Disgrace: On Marc Hauser
According to the document provided to the Chronicle, the graduate student and the research assistant who analyzed the data decided to re-examine the tapes without notifying Hauser. They coded the results without consulting with each other, and both sets of data showed that the monkeys didn’t seem to react to the change in patterns. When they then reviewed Hauser’s results, they found that what he had recorded “bore little relation” to what they had seen on the videotapes. The two did not think the issue was a matter of differing interpretations. As Bartlett put it, they thought Hauser’s data were “just completely wrong.” As news of their experience spread around the lab, according to the document, other lab members indicated they too had experienced episodes in which Hauser “reported false data and then insisted that it be used.”
Several other people who had worked in Hauser’s lab during the period he produced the research investigated by Harvard, and who have asked to remain unnamed, confirmed for me the account offered by the Chronicle and provided further details and examples of the general pattern of Hauser fabricating and falsifying data and pressuring others, particularly undergraduates and other junior members of the lab, to do the same to obtain the desired results. Eventually, three researchers in the lab presented evidence to the university’s ombudsman and then to the dean’s office, prompting the inquiry that led to the formal investigation.
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A week after the Boston Globe disclosed that Harvard had found Hauser responsible for scientific misconduct, Dean Smith sent a letter to Harvard faculty confirming the revelations. The letter, which remains Harvard’s only public account of Hauser’s misdeeds, went into great detail about Harvard’s procedures, stressing that “the work of the investigating committee as well as its final report are considered confidential to protect both the individuals who made the allegations and those who assisted in the investigation.” It was less than forthcoming on details of the “eight instances of scientific misconduct” that Hauser was claimed to be “solely responsible” for. The most Smith would reveal was that “while different issues were detected for the studies reviewed, overall, the experiments reported were designed and conducted, but there were problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results.” His letter provided no specific information on the nature of the misconduct, nor did it indicate how the committee knew that Hauser was “solely responsible,” even though all the papers known to be disputed, as well as the vast bulk of Hauser’s publications, have co-authors.
One of the eight instances of scientific misconduct concerned a paper published in Cognition in 2002, which Smith explained “has been retracted because the data produced in the published experiments did not support the published findings.” In the second instance of scientific misconduct, a correction was published to a paper that appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 2007. In the third instance, concerning a paper that appeared in Science in 2007, Smith wrote, “The authors continue to work with the editors.” Smith then explained that “the investigating committee found problems” with “five other studies that either did not result in publications or where the problems were corrected prior to publication.” Presumably one of them was the experiment involved in the recognition of sound patterns by tamarins that was the subject of the contretemps between Hauser and his research assistants reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Cognition paper tested whether cotton-top tamarins, like human infants, could rapidly generalize “patterns that have been characterized as abstract algebraic rules,” an ability that could be important in language acquisition. The editor of Cognition, Gerry Altmann, received information from Harvard that led him to believe the paper was a case of scientific misconduct. As Altmann explained on his blog this past October:
As I make very clear in this blog…the information I have received, when taken at face value, leads me to maintain my belief that the data that had been published in the journal Cognition was effectively a fiction—that is, there was no basis in the recorded data for those data. I concluded, and I continue to conclude, that the data were most likely fabricated (that is, after all, what a fiction is—a fabrication).
Two months earlier Altmann had told the Boston Globe that Hauser’s Cognition paper “reports data…but there was no such data existing on the videotape. These data are depicted in the paper in a graph. The graph is effectively a fiction and the statistic that is supplied in the main text is effectively a fiction.” And “if it’s the case the data have in fact been fabricated, which is what I as the editor infer, that is as serious as it gets.”
The three whistleblowers apparently had not been involved in carrying out this experiment. Rather, they chose to re-examine it to see whether the pattern of misconduct they had observed could be found in Hauser’s other papers. This raises two crucial questions: Are other studies of Hauser’s that Harvard did not examine also flawed? Did the Harvard committee look into studies other than those brought to them by the whistleblowers?
The second and third “instances” concerned papers about the ability of chimpanzees, rhesus monkeys and cotton-top tamarins to understand hand gestures made by humans, the implication being that nonhuman primates have the ability to “read the minds of others,” a cognitive skill previously thought to be confined to humans. Hauser and his co-authors informed the editors of the two journals, the Proceedings of the Royal Society and Science, that they had repeated their experiments and verified their original conclusions. The Proceedings of the Royal Society published an addendum to that effect. One of the co-authors explained in Science that the Harvard investigating committee “determined that there are no field notes, records of aborted trials, or subject identifying information associated with the rhesus monkey experiments; however, the research notes and videotapes for the tamarin and chimpanzee experiments were accounted for.” Hauser and one of his co-authors then replicated the rhesus monkey experiments, and after anonymous review, they were published in Science on September 7, 2010. That Hauser and his co-workers obtained data supporting the conclusions of the original papers does not indicate whether the original experiments were carried out properly. This point cannot be stressed enough. As Gordon Gallup Jr. told the Harvard Crimson this past May, “Ultimately it’s not a question of whether he can replicate his findings—it’s whether other people can.” Incidentally, since Hauser published the two papers, dogs have been shown to be better than chimpanzees at interpreting human gestures. Sic transit gloria, the primacy of primates in cognition.
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Hauser has recently been drawn into another controversy about the integrity of his published work. Gilbert Harman, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, has posted on his website a paper alleging that in Moral Minds Hauser draws on ideas developed in several works of John Mikhail’s without making proper acknowledgment. (Mikhail is now a professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown University. Harman’s analysis, which includes a list of passages he thinks are questionable, is at princeton.edu/~harman/Mikhail%20and%20Hauser.pdf.) Harman says that the works of Mikhail’s in question are his PhD dissertation (2000) at Cornell, his JD thesis at Stanford (2002) and a review in the Stanford Law Review (2002).
The Moral Minds controversy isn’t about Hauser passing off as his own phrases or entire sentences lifted from Mikhail’s writings. Rather, as Harman writes, “the section on Plagiarism in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association says, ‘The key element of this principle is that an author does not present the work of another author as if it were his own. This can extend to ideas as well as written words.’ (The italics in these quotations are mine.)” Harman points out that in Moral Minds, “Hauser presents as his own novel discovery and as the central idea of the book the very same analogy between universal linguistic grammar and universal moral grammar” that Mikhail had proposed in his dissertation. Furthermore, according to Harman, Hauser “says that an unconscious action analysis is a precondition and preliminary step for judging moral actions to be permissible, forbidden, or obligatory and contrasts this with a purely emotion based account. He does not say that this is Mikhail’s (2000) account…developed further in Mikhail (2002a).”
One line of Harman’s argument concerns what philosophers call “trolley problems,” or dilemmas like whether pushing one person in front of a train to avoid the death of five others is morally permissible. In Moral Minds Hauser discusses four trolley problems, involving “Denise,” “Frank,” “Ned” and “Oscar.” In his dissertation Mikhail gives an account of trolley problems with the same names; Hauser does not cite Mikhail, from whom he must have taken at least two of these examples. Harman writes that Hauser “notes the same parallel between immediate linguistic judgments and immediate moral judgments without referring to Mikhail’s (2000)…similar but earlier discussion. Similarly Hauser notes that the linguistic analogy suggests there are innate constraints on moral development that might make different moral grammars mutually incomprehensible, without referring to Mikhail’s earlier discussion of the same point.”
Harman has posted a reply from Hauser, who says that “Mikhail is cited repeatedly in Moral Minds, and singled out in the Acknowledgments as someone who greatly influenced my thinking.” (Mikhail has not yet replied.) Hauser adds, “These accusations confuse ordinary intellectual influence for malfeasance…and, they gloss the important difference between an empirical synthesis/trade book and a philosophical treatise/academic book.” Hauser is correct in suggesting that trade publishing doesn’t have standard rules for crediting sources. By contrast, having sat on the Princeton committee that handles undergraduate plagiarism cases, I am confident that if Hauser were a student, even a small portion of his failure to credit Mikhail would merit serious punishment.
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In his resignation letter to Harvard, Hauser wrote, “While on leave over the past year, I have begun doing some extremely interesting and rewarding work focusing on the educational needs of at-risk teenagers. I have also been offered some exciting opportunities in the private sector.” In an interview titled “On How We Judge Bad Behavior,” made a few months before the Globe broke the story of Harvard’s investigation and available on YouTube, Hauser discusses psychopaths and suggests that they “know right from wrong but just don’t care.”
The structure of Hauser’s lab was similar in many ways to that of my lab and of many other medium- to large-size biology labs at research universities. These labs are populated by a range of people, including undergraduates, paid research technicians, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and visitors. Some members—particularly graduate students—work in the lab for years, whereas others are more transient. The principal investigator (PI), such as Hauser or myself, selects the lab members, usually pays them, suggests (or assigns) experiments and evaluates their work. For graduate students, the PI is usually the most important person in their scientific life, acting as mentor, supervisor, model, adviser, critic, editor, co-author, supporter, reference and sometimes rival.
All labs are like complicated families, but each lab is complicated in its own way. Along with sibling rivalries, there are battles for attention, praise, identity, privacy and independence. The intimate relation of a PI to his graduate students often lasts as long and as intensely as a familial one. For a graduate student to blow the whistle on his or her mentor is an extraordinary and very risky step. Aside from the emotional and psychological trauma, whistleblowing by graduate students about their PI, even if confirmed, often ruins their careers. If the PI is fired or loses grant support, members of his or her lab usually stand to lose nearly everything—their financial support, their laboratory facilities, their research project and sometimes their credibility. But in the Hauser affair things have turned out very differently: the three whistleblowers whose action prompted the Harvard investigation have gone on to successful careers in scientific research.
The procedures and conclusions of the investigation raise many questions. Its methods and results remain secret. Its procedures bore no relation to the due process that is the goal of our judicial system. We have no clear idea of the exact nature of the evidence, of how many studies were examined and if anyone besides the three whistleblowers and Hauser was asked to testify. I was told by one of the whistleblowers that, to this person’s surprise and relief, the committee, which included scientists, did look carefully at evidence, even going so far as to recalculate statistics.
Aside from their potential injustice to the accused and accusers, the secrecy of the investigation and the paucity of specific facts in the conclusions are deleterious to the entire field of animal cognition. Exactly what kind of irregularities existed in the “eight instances of misconduct” and what they might imply for other papers by Hauser and for the field in general remained unclear.
Although some of my knowledge of the Hauser case is based on conversations with sources who have preferred to remain unnamed, there seems to me to be little doubt that Hauser is guilty of scientific misconduct, though to what extent and severity remains to be revealed. Regardless of the final outcome of the investigation of Hauser by the federal Office of Research Integrity, irreversible damage has been done to the field of animal cognition, to Harvard University and most of all to Marc Hauser.