The famous ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ was a hoax.
Neil deGrasse Tyson has said “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” That is the underlying foundation of the scientific method. If the findings of a study are true and accurate, once you publish your methods and conclusion, others should be able to replicate your study and have the same results. That’s how science works.
That’s why things like the Séralini study, where Gilles-Éric Séralini used rats predisposed to developing tumors to demonstrate that genetically modified foods cause tumors, is considered bullshit. His methods were bad, and his results were bad. (And he should feel bad.)
The same applies for disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield, the founder of the anti-vaccine cult. The methods of his study were laughable at best, and his results consistently shown to be fraudulent. And for the 987,423,23rd time, vaccines do not cause autism.
Other times, it’s not so obvious when the results of studies have been manipulated. Such was the case with the Stanford Prison Experiment.
The experiment itself is one of the most popular psychological experiments that we’ve all accepted as being true. Participants were divided into two groups – guards and inmates – in a fake prison to see what would happen when the average person is given authority over others. The famous study showed was cut short, because of concern for the well-being of the participants. The “guards” seemingly turned into sadists, despite knowing that the entire thing was an experiment.
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But according to a recent article written by Ben Blume, the experiment itself was a lie. Ben obtained previously unreleased recordings of the psychologist who ran the Stanford study, and interviewed participants of the study. Ben states that the guards were coached to be cruel to the prisoners.
You can hear the actual audio of the “warden” of the prison, criticizing a guard for not being harsh enough to the inmates:
Deceit of this nature isn’t specific to the Stanford study, as Vox.com explains:
Many of the classic show-stopping experiments in psychology have lately turned out to be wrong, fraudulent, or outdated. And in recent years, social scientists have begun to reckon with the truth that their old work needs a redo, the “replication crisis.” But there’s been a lag — in the popular consciousness and in how psychology is taught by teachers and textbooks. It’s time to catch up.
… Recently, science journalist Gina Perry found that the infamous “Robbers Cave“ experiment in the 1950s — in which young boys at summer camp were essentially manipulated into joining warring factions — was a do-over from a failed previous version of an experiment, which the scientists never mentioned in an academic paper. That’s a glaring omission. It’s wrong to throw out data that refutes your hypothesis and only publicize data that supports it.
Perry has also revealed inconsistencies in another major early work in psychology: the Milgram electroshock test, in which participants were told by an authority figure to deliver seemingly lethal doses of electricity to an unseen hapless soul. Her investigations show some evidence of researchers going off the study script and possibly coercing participants to deliver the desired results. (Somewhat ironically, the new revelations about the prison experiment also show the power an authority figure — in this case Zimbardo himself and his “warden” — has in manipulating others to be cruel.)
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What does this mean for science?
I think news like this – poorly constructed studies, researchers who influenced participants’ behavior, or manipulated results – demonstrates that the scientific method actually works. While the falsification of research itself is despicable, it shows that when the research is done properly, and the results are replicated time and time again, that the scientific method works. This doesn’t mean that we should question everything that we consider “settled science” (the Earth is a sphere, evolution is real, etc), but that we should exercise skepticism if something sounds too good to be true or fits too perfectly with our view of the world.
We would do well to think of ourselves as trying to find ways to break ideas – like a beta tester for a software program. If we take any concept or idea and carry it through to its logical conclusion, what would that look like? Would the same results happen on a small scale as well as a large scale?
Finding things that are “wrong” is one of the best ways to be “right”, because you’re looking for points of failure. As it’s been said by many others before, science doesn’t work by proving things are “true” or not. Science works by looking for things that are wrong. If we’re unable to find things that are wrong after repeated testing, the only logical conclusion for us is to believe that our idea is right… Until it’s not.
Unlike many ideologies, science constantly changes based on new information. When something is discovered to be wrong about a scientific concept, the concept itself changes to be consistent with reality.
The fact that we hear about studies that have been debunked or were found to have bad methodology is proof that the scientific method works. It should be big news when deceptive practices are observed because it proves that science works, and discourages researchers from falsifying their results.