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Newspaper Offers Details of Hauser Lab Investigation

8.19.10

According to an August 19 report by the Chronicle of Higher EducationHarvard’s investigation of professor of psychology Marc Hauser’s lab  (and see an earlier report here) began when research assistants and a graduate student in Hauser’s laboratory raised questions about procedures in the lab.

Since the Boston Globe broke news two weeks ago of the retraction of a paper Hauser coauthored, and of an inquiry into possible misconduct in Hauser’s lab, the University has not released details of the investigation or what it found, beyond saying it had “taken steps to ensure that the scientific record is corrected in relation to three articles co-authored by Dr. Hauser.”

According to the Chronicle report, the newspaper obtained a 2007 statement from a research assistant who once worked in the lab, but has since left psychology. The report did not name the research assistant. According to the Chronicle, a research assistant in the lab clashed with Hauser when the assistant and Hauser analyzed the same data and came up with different results.

The study tested rhesus monkeys’ ability to recognize patterns of sounds. The ability, present in human infants and chimpanzees but not previously observed in monkeys, is believed to underlie language acquisition.

After the assistant pressed Hauser to have a third researcher examine the data, Hauser resisted. Then, according to the Chronicle:

The research assistant who analyzed the data and the graduate student decided to review the tapes themselves, without Mr. Hauser’s permission, the document says. They each coded the results independently. Their findings concurred with the conclusion that the experiment had failed: The monkeys didn’t appear to react to the change in patterns.

They then reviewed Mr. Hauser’s coding and, according to the research assistant’s statement, discovered that what he had written down bore little relation to what they had actually observed on the videotapes. He would, for instance, mark that a monkey had turned its head when the monkey didn’t so much as flinch. It wasn’t simply a case of differing interpretations, they believed: His data were just completely wrong.

Hauser, the author of the popular book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (2006), is on leave for the upcoming academic year, working on a book that according to his curriculum vitae will be titled Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad. He has not responded to requests for comment.

On August 18, the Chronicle published a reflection by Michael Ruse, a professor of philosophy at Florida State University who has known Hauser for 25 years and who included a piece by Hauser in an anthology he edited last year on the for the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth.

It’s still not clear what Hauser did or did not do, Ruse writes, but at any rate the investigation detracts from what Ruse calls “fascinating” arguments about philosophy and evolution, made by an unquestionably “talented” scholar. But Ruse has sharp words for Harvard:

We have been anthologizing Hauser, referring to him and relying on his work, making him a keynote speaker, and all of the sorts of things that we do when we have a top academic in his prime. And Harvard has been sitting on things, dragging on things, and God knows what. …If there was enough concern to follow up student complaints and confiscate material, a very much quicker examination could have been made. And when it was made, we could have been told about it. As it is, I think Harvard University has let us all down.

Ruse notes that he plans to “eviscerate” the discussion of Hauser’s work he had planned to include in a forthcoming book.

And on August 17, the journal Nature also published a report on the Hauser investigation, saying rumors about the investigation “had been flying for three years” and in fact “had become standard cocktail-hour fare at conferences.” The piece echoes other calls for more information on the investigation and its findings, quoting colleagues of Hauser’s including primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University and Robert Seyfarth and Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania.

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