‘It Was Too Good To Be True’: A Case of Scientific Fraud

In 2011, Diederik Stapel, a bright social psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, was suspended for fabricating data on a study that brought him much praise. At the Guardian, Stephen Buranyi profiles the team of researchers from the university’s psychology department, Chris Hartgerink and Marcel van Assen, who have since focused their research on scientific fraud.

Stapel had a knack for devising and executing such clever studies, cutting through messy problems to extract clean data. Since becoming a professor a decade earlier, he had published more than 100 papers, showing, among other things, that beauty product advertisements, regardless of context, prompted women to think about themselves more negatively, and that judges who had been primed to think about concepts of impartial justice were less likely to make racially motivated decisions.

His findings regularly reached the public through the media. The idea that huge, intractable social issues such as sexism and racism could be affected in such simple ways had a powerful intuitive appeal, and hinted at the possibility of equally simple, elegant solutions. If anything united Stapel’s diverse interests, it was this Gladwellian bent. His studies were often featured in the popular press, including the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and he was a regular guest on Dutch television programmes.

But as Stapel’s reputation skyrocketed, a small group of colleagues and students began to view him with suspicion. “It was too good to be true,” a professor who was working at Tilburg at the time told me. (The professor, who I will call Joseph Robin, asked to remain anonymous so that he could frankly discuss his role in exposing Stapel.) “All of his experiments worked. That just doesn’t happen.”

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