The psychology alumni association of the university of ghent (GAP) invited Diederik Stapel for a live interview. For those who do not know Mr Stapel, he was a professor in social psychology until it was discovered that more than 25% of his articles were based on fake data. The case drew a lot of attention not only in academia but also in the Netherlands where Mr stapel was a well known media person.
Since the moment of the discovery of this scientific fraud, Mr stapel has been treated like a pariah. The alumni association invited him nevertheless to talk about the reasons why, the mechanics behind (scientific) fraud and about how he has moved on more than 2 years after the discovery. To be clear, the idea was not to have some sort of sensational event. The aim was
- to listen to be able to understand,
- to understand in order to be able to learn and
- to learn in order to act.
In order to fight fraud we need to understand how fraud starts, not only how it ends.
Fraud is ubiquitous and its definition changes
Let’s be clear. Fraud is ubiquitous. In sports, in business and in academia. During the first editions of the tour de France, taking drugs was widely accepted. Sport coaches were more like medecine men, providing mysterious potions to their pupils. Today, taking performance enhancing substances is simply not done. And still, people keep on doing it.
But like professor Anseel rightly remarked during the Q&A: in sports we seem to be able to forgive. After a period of exclusion people that were caught are usually able to return to the sport circuit. This might not be the case for mr Armstrong who fell deep after having climbed to unrivaled heights as the sportsman-who-fought-cancer-and-excelled-in-sports.
Fraud in business
Fraud has been omnipresent in business as well. Cases lik Enron, Parmalat, L&H, banking… have caused economic damage to many stakeholders. These renouned cases have led to new legislation on corporate governance, industry regulations, … But a law like Sarbanes-Oxley is not sufficient. On the contrary, laws like that install an extrinsic control mechanism, but do not change anything about contextual and individual factors leading to fraud. If the desire to deviate from rules and regulations is strong enough, a way will be found to commit fraud.
Fraud and the law
Doing something illegal is also insufficient as definition for fraud. In Belgium the state journal published 100,000 pages of laws, regulations, legally required notifications, … in 2013. This is a record. Something must be wrong. We live under the illusion that regulations will exterminate fraudulous conduct. Overregulation makes society very complicated, requires a lot of effort to control and alienates people from ethics.
Laws deal with behaviour: what you can and cannot do. So the more we see wrong behaviour, the more we create laws. However, everytime a new law appears it leaves opportunity for interpretation, and a law cannot cover everything. So a legal system does not solve the problem. And so, we should look more at ethics. Ethics is also about behaviour but deals with what is right and what is wrong. Ethics is both a personal and a collective matter. People make choices, they make mistakes, they behave. Behaviour has consequences. If the consequences are (negatively) felt for others we have a moral issue.
The problem with laws is also that they focus on punishing wrong behaviour, not on rewarding good behaviour. Laws do not take into consideration things you can do legally but that are still morally wrong. It’s not because something is contractually sound, that it’s ethical. We are always in shock when good people do bad things. And we are ready to judge. But let’s not only punish them, let’s also listen to them and learn from them.
The best protection against fraud lies in education. Children need to learn what is right and what is wrong. Students need to be critical towards what they get presented. Only when people are able to morally judge for themselves what is to be done, fraud is less likely to occur. Audits, whistleblower protection, etc. may help but the target should be to rely on individual behaviour.
A civilisation cannot live without laws that express how certain behaviour is judged. But let’s not overrely on them and focus more on the integration of ethical standards through education.
The same is valid for companies. You could fill a library with the do’s and don’ts of corporations. But if a company cannot install the necessary ethical values, it will have to rely on control and punoshment. And we all know that control comes at a cost.
Mr Stapel has devastated the scientific community and that community has rightfully ousted him. What mr Stapel has done was fundamentally wrong. He was punished for it. Some say the punishment was too light and that his time in the desert was too short. But there must come a time that the scientific community invites him back in, uses his experiences and competencies to improve its own processes. This happens in other industries as well, e.g. with Nick Leeson.
Ethics is also about giving people second chances and treating them in a dignified way. It would be a human waste not to do so. For him it would be redemption and a way to rebuild a decent life. And the gain for society would be to have someone who would be better than anyone else at preventing fraud from happening.
If you want to listen to Diederik Stapel himself, this is a good place to start: