con artists in academia

Saturday September 30th 2023 by socraticDev

About a month ago, Dan Ariely and Francesca Gino, two highly influencial behavioral psychologists were accused of fabricating data to support their trademark hypotheses. Ironical as it may be, these two academia con artists were self-proclaimed expert in dishonesty. What are they accused of? Systematicaly fabricating or altering research data to make sure they support their beliefs and hypotheses.

I am neither competent in the field of behavioral psychology nor I am an expert in regard of data analytics. Even though I believe that irrationality is an important driver of human behaviors, this case interests from a moral and philosophical perspective: why and when does it become a moral duty to denounce lies and toxic behaviors?

Let's start with some axioms about human nature; some opinions to which we are gonna take as true:

  • humans lie and are quite good at it;
  • humans will pretty much do anything (including lying) to fullfill their needs;
  • when confronted on their lies and bad actions, humans will pretty much do anything to protect their status including lie and counter attack.

Humans are dirty motherfuckers! how about that for an axiom?

the power of storytelling

As technologist, don't we get properly aroused by "ideas backed by data"? Will adding some numbers or a diagram on a Powerpoint slide increase our chances to gain support for our next project?

Using numbers to support a claim is better than a raw claim. But a carefully crafted story that illustrates our proposal is even better. I'm being half cynical here but crafting a great story is worth your time if you care about getting what you want from others. Notice how hard it is to push back against a proposal when the person supporting is using a well-crafted story to invite sympathy. It could be true that they worked on the proposal late at night and on week-ends, but no matter how hard they work on it: it doesn't mean their proposal is sound! (Building the next social media platform? I don't think so!)

In my opinion, Ariely and Gino thrived for long because of their expertise in storytelling. Moreover, I sense that Ariely will survive this crisis thanks to his intense creativity and amicable demeanor while Gino's career is more likely over for a lack in charisma. In another sense, Ariely is a creative thinker who burned himself trying to play the scientist while Gino burned herself for simply being a bad scientist.

risks and duty

Why would we tolerate being abused and lied to? Why would some person perform deception in the first place? It would be about incentives, according to the media coverage of the Dan Ariely and Francesca Gino's scandal. These two high-profile academics would earn a comfortable income from their university tenure and private conferences (Gino would charge from 50 000 to 100 000 per private event). The insights they peddled suited the corporate mindset like a glove. Gino's last articles were about "managing a polarized workforce", "unconscious bias training" and "cracking the code of sustained collaboration". They would sell their snake oil like hot cakes to insurance companies or governments in crisis. So why not doctor those pesky Excel sheets if it can buy you another book deal, a first-class trip around the world, or a pied-à-terre in Manhattan?

People around these two rascals were not blind to the con. Although Ariely semmed to have been appreciated by everyone who had interacted with him, Gino's social scoreboard was equivocal. Some students have proved critical toward her: for her belittling attitude and criticising her research methods. One french graduate student, Zoé Ziani, overtly doubed Gino' science. But she was shunned by her professors:

When she expressed her doubts, the adviser snapped at her, “Don’t ever say that!” [...] In an e-mail, the adviser wrote, “Academic research is like a conversation at a cocktail party. You are storming in, shouting ‘You suck!’ ”

Gideon Lewis-Kraus (2023), "The New Yorker"

Academia is a strange ecosystem indeed. Professors enjoy the safety of their tenure and have little incentive to be overtly critical of their colleagues.

Unless martyrdom sounds seducing to you, I would not recommend becoming a single whistleblower. Single whistle blowers are either unsuccessful or, if they are, they are subject to reprisals that can range from counter attacks(physical harm), getting fired, imprisoned, or bogged down in legal procedures for a long time.

Three unknown professors joined force to expose academia con artists via their blog Data Colada. In my opinion they are taking a great risk to their career doing so, but I admire their strategy and tactics:

It was a routine takedown for the three scientists—Joe Simmons, Leif Nelson and Uri Simonsohn—who have gained academic renown for debunking published studies built on faulty or fraudulent data. They use tips, number crunching and gut instincts to uncover deception. Over the past decade, they have come to their own finding: Numbers don’t lie but people do.

Nidhi Subbaraman(2023), "The Band of Debunkers Busting Bad Scientists" IN The Wall Street Journal

there is no such thing as "winning"

Despite all your efforts and good will, you will never "win" against fraudsters, liers, and con artists.

You will become a thorn in their side. If you're not careful, you will probably get hurt thru some form of retribution. Even if you are careful, like Harvard Business School who led their own investigations before forcing Francesca Gino out, the bad actors will first and foremost deny everything, they will adapt their narrative to fit the lies, and they will use the legal system to lose as little as possible from being outted.


This is why I'm a sucker for con artist stories: they are filled with wisdom and life lessons.

First, we must refrain from blindly trusting people on the basis of their life stories, scientific researches, and how confident they are. Of course we should trust others, but we also should be prudent and verify the soundness of their proposals. Especially for business leaders who have a strong influence on their workforce. Basing an organization's core values on groundless, air du temps, values can have a crucial impact its future success.

Don't judge a book by its cover. Just re-watch Dan Ariely and Francesca Gino's Ted talks. Damn are they good! I would have trusted them with my first born. But don't!

protect yourself and your career

Keep your distance from problematic people! Be pragmatic: outting a toxic person might not be worth the risk, time, and effort. A most economical strategy is keeping your distance from them. Why? Due to their lack of integrity and the nature of their preoccupations, it is likely that they will do you some harm: tarnish your reputation by association, use you as a cat paw, etc.

Feeling cornered, don't expect a toxic person to respect your decision. They usually will try to do some damage control and extract more informations from you. Under the guise of a "constructive dialogue", you gonna lose precious energy talking with them. Don't engage! Leave! Even though you were wrong about the whole thing, a person with good faith would respect your decision and not force you to engage in a distastul argument.

For example, when Dan Ariely was pressed to provide sources for a research, he turned toward UCLA professor Aimee Drolet Rossi. By way of flattery ("I miss our early days") and repeated emails, he tried to use her as a scapegoat for his misgivings.

Fortunately, she had the common sense of shutting him off after having explained she never did any research for him:

  • "Again, as I said last August, please keep me out of your mess. I will not be making any more statement with respect to this matter."
  • "Don't contact me again"