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The Mind of a Con Man

Overnight, Diederik Stapel went from respected professor to the biggest con man in academic science. For more than a decade his biggest experiment was deceiving others. In the end, Stapel had committed fraud in at least 55 papers.

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. He described his behavior as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high.

Academic science is becoming a business too. “There are scarce resources, you need grants, you need money, there is competition,” Stapel said. “Normal people go to the edge to get that money. Science is of course about discovery, about digging to discover the truth. But it is also communication, persuasion, marketing. I am a salesman. I am on the road. People are on the road with their talk. With the same talk. It’s like a circus.”

Sunk Costs

…The experiment — and others like it — didn’t give Stapel the desired results, he said. He had the choice of abandoning the work or redoing the experiment. But he had already spent a lot of time on the research and was convinced his hypothesis was valid. “I said — you know what, I am going to create the data set,” he told me.

How he did it

The key to why Stapel got away with his fabrications for so long lies in his keen understanding of the sociology of his field. “I didn’t do strange stuff, I never said let’s do an experiment to show that the earth is flat,” he said. “I always checked — this may be by a cunning manipulative mind — that the experiment was reasonable, that it followed from the research that had come before, that it was just this extra step that everybody was waiting for.” He always read the research literature extensively to generate his hypotheses. “So that it was believable and could be argued that this was the only logical thing you would find,” he said. “Everybody wants you to be novel and creative, but you also need to be truthful and likely. You need to be able to say that this is completely new and exciting, but it’s very likely given what we know so far.”