Quacky Psychologist's Fake Research Results Throw All Studies Under the Bus

rubber duckThe next time an inflammatory, headline-making "study" freaks you out with some extreme assessment, like "children born to mothers with green eyes are three times as likely to grow an extra limb" or "research indicates men who sleep on their sides have a greater risk of developing shellfish allergies," remember the shameful story of Diederik Stapel. Who Stapel?

If the Dutch social psychologist's name isn't familiar, maybe the shocking findings of his mid-1990s experiments will ring a bell: Eating meat makes a person more selfish. Messy rooms make people more racist.

Whaaat? Yep, those two gems were presented as legitimate scientific data, and people believed them, too.

I guess those people were pretty surprised by Stapel's recent firing from his position at Tilburg University.


Especially since he was fired because his own doctoral students exposed him as a complete fraud. That's right, all of those bizarre insights into human behavior that were supposed to be based on legitimate research? Totally fabricated. Stapel made it all up.

No. The hell you say! You mean messy rooms don't make people more racist?

What's even more ridiculous than Stapel's imaginary data, to me, is that anybody ever accepted his claims as fact. Frighteningly, this is what we tend to do as a society: We'll buy into pretty much any idea if it's handed to us by a source we consider -- or assume to be -- trustworthy. And what makes us decide if a source is trustworthy? Not firsthand knowledge of a person or institution, but a set of ultimately meaningless qualifiers like degrees earned and awards won and testimony from other sources that we have no firsthand knowledge of either.

What are we, sheep? Mindlessly following the herd, not bothering to watch where we're headed?

Hopefully Stapel's downfall will be an eye-opener for anyone who believed him, not to mention anyone who doesn't automatically question everything they're told.

Do you usually believe the latest research or are you more skeptical about studies?


Image via Jo Naylor/Flickr

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