The Scientific Fraud of Professor X

A Dutch professor in my own field of social psychology was busted for scientific fraud almost two years ago.  The report of a committee that conducted a lengthy investigation concluded, last November, that Professor X had fabricated the data for at least 55 of his papers, and for 10 doctoral dissertations written by his graduate students.

I won’t put Professor X’s name in my blog because you probably already know it.  Even if you don’t, I wouldn’t want my writings to result in the name generating any more hits in Google than it already does.  After having been denounced for conducting fraud in order to obtain scientific eminence, Professor X spent the past number of months in psychotherapy, insights from which have been used to write a book, the only remaining way for him to obtain eminence. 
Apparently we are supposed to believe that this core dump of psychotherapeutic insights constitutes “the truth”, ending years of faking data.  Hmmm.  Professor X recently told a writer for the New York Times (NYT), who straight-out asked him about the veracity of his account of the motivations that were driving him (e.g., desire for beauty and clarity, or because an editor was impatient with complexity), that he doesn’t have any reason to lie anymore.  He doesn’t have any reason to lie anymore.

Doesn’t he?  Who is he trying to fool?

I have known Professor X for most of his career.  I am pleased to note that I never collaborated with him; nor did I ever review one of his manuscripts for a scientific journal that I can recall.  But I can say this: These naïve and voyeuristic NYT (and other outlet) stories about him miss an important part of the story.  It is knowing that a part of the story is lacking that makes me doubt Professor X’s claims about self-insight and personal growth.

The story part is this: Professor X harbored very motivating and indeed self-defining clichés about the ways in which social psychologists in the United States conduct their professional lives, control the field of social psychology, and indeed, therefore, control his possibility of attaining international acclaim.

He believed, first, that American academics are “capitalists.”  I knew that he thought as much , but Professor X revealed the belief himself in the recent NYT article in this way:

‘“Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman. I am on the road. People are on the road with their talk. With the same talk. It’s like a circus.”

He named two psychologists he admired — John Cacioppo and Daniel Gilbert — neither of whom has been accused of fraud.

“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.”’

I can assure you that Professor X thought of these two very successful American psychologists as capitalists.  And while he might have feigned a common European distain for American capitalism, he embraced his own made-up view of it (as played out in the realm of science) and ran with it.  He didn’t actually embody either of the two scientists he cites in the above quotes.  He embodied a cliché that he had conjured up.  They are doing it, so why not me?  But what were those scientists really doing?  He didn’t actually know.

Indeed, Professor X appeared to harbor the suspicion that his colleagues in the United States, the ones who he felt controlled by, were engaging themselves in questionable research behaviors.  This belief, one that I know to be shared more broadly in Europe, might cause the most vulnerable scientists to feel that “you have to do what you have to do” to be famous.  If everyone is doing it, then why not do it too?  And this might be particularly OK if it means conquering American Imperialists. The cliché of academic imperialism is dangerous because it can work to promote situational ethics.

“Cliché?” you snort, “American academic imperialism is a reality!”  I say this regarding “American” social psychology: the reality is much more complicated than cliché. 

After and during World War II many Europeans who would become the first generation of true social psychologists fled war-torn Europe.  During that same war, Americans who would become the first social psychologists were charged by the United States government to study – with the tools of science – human behaviors such as leadership in groups. 

The first social psychologists therefore were both American and European.  Many (though not all) of these scientists happened to settle in the United States, where doctoral training developed into an undertaking that many European countries could not or decided not to fund.  Federal monies in Europe went to primary and secondary schools.  Meanwhile, doctoral training there continued to be largely the conduct of research with a single professor, and the summary of this research in the form of a thesis with that professor. 

The evolution of the model for preparing researching social psychologists in the United States strongly affected the ways in which the field progressed.  But the “imperialists” were not Americans versus Europeans.  Many of them were individuals of both national origins who, for historical reasons, found themselves defining science and standards in a way that was determined by a set of historical decisions regarding how and when doctoral training and scientific research was funded.   

Professor X’s parents are cited in the NYT article for blaming their son’s behavior on “the system.” Did the writer fail to ask which “system” the parents were referring to?  I think so.  And I think that leaves out a big part of the story.

Paula NiedenthalComment