Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Top Honesty Researcher, Dan Ariely, Has Paper Retracted Due to Fraudulent Data

Today, truth is on my mind after I read the following quote:

"(T)ruth is not what you want it to be; it is what it is, and you must bend to its power or live a lie."–Miyamoto Musashi

This reminded me of this, my favorite, quote about truth: 

“When truth is buried underground it grows, it chokes, it gathers such an explosive force that on the day it bursts out, it blows up everything with it.”–Emile Zola

Over the years, I've found the latter quote to be very descriptive of the events that follow after the initial revelations that a fraud has taken place. For example, the explosion of truth that happened after Lance Armstrong was first accused by his former teammate, Floyd Landis, of doping. A few years later and Lance had been stripped of all his yellow jerseys and all sorts of revelations came out that exposed truth that was buried deep in the ground in hopes that it would never be revealed (this link chronicles about 150 blog posts about Lance's fraud coming to light).

Similarly, in accounting research, we had a researcher who, by many accounts, was considered accounting's most prolific academic, Jim Hunton, have a paper (ironically on auditor's detection of fraud) retracted in November 2012. Many of Professor Hunton's papers contained what he claimed was proprietary data that was obtained from confidential sources. A few years later, 37 of Jim Hunton's papers had been retracted (technically, 36.5 since one paper was partially retracted). He is currently listed as #14 on the RetractionWatch leaderboard (see this link for more information).

Over the past few days, a 2012 paper coauthored by someone who is arguably the most prolific psychology researcher on (ironically) honesty, Dan Ariely, was identified as containing fraudulent data and is being retracted (see this link for details on the investigation that led to the retraction; see this Twitter thread saying it is being retracted and giving other interesting context from one of the coauthors). Unfortunately, like Jim Hunton, Professor Ariely was in charge of the data and claims to have obtained it from a proprietary source. While it is too early to tell, this begs the question of what the future holds. Is this the early rumblings of the truth trying to free itself from its casket buried deep in the earth?

Sadly, I have had some suspicions about some experiments that Professor Ariely ran using a shredder that was modified so it looked like it was shredding but really wasn't (see this link for more details). After purchasing several shredders in an attempt to modify them so we could do what he claimed he did and even getting a BYU engineering student who was the lead TA in the Mechanical Engineering lab involved in the effort, we emailed Professor Ariely to ask him how he did it. He provided a voicemail response that was not satisfactory. He claimed it was "quite simple" to convert a shredder by breaking the teeth in the middle with a screwdriver but that he doesn't use that method any longer. (My TA found the file with Dr. Ariely's explanation; click this link if you want to hear it.)

(The photo on the left is one of the shredders we tried to modify. I'm confident that those teeth could not be broken with a screwdriver.) 

We were unable to break any teeth on the shredders we purchased but ended up finding a way to remove some of the teeth in the center by taking the shredder apart. Unfortunately, when we did this the papers would no longer go through the shredder without getting turned to one side or another and they inevitably got stuck because the shredder no longer had enough teeth to pull them through. We concluded that it was impossible to modify any of the shredders we bought and I filed the entire experience in my mind by putting an asterisk next to Dan Ariely's name as someone who made a claim regarding his research that seems potentially suspicious.

Time will tell whether this retraction is the rumblings of a massive explosion or not. If there are other implications, I hope the truth comes out because, I believe, the world is always a better place when fraud has been exposed.


  1. Wow, the irony! I can't believe Dan Ariely would be so bold as to make a claim about shredders that is so easily de-bunked. I would think that the mindset needed to do so would certainly be a strong indicator of pervasive lies.

  2. Wow! So did he literally just take time out of his day to leave a VM because he wanted to actively discourage you from trying to replicate his paper shredder method? I wonder why he was so interested in steering you another direction...

  3. What a sad state of affairs. Yes, it's better when truth comes to light, but it can be painful. Time will tell whether or not this is the tip of the iceberg. Setting aside the severe breach of ethics, the costs of scientific malfeasance can be highly costly, especially given how long and laborious it is understand why "findings" do not seem to not replicate. And, imagine instances in which costly controls are implemented in anticipation of dishonesty that does not occur in the way a study purports it to occur.
    As an aside the link you provide: is a wonderful illustration of how simple visualizations of population data can reveal strong signs of "material" misstatement. Great post.

  4. Also, even if the teeth did not cut, you would still have long crease lines in the paper running the length of it. Compare that to the photo where only the edges have been mangled. Short of completely removing the central wheels, I'm not sure how that would be possible.