Science is more interesting when it’s true

There is a great profile of Uri Simonsohn’s fraud-detection work in the Atlantic Monthly, written by Chris Shea (via Andrew Gelman). This paragraph popped out at me:

So what, then, is driving Simonsohn? His fraud-busting has an almost existential flavor. “I couldn’t tolerate knowing something was fake and not doing something about it,” he told me. “Everything loses meaning. What’s the point of writing a paper, fighting very hard to get it published, going to conferences?”

 It reminded me of a story involving my colleague (and grand-advisor) Lew Goldberg. Lew was at a conference once when someone presented a result that he was certain could not be correct. After the talk, Lew stood up and publicly challenged the speaker to a bet that she’d made a coding error in the data. (The bet offer is officially part of the published scientific record. According to people who were there, it was for a case of whiskey.)

The research got published anyway, there were several years of back-and-forth with what Lew felt was a vague and insufficient admission of possible errors, which ended up with Lew and colleagues publishing a comment on an erratum – the only time I’ve ever heard of that happening in a scientific journal. When someone asked Lew recently why he’d been so motivated to follow through, he answered in part: “Science is more interesting when it’s true.”

From Walter Stewart to Uri Simonsohn

Over on G+, Ole Rogeberg asks what ever happened to Walter Stewart? Stewart was a biologist employed by NIH in the 80s and 90s who became involved in rooting out questionable research practices.

Rogeberg posts an old Omni Magazine interview with Stewart (from 1989) in which Stewart describes how he got involved in investigating fraud and misconduct and what led him to think that it was more widespread than many scientists were willing to acknowledge. If you have been following the fraud scandals in psychology and the work of Uri Simonsohn, you should read it. It is completely riveting. And I found some of the parallels to be uncanny.

For example, on Stewart’s first investigation of questionable research, one of the clues that raised his suspicions was a pattern of too-similar means in a researcher’s observations. Similar problems — estimates closer together than what would be expected by chance — led Simonsohn to finger 2 researchers for misconduct.

And anticipating contemporary calls for more data openness — including the title of Simonsohn’s working paper, “Just Post It,” Stewart writes:

“With present attitudes it’s difficult for an outsider to ask for a scientist’s raw data without appearing to question that person’s integrity. But that attitude absolutely has to change… Once you publish a paper, you’re in essence giving its ideas away. In return for benefits you gain from that – fame, recognition, or whatever – you should be willing to make your lab records and data available.”

Some of the details of how Stewart’s colleagues responded are also alarming. His boss at NIH mused publicly on why he was wasting his talents chasing fraud. Others were even less kind, calling him “the terrorist of the lab.” And when he got into a dispute with his suburban neighbors about not mowing his lawn, Science — yes, that Science — ran a gossip piece on the spat. (Some of the discussions of Simonsohn’s earlier data-detecting efforts have gotten a bit heated, but I haven’t seen anything get that far yet. Let’s hope there aren’t any other social psychologists on the board of his HOA.)

The Stewart interview brought home for me just how much these issues are perennial, and perhaps structural. But the difference from 23 years ago is that we have better tools for change. Journal editors’ gatekeeping powers are weakening in the face of open-access journals and post-publication review.

Will things change for the better? I don’t know. I feel like psychology has an opportunity right now. Maybe we’ll actually step back, have a difficult conversation about what really needs to be done, and make some changes. If not, I bet it won’t be 20 years before the next Stewart/Simonsohn comes along.