Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Marc Hauser lecture on morality. Not ironic or anything.

With the recent resignation of prominent Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser, let's revisit the irony of an expert on morality -- and the author of a book called Moral Minds -- being found guilty of eight instances of research misconduct. The timing of last year's breaking news (August 10, 2010) relative to his participation in a conference on THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY (July 20-22, 2010) was rather unfortunate.

Hauser was one of the "THE MORAL NINE" (now "THE MORAL EIGHT") in attendance at the conference. He delivered a keynote lecture that was captured on video but promptly removed from Edge's website when the charges against him came to light.1 This rare video is available here for your viewing pleasure, along with the opening quote:
"...a lot of us who have been working in this area are interested in the kind of connections between the is and the ought. I think one way that becomes of interest is in practical, applied issues, in terms of how the science that is being discovered has implications for how we behave as people, how law maybe sort of constructs itself [?], how educational systems work, how clinical problems get handled."
He then goes on to mention his conversation with New York Times columnist David Brooks, which was about...
" I think science is often caught in this weird position where we want people to be educated and engaged in science... so what we do is make our results very vivid. But the question is how do we both convey the excitement but not overstate what we understand?"
Did Hauser fail to heed his own advice? Did he overstate or misrepresent (or falsify) any of his research findings? What is known, specifically, about the extent of Hauser's research misconduct? Not too much. According to the Boston Globe:
His resignation brings some resolution to the turmoil on campus, but it still leaves the scientific community trying to sort out what findings, within his large body of work, they should trust. Three published papers led by Hauser were thrown into question by the investigation -- one was retracted and two were corrected. Problems were also found in five additional studies that were either not published or corrected prior to publication.
The retracted paper on rule learning by cotton-top tamarins was published in the journal Cognition. The editor, Gerry Altmann, concluded that Hauser must have fabricated data. His position was subsequently misrepresented by Nicholas Wade of the New York Times, who has been accused of being suspiciously sympathetic to Hauser. For example, Wade wrote that...
Harvard’s treatment of Dr. Hauser has occasioned some misgivings among other researchers, although he also has critics. The university raided his laboratory in 2007, after complaints by some of his students, and for the next 18 months Dr. Hauser did not know what he was being accused of.

Scientific misconduct is generally understood to connote grave offenses like fraud or plagiarism, but only three of Harvard’s charges were about published articles, and two of these concerned nothing more serious than missing data.
On the other hand, Gerry Altmann hints that the charges might be worse than expected:
So to set the cat amongst the pigeons, I have been told, and I shall not reveal more, that when the details of the investigation are eventually published, words such as “shocking” will flow freely.
For more coverage of the Hauser affair, see Marc Hauser News: A Settling, or Pre-Quake Tremors? and What Did Marc Hauser Do?

You can also watch the Q & A session with Hauser that took place at the 2010 Edge conference: The New Science of Morality - Marc D. Hauser Discussion.


1 Considering that the [confidential] Harvard investigation had been ongoing for 3 years, it seems unlikely that the conference organizers and other attendees were completely in the dark (since people do talk about such things, even as rumors).

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At July 30, 2011 2:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, this is the rare case where a persistent individual who was part of the lab spoke up and told the rest of the world things did not add up. It would not surprise me at all if, these days, fabrication was rather common. Think about it: Your experiment fails to produce awesome results = no grant, no tenure if you are so "lucky" to be on tenure-track, no nothing... What university administrators generally don't realize is that new knowledge is not generally something you get "on demand". Many revolutionary discoveries were produces by accidents. By putting scientists in the position of producing new knowledge now or being out, is it surprising that cheating goes on? Of course, one wonders why Hauser, a tenured Harvard Prof., would do that, given that the objective risks to his career were minimal. Who knows, perhaps he did feel tremendous pressure to keep up his superstar image. Or perhaps he was a psychopath to begin with... I am glad now he will be busy helping disadvantaged kids...

At September 06, 2011 5:44 PM, Anonymous Truly Anonymous said...

Neurocrtic: Suan Carey has been very open about Harvard's somewhat bewildering process for cases like this, which involve a surprising amount of secrecy. So I am guessing that although some outside may have known that some kind of investigation was going on, I doubt the scale was entirely clear. And it might still not be. Given that a lot of the issues seem to have dealt with biased coding of subtle cues in hundreds of hours of primate behavior, it may be thatbwe may never know the real extent of the problem.

It might be interesting to ask Dr. Carey directly For her current take.


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