Lying as a Research Tool


Several years ago a journal article reported on a mailing of hundreds of phony job-application resumés to potential employers. Conspicuously African-American-sounding names were assigned to some of the phony applicants. The researchers found a statistically significant degree of support for the differential response that they had conjectured.

Medical researchers convinced psychiatric hospitals to admit them as patients requiring treatment. Their purpose was to test how hard it was to convince physicians that these patients were sane, after all, and so gain release. In one twist, to see how admission procedures would be affected, one hospital was told, untruthfully, that fake patients would be sent its way (Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, 141–142).

Research reported in NBER Digest, March 2013, involved sending about 12,000 phony resumés to employers who had posted some 3,000 job vacancies. The resumés showed how long a supposed applicant, if unemployed, had been unemployed. Statistics on “call-backs” from the employers supposedly confirmed discrimination against the long-term unemployed.

Such research raises several questions. Might not some of the employers (or hospitals) subjected to these experiments have vaguely sensed something peculiar and have responded or not responded accordingly? Is it fair to force the unagreed status of experimental guinea pig onto employers, wasting their time and imposing costs, all in addition to their ordinary burdens?  Most important, is lying a respectable tool of research? Should academics profit from having their own resumés augmented by such deceptions?

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well worth pondering Leland - thanks for the heads up

at the moment - i don't think i'll be as harsh on the researchers as you seem to me to be - i don't think this issue falls neatly into libertarian categories - 'freedom from lying' usually isn't part of the libertarian condition - and usually such research is only mildly intrusive per person - probably less so than a gossipy neighbor


Perhaps researchers can send fake death threats to known anti-gun activists. Researchers can then measure how "ethically pure" the activists are by tracking how many of them buy a gun for self defense. Imagine the outrage! Isn't lying on an application illegal? Isn't it illegal to lie when using medical services? Was any part of these services to be paid for by taxpayers?

The end justifies the means, right? Intentionally wasting another's time for the sake of one's own petit ends is simply wrong by any standard. One suspects most of these "studies" were publicly funded, which indicates they were wasting our money also.

Fred Mora

Very good questions. Moreover, if a "researcher" lies to obtain his data, are the data tainted or valid? And where does it stop? Is it OK to lie in delivering the result of the study, too?

There are precedents. For instance, in 1919, Arthur Eddington conducted a famous astronomical observation that seemed to confirm Einstein's relativity by reporting that he saw light deflected by a gravitational field. However, Eddington's instruments had an error margin greater than the observed effect. His observation was therefore inconclusive, but he warped his results to "confirm" a theory that he supported (luckily for his reputation, it turned out Einstein was right).

So, since lying is such a common "scientific tool", we should seriously ask ourselves was other BS we have been fed.

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