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.