Another case of data manipulation, another Dutch psychology scandal

UPDATE!

Jens Förster denies the claims of misconduct and has sent an email defending himself to Retraction Watch.

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One would have thought the credentials of social psychology as a science – after Diedrik Staple, Dirk Smeesters and Mark Hauser – could not fall much lower. But data manipulation in social psychology would seem to be a bottomless pit.

Another case of data manipulation by social psychologists has erupted at the University of Amsterdam. This time by Jens Förster professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam and his colleague Markus Denzler. 

Retraction Watch: 

The University of Amsterdam has called for the retraction of a 2011 paper by two psychology researchers after a school investigation concluded that the article contained bogus data, the Dutch press are reporting.

The paper, “Sense Creative! The Impact of Global and Local Vision, Hearing, Touching, Tasting and Smelling on Creative and Analytic Thought,” was written by Jens Förster and Markus Denzler  and published in Social Psychological & Personality Science. ….

Professor Jens Förster

Jens Förster is no lightweight apparently. He is supposed to have research interests in the principles of motivation. Throughout my own career the practice of motivation in the workplace has been a special interest and I have read some of his papers. Now I feel let down. I have a theory that one of the primary motivators of social psychologists in academia is a narcissistic urge for media attention. No shortage of ego. And I note that as part of his webpage detailing his academic accomplishments he also feels it necessary to highlight his TV appearances!!!!

Television Appearances (Selection) 

Nachtcafé (SWR), Buten & Binnen (RB), Hermann & Tietjen (NDR), Euroland (SWF), Menschen der Woche (SWF), Die große Show der Naturwunder (ARD), Quarks & Co (WDR), Plasberg persönlich (WDR), Im Palais (RBB), Westart (WDR)

They love being Darlings of the media and the media oblige!

As a commenter on Retraction Watch points out, Förster also doubles as a cabaret artist! Perhaps he sees his academic endeavours also as a form of entertaining the public.

Rolf Degen: I hope that this will not escalate, as this could get ugly for the field of psychology. Jens Förster, a German, is a bigger name than Stapel ever was. He was repeatedly portrayed in the German media, not the least because of his second calling as a singer and a cabaret artist, and he has published an enormous amount of books, studies and review papers, all high quality stuff

This revelation occurs at a bad time for Förster, write the Dutch media. He is supposed to work as “Humboldt professor starting from June 1, and he was awarded five million Euros to do research at a German university the next five years. He is also supposed to cooperate with Jürgen Margraf – who is the President of the “German Society for Psychology” and as such the highest ranking German psychologist.

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4 Responses to “Another case of data manipulation, another Dutch psychology scandal”

  1. baruch eitam Says:

    I would be very vey careful here. Have you actually read the report? the rebuttal letter? I find these allegations extremely hard to believe and hence would be convinced by extremely strong data which, as of yet, has not been presented.

  2. Regina Bode Says:

    I second Baruch. Also, I am a former student of Jens who has worked as an undergraduate assistant in his lab many years back. And honestly, I would go light on things like suggesting that he is a narcissist. Yes, I am biased in his favor. I am biased because I have experienced him as a professor who took his students very, very seriously – and who supported them even if they went through difficult times, as it was the case for me. This isn’t exactly typical for a narcissist.

    Of course, it should not play a role in the current investigation that Jens is a good teacher who cares about his students, as well as a good public educator. It also should not play a role that I and a lot of other people who know him personally cannot possibly believe that he is guilty at this point. But neither should these allegations be taken as proof that he is a narcissist or an overall “bad” human being. Also, his work as a cabaret artist (a role that he has repeatedly used to challenge harmful stereotypes, by the way) is in no way informative about how and why he conducts his research.

    Concerning social psychology and research psychology in general: Yes, the field has problems. As do many other sciences. For one, “publish or perish” in its current form creates pressures on scientists that tempt them to “sell” their results rather than to present objectively what they have found or haven’t found. Psychologists also should be working more closely with actual statisticians. Yes, we are trained to some degree in statistics, but this training is not (and cannot be) comprehensive enough to replace the expertise of someone specializing in statistical analysis. (And I say this as someone who has been told repeatedly that she is good at statistics and who continuously works on improving her statistical knowledge.)

    There are even more points. The thing is, however, that these problems have to be systemically addressed. For example, taken proper care of the mountains of paper-and-pencil questionnaires social psychological research tends to generate would become a lot easier if universities would provide the necessary logistics to do so – which in my experience is not always the case. Just telling people that they should follow rules that will improve the validity and verifiability of their findings but that will also create a lot of additional work for the individual scientists will not be enough, particularly since psychological science is already a high pressure environment.

    I love science, particularly (but not only) psychological science. I want to work in science, and I want to do my job well. There is nothing more interesting for me than to ask questions about how humans work and interact and to try to answer these questions with empirical methods. That alone makes me interested in doing research that is as valid as possible. But the current constraints make that very difficult.

  3. ktwop Says:

    I am fascinated by behaviour and by motivation and by hypotheses trying to understand them. As a practitioner, I do look to the academics to enlighten me and not to titillate.
    But I do feel that the entire field is brought into disrepute when the hypotheses are designed to capture headlines and when data is designed to confirm the hypotheses. And I am disturbed when a TV appearance is considered as important for a scientist as a publication.
    Maybe I expect too much.
    But applying the scientific method is necessary and is the very minimum required, but is not sufficient.

  4. Regina Bode Says:

    ktwop – I agree with you. You are not expecting too much – this is how things SHOULD be. There are problems in the field and in research in general that need to be fixed – no question about that. These problems actually frustrate me every day, they even made consider leaving research. But as I said, it is (largely) a systematic problem. While data fabrication is NOT acceptable and any proven case should be reason for the dismissal of the responsible person, there is currently a grey area when it comes to handling your data. And in psychological research, you often will either have to compromise, for example, by “selling” your results rather than reporting them or by not archiving your data as carefully as you should to save time, in order to publish enough papers or your risk to not getting a new contract once your old contract runs out if you are a PhD students or Post-Doc, or risk obscurity as well as lack of research funding if you are a tenured professor. At least that is the case in my country (Germany), but I am pretty sure that things don’t look much better in other countries. (You might also be intersted in this comment by Nira Liberman: http://retractionwatch.com/2014/04/30/anatomy-of-an-inquiry-the-report-that-led-to-the-jens-forster-investigation/#comment-98346 She says it far better than I ever could.)

    This needs to change. And yes, individual researchers have a responsibility to contribute to this change. But these things are not the result of individual narcissism.

    By the way, I would be very surprised if Jens would consider his TV appearances as equally important to his published research. Neither do I believe that his employers consider it as equally important. However, social psychology is a field that is highly relevant for social questions, such as intergroup interactions, prejudice, or social influence. And many researchers – me included – also went into this particular field because we want to provide information to society that improves human coexistence. However, in order for that to work, some of us also have to appear in the media.

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