a categorical difference? a speculation…

Posted on Sunday 25 January 2015

Neuroskeptic‘s blog on Discover is one my favorites. His current post is about Diederik Stapel, the Dutch Social Psychologist, now famous as an admitted fraud who fabricated a lot of data. Diedrik actually became a regular on another favorite blog, Ivan Oranski’s Retraction Watch [Diederik has 54 Retractions to date]. If you don’t know the story, here are some links [in the New York Times, Neuroskeptic’s post, and on Retraction Watch]. Stapel also wrote a book:
"Two years ago, Dutch science fraudster Diederik Stapel published a book, Ontsporing [“Derailment”], describing how he became one of the world’s leading social psychologists, before falling from grace when it emerged that he’d fabricated the data in dozens of papers. Stapel wrote Ontsporing in Dutch, but now his story has been translated into English, under the title of Faking Science – thanks to the efforts of Nick Brown."
The link to Faking Science is a free download of Brown’s translated book [224 pages]. This story about Diederik Stapel comes shortly after a report on how another frequent flyer on Retraction Watch, Anil Potti, the Duke Cancer Researcher, was exposed [see Duke Officials Silenced Med Student Who Reported Trouble in Anil Potti’s Lab]. In the case of Potti, his work was being questioned by other researchers in the field, but it was a Med Student in his lab that blew the whistle [one that wasn’t listened to by the higher ups for a long time]. In Stapel’s case, a group of graduate students blew the whistle that was apparently heard definitively the first time around.

Who among us doesn’t have personal memories of early experimentation with embellishments or outright lies? or dealt with the experimentation of our children? or recall disillusioning encounters with friends or colleagues once exposed? And it’s the unusual case of someone in psychotherapy who doesn’t get around to shamefully confessed secrets of such things. Here are Stapel’s comments on his step over the line, quoted by Neuroskeptic [QRP: The study he references is available online, a survey of "Questionable Research Practices" among psychologists that reports a surprisingly high prevalence]:
After years of balancing on the outer limits [of scientific integrity], the grey became darker and darker until it was black, and I fell off the edge into the abyss. I’d been having trouble with my experiments for some time. Even with my various “grey” methods for “improving” the data [i.e. ‘QRPs‘], I wasn’t able to get the results the way I wanted them. I couldn’t resist the temptation to go a step further. I wanted it so badly. I wanted to belong, to be part of the action, to score.

I really, really wanted to be really, really good. I wanted to be published in the best journals and speak in the largest room at conferences. I wanted people to hang on my every word as I headed for coffee or lunch after delivering a lecture.

I felt very alone. I was alone in my tastefully furnished office at the University of Groningen. I’d taken extra care when closing the door, and made my desk extra tidy. Everything had to be neat and orderly. No mess.

I opened the file with the data that I had entered and changed an unexpected 2 into a 4; then, a little further along, I changed a 3 into a 5. It didn’t feel right. I looked around me nervously. The data danced in front of my eyes. When the results are just not quite what you’d so badly hoped for; when you know that that hope is based on a thorough analysis of the literature; when this is your third experiment on this subject and the first two worked great; when you know that there are other people doing similar research elsewhere who are getting good results; then, surely, you’re entitled to adjust the results just a little?…
I suppose that we would say he was already "over the line" ["the grey became darker and darker"] before this moment:
No. I clicked on “Undo Typing.” And again. I felt very alone. I didn’t want this. I’d worked so hard. I’d done everything I could and it just hadn’t quite worked out the way I’d expected. It just wasn’t quite how everyone could see that it logically had to be. I looked at the door of my office. It was still closed. I looked out the window. It was dark outside. “Redo Typing.” And again. For a moment I had the feeling that someone was standing behind me. I turned round slowly, fearfully. There was nobody there. I looked at the array of data and made a few mouse clicks to tell the computer to run the statistical analyses. When I saw the results, the world had become logical again. I saw what I’d imagined. I felt relieved, but my heart was heavy. This was great, but at the same time it was very wrong.
Any modern discussion of Moral Development usually has that word development in it, because morality is not something that just comes with the package. We acquire it along the way. And the terms used to describe it [Superego, Conscience, Moral Compass, Jiminy Cricket] imply it’s an attachment, rather than an integral component. Stapel‘s description of someone standing behind me, is pretty common. Many describe this moral agency as the personified part of the mind [as we acquire it from other people and it’s experienced as a presence]. My point is that we all know people whose morality depends on whether someone is looking or not – it hasn’t become an internalized part of the mind, but remains dependent on an outside monitor like it is in parts of childhood. In a later vignette, also quoted by Neuroskeptic, after Diederik Stapel has been confronted, he’s still thinking he can continue to fool the outside agent, and is fabricating new, more elaborate stories.

Retraction Watch is an interesting study of the fragility of human morality – high functioning people who step into the "grey," and then it gets "darker and darker." And it’s almost always "loners" doing the fabrication – I presume looking over their shoulders. This story attracted my attention at a time when I’ve been thinking about the issue of Data Transparency in Clinical Trials and all the distorted Clinical Trial reports strewn about in our medical literature. In Ben Goldacre’s now famous 2012 TED Talk, he mentioned that industry-funded Clinical Trials are better conducted than many independent trials. That was anti-intuitive to me when I first heard it, but I have to admit that now, having looked a a lot of trials, I reluctantly agree. There are a number of trials where the design is biased [wrong dosing of comparators, for example], but I haven’t run across fabrication of data – the kind of thing that’s common in the examples on Retraction Watch. The trouble comes after the blind gets broken. Negative studies go unpublished. And often, small [and trivial] effects are amplified with a whole host of "grey" techniques [that carefully stay out of the "black"].

What I’m implying [because I apparently don’t know how to say it clearly] is that the widespread embellishment and deceit seen in the Clinical Trial publications is categorically different from the cases we see in the people who show up on Retraction Watch. Each instance in a Clinical Trial includes the involvement of multiple people: guest authors, statisticians, scientists, medical writers, marketeers, legal consultants, CEOs, etc. And there’s an intentionality in staying "in the grey rather than the black." It is a widespread practice, a culture, with similar methods showing up from seemingly independent groups who are otherwise in competition. And throughout this struggle over Data Transparency, the individual companies and their collective [PhRMA] are fighting to hold onto as much control of data access as they can muster. The only reason I can think of for their dogged persistence is to maintain the latitude for embellishment and deceit in the future – as if it is potentially an essential element.

Maybe I can say it clearly after all. The fraudsters are, indeed, betraying their own morality. Diederik Stapel even describes being haunted by it’s presence in an empty room in the vignette above, and is now engaged in a reparative campaign eg a confessional book and a TEDx Brain Train talk. In that talk Stapel discusses how he lost his connections with others in the process. Whereas, those involved in the distortions of the Clinical Trials aren’t betraying a morality, they’re living up to a different, corporate moral standard. They don’t lose connections – their shared morality connects them and appears to be mutually reinforcing. It is, in fact, the rare whistle-blower who betrays this ethic [as in ethos, culture] and is ostracized. That moral difference should have implications for how we approach dealing with the seemingly similar problems the fraudsters and the trialists create…
    Ferrell Varner
    January 25, 2015 | 12:36 PM

    I think that some of them are like tennis players who make bad calls. They actually think that they have seen it out, or at least not “clearly” in. “Conflict of interest” is a powerful confounder. In these “relative” times where deconstructionists can create sophistries about almost everything, it is even trickier.

    January 25, 2015 | 8:06 PM

    Is it just me, or is the rising frequency and intensity of academic corruption and sheer disdain for integrity and responsibility showing us that truth and accountability are the exceptions to what we have been told these past 15 years or more? Frankly, and I know some responsible and attentive colleagues who write here will call me on this: I think we have learned most of the crucial and applicable information to be effective providers maxed out in the early 1990s.

    For every valuable and defensible piece of new knowledge provided us these past 15 years and onwards as compared to the garbage that pervasively outnumbers such benefits, such honest information is just finishing touches to mental health diagnoses and interventions. And if my opinion has merit, why should we even bother to listen to the cretins who still have the floor at APA meetings and other pathetic venues of “professionalism”?

    Oh, and why are such cretins even given the floor in the first place?! Maybe psychiatry per psychopharmacology really did max out with the first couple of SSRIs and the first generation antipsychotics from the 1960-early 80s overall, and the more recent compounds are just compounding problems, not solutions.

    Yeah, being a heretic is just a busy exercise avoiding the flames…

    January 28, 2015 | 1:02 PM

    I wonder if even “stepping into the grey” is a volitional act– that one deliberately ignores warning signs that one is isolating, moving into an us/them position, becoming someone who has something to fear from the questions of outsiders. I feel that this is never a position that a clinician or a scientist should adopt.

    I don’t know what it’s like for the author of a publication. I do know that many of us are encouraged to collude from the moment we present our first agreements to our supervisors for their signatures. We’re trained observers, or should be. We can see the drugs don’t work very well for most people. We can see drug-seeking behavior in clients who want SSRIs. We can even see, sometimes, little warning signs of TD… and bigger warning signs of akathisia.

    Will we continue reporting these after they were ignored, or even criticized, the second, the third time?

    For me, it’s easier– I’m old and bold and hard and cold. For a younger kid who’s fresh out of school, out of money and out of time– easier to go along to get along.

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