Fraud in Psychological Research

Kevin MacDonald


A NYTimes article (“Fraud seen as a red flag for psychology research“) discusses the case of scientific fraud involving a Dutch social psychologist, Diederik Stapel. This is an amazingly egregious example of fraud by a psychologist well-known for his leftist views. Stapel got his Ph.D. in 1997 but managed to crank out 150 research papers and 24 book chapters in that short period. A recent paper of his, published in the very prestigious Science, Coping with Chaos: How Disordered Contexts Promote Stereotyping and Discrimination” included two lab studies and three field studies. This study had a wonderfully liberal conclusion—that racial discrimination would be increased in chaotic environments because people have a tendency to simplify their cognitive processing in such environments.

The NYTimes article notes,

In recent years, psychologists have reported a raft of findings on race biases, brain imaging and even extrasensory perception that have not stood up to scrutiny. Outright fraud may be rare, these experts say, but they contend that Dr. Stapel took advantage of a system that allows researchers to operate in near secrecy and massage data to find what they want to find, without much fear of being challenged.

“The big problem is that the culture is such that researchers spin their work in a way that tells a prettier story than what they really found,” said Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It’s almost like everyone is on steroids, and to compete you have to take steroids as well.”

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The program, then, is to spin a pretty yarn that will fit into the liberal zeitgeist of social psychology. Apart from Stapel’s work, I am unaware of a “raft of findings on race biases …  that have not stood up to scrutiny,” but it’s certainly not surprising that that would be the case. Recently a psychologist pointed out to me that the research on stereotype threat purporting to explain the poor performance of African Americans by the effects of negative stereotypes routinely partialled out the contribution of IQ before presenting the results, thus exaggerating the importance of stereotype threat. This is more a sin of omission than outright fraud, but a sin of omission that is then used to advance the liberal worldview that poor Black achievement is due to White attitudes rather than Black realities.

As discussed here previously (Social Psychologists: Becoming Self-Conscious of Their Liberalism“; “More on Jonathan Haidt’s Tribal Moral Communities“) Jonathan Haidt (a social psychologist himself) has made a major contribution calling attention to social psychology as a  “tribal moral community” united in its liberal political commitments. He notes that articles that contravene the tribal liberalism are subjected to much higher standards in order to get published. Even when it’s not a matter of outright fraud, there are sins of omission where certain types of racial research are just not conducted. Recall that Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam did not publish his findings on the costs of multiculturalism for years because he thought it might sour people on our glorious multicultural future.

Here the NYTimes article adds that a recent study found that in an anonymous survey around 70% of psychologists admitted  ”cutting corners” in reporting their data and 1% acknowledged falsification; statistical errors favoring  the hypothesis occurred in around 15% of a random sample of papers in high-end psychology journals.

I suppose that the long term effects of outright fraud in social psychology are less important than the lowered standards that apply when articles reaffirm liberal ideas in the social sciences. (This was famously true of the Boasians in anthropology [a Jewish intellectual movement reviewed in The Culture of Critique) and doubtless continues today since Boas’s intellectual descendants are still in control. Boas was the quintessential skeptic and an ardent defender of methodologi-cal rigor when it came to theories of cultural evolution and genetic influences on behavior, yet, as Sheldon White noted, “the burden of proof rested lightly upon Boas’s own shoulders”; see here, p. 27.)

Reviewers are far less likely to catch corner cutting and statistical errors when they favor the leftist world view, while race realist papers are worked over with a fine tooth comb. In my own case as a consumer of social psychology research rather than a producer, I look for findings that make sense in the broad scheme of things, including the general framework of evolutionary psychology. For example, social identity theory is central to the theory of anti-Semitism (and Jewish ingroup psychology) developed in Separation and Its Discontents. These results have been replicated in dozens of social psychology laboratories over more than 40 years and fit well with an evolutionary perspective on the psychology of groups—that natural selection has resulted in mechanisms that would prepare people for between-group competition. (For example, even very young children show ingroup biases, such biases are universal among humans, and they are reflex-like and unconscious rather than the result of deliberation—good evidence for an evolutionary basis.)

A science of social psychology is possible, even in a leftist environment, but one needs to be a cautious consumer.

Nevertheless, there are some cases where outright fraud has had a long and influential life in the social sciences. Exhibit A is The Authoritarian Personality which was clearly the product of Jewish ethnic activism by the Frankfurt School and the American Jewish Committee in the service of Jewish ethnic interests. Here the “findings” were so clearly counter-intuitive, so strained, and so clearly manufactured to produce an outcome that was clearly set out long before they gathered the data, that fraud is the only reasonable explanation (my review is here, p. 168ff; the current TOO video is an extended commentary on The Authoritarian Personality put together by Byron Jost before his premature death; although unfinished, I think it’s his best work).

Psychoanalysis was not so much fraud as simply the rejection of science completely. The fact that psychoanalysis was prominently used in The Authoritarian Personality is part of the indictment of this work and the entire politically and ethnically charged agenda of the Frankfurt School. The fact that The Authoritarian Personality has never really lost its respectability within social psychology is itself yet another serious charge against the entire field.

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