Regular readers will know that I view scientific misconduct as a serious harm to both the body of scientific knowledge and the scientific community involved in building that knowledge. I also hold out hope that at least some of the scientists who commit scientific misconduct can be rehabilitated (and I’ve noted that other members of the scientific community behave in ways that suggest that they, too, believe that rehabilitation is possible).
But I think a non-negotiable prerequisite for rehabilitation is demonstrating that you really understand how what you did was wrong. This understanding needs to be more than simply recognizing that what you did was technically against the rules. Rather, you need to grasp the harms that your actions did, the harms that may continue as a result of those actions, the harms that may not be quickly or easily repaired. You need to <a href="http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/doing-good-science/2014/06/29/do-permanent-records-of-scientific-misconduct-findings-interfere-with-rehabilitation/"acknowledgethose harms, not minimize them or make excuses for your actions that caused the harms.
And, you need to stop behaving in the ways that caused the harms in the first place.
Among other things, this means that if you did significant harm to your scientific community, and to the students you were were supposed to be training, by making up “results” rather than actually doing experiments and making and reporting accurate results, you need to recognize that you have acted deceptively. To stop doing harm, you need to stop acting deceptively. Indeed, you may need to be significantly more transparent and forthcoming with details than others who have not transgressed as you have. Owing to your past bad acts, you may just have to meet a higher burden of proof going forward.
That you have retracted the publications in which you deceived, or lost a degree for which (it is strongly suspected) you deceived, or lost your university post, or served your hours of court-ordered community service does not reset you to the normal baseline of presumptive trust. “Paying your debt to society” does not in itself mean that anyone is obligated to believe that you are not still untrustworthy. If you break trust, you need to earn it back, not to demand it because you did your time.
You certainly can’t earn that trust back by engaging in deception to mount an argument that people should give you a break because you’ve served out your sentence.
These thoughts on how not to approach your own rehabilitation are prompted by the appearance of disgraced social scientist Diederik Stapel (discussed here, here, here, here, here, and here) in the comments at Retraction Watch on a post about Diederik Stapel and his short-lived gig as an adjunct instructor for a college course. Now, there’s no prima facie reason Diederik Stapel might not be able to make a productive contribution to a discussion about Diederik Stapel.
However, Diederik Stapel was posting his comments not as Diederik Stapel but as “Paul”.
I hope it is obvious why posting comments that are supportive of yourself while making it appear that this support is coming from someone else is deceptive. Moreover, the comments seem to suggest that Stapel is not really fully responsible for the frauds he committed.
Help! Let’s not change anything. Science is a flawless institution. Yes. And only the past two days I read about medical scientists who tampered with data to please the firm that sponsored their work and about the start of a new investigation into the work of a psychologist who produced data “too good to be true.” Mistakes abound. On a daily basis. Sure, there is nothing to reform here. Science works just fine. I think it is time for the “Men in Black” to move in to start an outside-invesigation of science and academia. The Stapel case and other, similar cases teach us that scientists themselves are able to clean-up their act.
Later, he writes (sic throughout):
Stapel was punished, he did his community service (as he writes in his latest book), he is not on welfare, he is trying to make money with being a writer, a cab driver, a motivational speaker, but not very successfully, and .. it is totally unclear whether he gets paid for his teaching (no research) an extra-curricular hobby course (2 hours a week, not more, not less) and if he gets paid, how much.
Moreover and more importantly, we do not know WHAT he teaches exactly, we have not seen his syllabus. How can people write things like “this will only inspire kids to not get caught”, without knowing what the guy is teaching his students? Will he reach his students how to become fraudsters? Really? When you have read the two books he wrote after his demise, you cannot be conclude that this is very unlikely? Will he teach his students about all the other fakes and frauds and terrible things that happen in science? Perhaps. Is that bad? Perhaps. I think it is better to postpone our judgment about the CONTENT of all this as long as we do not know WHAT he is actually teaching. That would be a Popper-like, open-minded, rationalistic, democratic, scientific attitude. Suppose a terrible criminal comes up with a great insight, an interesting analysis, a new perspective, an amazing discovery, suppose (think Genet, think Gramsci, think Feyerabend).
Is it smart to look away from potentially interesting information, because the messenger of that information stinks?
Perhaps, God forbid, Stapel is able to teach his students valuable lessons and insights no one else is willing to teach them for a 2-hour-a-week temporary, adjunct position that probably doesn’t pay much and perhaps doesn’t pay at all. The man is a failure, yes, but he is one of the few people out there who admitted to his fraud, who helped the investigation into his fraud (no computer crashes…., no questionnaires that suddenly disappeared, no data files that were “lost while moving office”, see Sanna, Smeesters, and …. Foerster). Nowhere it is written that failures cannot be great teachers. Perhaps he points his students to other frauds, failures, and ridiculous mistakes in psychological science we do not know of yet. That would be cool (and not unlikely).
Is it possible? Is it possible that Stapel has something interesting to say, to teach, to comment on?
To my eye, these comments read as saying that Stapel has paid his debt to society and thus ought not to be subject to heightened scrutiny. They seem to assert that Stapel is reformable. They also suggest that the problem is not so much with Stapel as with the scientific enterprise. While there may be systemic features of science as currently practice that make cheating a greater temptation than it might be otherwise, suggesting that those features made Stapel commit fraud does not convey an understanding of Stapel’s individual responsibility to navigate those temptations. Putting those assertions and excuses in someone else’s mouth makes them look less self-serving than they actually are.
Hilariously, “Paul” also urges the Retraction Watch commenters expressing doubts about Stapel’s rehabilitation and moral character to contact Stapel using their real names, first here:
I guess that if people want to write Stapel a message, they can send him a personal email, using their real name. Not “Paul” or “JatdS” or “QAQ” or “nothingifnotcritical” or “KK” or “youknowbestofall” or “whatistheworldcoming to” or “givepeaceachance”.
if you want to talk to puppeteer, as a real person, using your real name, I recommend you write Stapel a personal email message. Not zwg or neuroskeptic or what arewehiding for.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Retraction Watch editors accumulated clues that “Paul” was not an uninvolved party but rather Diederik Stapel portraying himself as an uninvolved party. After they contacted him to let him know that such behavior did not comport with their comment policy, Diederik Stapel posted under his real name:
Hello, my name is Diederik Stapel. I thought that in an internet environment where many people are writing about me (a real person) using nicknames it is okay to also write about me (a real person) using a nickname. ! have learned that apparently that was —in this particular case— a misjudgment. I think did not dare to use my real name (and I still wonder why). I feel that when it concerns person-to-person communication, the “in vivo” format is to be preferred over and above a blog where some people use their real name and some do not. In the future, I will use my real name. I have learned that and I understand that I –for one– am not somebody who can use a nickname where others can. Sincerely, Diederik Stapel.
He portrays this as a misunderstanding about how online communication works — other people are posting without using their real names, so I thought it was OK for me to do the same. However, to my eye it conveys that he also misunderstands how rebuilding trust works. Posting to support the person at the center of the discussion without first acknowledging that you are that person is deceptive. Arguing that that person ought to be granted more trust while dishonestly portraying yourself as someone other than that person is a really bad strategy. When you’re caught doing it, those arguments for more trust are undermined by the fact that they are themselves further instances of the deceptive behavior that broke trust in the first place.
I will allow as how Diederik Stapel may have some valuable lessons to teach of, though. One of these is how not to make a convincing case that you’ve reformed.