Data fabrication by Hauser and Stapel strengthen the view that psychology is no science

That psychology is a discipline and a field of study is indisputable. That the study of human (or animal) behaviour is a worthy field and that experimentation and research are well worth pursuing is also obvious. But I am of the view that it is far from being a science.  Psychology can be considered to be a pre-science similar to alchemy. And the practitioners of psychology are similar to priests and shamans and witch-doctors and other practitioners of magic. Inevitably the field contains many charlatans.

During 2011 the high profile cases of Marc Hauser and Diederik Stapel  where data was faked (and no matter which way the pill is coated they both fabricated data to suit their theories) only reinforces my view that their behaviour was essentially narcissistic and not uncommon in the burgeoning fields of psychology. In both cases inflated egos led to the creation of their “signature” hypotheses followed by the fabrication of data to prove their conclusions – which had already been reached! I am inherently suspicious of psychologists who are supposed scientists but who are seduced by the fame and fortunes of press adulation or tenure or who become Agony Aunts on TV.

Charles Gross writes in The Nation about the Marc Hauser affair and concludes:

….. Several other people who had worked in Hauser’s lab during the period he produced the research investigated by Harvard, and who have asked to remain unnamed, confirmed for me the account offered by the Chronicle and provided further details and examples of the general pattern of Hauser fabricating and falsifying data and pressuring others, particularly undergraduates and other junior members of the lab, to do the same to obtain the desired results.  … 

Although some of my knowledge of the Hauser case is based on conversations with sources who have preferred to remain unnamed, there seems to me to be little doubt that Hauser is guilty of scientific misconduct, though to what extent and severity remains to be revealed. Regardless of the final outcome of the investigation of Hauser by the federal Office of Research Integrity, irreversible damage has been done to the field of animal cognition, to Harvard University and most of all to Marc Hauser.

The Diedrik Stapel affair is summarised in Nature:

When colleagues called the work of Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel too good to be true, they meant it as a compliment. But a preliminary investigative report ( released on 31 October gives literal meaning to the phrase, detailing years of data manipulation and blatant fabrication by the prominent Tilburg University researcher. .. Stapel’s eye-catching studies on aspects of social behaviour such as power and stereo­typing garnered wide press coverage. …

“Somebody used the word ‘wunderkind’,” says Miles Hewstone, a social psychologist at the University of Oxford, UK. “He was one of the bright thrusting young stars of Dutch social psychology — highly published, highly cited, prize-winning, worked with lots of people, and very well thought of in the field.” ..

Often, the report says, Stapel and a colleague or student came up with a hypothesis, and then designed an experiment to test it. Stapel took responsibility for collecting data through what he said was a network of contacts at other institutions, and several weeks later produced a fictitious data file for his colleague to write up into a paper. On other occasions, Stapel received co-authorship after producing data he claimed to have collected previously that exactly matched the needs of a colleague working on a particular study. .. 

In the various fields of psychology, the null hypothesis is rarely if ever brought into play. Statistics are used indiscriminately to try and appear “scientific”. Correlations are taken to “prove” causality. Data is hardly ever reproducible and is often very subjective. There are any number of opinions and hypotheses and theories but none are ever capable of being proved false.

As Paul Lutus so well puts it

…. psychology can make virtually any claim and offer any kind of therapy, because there is no practical likelihood of refutation – no clear criteria to invalidate a claim. This, in turn, is because human psychology is not a science, it is very largely a belief system similar to religion.

Like religion, human psychology has a dark secret at its core – it contains within it a model for correct behavior, although that model is never directly acknowledged. Buried within psychology is a nebulous concept that, if it were to be addressed at all, would be called “normal behavior.” But do try to avoid inquiring directly into this normal behavior among psychologists – nothing is so certain to get you diagnosed as having an obsessive disorder.

In the same way that everyone is a sinner in religion’s metaphysical playground, everyone is mentally ill in psychology’s long, dark hallway – no one is truly “normal.” This means everyone needs psychological treatment. This means psychologists and psychiatrists are guaranteed lifetime employment, although that must surely be a coincidence rather than a dark motive.

The case of John Mack – another tenured Professor at Harvard Medical School and a psychiatrist – is a case in point. Inevitably research in cognitive psychology and social psychology – to name but two of the myriad areas of “psychological research” – suffers from a severe case of “confirmation bias”. Any theory or hypothesis can be “proved” by designing experiments and collecting data – which can never be reproduced – which generates statistics to support the theory. The data is largely samples of qualitative and subjective observations where the only thing actually measured or counted is the number of observations. Whether by surveys or polls or questionnaires or behavioural observations the data collection is always designed to support the hypothesis.

Psyschology is a worthy field of study but it is no science. And psychologists – like priests and shamans and other witch doctors – may be valuable in a society but they are not scientists.

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