Ariely, Gino, & Trump — how to deal with post-truthers.

Andreas Ortmann
11 min readAug 17, 2023

Version 2.0 of this piece, updated and expanded, can be found here.

(I don’t have the answer but if we want academia and politics to survive in respectable ways, we better find it. Supporting the gofundme campaign for the Data Colada folks seems a promising strategy. See below, towards the end of this post.)

2 September 2023: Update by Data Colada at the end.

Do I have to explain who I am talking about?

You know all about Donnie, dontcha? He’s 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 almost 500 of his followers 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 just 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. 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. 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 suits that he 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 the institutional framework as such.

Ariely is one of the biggest names in what is — these days increasingly pejoratively — called behavioral science (which, ironically, abbreviates to BS. Coincidence? I don’t think so!) 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, 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 previously. 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.

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.

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 guys, 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 and discrimination based on her gender. A very good summary/discussion by Pete Judo here. 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 various 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) investigates — 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, last but not least because of Gino’s legal strategy. I certainly won’t hold my breath. Quite bluntly, both MIT and Duke seem to have failed the research community by prioritizing their (perceived) institutional self-interest over the broader public good.

Gino’s travails came just at the right time. For Ariely.

But 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.

I am confident that, if this case goes to litigation (and I don’t think it will — look, a testable hypothesis!), then the DC collective will be able to draw on a crowd-funded, well-financed defense. That said, there can be little doubt that Gino’s move is very Trumpian in its methods and its spillover effects.

Once the scientific record becomes the result of battles of experts 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 (a fact that seems not disputed) but that some mischievous, or incompetent, collaborator/RAs is to blame. (Denying responsibility is also Ariely’s strategy; only he had the good sense of not turning, yet, to law-suits.)

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 successful, just read her fanboys’ and fangirls’ responses to Gino’s recent LinkedIn post on the situation), 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 ready 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.

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, Gino, and their ilk 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.

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”.

Meanwhile, I have pledged *at least* 1,000 dollars to this good cause:

Joe Simmons @jpsimmon

The lawsuit:
1. The allegations are obviously without merit.
2. This will not stop us from doing our work.
3. What would our science look like if you could successfully sue/defame its careful critics/whistleblowers? We’re not going to find out.

(boldface is mine, AO)

Aug 5, 2023 (tweet since deleted)

Let’s make sure Joe is right!

Truth coming out of her well (Jean-Léon Gérôme)

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

Update on 2 September 2023: The gofundme campaign has been quite the 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.

Consider making your opinion known by applauding, or commenting, or following me here, or on Facebook or on LinkedIn.

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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 …