Breathless headline-grabbing press releases based on modest findings. Investigations driven by confirmation bias. Broad generalizations based on tiny samples.
I am talking, of course, about the final report of the Diederik Stapel investigation.
Regular readers of my blog will know that I have been beating the drum for reform for quite a while. I absolutely think psychology in general, and perhaps social psychology especially, can and must work to improve its methods and practices.
But in reading the commission’s press release, which talks about “a general culture of careless, selective and uncritical handling of research and data” in social psychology, I am struck that those conclusions are based on a retrospective review of a known fraud case — a case that the commissions were specifically charged with finding an explanation for. So when they wag their fingers about a field rife with elementary statistical errors and confirmation bias, it’s a bit much for me.
I am writing this as a first reaction based on what I’ve seen in the press. At some point when I have the time and the stomach I plan to dig into the full 100-page commission report. I hope that — as is often the case when you go from a press release to an actual report — it takes a more sober and cautious tone. Because I do think that we have the potential to learn some important things by studying how Diederik Stapel did what he did. Most likely we will learn what kinds of hard questions we need to be asking of ourselves — not necessarily what the answers to those questions will be. Remember that the more we are shocked by the commission’s report, the less willing we should be to reach any sweeping generalizations from it.
So let’s all take a deep breath, face up to the Stapel case for what it is — neither exaggerating nor minimizing it — and then try to have a productive conversation about where we need to go next.