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The Dishonesty Plunge? A Question of Science

Updated: Nov 14, 2021

A rocky week for markets. A rocky week for science - in particular, five of the world’s brightest behavioral scientists who advise many public and private sector organisations.

Edelman research suggests that organisations and governments still aren’t trusted. Are academics heading for a similar fall?

The exposure of fraudulent data in a 2012 paper by leading academics caused a major ripple in the scientific community. Ironically, this was a case of fraud in a paper about how to make people more honest - written by experts in ethics from Harvard and Duke.

Science or Science Fiction?

The 2012 paper apparently showed how signing a form at the top would improve people’s rate of honesty by 10.25%. It was based on five studies, one with data from an auto insurance company. A scientific cause and effect is of course, academic nirvana.

This sexy finding was marketed globally. Governments, organisations applied this new insight with zeal.

But last year, two new researchers found it failed to replicate. They found the flaws in the 2012 study but not all of The Famous Five wanted to recall the article.

It reminds me of how Peleton resisted the recall of their treadmill amid the pandemic exercise craze, despite the death of a child.

Earlier this year, a team of interested analysts forensically examined the data and proved one study to be doctored.

Innocent or guilty?

In classic crisis management style, each author was ‘delighted’ with this discovery. After all, each was dedicated to the pursuit of science. All pointed the fingers at the author of the 3rd study - Dan Ariely who suggested maybe it was the auto company, and even offered to take a lie detector test.

Does guilt or innocence actually matter in a Twitter-dominated age? Individual reputations are tainted not just by association but by the very conversation. As are their affiliated institutions.

Like governments and financial organisations in particular, science is no stranger to issues of trust. Take the famous 1970s Stanford Prison Experiment which demonstrated the power of situational forces. Role-playing student ‘guards’ showered degrading abuse on compliant student ‘prisoners’.

It shocked the world and became a Hollywood movie. It was cited hundreds of times. But when the BBC tried to reenact this in 2002, they found the guards were far more compliant. It didn’t replicate.

What can managers learn from this?

1. Never hold yourself up as an ethical exemplar - even if you are a highly decorated leader, scientist, or NYT best-selling author.

2. Trust science and interrogate any data published in your company name.

3. Mud sticks. People forgive human error, repenting sinners but not fudges or unfairness, especially from experts.

Reputation damage is hard to repair. But in this social media world, It is worse. Even an innocent mistake or a data blunder can be a Damocles sword to the innocent. To the guilty, it is a death knell.


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