The Data Vigilante: Students aren’t the only ones cheating—some professors are, too.
Uri Simonsohn, a research psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, did not set out to be a vigilante. His first step down that path came two years ago, at a dinner with some fellow social psychologists in St. Louis. The pisco sours were flowing, Simonsohn recently told me, as the scholars began to indiscreetly name and shame various “crazy findings we didn’t believe.” Social psychology—the subfield of psychology devoted to how social interaction affects human thought and action—routinely produces all sorts of findings that are, if not crazy, strongly counterintuitive. For example, one body of research focuses on how small, subtle changes—say, in a person’s environment or positioning—can have surprisingly large effects on their behavior. Idiosyncratic social-psychology findings like these are often picked up by the press and on Freakonomics-style blogs. But the crowd at the restaurant wasn’t buying some of the field’s more recent studies. Their skepticism helped convince Simonsohn that something in social psychology had gone horribly awry. “When you have scientific evidence,” he told me, “and you put that against your intuition, and you have so little trust in the scientific evidence that you side with your gut—something is broken.”
Simonsohn does not look like a vigilante—or, for that matter, like a business-school professor: at 37, in his jeans, T-shirt, and Keen-style water sandals, he might be mistaken for a grad student. And yet he is anything but laid-back. He is, on the contrary, seized by the conviction that science is beset by sloppy statistical maneuvering and, in some cases, outright fraud. He has therefore been moonlighting as a fraud-buster, developing techniques to help detect doctored data in other people’s research. Already, in the space of less than a year, he has blown up two colleagues’ careers. (In a third instance, he feels sure fraud occurred, but he hasn’t yet nailed down the case.) In so doing, he hopes to keep social psychology from falling into disrepute.
Simonsohn initially targeted not flagrant dishonesty, but loose methodology. In a paper called “False-Positive Psychology,” published in the prestigious journal Psychological Science, he and two colleagues—Leif Nelson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and Wharton’s Joseph Simmons—showed that psychologists could all but guarantee an interesting research finding if they were creative enough with their statistics and procedures.