Judging Stapel (continued)

Judging Stapel (continued)

Cor Gutter, professor emeritus and former dean of the Law Faculty,
Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam

  On 12 September 2011, commenting on activities of Mr D. Stapel, Mrs
Jennifer Crocker published “The Fraud Among us, or Within Us?” on
SPSP.org, the website of “Society for Personality and Social Psychology”
  On 9 November 2011, an adaptation of her article was published on
Nature’s website

  On 30 January 2012, I published a comment on that article on the same site. It did not come out on screen as it should have. Therefore, it is here republished.

Dr. Crocker correctly pinpointed some of the circumstances whose description may serve to explain propositions describing behaviours such as those of Mr Stapel that were condemned by Mr Levelt’s committee.

  Some factors she did not mention concern the environment in which Mr Stapel, his students, and some of his colleagues were engaged, to wit, universities in continental Western Europe, and denominational ones at that. That environment was shared by members of the Levelt commission.

Explaining the importance of those factors appears to require reference to the vocabulary – in particular to the word ‘science’ – in use in continental Western Europe for the description of activities in academe, which differs from modern Anglo-American usage. The latter was referred to by, e.g., Lindley, when he dated “the beginning of science as we now understand the term” to Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton (David Lindley, “A physics travelogue.” Nature, 445, p. 24-25; 2007).

In this usage – started, it seems, in 1840 in England by William Whewell
(1794-1866) – the activities ‘science’ refers to are distinguished from those called ‘the humanities’ or ‘literature’, as done for example by C.P. Snow (1905-1980) in his famous 1959 Cambridge diatribe “The Two Cultures”.

In continental Western Europe, during the past millennium, ‘scientia’,
‘Wissenschaft’, ‘wetenschap’ and similar terms have been – and continue to be – used for activities of professors of theology or law as well as for those of physics, chemistry or biology. Hence, confusion may arise when it comes to evaluate activities purported to be ‘scientific’.

During the last two centuries, conflicts between those studying science (as referred to in the Anglo-American usage of the term) and those professing disciplines which Snow would call ‘humanities’ have been rare. This was due, in part, to the work of Descartes (1596-1650) and others, and, in part, to the segregation of activities into separate ‘faculties’: physics, for instance, after it had got a (renewed) base in observation, was moved out of the faculty of philosophy into a faculty of its own.

For some aspects of the world of human experience, notably for interactions of humans one with another, serious attempts at increasing our knowledge with the help of observation-based concept formation have only recently started. Writings of Freud, Lewin, Merton, Festinger and Milgram and others may be counted as as many efforts to vindicate for activities called ‘psychology’, ‘social psychology’ and ‘sociology’ a place in academe of their own, independent of moral philosophy or moral theology.

That independence seems to be still far from assured. Mr Stapel had been appointed at a university that worked “on the principle of promoting and sustaining education and research with a pronounced Catholic signature”: http://www.tilburguniversity.edu/about-tilburg-university/organisation-and-management/. It probably attracted students who felt themselves ‘left in the cold’ in an increasingly ‘secularistic’ environment, and craved for certainties and guidelines that the Roman Catholic church no longer gave them. Few if any of them could have been familiar with the criteria nowadays used to distinguish activities fit for increasing our knowledge of the world of human experience from those that are not.

Mr Stapel could hardly escape being confronted by them with expectations about or desires for outcomes of his activities as a teacher and ‘researcher’ akin to those some people have traditionally attributed to the study of moral theology, to wit, an increase of bliss, and how to avoid wrongdoing. His behaviour, as described by Mr Levelt et al., might tentatively be understood as attempts to meet those expectations or needs.

Mr Eijlander, Rector Magnificus of Tilburg University, in formulating the terms of reference of the Levelt committee, called that behaviour a ‘breach of scientific integrity’. This begged the question how Mr Stapel’s activities ought to be qualified.

Mr Levelt et al. found that the latter had used fictitious data in some of
his publications. Mr Levelt (as well as Mr Hagenaars, a colleague of his in the committee in question) must have known that this has for ages been – and continues to be – considered an acceptable practice among professors of Christian theology, sanctioned by none other than Augustine (as set out in Judging Stapel).

In any attempt to describe Mr Stapel’s behaviour in a not wholly prejudiced way, Mrs Levelt and Hagenaars ought to have given consideration to this practice among colleagues of his as well as of themselves at Tilburg University and Radboud University. If they had done that, they might next have decided to pursue ‘scientific integrity’. This would have required them to point out that, if opprobrium attached to Mr Stapel, it did so as well to those professing an activity that for ages some in continental Western Europe have called supreme among the sciences.

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