News

more on the Stapel scientific fraud case; schizophrenia commission; Royal Society archive; Steven Pinker talks; career progression for women; Francesca Happé on autism

Red flag for psychology research?

An interim report by Tilburg University into the fraudulent research activities of social psychologist Diederik Stapel has found the extent of his malpractice to be on a ‘shocking scale’, with ‘several dozen’ studies implicated over a period of more than a decade. The investigating committee, chaired by Professor Willem Levelt, a psycholinguist, published their initial findings early in November.

A full list of affected studies will be published later with the final report. No other individuals were found to be culpable, but the interim report says the affair has profound ramifications for the reputation and practice of psychology. It has already generated a great deal of mainstream media interest, with ‘Fraud Case Seen as a Red Flag for Psychology Research’ being the chosen headline of the New York Times (tinyurl.com/67kx9j2).

According to the Levelt Committee, Stapel’s ‘cunning, simple system’ at Tilburg and earlier at Groningen University was to form intense one-on-one relationships with students and other researchers, to discuss hypotheses and methodologies with them at length, to prepare together the necessary materials, but to do all the apparent research collection himself at local schools. In many instances, the research never took place and the data was entirely fabricated. Other times it was massaged. Only then was it passed to students or colleagues for inspection, analysis and write-up. ‘This conduct is deplorable,’ the report says.

The doctoral work of five students at Tilburg and seven at Groningen, some of whom did no data collection of their own, is tainted as a consequence. Another strategy was for Stapel to produce old, unpublished data-sets – also fabricated or doctored – that he claimed were just perfect for answering colleagues’ and students’ new research questions.

Concerns had been raised about Stapel’s practices in previous years by three young researchers and by two senior colleagues. But it was only this August when three more young researchers reported their misgivings that a full investigation was launched. ‘The Committee concludes that the six young whistle blowers showed more courage, vigilance and inquisitiveness than incumbent full professors,’ the report says.

How did Stapel avoid detection for so long? The Committee finds that much of this has to do with personality and status – charismatic Stapel enjoyed a ‘virtually unassailable position’ in his department, used his ‘prestige, reputation and influence’, formed close friendships with many of his colleagues and students, and was widely judged to have ‘phenomenal research skills’. However, that anomalies in his data and unrealistically perfect results were allowed to persist has exposed ‘the flawed performance of academic criticism, which is the cornerstone of science,’ the report says.

Stapel’s research, on topics such as how power dehumanises us, and the effect of mirrors on prejudice, was published in some of science’s most prestigious journals. Yet clues as to Stapel’s activities went unnoticed: the lack of detail provided in his papers about research participants and about the feasibility of sometimes complex experiments being conducted in schools. ‘Apparently neither the reviewers nor the editorial teams of journals delved into aspects of this kind,’ the report says.

Central to the longevity of Stapel’s fraud was that he was able to keep his fabricated raw data from so many people for many years without raising undue alarm. The report suggests this was possible because of ‘a lamentable… culture in social psychology and psychology research for everyone to keep their own data and not make them available to a public archive’. This is an issue that has been raised before: a 2006 paper by Jelte Wicherts and colleagues in American Psychologist found that just 27 per cent of psychology study authors they contacted were willing to share their data for re-analysis (see News, January 2007 tinyurl.com/cg7b972). In another paper published this November, Wicherts and her team found that psychologists were less likely to share their data if the likelihood of errors being found was high or the strength of evidence was weak (PLoS One tinyurl.com/bo49uc6). More worrying still, a study led by Leslie John in press at Psychological Science finds that ‘questionable practices may constitute the prevailing research norm’ based on an anonymous survey of 2000 psychologists.

The Levelt Committee’s interim report (available from tinyurl.com/tilburgstapel) concludes with recommendations to prevent fraud on such a scale from occurring again at Tilburg University and more widely, including: having PhD students complete a short integrity course; establishing a Confidential Counsellor For Academic Integrity; creating rules to protect whistle-blowers; and requiring journals to provide details on where and how data are collected. ‘Far more than is customary in psychology research practice, research replication must be made part of the basic instruments of the discipline. Research data that underlie psychology publications must be held on file for at least five years after publication, and be made available on request to other scientific practitioners.’

In a formal response to the Committee findings, Stapel said he’d read the report with ‘a sense of dismay and shame’. He claimed he’d not been motivated by self-interest and regretted the suffering he’d caused. ‘Unfortunately my present state does not permit me to assess this report completely for any factual accuracies,’ he said. In a separate statement to the press, he said (translated from Dutch) that he’d ‘just wanted to make something more beautiful than it is’.

Christian Jarrett

Schizophrenia commission

One hundred years after Swiss psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler coined the term schizophrenia, the mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness has launched a ‘Schizophrenia Commission’ chaired by Robin Murray, Professor of Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. The Commission’s aims are to: assess the current care provided for people with schizophrenia in England; review the evidence base for treatment and care; gauge the socio-economic impact of the illness; assess public attitudes; and identify priority actions to improve the lives of people with schizophrenia. The Commission plans to gather evidence between now and April 2012. Their website (www.schizophreniacommission.org.uk) features forms for people to contribute, and public hearings are also due to be held across England, although details for these had not yet been finalised as we went to press.

There are 12 commissioners, including Chartered Clinical Psychologist Dr Alison Brabban, who works as a consultant at the Early Intervention in Psychosis service in Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust, and as an honorary lecturer at Durham University. Brabban helped develop the schizophrenia guidelines for the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and she’s currently working as National Adviser for Severe Mental Illness for Improving Access to Psychological Therapies.

Writing on the Commission website, Brabban said the Rethink initiative ‘provides an ideal opportunity to challenge outdated beliefs about schizophrenia and highlight inadequacies in current UK service provision. I hope that it leads to a significant shift in public and professional understanding of this poorly understood condition and ultimately improves the lives of those affected by symptoms of schizophrenia and by the diagnostic label itself.’

Other commissioners include Terry Bowyer who has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia; Martin Knapp, Professor of Social Policy at LSE and KCL; and Jeremy Laurence, Health Editor at The Independent.

The Commission will culminate in a report due for publication in July 2012.

Christian Jarrett

Opening a window to a fascinating history

The Royal Society has made all articles over 70-years-old in its extensive journal archive free to access, permanently. Its archive contains around 60,000 historical scientific papers, with the first edition of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society – the world’s first peer-reviewed journal – published in 1665.

BPS Fellow Professor Uta Frith, Chair of the Royal Society library committee, said: ‘The release of these papers opens up a fascinating window on the history of scientific progress over the last few centuries and will be of interest to anybody who wants to understand how science has evolved since the days of the Royal Society’s foundation.’

Let loose on the archive for two minutes, your reporter quickly located such gems as ‘The Localisation of Function in the Brain’ by Scottish psychologist David Ferrier (1874) and ‘Two extracts of the Journal of the Phil. Soc. of Oxford; one containing a paper, Communicated March 31, 1685, by the Reverend Dr Wallis … concerning the Strength of Memory when Applied with due Attention.’. Wallis concludes ‘that a reasonable good Memory, fixt with good attention, is capable of being charged, with more than a man would at first imagine’.

- The archive is at: http://royalsocietypublishing.org/search

Christian Jarrett

Better connected

The ubiquity of smart phones and internet social networking means that we’re more interconnected than ever before. How can we best exploit this connectivity for the public good – for example, in a search and rescue mission?

To find out, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the United States held a competition at the end of 2009. Forty thousand dollars was on offer for the first team to find 10 large red balloons across the country in undisclosed locations. The winners – a team from the Media Laboratory at MIT – have now published the strategy that led to them recruiting almost 4400 individuals and locating all 10 balloons in just under nine hours (Science; tinyurl.com/cwq8y7a). No other team located all the balloons.

Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, Director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory in the MIT Media Lab, and his team-mates, used what they call a ‘recursive incentive mechanism’. They promised to award $2000 from the cash prize to individuals who located a balloon and, in ever decreasing amounts, to also reward the person who recruited that finder ($1000), and the person who recruited the person who recruited the recruiter ($500), and so on. This approach led to a sustained level of interest on Twitter and a deep and densely branched network of collaborators, as compared with the other teams.

‘The mechanism’s success can be attributed to its ability to provide incentives for individuals to both report on found balloon locations while simultaneously participating in the dissemination of information about the cause,’ Pentland and his colleagues said.

Strategies adopted by other teams included relying on altruism and exploiting existing social networks. For example, the runners-up at the Georgia Institute of Technology offered to donate all proceeds to the American Red Cross. The Geocacher team, meanwhile, drew on the geocaching community, which is a sport that uses navigational techniques to find objects.

The MIT researchers said their recursive incentive mechanism could be ‘applied in very different contexts, such as social mobilisation to fight world hunger, in games of cooperation and prediction, and for marketing campaigns’.

- Visit http://stories.twitter.com to read about ways that Twitter is being mobilised for social good

Christian Jarrett

Is ours the age of peace?

Endless news of war, riots and terrorism may make it difficult to believe, but human violence has declined for millennia and continues to do so. An Englishman today is dramatically less likely to meet a grisly end by murder, as compared with his medieval ancestors (the chance today is 1/35th the chance back then). Worldwide, there are fewer than ever inter-state wars. Consider the Western European powers, which have enjoyed a ‘Long Peace’ for the last half century. Before 1945, by contrast, they engaged in an average of two wars per year for 600 years! In a ‘rights revolution’, lynching, hate crimes against ethnic minorities and homosexuals, rape, domestic violence, uxoricide and matricide, child abuse, sex abuse, and hunting have all reduced in the USA and many other countries through the last century.

These facts were part of an enfilade of evidence delivered by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker ‘in conversation’ with Matt Ridley at the Royal Geographical Society in London in November; an event organised by Intelligence Squared. Pinker was promoting his latest and longest book

The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, in which he documents and seeks to explain our increasingly pacifistic existence.

Pinker organises the fall of violence into six historical phases and processes: the Pacification Process; the Civilising Process; the Humanitarian Revolution; the Long Peace; the New Peace; and the Rights Revolutions. The Pacification Process refers to the fall in risk of violent death that began around 5000 years ago as anarchic, nomadic life was replaced by state rule. Pinker drew on analyses of the injuries sustained by prehistoric skeletons (‘call it CSI Palaeolithic’, he said) and ethnographic statistics compiled from observations of modern-day hunter-gatherer and hunter-horticulturalist societies. In spite of the two World Wars, these data suggest that violent deaths were dramatically less prevalent (as a proportion of the population) in the 20th century than in prehistoric times. Hobbes may have been speculating, Pinker said, but this new evidence shows he was correct to describe life without government as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

The Civilising Process is Pinker’s term for the rise and expansion of states, including the ‘Paxes’ (Romana, Islamica, Hispanica…); the nationalisation of criminal justice; and the growing infrastructure of commerce and trade. Kings and overlords had an interest in their people not killing each other, Pinker said, much like a farmer would rather his livestock lived peaceably. The circumstances evolved in which it was more advantageous to do business with another person than to kill them. Zero-sum plunder (someone always loses) gave way to positive sum trade (everyone gains).

But as tribal living was replaced by states and autocracies, the risk of violence from one’s peers was replaced by the threat of harm from the authorities. Anarchy gave way to tyranny. Pinker listed some of the barbaric punishments doled out by early authorities, including ‘breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake, sawing in half, and impalement’. He also outlined some of the 222 crimes in 18th-century England that were punishable by death: ‘poaching, counterfeiting, robbing a rabbit warren, being in the company of gypsies, “strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age”.’ Such practices and others, including witch-hunts and slavery, have fortunately declined worldwide in a relatively narrow window of time.

What caused this humanitarian revolution? Pinker doesn’t think it has to do with rising affluence – the fall in violence precedes and exceeds rising economic wealth. Instead he pointed to rising literacy and cosmopolitanism during the Enlightenment. As book production and literacy grew, people learned about other cultures, they learned about other people’s perspectives and their empathy grew.

The Long Peace describes the time since the end of World War II during which there have been no wars between major powers. Pinker presented data showing how over the last half century the number of wars has reduced, their average length has fallen, and so too, since the 1950s, has their average deadliness. The New Peace is the spread of this pacification process beyond the Western world. For a time, there was an increase in civil wars as inter-state wars declined. But civil wars are now also falling in number and deaths from civil wars haven’t outnumbered the lives saved through there being fewer inter-state wars. Membership of international organisations like the UN and the work of peace-keepers has increased and become more effective during this period. War deaths in the 21st century are at an unprecedentedly low level. ‘The dream of 1960s folk singers is starting to come true,’ Pinker said, ‘the world is almost putting an end to war.’

All this leads to the big question: Why? Why has violence declined so consistently for so long? Unsurprisingly, to anyone who knows Pinker’s other works, he doesn’t think human nature has changed. He cited contemporary evidence on murderous fantasies. Fifteen per cent of women and a third of men frequently think about killing people they don’t like, rising to 60 per cent and three quarters, respectively, admitting to occasional homicidal thoughts. ‘The rest of them are lying,’ Pinker said.

The answer, Pinker believes, lies with changing historical circumstances allowing the ‘better angels of our nature’ (a phrase coined by Abraham Lincoln) to triumph over our aggressive instincts.

This includes Hobbes’ notion of the Leviathan – a state with a monopoly on justice, which removes the need for moralistic violence (i.e. revenge) and the need to establish a violent reputation as a form of deterrent. The increase in ‘gentle commerce’ driven by technological advances has made other people more valuable alive than dead. And on a wave of travel, journalism, literature, history and fiction, increased cosmopolitanism has created an ‘Expanding Circle’ (a phrase coined by philosopher Peter Singer). That is, our instinct is to care for the well-being of a close-knit circle of our family and friends, but this circle has now widened (in many cases to include other races and species). Finally, Pinker proposed the idea of an ‘escalator of reason’: education has driven up abstract intelligence and allowed us to see violence as a problem to be solved, rather than as a contest to be won. Our moral instincts for tribal loyalty and purity have given way to belief in universal rights and fairness.

So, what are the implications of the decline in violence? Pinker said they are profound and he called for an empirical rather than a moralistic mindset towards violence. We should go from asking what we’re doing wrong, to what we’re doing right, he said. Pinker ended with a defence and celebration of modernity. While many people recognise the benefits of better health care and other aspects of contemporary life, he said they often lament the decline of local communities and the rise in muggings and terrorism. But Pinker’s data show that rising individualism and cosmopolitanism have actually coincided with less crime and violence. ‘I believe this calls for a rehabilitation of the ideal of modernity and progress and is cause for gratitude for the institutions of civilisation and enlightenment that have made [the decline in violence] possible,’ he said.

Christian Jarrett

Pinker in the hot­–seat

After his talk, Pinker took questions from Matt Ridley (author of The Rational Optimist) and from the audience. Ridley asked a question that was on the minds of many listeners: How is it that if human nature is innate – as Pinker argued with great conviction and scholarship in The Blank Slate – our behaviour and attitudes have changed so profoundly? Pinker retorted that the nature of our combinatorial thought, our rule-based language and cognition, allows a fixed human nature to explore infinite ideas. ‘There is no contradiction in saying that the human mind, operating according to fixed rules, will explore ideas and will eventually wander upon those that have made us all better off,’ he said

Questions from the audience touched on issues relating to: abortion rates; the sanctioning of torture by liberal states; the problem of suppressed aggression; the extraction of profit as a form of non-physical violence; and the effects of violent games and films.

Pinker answered that fetuses are not sentient beings and that legal abortion has not drifted towards infanticide. In fact, he said, ‘the valuation of children has reached insane levels’.

State-sanctioned torture is deplorable, Pinker acknowledged, but he said in terms of scale, it was insignificant compared to the barbarity of the past. It was perpetrated for a purpose and it was conducted clandestinely precisely because it’s become taboo.

Suppressed aggression isn’t a problem, Pinker explained, because there’s no truth to a ‘hydraulic theory’ of aggression. In fact, he said, the research shows that people with more willpower live happier lives.

Pinker said that the notion of profit as violence, and similar questions, showed just how far we’d come in looking for signs of violence, since real violence had become so rare. ‘I came from a family of retailers,’ Pinker said. ‘My grandfather made ties and sold them at a profit. I don’t consider that violence.’ In fact, Pinker pointed out, countries that encourage a profit motive are generally more peaceable.

The notion that violent games and films might be making our children violent is a red-herring, Pinker said, since the rise in these media has occurred precisely during the decades that violence has declined so profoundly. In fact, Pinker speculated, since self-control generalises, it’s plausible that playing video games (which often require self-control and discipline) could have real-life benefits.

‘A lot of sacred cows are being slaughtered tonight,’ Matt Ridley quipped – an observation that summed up the evening rather well.

Christian Jarrett

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