Unexpectedly Intriguing!
July 29, 2016
Wordle - Pseudoscience

Are there personality traits that characterize the people who intentionally engage in junk science?

You might not know names like Diederik Stapel, Jan Hendrik Schön, or Haruko Obokata, but to the scientists who work in their respective science fields of social psychology, condensed matter physics and developmental biology, they first rose to prominence and then sunk into infamy thanks to their choices to engage in junk science.

Why did they do it?

All three were recently profiled by Ian Freckleton, who dove into the psychological elements that all three appear to have shared as they engaged in extraordinarily damaging behavior (emphasis ours).

Often individuals who engage in scientific fraud are high achievers. They are prominent in their disciplines but seek to be even more recognised for the pre-eminence of their scholarly contributions. Along with their drive for recognition can come charisma and grandiosity, as well as a craving for the limelight. Their productivity can border on the manic. Their narcissism will often result in a refusal to accept the manifest dishonesty and culpability of their conduct. The rationalising and self-justifying books of Stapel and Obokata are examples of this phenomenon.

When criticism is made or doubts are expressed about their work, these scientists often react aggressively. They may threaten whistleblowers or attempt to displace responsibility for their conduct onto others. Such cases can generate persistent challenges in the courts, as the scientists in question deny any form of impropriety....

Research misconduct often has multiple elements: data fraud, plagiarism and the exploitation of the work of others. People rarely engage in such conduct as a one-off and frequently engage in multiple forms of such dishonesty, until finally they are exposed.

Having had some experience in revealing examples of pseudoscience, we can attest that the personality markers noted by Freckleton appear to us to be pretty spot on.

The consequences of pseudoscientific misconduct however go far beyond the perpetrators' behavior.

This intellectual dishonesty damages colleagues, institutions, patients who receive suspect treatments, trajectories of research and confidence in scholarship.

That's certaintly true in the cases of Stapel, Schön and Obokata, whose scientific legacies have proven to be so damaging that they singlehandedly set back real progress in each of their disciplines. As a result, other scientists wasted far too much of their time in trying to build on their false foundations, which meant that years of good faith effort had to be scrapped. The same scientists had to then add the hard work of reestablishing credibility for their disciplines to the challenge of having to restart their regular work from scratch because of the scholarly misconduct of their corrupt peers.

And all for nothing on the part of the perpetrators, because in the end, all their pseudoscience was exposed as the fraud it was when real science prevailed and they lost their jobs, their titles and their reputations. The sad part is that at least two of the three seem happy with achieving infamy, if their book deals and sales are any indication.

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