Chris Chambers on the sins of psychology

“Remember that science is nothing more than a competition for status in a field of storytellers. You are doing what the system requires of you [in committing fraud], and, in any case, you have heard of others who are committing far worse infractions than you. After all, it’s not as though you are really hurting anyone. Does it really matter if your results are true or false? Who honestly cares? All findings are to some extent wrong – as a colleague once wrote, the best we can hope for is to be ‘interestingly wrong’.”

These cynical words conclude “How to Get Away with Fraud”, a sort of playbook for would-be fraudsters that Chris Chambers includes in his Seven Deadly Sins of Psychology (Princeton University Press).

Chris himself is far from being a cynic; he’s more of a crusader trying – in collaboration with others who share his view that something has gone badly wrong in academic psychology – to steer his discipline back on course. But his how-to guide to fraud shows how easy and seductive it is and his book demonstrates how the current system of publication, grant awards, and promotions offers “pernicious incentives” to cut corners, bend rules and deliver what the system requires if you want to get ahead.

Egregious fraud on the scale committed by disgraced Dutch researcher and former highflyer Diederik Stapel (whom we discuss in the podcast) may be rare; “engaging in questionable practices to generate publishable stories from their data”, Chris maintains, is much more common. The book discusses these practices and the system which allows them to persist in detail and we discuss some of them in the interview.

“If we continue as we are then psychology will diminish as a reputable science and could very well disappear,” Chris warns. And surely we need all the reputable science we can get as a bulwark against an age in which any assertion made with sufficient force can gain the aura of truth.

What impressed me most about Chris when I met him in Cardiff was the matter-of-fact way in which he spoke about tackling what is undoubtedly a big challenge: changing how a whole discipline functions. He sees it as a machine, albeit a complex one, with interacting parts, and while he is working on modifying one part, like-minded colleagues are working to alter another.

We talk in the interview about Machiavelli’s observation that “the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions”, who tend to be those who hold the power and the purse-strings. Here too Chris seems undaunted, despite the personal attacks he has suffered since his campaign began. Are there, nonetheless, dark moments in the middle of the night when he wishes he had let sleeping dogs lie? Listen to the interview to hear his response.