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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Just the Facts: Empirical Social Science Overplayed

Tilburg University in the E.U. is known to have an emphasis on empirical studies in the social sciences (including business). With this bent, the university is typically considered to be closer to the American academic tradition than that of Europa. So when Dr. Diederik Stapel, a psychology professor at Tilburg, acknowledged to having committed academic fraud in several dozen published articles in academic journals, the academic status of empirical research itself was thrown into question. Experts point out that Stapel “took advantage of a system that allows researchers to operate in near secrecy and massage data to find what they want to find, without much fear of being challenged.” Indeed, it is rare even for peer-reviewers of potential articles to demand to see the raw empirical data supporting a given study’s conclusions. According to Dr. Jelte Wicherts, a psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, the problem of data being misused by the scholars who collect and analyze it is widespread in the discipline of psychology.

In a survey of more than 2,000 American psychology professors, Leslie John of Harvard Business School found that 70 percent had acknowledged (anonymously) to cutting some corners in reporting data. Add to this the problem of unintended statistical errors and the problem of being able to rely on scientific results becomes acute. Dr. Joseph Simmons, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business says, “We know the general tendency of humans to draw the conclusions they want to draw.”

Indeed, the “academic” field of corporate social responsibility has been rife with “scholars” writing to impose or justify their critical ideology of the modern corporation. For example, at Amiti Etzioni’s conference at Harvard Business School on his theory (or movement?) on socio-economics, one professor demanded that the participants form a labor party. The Harvard professors in attendance pointed out that Etzioni was simply trashing the neo-classical economic paradigm (economic liberalism, or free-market competition) without proffering an alternative theory. This did not stop Dr. Etzioni from continuing to advance his agenda, which I submit was precisely to condemn the neo-classical economic theory. Similarly, “scholars” of CSR tend to presume that corporations have an obligation to share corporate governance with stakeholder groups and give more philanthropically. Never mind that the purported obligation is typically not justified beyond the “scholar’s” own ideology. I would be surprised if the empirical research was not highly skewed in the direction of that ideology.

Of course, the problem of empirical science is not limited to disciplines such as psychology and business & society, which are particularly subject to ideology. Once I sat in on a doctoral seminar on strategy. The professor, who would go on to get tenure at a major business school, advised the doctoral students to check with the managements of the companies they are surveying before publishing the results in case any of the managements do not like the conclusions. Otherwise, the “professor” observed, consulting opportunities might be diminished. That several of the students had been bankers and would be conducting empirical studies of the financial sector ought to concern anyone who has heard of “too big to fail” and the related over-reliance on models designed to manage risk.

So whether in dealing with human psychology or huge financial firms, skewed empirical research can be dangerous. Politically, the CSR agenda could result in too much power being amassed by stakeholder groups at the expense of property rights. Moreover, the discipline of psychology (and that of business ethics) suggests that the emphasis on empirical studies, particularly at American universities, is ahistoric. Before the twentieth century, psychology was part of philosophy. Perhaps the problems with empirical science might lead to a re-consideration of the value of philosophical psychology in terms of knowledge as well as practice. Similarly, the interlarding of business ethics (a subfield of ethics, which in turn is a field of philosophy) with empirical surveys—as if what is counts for what ought to be—can be questioned. Rarely does a business ethicist stop to wonder why philosophers do not send out surveys as part of doing philosophy. David Hume’s naturalistic fallacy provides a good explanation for why they do not.

My overall point is that the value of empirical studies in the social sciences (and applied philosophy) have been overstated, particularly at American universities, while theory development and the historic housing in philosophy have been relegated or dismissed outright. Along with the hypertrophy in empiricism has come a “cubby-hole” mentality wherein Frederick Taylor’s specialization of labor has somehow been applied to scholarship. One could excuse business schools for conflating what they are studying with what they are. The problem is when the academic enterprise itself comes to resemble enterprises that make widgets. It is no accident, I submit, that the twentieth century will not be known for many bright spots in the social sciences or philosophy. One could say that Plato and Nietzsche make good book-ends, with engineers and natural scientists taking over to produce a technological and information revolution. Yet who asks what the opportunity costs have been in reducing progress to the technological variety? What cost was there in the twentieth century in having technicians and ideologues for philosophers, rather than thinkers capable of seeing the big picture and proffering unique vistas? If the case of Dr. Stapel comes as a surprise, it might be because we have become too ensconced with “facts” at the expense of meaning.

Click to add a question or comment on Diederik Stapel’s fraud and on the excesses in empirical social science more generally.

Benedict Carey, “Fraud Case Seen as a Red Flag for Psychology Research,” The New York Times, November 3, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/03/health/research/noted-dutch-psychologist-stapel-accused-of-research-fraud.html