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The Francesca Gino Scandal: Damaging The Already Poor Public Trust In Scientists

ByArshad Mahmud
on
  • Who is Francesca Gino?
  • What Is Behavioural Science?
  • The Investigation
  • Damning Evidence
  • What Happens Now?

Who Is Francesca Gino?

Professor Gino is an award-winning researcher who focuses on why people make the decisions they do. Decisions at work or decisions leaders and employees can make to be more productive, creative and have fulfilling lives.

She is a Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and was the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration from 2015 to 2023. A best-selling author, most recently, of “Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules in Work and Life.”

Gino is also affiliated with the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative at Harvard, and the Behavioral Insight Group at Harvard Kennedy School. She co-chairs a variety of HBS Executive Education programs.

Her other achievements include:

  • World’s Top 40 Business Professors under 40
  • World’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers 50.
  • Won numerous awards for her teaching, including the HBS Faculty Award by Harvard Business School’s MBA Class of 2015.
  • 2013 Cummings Scholarly Achievement Award, from the Academy of Management Organizational Behavior Division, for her research.
  • Her studies featured in The Economist, The New York Times, Newsweek, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and The Wall Street Journal
  • Her work has been discussed on National Public Radio and CBS Radio.

In addition to teaching, she advises firms and not-for-profit organizations in the areas of decision-making, leadership and organizational behaviour.

It’s also not surprising that she is widely demanded as a speaker and consultant by companies such as Google, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Disney, Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, The US Air Force Army & Navy.

What Is Behavioural Science?

It is the science used to understand why we do the things that we do. Usually includes the fields of sociology, social and cultural anthropology, psychology, and behavioural aspects of biology, economics, geography, law, psychiatry, and political science.

Behavioural scientists, generally, study and understand certain prompts or tendencies that influence a person’s behaviour to act.

A carefully structured floorplan to influence more purchase.

Using this exact science, companies and government have sought to influence people into behaving a certain way. The approach is subtle so that the people targeted won’t always realise what’s happening. Or understand why. A simple example would be, shaping an environment to get people to stand in line or to keep them buying a specific product.

Wearing a red or blue tie is known to positively affect public perception.

In the past few decades, this field has become very popular among corporations and governments.

The Investigation

Francesca Gino is a leading figure and extremely well-known in the field of Behavioural Science. She has authored many articles and collaborated with many many scientists. She has acquired fame, fortune, and a prestigious spot at Harvard.

Most of her research is based on wacky hypothesis that is often proven. This obviously tends to surprise many in the scientific community.

Some of her hypothesis includes:

  • Putting an ‘honesty pledge’ on top of a form makes people more honest in answering the form.
  • People who go against their values will feel dirty, making them desire self-cleansing products. (soap, shampoo, etc)
  • People who cheat are more creative

Now, many in the field were always sceptical about her study. Besides proving her odd hypothesis, it’s also the fact that her papers often have an effect size that is really large, and her statistical significance seems too significant.

For comparison, a normal statistical significance would be 5 per cent (p<0.05). Some of her papers would indicate a statistical significance of p<0.0001.

So, in 2021… Uri Simonsohn, Joe Simmons, and Leif Nelson decided to investigate in order to finally silence the scepticism surrounding Francesca Gino’s findings. Unfortunately for her, they found obvious signs of tempering and fraud.

Here’s an excerpt from the blog they published their findings:

In 2021, we and a team of anonymous researchers examined a number of studies co-authored by Gino, because we had concerns that they contained fraudulent data. We discovered evidence of fraud in papers spanning over a decade, including papers published quite recently (in 2020).

In the Fall of 2021, we shared our concerns with Harvard Business School (HBS). Specifically, we wrote a report about four studies for which we had accumulated the strongest evidence of fraud. We believe that many more Gino-authored papers contain fake data. Perhaps dozens.

The process that ensued at HBS is confidential (for us also). But here are some things we know:

(1) As you can see on her Harvard home page (.htm), Gino has gone on “administrative leave”, and the name of her chaired position at HBS is no longer listed.

(2) We understand that Harvard had access to much more information than we did, including, where applicable, the original data collected using Qualtrics survey software. If the fraud was carried out by collecting real data on Qualtrics and then altering the downloaded data files, as is likely to be the case for three of these papers, then the original Qualtrics files would provide airtight evidence of fraud. (Conversely, if our concerns were misguided, then those files would provide airtight evidence that they were misguided.)

(3) We have learned (from knowledgeable sources outside of Harvard) that a few days ago Harvard requested that three of the four papers in our report be retracted. A fourth paper, discussed in today’s post, had already been retracted, but we understand that Harvard requested the retraction notice be amended to include mention of this (additional) fraud.

(4) The evidence of fraud detailed in our report almost certainly represents a mere subset of the evidence that the Harvard investigators were able to uncover about these four articles. For example, we have heard from some HBS faculty that Harvard’s internal report was ~1,200 pages long, which is 1,182 pages longer than the one we sent to HBS.

(5) To the best of our knowledge, none of Gino’s co-authors carried out or assisted with the data collection for the studies in question.

In this series, we provide a blog-friendlier and updated version of what was in our report, plus a few additional analyses. Our report focused on four studies, and so we will write four posts, one for each study. The posts will differ in length, with this one and the fourth one being a big lengthier. We hope to publish the three remaining posts within a week.”

-Taken from [109] Data Falsificada (Part 1): “Clusterfake”, datacolada.org

Damning Evidence

Here I’ll attempt to summarise their findings in a way we non-scientists will understand.

Clusterfake

For her first paper, she “proves” that signing an ‘Honesty Pledge’ on top of a form makes a person more likely, to be honest in filling up the form, as opposed to the pledge being located at the bottom of the form.

Simonsohn, Simmons, and Nelson, these 3 heroes, with their anonymous team found tampering within the collected data. The way the data was organised, purposefully influenced, the calculation of the results.

They found evidence the data was manually moved around, to boost results that favour her hypothesis.

My class year is Harvard

The second paper, was about individuals who went against their values would feel physically dirty, therefore desiring cleansing products like soap or shampoo.

The investigators found odd answers to the question “Year in School”. While a fair share of participants rationally answered, “Senior”, “Sophomore”, or “Junior”, there were a string of answers that showed “Harvard”.

Upon further inspection, the investigators highlighted the “Harvard” data and saw, again, it helped manufacture the result Francesca Gino wanted.

The cheaters are out of order

For the third paper, Francesca wanted to prove that cheaters are more creative.

Investigators again found tampering in the data. This time, the data was purposefully placed out of order. And of course, the ‘out of order’ data manufactured the results Gino wanted.

What Happens Now?

Francesca Gino has been caught lying on papers done to study Honesty. Wild isn’t it?

She has currently been put on leave by Harvard University. Many of her supporters and fellow scientists were shocked by the news. Many others felt appalled. As they should be.

It’s also important to remember, her books, studies, and articles were cited by many news outlets and media. Used to make decisions in companies, government, and even the military.

The reputation of the scientific community is already questionable, now further smeared, thanks to the pandemic. This blatant lie by Francesca Gino, a leading figure in Behavioural Science, only worsens the public’s trust towards academia.

If we can’t trust our own scientists, then who gets to say what is right?

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