Can a need for beauty poison academic research?

Photo credit: New York Times

Photo credit: New York Times

Eminent Dutch social psychologist Diderick Stapel admitted last month that, for the better part of his career, he faked his data. Just made it up. All so that he could claim headline-making findings like Eating Meat Makes People Selfish, and Garbage-strewn Environments Bring out Racist Tendencies. The NYT Magazine profile has all the makings of a movie: the scenes in  moonlit drawing rooms; Stapel's character arc from idealistic young graduate student to haunted middle-aged professor terrified of being caught; climactic confrontation between Stapel and a longtime colleague who is tipped off to Stapel's crimes by a couple of intrepid graduate students. Stapel could be played by Alan Rickman.

It'd be easy to assume that Stapel did it just for the fame. No top journal would publish a study that finds no link exists between eating meat and selfishness, or between untidy environments and racism. Yet, according to Stapel himself, ambition wasn't his only motive. As the NYT reports, Stapel "insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions." He'd had a "lifelong obsession with elegance and order" that "led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive." Stapel's love of beauty, it would seem, waylaid his search for truth. If this is really what happened, then Stapel is like the hero of a Shakespearean tragedy, doomed by his own virtuous love of beauty.

Stapel's story is puzzling, disturbing, cinema-ready. I don't know that it can be reduced to a tidy lesson for the academic researcher. But it does shed new light on old questions:  What is beauty? Is it elusive, so that it must be imagined where it is not, or is it ever-present, so that all we have to do is open our eyes to it? On a practical level, how does the researcher who loves beauty deal with a world in which results are often messy and inconclusive?

I would propose that we can only embrace the messiness as a sign of the universe's endless complexity and fascination. As 17th-century poet Robert Herrick put it in his poem on "A sweet disorder in the dress,"

"A careless shoe-string, in whose tie / I see a wild civility,— / Do more bewitch me, than when art / Is too precise in every part." 

When our research turns up messy results, let us embrace A Sweet Disorder in the Data. 

We'd love to hear your thoughts. What do you see as the role of beauty in research? What are you pursuing in your research--truth, beauty, usefulness, or some combination of the three? How do you handle messy results?

 

Posted on May 22, 2013 .