Courts don’t remove demand for falsified survey results

Depending on your view, it’s either amusing or horrific to see how much so-called research is falsified. Much of Lighthouse’s work involves academic researchers, and in my spare time I remain part of that community. Working with professors and PhDs helps us to ensure that our search for the truth remains both rigourous and self-critical.

Yesterday’s New York Times has reminded us that commercial research certainly emphasises different criteria. The value of academic research depends largely on the validity of the methods, but the findings need not be significant or as expected; commercial research needs to have clear findings, and there’s often more emphasis on producing results that please the paying client than on using accurate and unbiased methods.

Mark A. Stein’s story for the Times reported that Tracy A. Costin, the owner of a Connecticut-headquartered survey and polling services firm has pleaded guilty to charges of fraud brought by the US attorney’s office: she had falsified surveys “to satisfy customer requirements”, both by fabricating responses and altering data already collected. Costin was charged along with DataUSA manager Darryl Hylton.

I’m quite unsurprised, both by what happened and by Costin’s success in growing her firm over many years. Over several years I’ve spoken with very large numbers of business people interested in surveys of industry analysts and other measurement methods. What I’ve found is that out of every three such people, one is interested in accurate results, one is interested only in positive results (their trend must be always upwards) and and the third is consciously against accurate data. Without exceptions, in my experience, those preferences reflect the corporate cultures of those firms.

Costin and Hylton certainly deserve the punishments coming to them. However, the clients who pressured them to deliver false data will almost certainly be rewarded with financial restitution rather than encouraged to review the value of a survey system that simply delivered the results the clients decide upon.

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