Paul Jacob

Scientific theories cannot be confirmed, an eminent philosopher of science has argued; they can only be falsified. But facts can be confirmed.

And here’s a fact about a famous (now infamous) social scientist: He’s a fraud.

It’s been confirmed.

The fascinating case of social psychologist Diederik A. Stapel serves as a cautionary tale. The caution is to those of us who write about science, who ruminate on what we read about science in the news, or anyone just curious about the world.

It turns out that not everyone who purports to have discovered something has discovered much of anything. Sometimes they’re simply lying.

Stapel is a liar. He’s been caught. He’s even confessed. In a rare instance of institutional integrity, the administration of Tilburg University has given him the heave-ho.

Stapel’s chosen social science is the weak, runt sister in the pantheon. It doesn’t have the mathematical and logical (and practical) honor that economics trumpets. Sociology encompasses a wider range of methods and targeted research programs. Cultural anthropology has nestled into a niche that seems impregnable: the study of backwater and Third World societies. And history has so august and firm a place in the study of man that no trendy influx of science or scientism into its narrative and archival traditions will lodge it from its high estate.

What social psychology has is charisma.

Its contributors are eminently quotable. They often seem to strike near the heart of what it means to be “human.” By focusing on the intersection between the individual and his/her mindset in the social context, and seeing how changes in such context can change opinion, feelings, and behavior, social psychologists often intrigue those outside the profession. Journalists adore and cover them.

According to Andrew Ferguson, they get credulous coverage.

Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Credulity is a besetting sin of journalism. Journalists, who pride themselves on being so worldly wise and skeptical, regularly demonstrate otherwise, usually regarding politics. You know the reason; none of us are exempt. It’s easy to believe something that supports one’s own views.

Stapel was an extremely productive social psychologist. He published a lot, and was often quoted in mainstream media.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.