down any individual who shows signs of courage and independence.  Deploy your secret police to find out what your subjects are doing and thinking and to make it impossible for them to trust one another. 
The second way is to pretend to be a virtuous monarch.  Give to each subject as much security as you can safely allow.  Avoid lavish displays and instead cultivate a reputation for fiscal responsibility.  Present yourself as the protector of the people, responsible for their security and prosperity.  Of course this is mere pretense.  Its purpose is to keep you in power, not to promote the common welfare; otherwise, you might really become a virtuous monarch and that wouldn’t be preserving tyranny, would it? 
It’s not at all clear to me that the two modes of preserving tyranny are really at odds.  The most vicious tyrants usually try to do both in so far as they can manage.  Aristotle’s point is that tyranny is ugly even when it pretends to be beautiful.  Whatever the advantages of tyranny to the tyrant, it is clearly bad for almost all human beings under the tyrant’s power.  I submit that, in light of this comparison, virtuous persons, virtuous actions, and virtuous government are all easy to discern. 
Pps.  Salman Rushdie has a fine piece on moral courage at the New York Times.