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The Chump Effect

Reporters are credulous, studies show.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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And when the research reaches beyond the classroom, it becomes sillier still. 

Consider this recent study by Stapel, demonstrating the relationship between “disorder” and white racism and homophobia. Several news reports outlined the methodology as Stapel explained it. 

The experiment began after janitors at the Utrecht railroad station went on strike. Stapel and colleagues leapt into action. As the garbage in the station piled up, they cornered 40 white passengers. One by one the travelers were asked to take a seat in a row of folding chairs. They were given a questionnaire. If they filled it out, they were told, they would get a piece of chocolate or an apple as a reward.

The questionnaire asked to what degree the travelers agreed with stereotypes about certain types of people. (Are gays “creative and sweet” or “strange and feminine” or “impatient and intelligent”?) And then came the twist! Stapel had planted a person at the end of the row of chairs—sometimes a black person, sometimes a white. Researchers measured how far away from the person each respondent chose to sit. Meanwhile, thanks to the questionnaire, they could measure the degree of racism or homophobia each was feeling. On average, the travelers sat 25 percent closer to the white man than to the black man.

In time the janitors came back to work. The station was cleaned spick-and-span. Stapel and his gang returned and performed the experiment again, on another 40 white travelers. There in the tidy environment, their questionnaires showed they were less racist and homophobic than their counterparts from the earlier experiment. And on average, they sat the same distance from the white person as the black person. Hence, as the headline read: “Messy surroundings make people stereotype others.”

But Stapel, as an internationally respected social psychologist, wasn’t satisfied. So he designed another experiment to confirm his finding. The Stapel gang went to a wealthy neighborhood. They threw a bicycle on the ground, tore up paving stones, and, as the L.A. Times noted, parked Stapel’s Subaru on the sidewalk. Chaos! Disorder! Forty-seven passersby were collared, given a new questionnaire to test their racism, and asked to donate money to (I’m not making this up) a charity called “Money for Minorities.”

Then the bike was removed. The stones were replaced. Stapel moved his Subaru. Now it was just a nice, rich, tidy neighborhood. More passersby were collared, more questionnaires were filled out, and—here’s the scientific finding—less racism and homophobia were revealed. And the passersby in the tidy neighborhood gave more money to minorities on average: to be precise, 0.65 euro more.

Social psychologists around the world gazed on these findings when they were published this spring. They gave their chins a good, firm tug. “This need for order matters a lot more than we might have thought,” a Duke psychologist told the Times.

Did Stapel fake his research? Did he and his students really make all those people fill out forms for an apple? Did Stapel really cross-tabulate the data? Did he really park his car on the sidewalk? 

Who cares? The experiments are preposterous. You’d have to be a highly trained social psychologist, or a journalist, to think otherwise. Just for starters, the experiments can never be repeated or their results tested under controlled conditions. The influence of a hundred different variables is impossible to record. The first group of passengers may have little in common with the second group. The groups were too small to yield statistically significant results. The questionnaire is hopelessly imprecise, and so are the measures of racism and homophobia. The notions of “disorder” and “stereotype” are arbitrary—and so on and so on. 

Yet the allure of “science” is too strong for our journalists to resist: all those numbers, those equations, those fancy names (say it twice: the Self-Activation Effect), all those experts with Ph.D.’s! 

To their credit, the Stapel scandal has moved a few social psychologists to self-reflection. They note the unhealthy relationship between social psychologists and the journalists who bring them attention—each using the other to fill a professional need. “Psychology,” one methodologist told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “has become addicted to surprising, counter-intuitive findings that catch the news media’s eye.” 

That’s a scandal, all right. Stapel’s professional treachery is a scandal, too. But the biggest scandal is that the chumps took him seriously in the first place.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Crazy U.

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