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Friday, July 05, 2013

Diederik Stapel Lessons in Honesty

Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth,” he said. 
If you agree with Diederik Stapel that you will someday have to make the choice between beauty or the truth, you may be a Cargo Cult Scientist. Diederik, the former Tilburg University psychology professor is also a former PhD. He voluntarily gave up the PhD. He also retracted 53 papers because he fabricated the data. He'll do some community service and give up some government support as punishment. He's also lost his career. We don't feel bad about that. We like his counter-human; R. Feynman.
In physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs. Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth.
The truth is beautiful. Take this question. Sally gets a degree in "Female Studies" from Oberlin U. She marries her girlfriend and sets out to start her professional life. What is more likely? A) She becomes a banker. B) She becomes a banker and an advocate for gay marriage? The answer is A because B is A with an additional condition. Sally becoming an advocate for gay marriage is more likely than her becoming a banker, but that is not the question. The truth is beautiful here. Once you hear the logic you start to think. It doesn't matter who Sally is or what she does for a living. She could have been a Young Republican who became a advocate for gay marriage and then a banker. You can change the words but you can't change the logic. That is what draws some people to science.

I have asked this question to friends and family. Not all agree with the answer. The arguments against B being the answer, are not beautiful. The individuals who make the arguments often times get tripped up in faulty logic. They use more words than those used to describe the simple truth. It gets ugly.

Once again let's revisit the Amgen study:

Part way through his project to reproduce promising studies, Begley met for breakfast at a cancer conference with the lead scientist of one of the problematic studies. 
"We went through the paper line by line, figure by figure," said Begley. "I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they'd done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It's very disillusioning."
See any similarities between Diederik Stapel and the scientist who got away with his crime of telling "the best story"? A true scientists keeps looking for the truth and the beauty. Diederik and the lead scientist from The Amgen Story decided on what they consider to be more beautiful. Notice how few benefit from their dishonesty. Notice that those who do benefit always benefit from the status quo and beautiful stories. Those with the power over publication, be it in an oncology journal or a social psychology journal, prefer pretty stories. They do not see beauty and the truth co-existing.

Imagine stripping away the words to the point where you are just looking at the logic. There is the beauty. A is more likely than A plus B. Boil down your biases and see the truth as beauty.

4 comments:

Mayo said...

Likelihood is not probability.Answering B is entirely plausible when the question is understood as which is more likely given the evidence. errorstatistics.com

Ginsberg said...

Let us see the beauty in this statement. Please elaborate.

Cheryl said...

This is great!

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