Opinion: The other Stapels

POSTED: 11/12/11 7:21 AM

There is chaos in what some consider the stuffy world of science and universities. That’s all due to Diederik Stapel, a by now former professor in social psychology who made up research data for years. Yesterday he voluntarily returned his degree to the University of Amsterdam. The Royal Dutch Science Academy will shortly set up a committee that has to come with recommendations for the prevention of fraud in science.

Stapel produced during his scientific career publications with mysterious titles like “Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination,” and “When we wonder what it all means: Interpretation goals facilitate accessibility and stereotyping effects.”

We have no idea what this all means, or if there was any relevant contents to begin with, but last month it became public that the 45-year-old Stapel made up his research data in at least thirty publications, while dozens of articles are still subject of further scrutiny.

That Stapel was fired by his last employer, the University of Tilburg, does not exactly close the books on this case. One must wonder how many other cheating scientists are out there? Are all these funny stories we read every now and then all merely fairytales? It’s a nightmare for the serious scientist, because the Stapel-effect will be that research data from others, especially when the results are remarkable or out of the ordinary, will now be looked upon with that oh so human Pavlov-reaction: they made that up didn’t they?

What a wonderful life Diederik Stapel must have had since he started working after his promotion in 1997. Imagine sitting in your cubbyhole in some university behind a computer screen dreaming about the next stunt you’re going to pull. How difficult could it be?

When we wonder what this all means, to steal a phrase from one of Stapel’s illustrious publications, we will probably think something like, climate change? They made that up too?

Do soft drinks really make children aggressive? And what about those disordered contexts Stapel wrote about? How do they promote stereotyping and discrimination? And who cares anyway?

Before you know it, the Netherlands rightwing government decides to pull the plug on tons of research projects, claiming that those researchers make up their results while they are watching porn on their government-financed computer systems.

That would be a nice example of throwing away the baby with the bath water. Because, seriously, there is of course a lot of scientific research that could give the Dutch economy an edge over its foreign competitors. But who is for real and who isn’t? That’s the question the Stapel-case  has pushed to the center of attention.

The committee the Academy will establish is going to spend a lot of energy on writing recommendations. Six months from now, where will Diederik Stapel be? One might encounter him in obscure places where he could be working as a cleaner or maybe even a seller of soft drugs. Who knows what the man is capable of?

And still, we have to be grateful to Stapel as well. No matter how revolting his fraud is, something good will come of it. Not for the disgraced professor of course, but for us, simple earthlings who are confronted with the results of scientific research. We’ll be more alert now, and some day a scientist will tell us how the percentage of defrauding scientists holds up against the percentage of smokers, alcoholics, sexual perverts, gambling addicts and prostitutes. Then we’ll be able to say – ah, between 2 and 5 percent of all scientists are cheaters.

Big deal: we don’t want numbers in this case; we want the names of all the other Stapels. The Academy should have established a committee to flush them out, but it didn’t.  After all, the Academy has a reputation to protect.

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Comments (1)


  1. irie says:

    There is a mechanism in the scientific world where newly found “facts” are actual phenomenon than just fairy-tales.

    It is called, replication. Once subsequent scientists replicate the same research methodology as the first scientist, and come to the same conclusion, then this bolsters the validity of the newly found “fact”. Simple as that.

    Let me explain a bit more simply. A real phenomenon in other words is a pattern that happens under some conditions. The second, third and further scientists replicate the same conditions and variables just as the first scientist. If the subsequent scientists conclude to the same findings as the first scientist, then we have a higher chance of this being a fact.

    What the real problem is that there isn’t enough scientists to replicate the vasts amount of newly published phenomena. Especially for Stapels case, what is the importance of such a finding? I would also agree, not too important. So in his branch of research, it is easier to cheat his results, knowing that there aren’t other scientists validating his results.

    So please do not bring up the subject of Climate Change and other well-researched areas. Thousands and thousands of scientists are working on that branch of science, cross validating the results from each other and making sure that the numbers are real.

    However, I just want to mention that science by itself has other pitfalls, not discussed in your opinion article or mine. But that’s a whole other scope of discussion.