Scientific fraud: a topical lesson starter for any occasion

Trust me I’m a scientist…

I find that students are genuinely flabbergasted when, usually as part of Anomalistic Psychology (Unit 4, AQA A), they come across examples of researchers who have been found to have cheated. Whether this is a blatant fabrication of results, a less detectable amendment of data or the removal of participants from a data set to exaggerate an effect, most students are amazed that any scientist would do such as a thing. Their somewhat misplaced trust always makes for an interesting discussion about why examples of fraud may occur within Science.

Fraud in the news

The Guardian’s Science Correspondent, Alok Jha, sums up the problem with reference to recently publicised examples of scientific fraud (e.g. Dirk Smeesters) in his article “False positives: fraud and misconduct are threatening scientific research” (13/09/2012). The article makes reference to concerns that this type of fraud may be more common than we would like to think and also discusses how this sort of practice poses a threat to the credibility of Psychology as a scientific discipline. The article also highlights the growth in the number of papers that have been retracted from credible, peer reviewed journals because they have been found to be fraudulent.

Fraud and A Level Psychology: The scientific method

The author points out that taking a scientific approach to research should mean that bias cannot occur, although Psychology students should be aware that this is not always the case when researching human behaviour. The author also highlights that fraud in science is newsworthy because the public expects scientists to have the “moral high ground”, presumably due to the objectivity that should be a given. Many features of the scientific method are discussed in detail in this article (ideal for A2 students) as are the some of the most pertinent issues surrounding the scientific approach, such as problems with replication and the file drawer phenomenon.

In the A Level Psychology classroom

I think students would benefit greatly from reading the article and following up any related links to find out more. This would make great preparatory reading material for a class seminar-style discussion.

Using the issue of fraud in science as a lesson starter

Here are two lesson starter ideas (suitable for any Psychology lesson… why wait for A2) to introduce the idea that you shouldn’t always trust a scientist.

A moral dilemma

Ask students to imagine that they are assisting a prominent researcher with their data collection and analysis (you could talk about the role of Assistant Psychologists in this context to introduce career paths in Psychology). The research involves coding responses given by the participants on a response sheet. One of the participant’s responses is not legible but the researcher asks you to code it as a particular response. What would you do? What if you had seen the researcher changing participant responses but they were not aware that you had seen them?

This starter scenario has the potential to raise a few Psychology wide issues/concepts including: the ethical conduct of researchers and reporting misconduct, pressure from authority (drawing on AS studies), the possible reasons for researchers acting in a fraudulent manner and the impact of this behaviour on Psychology and our knowledge.

Which is worse?

Present 2 or more examples of scientific fraud in Psychology, ideally where the nature of the “cheating” differs (e.g. Walter Levy who turned off equipment to change the frequency of events in J.B Rhine’s paranormal research lab, Cyril Burt who invented twins for his study and/or Dirk Smeester). Ask students to rate or rank the examples based on the severity of the fraud justifying their choices. This should stimulate a interesting discussion drawing on the motives and impact of compromising the scientific method as students respond to each others rankings. Obviously students could conclude that they are all as bad as each other so playing devils advocate will be be vital to develop the discussion and include all students.

You could introduce this activity in at the end of the previous lesson, giving your students only an image of the researcher and a few key words to work with. Ask them to find who each person is and identify the link between them before completing the sort/ranking task as above at the start of the next lesson.

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