Renowned behavioral science researcher Dan Ariely, celebrated for his work in the field of honesty, cheating, and irrationality, is currently under scrutiny for allegations of fabricated data. A blogpost, publised last 17th August, exposed fraudulent data in Ariely’s high-profile 2012 paper about dishonesty, sparking debates and raising questions about the integrity of Ariely’s vast body of work.
Although none of the five authors of the study dispute the allegations of fabrication, Ariely alone is being held responsible. This is because he was the only one who handled the earliest known version of the data file, which contains the fraudulent data.
Ariely denies the accusations, asserting he did not fabricate the data and has reported the matter to Duke’s Office of Scientific Integrity. However, the question remains: If Ariely did not create the fraudulent data, who did?
The fraudulent data were originally collected by an insurance company for a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The study reported that customers of an unnamed insurance company were more honest when they signed an honesty declaration at the top of a form, as compared to signing at the bottom.
But a subsequent replication study conducted in 2020 found no correlation between the placement of the honesty declaration and customers’ honesty. Further investigation of the original study found suspicious patterns, such as an unusually equal spread in participants’ driving distances, suggesting that the data had been manipulated.
In response to the allegations, Ariely said he regrets not scrutinizing the data provided by the insurance company. He no longer has the original file and the people he worked with at the insurance company have since left. He hopes that someone at the company may be able to locate archived emails or files that could substantiate his innocence.
Despite Ariely’s assertions, some members of the scientific community remain skeptical, given the circumstantial evidence. An independent data forensics specialist, Marc Ruef, stated that Ariely could be marked as the “creator” of the Excel file containing the manipulated data even if he did not personally fabricate the data.
The current allegations have brought other discrepancies in Ariely’s past work to light. An expression of concern was recently attached to a paper he published in 2004 due to unresolved statistical errors. Also, in a 2010 NPR interview, Ariely mentioned dental insurance data that the insurance company involved later denied existed.
As the scientific community reels from the allegations against Ariely, some call for a thorough, transparent investigation, while others remain skeptical that an unbiased investigation can be conducted by Duke, Ariely’s institution. For now, the academic world awaits further developments, with the honesty researcher’s own honesty in question.
Image credit: Tel Aviv University