"Morality" guru guilty of research misconduct

Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser has been found guilty of research misconduct in an internal review by the Standing Committee on Professional Conduct:

Hours later, Dr. Hauser, a rising star for his explorations into cognition and morality, made his first public statement since news of the inquiry emerged last week, telling The New York Times, “I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes” and saying he was “deeply sorry for the problems this case had caused to my students, my colleagues and my university.”

Dr. Hauser is a leader in the field of animal and human cognition, and in 2006 wrote a well-received book, “Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.” Harvard’s findings against him, if sustained, may cast a shadow over the broad field of scientific research that depended on the particular research technique often used in his experiments.

I guess our universal sense of right and wrong doesn’t include research misconduct?  Whatever, a$$hole.  Hey–here’s another reason to close your lab to graduate students besides the craptastic job market:

There is a wide spectrum of scientific sins, ranging from wrist-slap offenses like bad data storage at one end, to data fabrication at the other. It is still not clear where on this spectrum Dr. Hauser’s errors may fall. He has admitted only to unspecified “mistakes,” not to misconduct.

Many of his experiments involved inferring a monkey’s thoughts or expectations from its response to a sight or sound. But the technique required somewhat subjective assessments by the researcher as to whether the monkey stared longer than usual at a display or turned its head toward a loudspeaker broadcasting an unexpected sound.

At least some of Dr. Hauser’s students disagreed with his interpretation of one such experiment three years ago, and reported their reservations to the Harvard authorities in a letter that was obtained this week by The Chronicle of Higher Education. It was this letter that spurred a three-year investigation of Dr. Hauser’s work going back at least as far as 2002.

Many of you undoubtedly have more informed opinions about this kind of research and the possibilities for misconduct therein than I have, so please share them with the class.  My main question is simply this:  what about all of the adorable monkeys?  Is anyone thinking about the monkeys?

0 thoughts on “"Morality" guru guilty of research misconduct

  1. The monkeys will likely be fine. They probably don’t belong solely to his lab and are shared across a number of animal behavior researchers who will pick up the slack to care for them.

    The latest from Harvard is a message saying that the misconduct included “data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results.” This is a cardinal sin in any science, but hugely undermines the field of psychology. Psychology is still such a young science, and struggles so often to gain respect from both the scientific and lay communities that we really cannot afford to have our preeminent researchers mucking things up.

    It’s one thing to make mistakes when it comes to secure data storage or to have messy data (thank you undergraduate research assistants) that needs to be cleaned up and re-entered before moving on with data analysis. But Harvard’s note implies egregious behavior that casts all of the work coming out of Dr. Hauser’s lab in a suspicious light.

    Kudos to his students for standing up and taking their concerns to the administration. Science is a self-governing field and individuals have to be able to come forward when they suspect ethical wrong-doing or shady practices.


  2. Hauser’s behavior is an extreme of a scale of misfeasance that is sadly very common. Publishing the same result 10 times with minor changes, basing results on insufficient data, “transferring” results from one discipline to another without proper recognition, dressing up tiny results in the latest fashion and misleading the referees, etc.

    I work with some of the monkeys who publish a lot and enjoy good local reputation, that humans have to work hard to achieve.


  3. It’s frustrating that Harvard’s statements are so vague. There’s no way to judge whether he really did engage in egregious misconduct, or if he was just sloppy (not that that’s OK).

    More fundamentally, I wonder how any researcher is going to discover anything about *human* morality by studying monkeys? Yes, we already know that other primates engage in acts that may appear altruistic to us. But can we make inferences about humans from such behavior? I’m very skeptical.


  4. The more I follow this story, the more I find myself wondering about Hauser’s motivations. I understand that falsifying data is easier than doing real work. But why these experiments in particular? Why are these results important enough to lie about? Why does his research empire specifically need to be built on rhesus monkeys distinguishing among musical patterns? It seems like such an esoteric thing to stake your reputation on — does his theory of innate morality stand or fall on certain capacities being common to all primates, or what?

    With something like faking cold fusion, it’s a bit clearer what the stakes are. But I don’t see how monkey attention functions as the same kind of holy grail…


  5. I do have a little problem with the Times header “found guilty,” since in serious judicial cultures that language implies the end result of some kind of specified procedural protocols and some measure of due process thereunder. Harvard’s close-to-the-vest approach to the entire matter makes it pretty hard to know just what that procedure was, or even what the conclusion was, beyond the press release boilerplate. What was the nature of the original pre-publication peer review? Was it based on replication of the experimental results in other labs, or was the field itself so arcane that there was nobody to do that? The whole corpus or retractions, partial retractions, and the repetition of research by the original parties is sort of foreign to most humanistic disciplines. The students in one’s lab may well be the best source of insight into what’s going on there, but differences of “interpretation” into things like primate attention spans and/or expressive behaviors, and “reservations” thereon seem like a pretty weak foundation for an indictment much less a conviction. I think this one will simply bear more watching and waiting. The investigator did, of course, issue some pretty substantial-sounding expressions of remorse, but those too might have had their origin in undisclosed “settlement” negotiations, with sanctions hanging in the balance.


  6. True story–I went to grad school w/ Marc Hauser, and actually felt a bit of grad-schooly pride when he became so “famous” (as that’s defined for professors). But he was an asshole and a jerk in grad school, cutting out on stuff he didn’t want to do, mocking his students (we were all TA’s), and generally thinking his shit didn’t stink. I’ve been watching this whole thing unfold, and somehow, I’m not surprised.


  7. Interesting. I’ve heard similar stories of people who were eventually done in by their belief that the rules didn’t apply to them. (I think Ward Churchill is a good example of that. I heard rumors about him for years before his “roosting chickens” speech became the lever the right could use to eject him from CU.)

    It makes sense that that kind of professional entitlement doesn’t grow up overnight, but rather is a part of the package from the beginning. What frustrates me is that men like this–and it is always a man, isn’t it?–get rewarded for their behavior so richly and for so long.


  8. It is always a man, isn’t it? Or at least usually. I’ve been trying to think of cases of serious research misconduct with female perps and haven’t come up with anything but a few bad books. Others? Is it all us boys?


  9. No, it’s not always a man.
    This story was hitting the papers in Wisconsin a few years back.
    Elizabeth Goodwin, who studies (studied) nematode genetics, was caught falsifying data in a grant application.
    I believe it’s more likely that it’s more often a man, but how much of that is due to the higher numbers of male researchers, and how much is due to different gender socialization, I don’t know.


  10. Hauser is the poster-child for a seriously fucked-up way of strategizing a scientific research program: the truth of your iconoclastic theory gains you recognition and its appurtenances, every experiment you do is aimed at “proving” your iconoclastic theory, and if your iconocastic theory stops being considered true, you will lose those appurtenances. For obvious reasons, this way of structuring your own research program provides overwhelmingly strong incentives to–from least to most egregious–be sloppy, ignore contradictory data, or fake data.


  11. blue e–does the exception prove the rule or does it negate my point entirely? The list of research transgressors is predominately male not just because there are more men at the top ranks of academia, but because men can have a sense of entitlement born of their domination at the top.

    For example, in a 2005 book by Jon Wiener, Historians in Trouble, he wrote about eleven cases of research and/or professional misconduct by historians. Two of his examples were women, nine were men. The numbers are probably even more skewed male in science misconduct cases.

    CPP–you’re right. Hauser painted himself into a corner, and didn’t find a way to branch out into other projects. Talk about a hedgehog!


  12. Historiann – I didn’t mean to imply that your point wasn’t valid. I was responding to Tony Grafton’s request for some examples of women who got in serious research trouble. For what it’s worth, I agree with your point – that “men can have a sense of entitlement born of their domination at the top.”
    I should have stopped after giving the example instead of rambling on with qualifiers – sorry. The Goodwin case sticks in my mind because it (somewhat) sparked a conversation in the scientific community of how to protect grad student whistleblowers – though you’ve prompted me to think more about that, and why it was this particular case that sparked that conversation when there are other cases that could have.


  13. Funny coincidence: one of the two female offenders in the book I mentioned is Doris Kearns Goodwin, a teevee historian.

    Maybe we should formulate “Goodwin’s Law?” Something about how people arguing about researchers named Goodwin losing the argument as soon as one of them compares the researcher to a Nazi?


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