Sunday, April 28, 2013

Too Much Beauty Can Be An Ugly Thing

The New York Times reports the sad story of a Dutch psychology researcher whose career imploded when it was discovered that he had fabricated data used in some 55 publications and at least 10 students' PhD dissertations.

Apart from serving to illustrate the perils of the publish or perish culture of academia, the nature of Stapel's fraud seems a strange twist on a fallacy described by--yep, here I go again--historian David Hackett Fischer.

"The aesthetic fallacy," Fischer writes, "selects beautiful facts, or facts that can be built into a beautiful story, rather than facts that are functional to the empirical problem at hand."

Times reporter Yudhijit Bhattacharjee notes that in his interview with the now disgraced scientist,

Stapel brought out individually wrapped chocolate bars for us to share. As we ate them, I watched him neatly fold up his wrappers into perfectly rectangular shapes. Later, I got used to his reminding me not to leave doors ajar when we walked in or out of a room. When I pointed this out, he admitted to a lifelong obsession with order and symmetry.

Bhattacharjee continues,

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.
The difference, though, between what Stapel did and the aesthetic fallacy as Fischer describes it, is that Stapel, "frustrated by the messiness of experimental data," chose to not merely cherry pick beautiful facts but instead deliberately fabricated beautiful facts to support his hypotheses.

As Fischer notes, "Any attempt to conduct [an empirical] search according to aesthetic standards of significance (most commonly in an attempt to tell a beautiful story) is either to abandon empiricism or to contradict it."

In the case of Stapel and his fabricated data, it would appear that he managed to do both.

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