Everyone’s scared of me

Diederik Stapel was not looking for truth, just reassurance

Although he had been turned down before, Diederik Stapel, the “fraud professor” gave a lecture at Leiden University last week – at a conference on failure. “I wasn’t used to failure. I couldn’t deal with experiments that didn’t work.”

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“I used to address audiences because I was a success; now, I’m here because I’m a failure.” Former Professor of Social Psychology Diederik Stapel gave a talk on “failure” at the inter-faculty conference in the Wijnhaven Building last week.

“I had an important job, a big house; I was happy”, he continued. “Until someone rang me to ask if I had faked some data.” It happened in 2011, just before his resulting dismissal from Tilburg University. His students suspected fraud: Stapel’s results were too good to be true. By then, he had been cheating with his experiments for years. “The day after my dismissal, I picked up the newspaper in the hall and saw my face in it. I thought: everyone will have forgotten in a few days, but it took months. Even now, years on, it still crops up.

He has been called “one of the biggest science frauds in history”, the “fraud professor” and a “pathological cheat”. Why did he do it? It’s a question he’s been trying to answer for years. “I know what I did was wrong; it’s the biggest mistake you can make in science and I’m responsible. I wasn’t used to failure, then I did experiments that didn’t work out. I couldn’t deal with it. I wanted good results that explained certain behaviour, not chaos or an illogical outcome, so I decided to change them. I wasn’t looking for truth, just reassurance.”
After the lecture, someone in the audience wanted to know what hurt most. “Being excluded, not being allowed to be part of society anymore. Everyone’s scared of me and of what I represent.” Two day later, Stapel finds the time to answer some additional questions by phone.

You said, in your talk, that pure science is almost impossible. Why is it impossible, and what should we do about it?
“Not everything you do is worth communicating. Sometimes a study fails, or an idea proves duller than you thought, so you must make a choice. If we were to publish everything, it’d cost too much time and money.
“The only solution is to be honest: ‘I interviewed Diederik Stapel for three hours; here are the thousand words I wrote about it, and here’s where you can find the entire interview.” Let people know you made a choice and that they can retrieve all the information.”

Do you think there are many people committing fraud in science?
“Many is an exaggeration. I don’t think so. I hope not. I’m sure there are more cheats, but many? No. My case was extreme; I was far too cocky. Actually, I was a bad cheat. No one knows about the good frauds and we’ll never hear of them, of course.
“There’ll always be lazy people and people who only want immediate success. That’s why we need to have a database where we can access all the results. We need to take a good look at our culture, too: why is it so important to perform so well all the time? We could blame our society, because everyone feels the need to do well. But less individualism would be a good start; perhaps, researchers should remain unknown, so no one knows who produced the results.”

You said that exclusion hurt the most. Do you still feel that way, after seven years?
“Yes. It’s very extreme. Even just at Leiden, I’ve been invited to speak at similar events by students two or three times in the past, only to have them cancel on me later. Someone higher up the ladder thought it better if I didn’t speak. It’s hard – almost like being censored, although debate is an essential part of science.
“No one will give me a job, either. I don’t want pity – I’m doing very well – but I would love to be a part of society. I can understand that universities don’t want to employ me in an academic position, but surely I can teach at a school?
“I was hired by a planning office, and then rejected again. It happens every time. The director will be fine with it, but then the supervisory board or the staff disapproves. People are scared of me; they don’t want me in their company.”

And what about all those PhD students, who weren’t involved in the fraud?
“They had a tough time because of me. Most lost their publications. It’s bad enough if you hurt yourself, but you shouldn’t hurt anyone else. That’s another matter entirely.”

What do you see for the future?
“I write, I’ve become very good at meditating, I do a lot of studying and I’m raising my children, but I’d love to do more. Sometimes, I work at one of Bram Bakker – the psychiatrist’s – addiction clinics as a therapist. He agreed that it was ridiculous that I couldn’t get a job. Hopefully, science will gradually become less holy and there’ll be more room for debate. Nowadays, people feel the same way about science as they used to about religion; it’s extremely important to them and if you screw up, it’s heresy. Science is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.”
By Susan Wichgers


Over fifty studies were withdrawn

Until 2011, Diederik Stapel (1966) was a respected Professor of Social Psychology and Dean of Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Before that, from 2000, he was a professor at Groningen.
In 2011, it emerged that he had started making up data while he was still at Groningen. He made up experiments without conducting them and created the preferred outcome instead. Colleagues and students had had their suspicions for some time, but when he used the same series of figures twice, they acted on it.
Stapel admitted the fraud and was prosecuted. In the end, he was given a community punishment order of 120 hours and stripped of his doctor’s title. His PhD students and close colleagues were badly affected by his cheating. More than fifty studies on which he had worked were withdrawn and one lecturer at Tilburg University resigned because of the affair.

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