Two articles were found to have irregularities with findings that, in a statistical sense, are highly unlikely. The raw data forming the basis of these articles was not available for inspection by third parties, and the professor indicated that he had selected data so that the sought-after effects were statistically significant.The University’s Board of Directors accepted the resignation of Smeesters on June 21st. They say in their statement above that none of the co-authors have been implicated.
This adds more weight to an uncomfortable truth in the social sciences and the humanities and anyone else who doesn't quite get what separates science from other fields; doing statistical analysis is not science. Yes, science has gotten 'bigger' in its datasets so understanding statistics and numerical models are increasingly important but that is not the same thing as being the science itself. Surveys of undergraduates are certainly not science.
As expected, because two papers have already been retracted, RetractionWatch is on the case. Their detailed insight into the situation (and the comments from the audience) prompted a response from one of Smeesters' co-authors, who wrote
Some of you might wonder, how did we not know that something was up? The answer is that it’s not that easy to spot a coauthor who is doctoring data. The variety seeking paper, for instance, started in a delightful conversation that I had with Dirk when I visited Erasmus. Dirk mentioned a finding on social exclusion that he had; I had an interest in why people seek variety. We came up with what we thought was an interesting hypothesis to test that related to previous work on variety seeking, some of which is my own. Dirk is a nice, intelligent guy, and was an enthusiastic coauthor. He was a good critic of research. He was respected in the field. He also was at Erasmus, which has perhaps the best behavioral lab I had ever seen. So when the data streamed every few months, it was hardly suspicious. Unlike Stapel, Dirk actually ran studies. What he did with the data afterward is what’s in question.The questionable nature of relying too much on statistics aside, it likely is easy to be fooled. We tend to think people are like us; basically ethical, basically honest and want to do good work and make a difference. In that light, it is completely okay to believe someone is ethical until shown to be otherwise.
Social psychology was once a strong field. It is not today but, as in the case of Diederik Stapel last November, researchers are taking the discipline back from people who have been able to get away with this sort of fraud.
H/T David Dobbs at Wired for the comment by Jonathan Levav