In a compelling New York Times piece published last Friday, writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee discusses the rise and fall of Diederik Stapel, a Dutch social psychologist who committed fraud in 55, or more, of his scientific papers.
While I have very little sympathy for Stapel, I was surprised to recognize the impulse behind his fabrication. Here's how the article explained it:
Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that, he told me. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely led to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. "It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth," he said.
Stapel's summary of feedback from journal editors: "They are actually telling you: 'Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler.'" He excelled at providing people with what they craved: "structure, simplicity, a beautiful story."
Much of my own research focuses on how people generate and evaluate explanations. Stapel is right: people do crave explanations that are simple, broad, elegant. We want our explanations to be beautiful. In my own research I've found that people will often opt for the simpler explanation, even when they have more evidence for a complex one (see here and here for blog posts; here and here for journal articles).
Einstein purportedly told the philosopher Hans Reichenbach that he'd known the theory of relativity must be true because it was so beautiful, even before the solar eclipse of 1918 provided the pivotal evidence. But he also said that "everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler."
Science can sometimes startle us with discoveries of beauty and elegance beyond what we'd ever imagined. But it can also disappoint us. Sometimes the story simply isn't simple. T.H. Huxley wrote that the great tragedy of science is "the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."
In many cases, seeing favored hypotheses flounder spurs scientists on to gather more data, rework theories and wrestle with previous interpretations of their findings. This can be a good thing; an engine for progress. So it's disappointing to learn that the impulse toward beautiful explanations also has a dark side — introducing a rare (I hope) but genuine threat to scientific integrity.
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo