Ariely, Gino, & Trump — how to deal with post-truthers (2.0)

Andreas Ortmann
15 min readOct 14, 2023

I published an earlier version of this medium post on 17 August here. This version (2.0) is substantially revised and updated …

I don’t have the answer to my question but if we want academia and politics to survive in a half-way decent manner, we better find it. Supporting the gofundme campaign for the Data Colada folks (more on it below) is a promising start regarding Ariely and Gino and their ilk. And the legal system in the USA seems well on its way to successfully address Trump’s stress test of US democracy. That said, there are long ways to go.

Do I have to explain who, and what, I am talking about?

Trump is the (possibly malignant) narcissistic megalomaniac who managed to become 45th president of the United States of America in 2016, lost by all relevant accounts fair and square the presidential 2020 election, and then tried to destroy the US Constitution by enticing thousands of riled-up followers to storm — in parts successfully — Congress, an insurrection for which, as of 30 May 2023 almost 500 have already been punished, in more than half of the cases with the slammer. He has been indicted the 3rd time for his role in the attempted insurrection (his 2nd indictment being about classified documents he spread illegally over a couple of his resorts including Mar-a-Lago. Trump was also indicted a 4th time for yet another “perfect phone call”, this one to Peach State (Georgia) Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, trying to entice the latter to “find” votes that the good people of Georgia denied him).

Trump is known as a notorious liar — the Washington Post counted more than 30,000 lies during his presidency alone — and he is a well-documented legal bully — in his 2019 book James D Zirin counted more than 3,000 lawsuits in which Donnie was involved up to that point. That he got away with his lying, and bullying, for literally decades most likely reinforced his belief in his invincibility. Alas, this belief is now being tested in multiple proceedings, with a good chance of him finally ending in the slammer. How good a chance? Everyone’s guess but it’s hard to believe that he will be able to wriggle himself out of all the criminal (4) and civil (2) suits that he currently faces.

It is hard to over-estimate the damage that Trump’s reckless rhetoric and demeanor has done to people doing their job (see also here and here) and the institutional framework as such. It is telling that the judge in his New York fraud trial had to issue a gag order and that Special Council Jack Smith — who is in charge of two of the criminal cases — is seeking the same. (Trump has argued against it, with Jack Smith re-iterating his case in a delicious and eminently readable response.)

Ariely is one of the biggest names in what is — these days increasingly pejoratively — called behavioral science. He is at the center of a controversy involving a — now (in)famous and retracted — study in 2012 in which he and his co-authors (including Francesca Gino) argued that signing an honesty pledge at the top of the document rather than the bottom would encourage honest self-reporting (e.g., in tax declarations). Numerous behavioral insights units and/or government organizations gobbled up this message hook, line & sinker and tried to implement it to collect what seemed like low-hanging fruit. Ariely and Gino managed to turn this, and related studies on (dis)honesty, into lucrative gigs on the speaker circuit and well-paid consulting gigs, in Ariely’s case apparently often with disappointing results for those who paid him.

The authors of the 2012 study reported three experiments (the first two lab experiments, the last based on data provided by an originally unknown insurer who has since come out swinging against claims made by Ariely).

It was the insurance company data that were first investigated by a trio of data sleuths (and researchers at top institutions) known as the Data Colada collective. Interestingly, it was the data that were posted in 2020 in the context of a new paper in which the authors of the 2012 paper, plus two new authors, reported that “signing at the beginning versus at the end does not decrease dishonesty”.

The authors of the 2020 paper did not attempt to replicate the field experiment but they did discover an anomaly that they speculated was due to “randomization failed (or may have even failed to occur as instructed) in that study” (p. 7104) Because the authors of the 2020 paper posted the data of their replication attempts and the data from the original 2012 paper a team of anonymous data sleuths discovered strong evidence that the data of the field experiment were not just the results of a randomization failure but fabricated.

Based on the work of these anonymous researchers, the Data Colada sleuths identified numerous manipulations in the data files. Subsequently Ariely admitted the existence of the manipulations but declared that he had nothing to do with it. Alas, he is on record contradicting his own claim. Clearly, Ariely is not immune to economy with the truth. Indeed, the list of accusations of data fraud and academic misconduct is long (see the ever-expanding wikipedia list and/or the enumeration by Israeli investigative Channel 13 news, the latter now helpfully with English subtitles). Or this video.

The above screenshot is from Data Colada 98.

Gino was responsible for the lab data in the 2012 paper and she is the target of the Data Colada series of posts earlier this year that suggest that the data in four of “her” papers, and “perhaps dozens” more, were fraudulent. See here and here and here and here. In a fairly unprecedented step Harvard, after having been informed by the Data Colada collective of their suspicions in 2021, started its own investigation, apparently produced a report of 1,200 pages, and put Gino on administrative leave. It also has since started the process of revoking her tenure.

On 2 August 2023, Gino responded by filing a 25 million US dollar (“at least”) law-suit against Harvard, the Dean of the HBS, the Data Colada trio, and — curiously — some 10 Jane Does and 10 Joe Does yet to be named.

Many of the important details of the suit can be found here, including the Main Document, the Complaint.

There has been considerable discussion on social media about the merits of this suit — quite a number of people think that Gino stands no chance of winning on the grounds that she submitted including procedural irregularities, discrimination based on her gender, and defamation. Others see Gino walk away with oodles of money. Money honey.

Ariely has — so far — been smart enough not to file a lawsuit; in light of the hvarious rumors and accusations that swirl around him, and his work, he has probably good reasons to avoid discovery. It’s one thing to stress test (not so plausible) deniability on various social media, i.e., in the mostly inconsequential court of public opinion, and another thing altogether to do so in a real court.

While I hope that Duke (Ariely’s current employer) does indeed investigate — be it only his handling of the field data in the 2012 paper and his subsequent contradictory claims about his handling of these data — , and while I hope that MIT sheds light on some of the allegations about his dismissal in 2009 (Did Ariely leave MIT after conducting an experiment that administered electric shocks to undergrads, w/o IRB approval? Did he throw his RAs under the bus? Did he receive a 1 year suspension from running experiments?), I fear we will not see these reports. I certainly won’t hold my breath. Quite bluntly, both MIT and Duke have failed the research community by prioritizing their (perceived) institutional self-interest over the broader public good. It is noteworthy in this context that the commissions — one for each of the three universities where infamous fraudster Diederik Stapel worked — did publish a final report. (The link in that article is broken, see the final report here.) And, just in, on 11 October 2023 Harvard asked the court to partially dismiss the Gino lawsuit, in particular its procedural and discrimination accusations. While requests to dismiss suits are par for the course, the content of this particular filing seems rather damning and Gino’s habit of sampling freely (but selectively) from the Harvard investigation has opened the door for Harvard asking to be allowed to publicly post a redacted version of the HBS investigation. Still, it is early in the game.

While the merits of Gino’s suit are one thing, its chilling effect on whistle-blowers is another altogether. So back to Gino and her very Trumpian lawsuit, its methods, and its spillover effects.

Kelsey Piper noted in Vox:

At this point, multiple independent examinations of the data have concluded that it appeared manipulated, in many cases in ways that made the authors’ hypothesis come true. This occurred across multiple papers that Gino co-authored.

Truth is always a defense to block defamation claims. But the lawsuit can still substantially harm the defendants even if the courts eventually find that they were telling the truth. “The system is so broken … that a case like this will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and go on for years,” White told me. “Realistically, you could wind up going to trial, and even if you’re going to win at trial eventually you’re going to be ruined doing it.”

“The process,” he added, “is the punishment.”

Overall, it looks like Data Colada’s concerns were backed up by independent forensic analysis. New data was uncovered that supports their case for data manipulation. Harvard agreed with them. And yet they’re still being sued for defamation. “If Data Colada handled this case poorly enough for it to go to litigation,” Erik Hoel writes, “it’s hard to imagine what an ‘ideal case’ of exposure would look like. It’d have to be perfect in language, perfect in analysis, perfect in conclusions, with ‘smoking guns’ and all. That’s a pretty high bar for science.”

In practical terms, that bar is pretty much unattainable, which means that scientists who have a lot of evidence of a problem in research will be increasingly hesitant to come forward.

In version 1.0 of this medium post (now two months ago) I predicted, with confidence, that if this case would go to litigation (and I don’t think it will — look, a testable hypothesis!), then the DC collective would be able to draw on a crowd-funded, well-financed defense. Indeed, that is exactly what happened a couple of weeks later when Simine Vazire (who was just appointed the new editor of Psychological Science, to wide acclaim) and others started a gofundme campaign for a legal defense fund in support of the Data Colada trio, with extraordinary success:

… we are now three guys being backed by thousands of others. It’s a big difference. …

The Update

We have hired an excellent legal team and are learning some of the stuff that legal TV shows skip over because it is boring. Our three employers (Penn, Berkeley, and ESADE) have at this point indicated that they will support us for at least the initial stage of the process, and we are grateful for that. We understand that the process is likely to be long, measured in months or even years. Nevertheless, responding to the accusations in the lawsuit is not an entirely new experience for us, or you. It’s not unlike when a reviewer who does not bother to understand your analysis recommends rejection, and you have to explain to the editor the shortcomings of that review, except in this case the editor is a court, and it costs a lot of money just to submit the cover letter.

When it comes to the Data Colada blog, we don’t plan to change very much. We have some posts in the works, some of which are relevant to this ongoing crisis, and some of which are not.

Notwithstanding the resounding success of the gofundme campaign, there can be little doubt that Gino’s move is very Trumpian in its methods and its spillover effects.

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Once the scientific record becomes the result of battles of lawyers we might as well forget about sound science … because deep pockets (based on arguably ill-gotten gains) will rule supreme … . That’s the transparent strategy behind what Trump has done for decades, and that seems the strategy behind what Gino is trying to do now, denying, denying, denying that she is responsible for the fraudulent data and trying to blame some incompetent and/or mischievous collaborator/RAs. (Denying responsibility is also Ariely’s strategy.)

When Harvard asked the court on 11 October to dismiss the lawsuit, its lawyers did not mince many words:

After a thorough, fair, and objective process, Harvard found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Plaintiff intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly committed research misconduct. To protect research integrity, it took justified actions within the scope of its policies. Plaintiff’s 439- paragraph Complaint boils down to an inappropriate and unjustified demand that this Court intervene in these internal affairs of an academic institution all because she disagrees with the results of a painstaking investigation into alleged data anomalies in certain of her published works. …

Contrary to the Complaint’s assertions, the Committee’s final report (the “Final Report,” which the Complaint extensively cites yet tellingly does not attach for the Court’s review) states plainly that, by a preponderance of the evidence, the Committee determined Plaintiff committed the misconduct “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” — the standard set forth in the federal research misconduct regulations upon which HBS’ policy is based. After reviewing the Final Report and its 1240 pages of exhibits, Dean Datar accepted the Committee’s findings and imposed the recommended sanctions, which he deemed appropriate given the unprecedented gravity of the misconduct.

Plaintiff now asks this Court to second-guess the Committee’s careful and thorough work, and to limit Dean Datar’s discretion to determine the appropriate sanctions. Not only does the law disfavor such involvement in a university’s academic decision-making, but also the Complaint offers little to justify this Court taking such action. …

Plaintiff provides no explanation for the significant data anomalies on which the Committee’s conclusion was based,3 nor does she offer any reason to conclude that the sanctions imposed are disproportionate given the paramount importance of research ethics and integrity to academic institutions such as HBS. She also does not offer any reasonable exculpatory evidence. Instead, she offers vague assurances about her honesty and integrity, and speculates, with no supporting evidence, that Harvard gave in to the demands of data integrity blog Data Colada4 and agreed to investigate the data anomalies to avoid negative publicity — only (puzzlingly) to conspire later with Data Colada to publicize that very misconduct once the investigation was complete. This internally inconsistent theory is absurd on its face and has no basis whatsoever in reality.

Unsurprisingly, to assert such a theory, the Complaint is forced to rely on conclusory allegations, egregious mischaracterizations, and outright falsehoods. Plaintiff also selectively declined to attach key documents that the Complaint cites repeatedly and thus incorporates, including the Final Report.5 In so doing, Plaintiff conveniently omits highly probative facts that are clear from the face of these documents, such as that third-party witnesses uniformly confirmed that Plaintiff was the sole co-author responsible for data collection and analysis in each of the studies at issue. Similarly absent from the Complaint, yet obvious from the Final Report, is one of the primary defenses Plaintiff asserted, without evidence, during the investigation — that someone maliciously gained access to and tampered with her data on various password-protected devices and a private data repository over the course of several years in an elaborate attempt to frame her. The Committee found this theory highly implausible.6

[6 Specifically, the Committee noted that, for malicious actors to achieve such a result, they would have needed (among other things), at specific points in time over the course of years, (1) access to both (a) Plaintiff’s Qualtrics accounts and (b) Plaintiff’s computer’s hard drive; (2) access to Plaintiff’s second “factor” in HBS’ two-factor authentication system; (3) access to Plaintiff’s research assistant’s personal computer; (4) the ability to find multiple versions of datasets scattered across various locations with idiosyncratic file names; (5) the expertise to make changes to eliminate significant effects in the data while leaving it otherwise intact; and (6) the ability to carefully time their data manipulation to avoid detection. Ex. 5 at 14.]

Despite the great lengths to which the Complaint goes to invent facts favorable to Plaintiff and omit actual facts that are not, its laundry list of contract and tort claims against Harvard does not state a claim for which relief can be granted. …

In light of this damning deconstruction, one wonders how long Gino will maintain her narrative that “I am committed to showing, without any shadow of doubt, that I am innocent. … I count myself fortunate that no matter the allegations, the actual facts are on my side.”

Post-truthiness. The truth does not matter. The lining of one’s own pockets and/or the desperate attempt to get some people to believe one’s narrative (apparently successfully, just read her fanboys’ and fangirls’ responses to an earlier LinkedIn post on the situation which interestingly has now disappeared from her LinkedIn page), without any concern for the damaging spillover effects such behavior produces. It is hard to over-estimate the damage that Ariely’s and Gino’s actions have done. Behavioural science has been the butt of jokes for a while, these recent developments surely have not helped to increase its standing anywhere.

One might argue that how Trump plays the game is more consequential than the way Ariely and Gino play it — and I am happy to concede that much — but that should not distract from the fact that the damage done to the self-policing, and self-correcting, of science is tremendous. Bigly, to quote Donnie. There is a reason why those researchers that alerted the Data Colada folks to the problems with the field data in the 2012 paper chose to remain anonymous. And there is a reason why considerable part of the discussion about Gino, for example, is now being conducted on anonymous sites such as EJMR (to which I won’t link and in case you don’t know what I am talking about feel blessed and don’t try to decipher it).

How could it come to this?

Trump, as well as Ariely and Gino (and a slew of others in the ecology that they center) got away with it for too long. What I wrote about Trump at the beginning of this post (“The astonishing thing is that he got away with his lying and bullying for literally decades which most likely reinforced his belief in his invincibility.”) likely applies to Ariely, Gino, and their ilk. And here we are not just talking about fraud alone. As Uli Schimmack has pointed out, in a very perceptive piece on his Replicability-Index, that fraud is just an extreme on a continuum of questionable research practices, or QRPs, that undermine good science and trust in it.

We’ll see how all this ends but the wheels of justice, as the wheels of correcting science, grind (painfully) slowly but hopefully, as the saying goes, exceedingly fine in all of these cases. Gino, with her ill-advised law-suit might — somewhat ironically — have sped up the wheels. We should thank her for that.

Of course, Ariely and Gino are entitled to “the presumption of innocence”; self-correcting science, however, does typically not happen via criminal or civil proceedings but through attempts of replication, or critical assessment, and the standards of proof are lower than in criminal or civil proceedings. In the end, Gino’s ill-advised, self-centered, and very Trumpian lawsuit might well backfire badly.

[The Truth coming out of her well, Jean-Léon Gérôme]

Let that correction begin with this simple and unambiguous statement: I absolutely did not commit academic fraud.

How to deal with post-truthers?

I don’t have the answer but if we want to survive in academia, politics, and otherwise, we better find it. It’s a genuinely tricky issue, as we also need to make sure that corrupted educational institutions do stick to their procedures and do not run roughshod over faculty they consider to be “a-pain-you-know-where”. But it is also imperative that we preserve academic integrity; failing to do so has indeed very high costs. For those that are directly or indirectly affected, the latter including society at large.

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Andreas Ortmann

EconProf: I post occasionally on whatever tickles my fancy: Science, evidence production, the Econ tribe, Oz politics, etc. Y’all r entitled to my opinions …