Lots of cultural writing these days, in books and magazines and newspapers, relies on the so-called Chump Effect.
The Effect is defined by its discoverer, me, as the eagerness of laymen and journalists to swallow whole the claims made by social scientists. Entire journalistic enterprises, whole books from cover to cover, would simply collapse into dust if even a smidgen of skepticism were summoned whenever we read that “scientists say” or “a new study finds” or “research shows” or “data suggest.” Most such claims of social science, we would soon find, fall into one of three categories: the trivial, the dubious, or the flatly untrue.
A rather extreme example of this third option emerged last month when an internationally renowned social psychologist, Diederik Stapel of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, was proved to be a fraud. No jokes, please: This social psychologist is a fraud in the literal, perhaps criminal, and not merely figurative, sense. An investigative committee concluded that Stapel had falsified data in at least “several dozen” of the nearly 150 papers he had published in his extremely prolific career.
Sometimes, though, social psychologists move beyond the lab. A good example is a more recent study from Stapel’s corpus, released last spring to wide publicity. It touched on another of Stapel’s favorite themes: white racism.
“Disorder can encourage stereotyping, study says,” read the headline in the Los Angeles Times. Stapel discovered—scientifically, of course—that white heterosexuals used racism and homophobia as defense mechanisms. Confronted with disorder in their “social environment,” Stapel showed, they quickly reverted to their natural inclination to stereotype “the other” and draw comfort from their prejudice.
At this writing, investigators are not yet clear to what extent the results of these particular studies are discredited by Stapel’s fakery. And nobody knows how extreme an anomaly Stapel’s behavior will prove to be. Leslie John of Harvard Business School recently surveyed more than 2,000 social psychologists about their research methods. She found a rash of research practices she deemed “questionable.” Indeed, she wrote, in social psychology, “some questionable practices may constitute the prevailing research norm.”
But it hardly seems to matter, does it? The silliness of social psychology doesn’t lie in its questionable research practices but in the research practices that no one thinks to question. The most common working premise of social-psychology research is far-fetched all by itself: The behavior of a statistically insignificant, self-selected number of college students or high schoolers filling out questionnaires and role-playing in a psych lab can reveal scientifically valid truths about human behavior.
And when the research reaches beyond the classroom, it becomes sillier still.
Consider this recent study by Stapel, demonstrating the relationship between “disorder” and white racism and homophobia. Several news reports outlined the methodology as Stapel explained it.
"Reporters are credulous, studies show." ::snerk::