Published research is lauded by those who are science-minded and seeking to find the truth about various subjects. In the realm of nutritional research, these cherished studies are generally looked to as a source of guidance for determining dietary policy for health made by the government and public health organizations. However, how would it make you feel if you heard that the foundation for some of the most damning research was actually based on fraudulent and even made-up information included in studies that were seeking publication in peer-reviewed medical journals? Angry? Outraged? Disbelief?
Well, that’s exactly what has happened in the Netherlands with a former professor of social psychology at Tilburg University named Diederik Stapel. The 45-year old was suspended in September 2011 after he was suspected of creating fake study data for research he was looking to get published. A full-fledged investigation took place by the university that came to a head on October 31, 2011 when the committee looking into this concluded that Stapel fabricated information in at least 30 publications and many other articles are still being poured over. They are quoted by DutchNews describing this as “considerable and shocking.”
Unfortunately, this doesn’t just have an impact on him but also many of his former students whose names were associated with many research papers that have now been called into question. They found that 14 of the 21 doctoral dissertations he supervised were fake as well. He even made up the existence of one student who supposedly collected and organized the data. Yikes! This guy was in so deep I guess he didn’t see any way out of it. Now all of those former students will have to adjust their curriculum vitae by omitting this invaluable research from it altogether since it was found to be falsified. How sad for those students.
While this is certainly tragic and yet another example of why published research may not necessarily be the final say on matters of scientific importance, there is a connection to livin’ la vida low-carb here that cannot be ignored. One of Stapel’s most recent studies gaining notoriety in August 2011 which actually raised the eyebrows of some of his fellow Dutch colleagues was one that concluded “meat eaters are more selfish and less social than vegetarians.” Here are some of the statements made about this research which we now know was based entirely on fabricated evidence:
“Meat brings out the worst in people.”
“People say, meat is tasty, it’s healthy…meat is bad for the environment and climate. It is also bad for animals, the third world and our own health. But people can get quite upset when you tell them that. They are obviously very attached to their steak.”
“People do not primarily eat meat because they like it or think it’s healthy…meat gives a boost to your status and your ego.”
“Previous research had already shown that meat eaters think more in terms of dominance and hierarchy than vegetarians. Eating meat is a way to elevate yourself above others. But by uplifting yourself, you lose connection with others. That explains why there are more insecure people in need. It also makes people loutish when they think about meat and also feel lonely.”
“It seems that vegetarians and flexitarians are happier and feel better, and they are also more sociable and less lonely.”
That final quote was made by Stapel himself about his research which is quite ironic considering everything that is happening to his crumbling career. I’m sure he’ll be feel less sociable and more lonely now that his life has been turned upside down by his own ignorant actions. You know, it’s almost as if this was some kind of hit piece by a group of vegan activists–that’s pretty much what it was, too.
Stapel’s research partner on the study was social psychologist Ross Vonk who is a vegetarian. Perhaps in her rush to validate a position she personally supported, she put too much trust in her colleague and neglected to do her own due diligence in checking the facts, methodology and everything else that goes into solid research. This was all a bit shocking since Stapel was a media darling in the Netherlands and was frequently published. Vonk noted in an apology letter that Stapel was “one of the best social psychologists in Europe” with “an impeccable reputation” and “seemed a model of integrity.”
But it now looks like all of that was based on a big fat lie. For what purpose? Why would he jeopardize his career by so foolishly and flippantly thumbing his nose at the scientific community? Even Vonk said studying the psychology of meat-eating is “already controversial” which makes this all the more complex to deal with. She says this is all “shocking” and “unthinkable.” Vonk even admits regret at lashing out at a reporter who questioned whether the research was biased based on her personal dietary preference. She now realizes this was “a failure of mega-size.”
Ironically, Stapel was the 2009 recipient of the Career Trajectory Award given to researchers in the early-to-mid stages of their career in science who are “uniquely creative and influential.” Oops! They have since retracted this award from Stapel “due to admitted scientific fraud.” Now he is the face of public shame and exposes the biggest flaw in scientific research: the human element. Although he admits he has “failed as a researcher and academic” and that he has put his field of study “in a bad light,” it goes so much deeper than this.
How trusting should we be of medical research when there is the opportunity for fraud and deceit like what we’ve seen from Diederik Stapel? Is this a culture of corruption or just one bad apple? You can’t help but ask these questions out loud because the ramifications of something like this have dire consequences attached to them. If this is happening in the Netherlands, could it also be happening in the United States, Canada, Sweden, the UK and elsewhere around the world? Sure it could. Calling into question scientific research is not something many people do because there’s an unspoken sense of an intrinsically superior form of obtaining knowledge that exists. And yet now all of that is turned on its head because of Stapel’s foolish actions. That’s not to say that all researchers have ill intentions–but now we realize that at least some do.
A fantastic response about “What To Do About Scientific Fraud In Psychology?” by Mark van Vugt, Ph.D. was published in the September 10, 2011 issue of Psychology Today that outlines ways to cut down on abject scientific fraud: support whistle-blowers, avoid deception, publicize published findings only, acknowledge the specific contributions by researchers, and institute some form of ethical code to follow. It’s not a bad start, but there’s so much work left to be done.
This is why I often tell people not to fret over a single published study that is negative about consuming meat, saturated fat or a low-carb diet. While I respect the scientific process, you now know that there is a susceptibility to flawed data that is sometimes deliberate. We may not know why it happens–it just happens. That’s why I’m such a strong supporter of people conducting their own n=1 experiments to test various theories on themselves. In the end, that’s really the only science that counts for the individual. And there’s no reason to creating fake data!