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Honesty in Academia

photograph of Harvard's coat of arms

Honesty researcher Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, has been accused of fabricating data in multiple published articles.

In one study, participants were given 20 math puzzles and awarded $1 for each one they solved. After grading their own worksheets, test subjects then threw them out and reported their results on another form. Some participants were asked to sign to confirm that their report was accurate at the bottom of the form, while others signed at the top. Gino’s hypothesis was that signing at the top would prime honest behavior, but she then allegedly tampered with the results to drive the intended effect. Gino is now on administrative leave while Harvard conducts a full investigation.

While it would obviously be ironic if Gino had been dishonest while researching honesty, there is a further reason that such dishonesty would be particularly galling, as dishonest research violates one of the cardinal virtues of the academic vocation.

Let me explain. Some readers might already be familiar with the traditional list of the cardinal virtues: Justice, Courage, Prudence, and Temperance. Honesty, of course, is nowhere on this list. So what do I mean when I call honesty a cardinal virtue?

Different vocations have their own characteristic virtues. It is not possible to be a good judge without being particularly just. Likewise, it is not possible to be a good soldier on the front lines without being particularly courageous. That is because each of these vocations emphasize certain virtues. A soldier must have the virtue of courage to repeatedly thrust themselves into battle, and a judge must have the virtue of justice in order to consistently reach fair verdicts.

Are there any characteristic virtues of the academic vocation? Professors typically have two primary tasks: the generation and transmission of knowledge. For both of these tasks, an emphasis on truth takes center stage. And this focus on truth means that professors will do better at both of these tasks by cultivating the intellectual virtues – virtues like open-mindedness, curiosity, and intellectual humility. For this reason, we can think of these intellectual virtues as cardinal virtues of the academic vocation.

But along with these intellectual virtues, honesty is also particularly important for the academic vocation. When students learn from their professors, they often simply take them at their word. Professors are the experts, after all. This makes students especially vulnerable, because if their professors deceive them, they cannot detect it.

This is true to an even greater extent with cutting-edge research. If professors are being dishonest, it could be that no intellectual discoveries are being made in the first place. In Gino’s case, for example, she may have concealed the fact that the study she performed did not actually support her findings. But without specialized training, few people can understand how new knowledge is generated in the first place, leaving them completely vulnerable to the possibility of academic dishonesty. Only other academics were able to spot the irregularities in Gino’s data that has led to further questions.

We thus have reason to take honesty as a cardinal virtue of the academic vocation as well. Not only do academics need to be open-minded, curious, and humble, but they must also be honest so that they use their training to further higher education’s most important goals. If academics regularly passed off false research and deceived their students, it would threaten to undermine the university enterprise altogether.

Distrust in higher education is on the rise, and to the extent that academics acquire a reputation for dishonesty, it is sure to only decline further. Gino’s work is just the tip of the iceberg. One of Gino’s co-authors has also been accused of faking his data, and Stanford’s president is stepping down due to questions about his research, but these are isolated incidents in comparison to the widespread replication crisis. When researchers tried to reproduce the results from 98 published psychology papers, only 39 of the studies were able to be replicated, meaning that over half of the “research” led to no new discoveries whatsoever.

While a failure of replication does not necessarily mean that the researchers who produced that work were being dishonest, there are many dishonest means that can lead to a study that can’t be replicated, including throwing out data that does not confirm a hypothesis or questionable methods of data analysis. Until the replication crisis, and discoveries of fake data, begin to wane, it will be difficult to restore public trust in social science research.

Is there anything that can be done? While public trust in higher education will not be restored overnight, there are several changes that could potentially help professors cultivate the virtue of honesty. One strategy for curbing our vices is limiting the situations in which we are tempted to do the wrong thing. As one example, pre-registering a study commits a researcher to the design of a study before they run it, removing the opportunity to engage in questionable statistical analysis or disregard the results.

Another way to increase virtuous behavior is to remind ourselves of our values. At the college level, for instance, commitment to an honor code can serve as a moral reminder that reduces cheating. Academic institutions or societies could develop honor codes that academics have to sign in order to submit to journals, or even a signed honor code that is displayed on published articles. While some professors might still be undeterred, others will be reminded of their commitment to the moral values inherent to their vocation.

Universities could also reconsider which professors they hold up as exemplars. For many academic disciplines, researchers that produce the most surprising results, and produce them on a regular basis, are held up as the ideal. But this of course increases the incentive to fudge the numbers to produce interesting “research.” By promoting and honoring professors that have well-established, replicable research, colleges and universities could instead encourage results that will stand the test of time.

None of these solutions is perfect, but by adopting a combination of measures, academics can structure their vocation so that it is more conducive to the development of honesty. It is impossible to eliminate all opportunities for dishonesty, but by creating a culture of honesty and transparency, professors can restore trust in the research they publish and in higher education more generally.

For her 2018 book, Rebel Talent, Francesca Gino opted for the tagline “Why it pays to break the rules at work and life.” The jury is still out on whether that was true in Gino’s case. If she was dishonest, it enabled her to ascend the ranks, landing at the top of the ladder as a professor at Harvard. To prevent more accusations like these moving forward, universities need to put in the work to ensure that honesty is what’s rewarded in academia.


This work was supported by the John Templeton Foundation grant “The Honesty Project” (ID#61842). Nevertheless, the opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

Deceptive Vulnerability: Caroline Calloway and the “Unlikeable Woman”

photograph of framed polaroid of Caroline Calloway

In early September of 2019, an online magazine called The Cut published an essay by Natalie Beach that instantly went viral, spawning a plethora of opinion pieces and Twitter threads commenting on Beach’s story. In the essay, Beach explains that for years she has been ghostwriting and editing Instagram posts for her former best friend, controversial “influencer” Caroline Calloway.

Calloway, a 27-year Cambridge graduate with a degree in art history, rose to popularity on Instagram in 2013, eventually amassing over 800,000 followers. She doesn’t peddle dietary supplements or offer makeup tips; the only content she produces are the captions on her photos. Beneath each image of fireworks over the Cambridge skyline or her arm-in-arm with a boyfriend, she describes her personal life with the introspective and inviting language of a young adult novel.

This approach to social media, coupled with her brutal honesty about troubled relationships and drug addiction, might even have revolutionized Instagram. In an article on Calloway for Vox, Constance Grady notes that in 2013, “the idea of writing a blog post in an Instagram caption was new and fresh. It made her appear almost uniquely vulnerable: She was just a girl, she seemed to be telling her followers, trying to make it through her life in the beautiful, dangerous world.”

However, the illusion of down-to-earth relatability couldn’t last forever. Her Instagram posts eventually caught the eye of Flatiron, a major publishing house, which offered her a book deal for roughly half a million dollars. The deal fell through under mysterious circumstances, but it seems Calloway backed out of her contract without writing anything after spending the exorbitant advance from the publishers. She was heaped with even more criticism for her disastrous series of “creativity workshops.” The workshops would ostensibly teach attendees, who paid $165 each to participate, the ins and outs of brand-building and the artistic process. Many sessions were cancelled without refunds for ticket-buyers. Those who were able to attend claimed it was a glorified meet-and-greet at best, and a scam at worst, with one journalist dubbing it a one-woman Fyre festival.

While Calloway received negative attention from the media for these incidents, Beach’s essay has transformed her into a viral sensation. The article catalogues nearly a decade of hurt and deception, from Calloway’s struggle with addiction to Beach’s silent role in Calloway’s rise to fame. Now the media focus is on their fractured friendship, which in Beach’s essay reads like an Elena Ferrante novel transplanted from mid-20th century Naples to the virtual landscape of Instagram. But most remarkable about the story is Calloway’s continued commitment to telling all. Her Instagram feed is littered with screenshots of articles condemning her, with captions like “I cannot believe this is my life right now. I feel like I’m about to wake up at any moment.” She consistently emphasizes the unreality of the situation, her shock and hurt at how events have unfolded, and part of what keeps drawing people to her page is her willingness to comment on the drama rather than hide or stop posting.

Her response to this situation is exemplified by a trademark artsy-photo-with-lengthy-caption post about her relationship with Natalie. In the photo, Calloway stands before a large nude sculpture of a woman without arms. Like the statue, she has stripped herself bare before the court of public opinion, made herself vulnerable to fans and detractors alike.

This front of honesty, however, is more strategic than genuine. She hasn’t stopped creating an online persona, she’s just creating a different one. As Washington Post editorialist Molly Roberts astutely points out, “Calloway is still selling us something. She built her brand from the start, at least in part, by pointing out the deceptiveness of brand-building, blending Instagram’s typical aspirational posts with just enough vulnerability to make her look, well, genuine.” Vulnerability is the main weapon in Calloway’s arsenal, though she’s shifted from being vulnerable about boyfriends and addiction to being vulnerable about the scandal with Beach. She posts extensively about their friendship, pulling the curtain back on old stories, or as Roberts puts it, making herself look even more genuine by “contrasting [her new story] with the unreality she was selling everyone before.”

With her rough edges and insistence on openness, Calloway almost seems to have stepped out of the growing mass of Millennial literature about “unlikeable women,” which is perhaps why the media is so perversely attracted to Calloway’s story. In her essay “The Making of a Millenial Woman,” Rebecca Liu explores the moral implications of our obsessive interest with this kind of character. The classic example of this narrative follows “an archetypical Young Millennial Woman – pretty, white, cisgender, and tortured enough to be interesting but not enough to be repulsive. Often described as ‘relatable,’ she is, in actuality, not.” Rather, she is “more beautiful, more intelligent, and more infuriatingly precocious than we are in real life. But her charm lies in how she is still self-hating enough to be attainable: she’s an aspirational identifier.” Liu’s emphasis on “aspirational” is especially relevant to influencer culture, which relies on our dissatisfaction with ourselves and aspirations for “self-improvement” to reel us in.

Calloway’s employed vulnerability bears a particular resemblance to one of the unlikeable millenial women Liu touches on in her essay, the unnamed protagonist of the hit show Fleabag. The format of the show seems designed for an easy comparison to social media; the main character, played by the show’s creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is constantly addressing the audience with shocking honesty about everything from her sex life to her relationship with her family. It’s part of what makes the show funny, but her honesty functions on another level. By the end of the first series, we learn that Fleabag doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we think. In an interview with Paste Magazine, Waller-Bridge describes how her character is “using a certain type of honesty as a weapon of distraction. She talk very openly and honestly about sex so you feel like she’s being open with you when, actually, she’s completely hiding by doing that.”

This is exactly the approach taken by Calloway, using a “certain type of honesty” to create the illusion of genuineness. One might say that Calloway, unlike unlikeable women in fiction, is receiving condemnation for her actions rather than praise. However, our obsessive interest with her story, illustrated by a new Buzzfeed quiz titled “Are You a Caroline Calloway or a Natalie Beach?” smacks more of celebrity worship, of celebrating messiness and drama, than anything else. Our response to her is a kind of celebration, and as Liu points out,

“For every celebration of a rich white woman as carelessly destructive with her life as her privileged male counterparts, we should ask what it is that gives her the ability to be so brazen, and who is sidelined as collateral. Neurosis, often framed as a sign of powerlessness, can also be a sign of the opposite. To demand someone enter into and entertain your anxious mind-palace and reckon with your complicated and endlessly fascinating individuality can be an act of power. But who gets to be an individual to the Western public? Who gets to be complex?”

“To demand someone enter into and entertain your anxious mind-palace and reckon with your complicated and endlessly fascinating individuality can be an act of power” — this is exactly what Calloway’s Instagram posts ask us to do. Even when she is apologetic, even when she purports to be at her weakest, she holds power over her audience in a way that profits her in the end.

Part of the problem is the impetus to appear “relatable” (just messy enough to be interesting while still remaining palatable) online. Liu critiques this idea when she says that “Relatability as a critical tool leads only to dead ends, endlessly wielding a ‘we’ without asking who ‘we’ really are, or why ‘we’ are drawn to some stories more than others.” She asks, “What does it tell us that ‘we’ are meant to be drawn to women who live in elite social worlds, whose lifestyles many cannot afford, and whose rebellions against the world are always a little doomed and not that unconventional, even if we’re meant to think otherwise?”

Real personal growth cannot be achieved without vulnerability, but when influencers like Calloway substitute relatability with vulnerability, we end up consuming the same tired narratives without questioning who gets our attention and why.

Should Parents Lie to Their Children About Santa Claus?

photograph of Santa Claus ornament on tree

As the parent of an inquisitive 2½ year old, I currently find myself fumbling to explain Santa Claus to him, of whom he is now quite aware. Should I emphasize that he is a storybook character and not a real person? Would he even know what the difference between real and make-believe is yet? Ultimately, I find myself confronted by the perennial parenting question that divides many a household: Should we lie to our kids about Santa Claus?

My own parents always dutifully marked some Christmas presents as if they were from Santa Claus, even well after we kids were past the stage of believing in that jolly old elf. I do not personally feel damaged by my parents sustaining the myth of Father Christmas, but a recent essay in Lancet Psychiatry warns otherwise. Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia and co-author claims: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”

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Evaluating Donald Trump’s “Straight Talk”

It seems every time Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump takes the stage, something he says is met with outrage. These inflammatory statements range from harmless hogwash to potentially misogynistic or racist judgments. His competitor, a seasoned politician who understands the consequences that result from disregard for political norms, does not have these problems. Hillary Clinton chooses her battles and words with caution.

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