Jelte Wicherts: ‘Intellectual dishonesty can really rile me up’

Jelte Wicherts: ‘Intellectual dishonesty can really rile me up’

After a Veni and Vidi, Jelte Wicherts can now add the award of a Vici grant to his record of achievements. How did the psychologist and meta-researcher get his eureka moment and what does he do to relax?

Image: Jack Tummers

1. If you could change anything about research you have done, what would it be?

‘In my proposal for the Vici, there is a statistical model and in formula three of it there was an error the likes of which you have never seen. Making a proposal takes a lot of time. I even spent three days in a hotel to work on it day and night. And still that happened. Maybe that’s also the risk when you come up with something completely new.

‘I was just lucky because the reviewers hadn’t seen it. In the end, I did mention it in my rebuttal: It’s not right what it says, in formula three, there should be a minus where there is a plus now.’

2. If you were not a scientist, what would you be doing?

‘I first wanted to be a doctor, but when I went to study medicine in Antwerp it was not a great success. I quickly found out that medicine was not for me. But if I had to choose now: research, getting to the bottom of something, is very much part of me. Wanting to explain things also. I’m also highly curious, so maybe investigative journalism would be something for me.’

3. What gives you a short fuse?

‘I often travel by train. It’s easy, I live close to the train station and the university also has its own station. On the way, I put on headphones and work. I’m very productive then. Sometimes I have to take the car anyway, I hate that.

‘Also, I can’t stand intellectual dishonesty. A real mistake, that’s possible, but people who know they’re not being honest, that something is wrong, I can’t stand that. If you want to get me riled up, that’s the most effective way.’

4. What book would you recommend to anyone?

‘In general, it’s best to read books by people you don’t agree with. You quickly find yourself in a bubble with always the same people thinking the same thing, then it’s good to step back and read books by someone you don’t agree with. It’s super important for a healthy society that you also get out of your bubble once in a while.

‘A book that was very inspiring for me is The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.’

5. You have an unexpected afternoon off; how do you spend the time?

‘Sometimes I do war or strategy games on the computer, often I get completely outplayed by people who are much younger. Then I go for a walk and listen to a podcast anyway. That’s what I like: walking and listening.’

6. What do few people know about you?

‘I’m a morning person. I can really enjoy waking up at four-thirty. Then I read the newspaper and go to work at six.  You always travel before the rush hour then, which is also very nice.’

7. What is your personal eureka moment?

‘For the proposal for my Vici, I spent a very long time working on a technical-statistical model of how many scientists misanalyze their data. In the summer, I had a bit more time for this, so I started fiddling with it, as I often do. Until suddenly I figured it out. A model that can solve p-hacking.

‘While a lot of people were being defeated by it, I got the idea a month and a half before the deadline. I was lucky that the idea came at the right time. I immediately knew it was right, I believe in this model. And now I can start working on it in the coming period.’

8. Your house is on fire, and you can only save one possession. What do you take with you?

‘I think I’ll just grab the iPad then, because that’s what my four kids, my wife, and I need. Or the car keys, with all of us in the car, we’re safe.’

9. What series do you watch to relax?

House. It’s a little older, but very funny. Andere Tijden (Other Times), history is always fascinating. From even longer ago, I still like to watch Keek op de week by Van Kooten and De Bie. In my teenage years, we watched that every Sunday, ten past eight. Fascinating to see how many themes from the news back then still recur today. Like climate problems and farmers blocking highways.’

10. Who is your great role model and why?

‘Actually, those are my mentors. I took something from each of them. One had an incredible collecting frenzy. Data, articles, literature. I have that, too. He did not have a PhD himself because he did not think his own thesis was good enough, even though it was approved.

‘Another was very much in favor of open science. He got very angry when people wouldn’t share their data for better analysis. And a third always took weird forays into distant areas of research. From psychology, he went to ecology, and then went on again to econometrics. From those forays he came back with fantastic theoretical models. When you mix these three people, I see myself.’

11. They sometimes say you learn the most from your mistakes. What is your best misstep?

‘I once criticized an intelligence researcher who, despite my repeated criticism, continued to use methods that were flawed. At a conference where he was presenting his research, I blurted out about it. I do regret that, I should have stayed calm, but I was really angry. The joke was that the lecture that followed was about the relationship between intelligence and anger. That really made me laugh.’

12. What should you actually be doing (more)?

‘I’m pretty strong on doing it myself. I have a natural tendency to want to figure it out myself, work it out myself. I should contact someone who knows better than me more often and ask for help. You can achieve more that way, too, than you would on your own.’

13. Never work again or never go on vacation again?

‘Never going on vacation is obviously not an option with four children. Besides, vacations can be hard work. After a vacation, I’m often ready for a week of work.’

Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel

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