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Answering questions on morality Ken Perrott Apr 22

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I want to spend a few posts answering some of the questions commenters have raised on my science of morality articles here and at the SciBlogs syndicated version (Open Parachute@ SciBlogs). See, for example, Foundations of human morality.

Those articles represent my thinking as a result of the New Science of Morality  Seminar (see The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality) and the Great debate ’Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?’ (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop). Effectively I have tried to integrate the psychological approach of the Edge seminar with the more philosophical and neurobiological approach of the Debate. The reflection was also stimulated by reading books by Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape), Patricia Churchland (Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality), Jonathan Haidt, Marc Hauser, Matt Ridley, Stephen Pinker and others.

I have been very thankful for the discussion the articles generated. It’s a great way of developing one’s ideas. Finding flaws, looking for alternatives. Even when the disagreement is a result of misunderstanding, realising where one’s arguments need clarifying or better explanation is very useful.

I do not doubt the discussion has significantly contributed to evolution of my ideas in this area.

Questions from a religious apologist

First I will deal with questions from Bnonn at Thinking Matters. His article (Scientist talks morality, slips on banana peel) was basically a straw man attack but did ask some specific questions. Some  are worth responding to.

Q1: How is my model ’improving?’

This was in response to my claim, in Foundations of human morality, that the model I describe ’may not satisfy those who wish for an absolute completely objective morality. But it is at least consistent, improving and logically supportable. It is objectively based.’

I think Bnonn has intentionally or unintentionally confused that claim. However I will answer his specific question.

Science is basically progressive in its knowledge. Over time its ideas and theories improve as we get more data from reality and do more testing and validating of our ideas against reality. In a sense our scientific knowledge is an imperfect, but ever improving, reflection of reality.

This will also be true of any scientific theory about human morality. The improvements in fields like anthropology, social psychology and neurobiology in recent years has made a scientific description of human morality possible. This will only improve with time and future research.

Q2: How does my model support moral positions?

Bnonn asks how I can ’support specific moral positions, over and against divine command theories? For example, if a divine command theorist says that it is morally wrong to sleep around, and an evolutionist says that it’s morally permissible because of this evolutionary model, why should we give more weight to the evolutionist?’

First let’s dispense with Bnonn’s confusion about ’evolutionists.’ My dictionary defines an evolutionist as someone who ’believes’ in a theory of evolution. Let’s leave aside problems with that word ’belief’ (technically I don’t ’believe in evolution’ — I ’accept’ evolutionary science). Science is not a belief system like religion. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, have dogmas. “Evolutionist” is really not an appropriate term and I think Bnonn is using it here as a derogatory one. That is problematic for him because many of his mates who accept ’divine’ command theories also accept evolutionary science (or at least say they do).

Nor is the model of human morality I suggest a naïve ’evolutionary’ model as Bnonn suggests.  Rather it sees our morality as built on human instincts and intuitions which have developed during our biological, social and cultural evolution as social animals. We can develop strong intuitions of right and wrong and of social taboos which make use of our evolved instincts like purity, disgust, fear, reward, judgment, etc.

A scientific model of human morality can easily explain why we have strong intuitions of right and wrong and we unconsciously respond to specific situation by classifying them as right or wrong (’auto mode”). When we go through the intellectual exercise of considering novel and theoretical situations (’manual mode’) we accept our empathetic nature as a criteria. The Golden Rule — which I claim is, in effect, ’wired in.’ Part of human nature. Not surprising that some form or other of the Golden Rule has emerged in many human cultures.

I see no problem in arriving at arguments of support, or opposition, to specific moral positions. We seem to do that all the time.

Q3: Does my model deny a progressive approach to morality?

Bnonn sees my reference to a moral zeitgeist as claiming that historically humanity is improving morally and asks: ’but wouldn’t that contradict the model itself by implying some objective good towards which they are moving?’

I do say there is an objective basis to our morality in human nature. Particularly in our social and empathetic nature. This does give an objective intellectual basis, as well as an emotional one, for describing things as good and bad. So we can make judgements about moral progress.

Q4: Bnonn’s concern with ’sleeping around?’

A rather quaint expression. Surely he isn’t judging ones ability to sleep anywhere?

But I reject his assumption that my model assumes sexual promiscuity is ’morally permissible.’ Opposition to sexual promiscuity is common in human moral codes. One can see how this has arisen as part of the social and empathetic nature of our species. The need to protect and raise children who have a long period of dependency on parents provides a biological basis for that. It also helps explain why monogamy is a common social arrangement. Even in our modern society where old and irrelevant sexual restrictions have been abandoned because of their restrictions on human rights we have a moral and legal code which takes this biological necessity into account.

Rather than dogmatically demanding sexually promiscuity as Bnonn suggests, my model helps explain why we have such moral codes. Perhaps Bnonn’s ignorance here is more a matter of his perception that evolutionary science is ’evil.’

Q5: Are Humans hard-wired to “forcibly sleep around?”

Bnonn assumes my model implies humans are ’hardwired’ to ’forcibly sleep around’ (I assume he means rape) – so why is that not morally permissible?

Again he is misrepresenting my model. Surely it is clear why as a sentient, conscious, intelligent, social and empathetic species we should have developed moral codes which usually abhor rape. And as a social, empathetic species we usually developed laws and moral codes to prohibit it.

I think Bnonn may somehow be confusing a moral code with the fact that our evolutionary development has produced instincts and desires influencing our social interaction and ensuring reproduction. They are not the same thing.

Of course there are people who may give a full reign to some individual instincts, sexual desire, dominance in human relationships, etc., while ignoring other empathetic instincts. Our species has developed moral intuitions and legal codes specifically to handle such problems, not to promote them.

Q6: What is wrong with moral relativism?

Bnonn: ’Hasn’t evolution hardwired some of us for that to?’

No, it hasn’t. That is the point of my suggested model — to explain why we have moral codes. How these arise from our nature. Again, I suspect Bnonn is being distracted by his hatred for the word ’evolution.’

Moral relativism is not a fact of human wiring but an intellectual position which denies any objective basis to human morality. One that is sometimes used to justify an ’anything goes’ approach to specific moral questions. Without a scientific model like the one I suggest the field is wide open to ’moral relativism.’  Just imagine society trying to develop moral or legal codes without giving any credence to ’The Golden Rule” or our inbuilt empathy?

This was why I criticised ’divine’ command ethics: ’Any old moral positions can be supported by ’divine commands.’ Such justifications can sometimes lead to the worst sort of moral relativism.’ After all, if morality is determined by decree or command from on high, and not reason recognising human empathy and society, anything can be commanded. And the “divine” part acts to prevent any doubts or questions.

So, considering Bnonn’s obsession with ’sleeping around’ for example. Surely he knows that some religious sects have proclaimed such behaviour, particularly access of religious leaders to young women and children, on the basis of ’divine’ command ethics. Instructions from their god. Whereas it is perfectly natural for humans as a social, empathetic species to develop moral and legal restrictions against such behaviour. And not just for cultural and historical reasons. But because we are hardwired to appreciate the suffering we can cause others. We are empathetic beings.

Finally, I think Bnonn’s problems with my model lie in his emotional reaction to words like “secular” and “evolution.” Consequently he has made unwarranted assumptions about this model and been busy attacking straw men.

Hopefully these comments will help him to critique the real model I am proposing.


In a future post I will answer some of the more philosophical criticisms I have received.

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A scientific consensus on human morality Ken Perrott Sep 21

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There has been some local discussion of the scientific approach to morality. Unfortunately some of this has concentrated on only one source (a TED talk by Sam Harris – see Can science answer moral questions?). I believe Sam makes some interesting points and am eager to read his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values which will be published next month. (I am planning to review it then). However, he is just one person, has tended to concentrate only on the problem presented by advocates of moral relativism, and has not actually done any significant research in this area.

I posted previously about the Edge Seminar last July on the science of morality (see The new science of morality and Is and ought). This brought together eight researchers, including Same Harris. (Well nine actually, but Marc Hauser’s contributions have been removed – that is another story; unfortunate but significant). The videos and transcripts of the conference are available at the Edge site and are well worth viewing.

Below I have reproduced the Consensus Statement made by the scientists at the seminar. It’s a useful summary of where the science of morality currently stands – at least in the minds of eight significant scientists working in the area. Its taken from Edge 327.


CONSENSUS STATEMENT

1) Morality is a natural phenomenon and a cultural phenomenon
Like language, sexuality, or music, morality emerges from the interaction of multiple psychological building blocks within each person, and from the interactions of many people within a society. These building blocks are the products of evolution, with natural selection playing a critical role. They are assembled into coherent moralities as individuals mature within a cultural context. The scientific study of morality therefore requires the combined efforts of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

2) Many of the psychological building blocks of morality are innate
The word “innate,” as we use it in the context of moral cognition, does not mean immutable, operational at birth, or visible in every known culture. It means “organized in advance of experience,” although experience can revise that organization to produce variation within and across cultures.

Many of the building blocks of morality can be found, in some form,  in other primates, including sympathy, friendship, hierarchical relationships, and coalition-building. Many of the building blocks of morality are visible in all human culture, including sympathy, friendship, reciprocity, and the ability to represent others’ beliefs and intentions.

Some of the building blocks of morality become operational quite early in childhood, such as the capacity to respond with empathy to human suffering, to act altruistically, and to punish those who harm others.

3) Moral judgments are often made intuitively, with little deliberation or conscious weighing of evidence and alternatives
Like judgments about the grammaticality of sentences, moral judgments are often experienced as occurring rapidly, effortlessly, and automatically. They occur even when a person cannot articulate reasons for them.

4) Conscious moral reasoning plays multiple roles in our moral lives
People often apply moral principles and engage in moral reasoning. For example, people use reasoning to detect moral inconsistencies in others and in themselves, or when moral intuitions conflict, or are absent. Moral reasoning often serves an argumentative function; it is often a preparation for social interaction and persuasion, rather than an open-minded search for the truth. In line with its persuasive function, moral reasoning can have important causal effects interpersonally. Reasons and arguments can establish new principles (e.g.,  racial equality, animal rights) and produce moral change in a society.

5) Moral judgments and values are often at odds with actual behavior
People often fail to live up to their consciously-endorsed values. One of the many reasons for the disconnect is that moral action often depends on self-control, which is a fluctuating and limited resource. Doing what is morally right, especially when contrary to selfish desires, often depends on an effortful inner struggle with an uncertain outcome.

6) Many areas of the brain are recruited for moral cognition, yet there is no “moral center” in the brain
Moral judgments depend on the operation of multiple neural systems that are distinct but that interact with one another, sometimes in a competitive fashion. Many of these systems play comparable roles in non-moral contexts.  For example, there are systems that support the implementation of cognitive control, the representation of mental states, and the affective representation of value in both moral and non-moral contexts.

7) Morality varies across individuals and cultures
People within each culture vary in their moral judgments and behaviors. Some of this variation is due to heritable differences in temperament (for example, agreeableness or conscientiousness) or in morally-relevant capacities (such as one’s ability to take the perspective of others). Some of this difference is due to variations in childhood experiences; some is due to the roles and contexts influencing a person at the moment of judgment or action.

Morality varies across cultures in many ways, including the overall moral domain (what kinds of things get regulated), as well as specific moral norms, practices, values, and institutions. Moral virtues and values are strongly influenced by local and historical circumstances, such as the nature of economic activity, form of government, frequency of warfare, and strength of institutions for dispute resolution.

8)` Moral systems support human flourishing, to varying degrees
The emergence of morality allowed much larger groups of people to live together and reap the benefits of trust, trade, shared security, long term planning, and a variety of other non-zero-sum interactions. Some moral systems do this better than others, and therefore it is possible to make some comparative judgments.

The existence of moral diversity as an empirical fact does not support an “anything-goes” version of moral relativism in which all moral systems must be judged to be equally good. We note, however, that moral evaluations across cultures must be made cautiously because there are multiple justifiable visions of flourishing and wellbeing, even within Western societies. Furthermore, because of the power of  moral intuitions to influence reasoning, social scientists studying morality are at risk of being biased by their own culturally shaped values and desires.

Signed by:

Roy Baumeister,  Florida State University
Paul Bloom, Yale University
Joshua Greene, Harvard University
Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia
Sam Harris, Project Reason
Joshua Knobe, Yale University
David Pizarro, Cornell University

____

Footnote: I liked the wired.com comment on this consensus statement: “I dunno why these big-brain ’EDGE’ guys are making such a fuss here about ’morality.’ Everybody knows that morality is whatever God says. And God says, whatever me, my best friends, and my hierarchical coalition say that God says.”

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Fallout from Hauser affair spreads Ken Perrott Sep 01

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For background to the scientific misconduct charges circulating around Marc D Hauser have a look at A paper by Marc Hauser retracted — Harvard Magazine, A sympathetic take on Marc Hauser and the ’scientific misconduct’ issue, Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement, Marc Hauser replies — acknowledges mistakes and The myth of the noble scientist.

While Hauser’s acknowledgment confirms the eight misconduct charges mentioned by Harvard University’s Dean of the Faculty of Arts Sciences there is concern that the misconduct will taint the rest of Hauser’s work and publications.

It’s probably understandable that full clarity must await the final conclusions of US federal investigative agencies but inevitably there will be speculation. Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal Cognition, posted a statement on his blog saying that his own review of information provided to him by Harvard has convinced him that fabrication is the most plausible explanation for data in a 2002 Cognition paper. This is the paper that is being retracted. (Two other published papers are being corrected and the other five incidents did not result in publications or were corrected before publication).

In his statement Altmann says:

I am forced to conclude that there was most likely an intention here, using data that appear to have been fabricated, to deceive the field into believing something for which there was in fact no evidence at all. This is, to my mind, the worst form of academic misconduct. However, this is just conjecture; I note that the investigation found no explanation for the discrepancy between what was found on the videotapes and what was reported in the paper. Perhaps, therefore, the data were not fabricated, and there is some hitherto undiscovered or undisclosed explanation. But I do assume that if the investigation had uncovered a more plausible alternative explanation (and I know that the investigation was rigorous to the extreme), it would not have found Hauser guilty of scientific misconduct.

The speculation and concern threatens to taint others in the areas of research Hauser has been connected with. Already some are questioning the reliability of his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. His planned book, Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad, may not sell well, or may not even be published. Pity, as it sounds interesting.

A recommendation from Hauser for Sam Harris’s new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, appears to have been removed. Now the edge web site for the THE NEW SCIENCE OF MORALITY seminar has deleted the video of Hauser’s contribution. It briefly explains:

EDITOR’S NOTE: Marc Hauser, one of the nine participants at the conference, has withdrawn his contribution.

A revision of the Edge seminar presentations?

On the surface this appears similar to Stalin’s habit of removing his opponents from photographs and there is no indication that Hauser had a choice. It also raises the question of to what extent the work he included in that particular presentation is questionable.

While I can understand why the organisers of this seminar may wish to protect its authority by removing Hauser’s contribution it does indicate the current dilemma for people working in this area. And for lay people like me who are interested in the field.

The sooner the details and extent of Hauser’s misconduct are reliably reported and the final conclusions of US federal investigative agencies made public the better.

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Marc Hauser replies — acknowledges mistakes Ken Perrott Aug 21

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Here is Marc Hauser’s response to the charge of scientific misconduct (from USA Today Updated: Harvard says Marc Hauser guilty of science misconduct). Hopefully we are seeing an example of science correcting itself.

I am deeply sorry for the problems this case has caused to my students, my colleagues, and my university..

I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes and I am deeply disappointed that this has led to a retraction and two corrections. I also feel terrible about the concerns regarding the other five cases, which involved either unpublished work or studies in which the record was corrected before submission for publication.

I hope that the scientific community will now wait for the federal investigative agencies to make their final conclusions based on the material that they have available.

I have learned a great deal from this process and have made many changes in my own approach to research and in my lab’s research practices.

Research and teaching are my passion. After taking some time off, I look forward to getting back to my work, mindful of what I have learned in this case. This has been painful for me and those who have been associated with the work.

See also:
Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement
Harvard Finds Scientist Guilty of Misconduct

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Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement Ken Perrott Aug 21

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Well, we now have an official statement from Michael Smith, the Harvard dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, on the Hauser “misconduct” affair. It’s an email sent to Harvard University faculty members. It was also sent to New Scientist by Harvard’s press office (see Harvard Dean Confirms Misconduct in Hauser Investigation). I have quoted the full text of the email below the fold.

The email confirms that Marc Hauser “was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty member investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards.” As a result three papers are either being retracted or corrected. The five other issue did not result in publications or the ropblems were corrected before publication.

Harvard has now completed its investigation. However, the email is unclear what disciplinary action will be taken against Hauser. In fact, its description of options (involuntary leave, oversight of research labs, restriction on applying for research grants and supervising student research) seem rather mild. To me this is an indication that the “misconduct” in querstion relates to poor scientific method, subjectivity in collecting data, over-riding fellow researchers, etc., rather than outright fraud.

Marc Hauser has apparently made a comment to the New York Times which has yet to be published. It will be his first comment on the events.

So all rather sad, but perhaps not a case of outright fraud.

Full text of email

Dear faculty colleagues,

No dean wants to see a member of the faculty found responsible for scientific misconduct, for such misconduct strikes at the core of our academic values. Thus, it is with great sadness that I confirm that Professor Marc Hauser was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] standards. The investigation was governed by our long-standing policies on professional conduct and shaped by the regulations of federal funding agencies. After careful review of the investigating committee’s confidential report and opportunities for Professor Hauser to respond, I accepted the committee’s findings and immediately moved to fulfill our obligations to the funding agencies and scientific community and to impose appropriate sanctions.

Harvard, like every major research institution, takes a finding of scientific misconduct extremely seriously and imposes consequential sanctions on individuals found to have committed scientific misconduct. Rigid adherence to the scientific method and scrupulous attention to the integrity of research results are values we expect in every one of our faculty, students, and staff.

In brief, when allegations of scientific misconduct arise, the FAS Standing Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) is charged with beginning a process of inquiry into the allegations. The inquiry phase is followed by an investigation phase that is conducted by an impartial committee of qualified, tenured faculty (the investigating committee), provided that the dean, advised by the CPC, believes the allegations warrant further investigation. 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. Our investigative process will not succeed if individuals do not have complete confidence that their identities can be protected throughout the process and after the findings are reported to the appropriate agencies. Furthermore, when the allegations concern research involving federal funding, funding agency regulations govern our processes during the investigation and our obligations after our investigation is complete. (For example, federal regulations impose an ongoing obligation to protect the identities of those who provided assistance to the investigation.) When the investigation phase is complete, the investigating committee produces a confidential report describing their activity and their findings. The response of the accused to this report and the report itself are considered by the dean, who then decides whether to accept the findings, and in the case of a finding of misconduct, determine the sanctions that are appropriate. This entire and extensive process was followed in the current case.

Since some of the research in the current case was supported by federal funds, the investigating committee’s report and other supplemental material were submitted to the federal offices responsible for their own review, in accordance with federal regulations and FAS procedures. Our usual practice is not to publicly comment on such cases, one reason being to ensure the integrity of the government’s review processes.

A key obligation in a scientific misconduct case is to correct any affected publications, and our confidentiality policies do not conflict with this obligation. In this case, after accepting the findings of the committee, I immediately moved to have the record corrected for those papers that were called into question by the investigation. The committee’s report indicated that three publications needed to be corrected or retracted, and this is now a matter of public record. To date, the paper, “Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins,” Cognition 86, B15-B22 (2002) has been retracted because the data produced in the published experiments did not support the published findings; and a correction was published to the paper, “Rhesus monkeys correctly read the goal-relevant gestures of a human agent,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274, 1913-1918 (2007). The authors continue to work with the editors of the third publication, “The perception of rational, goal-directed action in nonhuman primates,” Science 317, 1402-1405 (2007). As we reported to one of these editors, the investigating committee found problems with respect to the three publications mentioned previously, and five other studies that either did not result in publications or where the problems were corrected prior to publication. 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.

Beyond these responsibilities to the funding agencies and the scientific community, Harvard considers confidential the specific sanctions applied to anyone found responsible for scientific misconduct. However, to enlighten those unfamiliar with the available sanctions, options in findings of scientific misconduct include involuntary leave, the imposition of additional oversight on a faculty member’s research lab, and appropriately severe restrictions on a faculty member’s ability to apply for research grants, to admit graduate students, and to supervise undergraduate research. To ensure compliance with the imposed sanctions, those within Harvard with oversight of the affected activities are informed of the sanctions that fall within their administrative responsibilities.

As should be clear from this letter, I have a deeply rooted faith in our process and the shared values upon which it is founded. Nonetheless, it is healthy to review periodically our long-standing practices. Consequently, I will form a faculty committee this fall to reaffirm or recommend changes to the communication and confidentiality practices associated with the conclusion of cases involving allegations of professional misconduct. To be clear, I will ask the committee to consider our policies covering all professional misconduct cases and not comment solely on the current scientific misconduct case.

In summary, Harvard has completed its investigation of the several allegations in the current case and does not anticipate making any additional findings, statements, or corrections to the scientific record with respect to those allegations. This does not mean, however, that others outside Harvard have completed their reviews. In particular, Harvard continues to cooperate with all federal inquiries into this matter by the PHS Office of Research Integrity, the NSF Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.

Respectfully yours,

Michael D. Smith

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

See also:

Harvard says Marc Hauser guilty of science misconduct
Harvard Find Psychology Researcher ‘Solely Responsible’ for Scientific Misconduct
Harvard dean: Hauser guilty of scientific misconduct
Hauser found “responsible’ for eight instances of misconduct
Harvard to recify journal works
Document Sheds Light on Investigation at Harvard

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A sympathetic take on Marc Hauser and the ’scientific misconduct’ issue Ken Perrott Aug 13

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Marc Hauser

Greg Laden has provided a sympathetic take on the news of the scientific misconduct investigation of Marc Hauser (see What I know about Marc Hauser, the recently ‘investigated’ Harvard primatologist). He doesn’t have any more specific information on the alleged misconduct than the rest of us, unfortunately. However, he has worked with Hauser.

Greg says: “I know Marc Hauser, and I trust him.”

But then he is forced to speculate. He discusses what he calls “The Hauser Effect.” This refers to Hauser’s ability to discover certain capacities in New World monkeys which had previously only been found in Old World primates like chimpanzees, baboons and macaques. This may result from Hauser’s acknowledged experimental skills But one also could imagine effects due to the subjects picking up cues from the experimenter.

Laden has speculated on the “Hauser effect” in the past. But, he says: “Fraud or misconduct never crossed my mind.”

“I’m like the neighbor who is interviewed after the spectacular arrest of the guy down the street for some over the top crime.

‘Marc kept to himself, in his lab. He produced his papers, got on with his job. Nobody ever thought he would carry out misconduct. He wasn’t the type. I can’t believe this is happening.’

That’s what I think.”

Harvard really should provide more information about their inquiry and its findings. Uninformed speculation could undermine the credibility of really good science.

My interest in Hauser’s work relate to the science of morality. He is author of the book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. And currently he is working on a new book to be published by Viking Penguin. It has the intriguing title  Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad .

See also:
The new science of morality
Is and ought
Misconduct found in Harvard animal morality prof’s lab: New Scientist
Inquiry on Harvard Lab Threatens Ripple Effect

UPDATE: Harvard has responded (see Harvard Confirms ‘Hausergate’) to reporters inquiries with “carefully worded statement to a few reporters:”

“Harvard has always taken seriously its obligation to maintain the integrity of the scientific record.  The University has rigorous systems in place to evaluate concerns about scientific work by Harvard faculty members.  Those procedures were employed in Dr. Hauser’s situation.  As a result of that process, and in accordance with standard practice, Harvard has taken steps to ensure that the scientific record is corrected in relation to three articles co-authored by Dr. Hauser.

While Dr. Hauser (or in one instance, his colleague) were directed to explain the issues with these articles to the academic journals that published those papers, the University has also welcomed specific questions from the editors involved. We will continue to assist the editors in this process.  In these types of cases, Harvard follows federal requirements for investigating alleged research misconduct and reports its findings, as required, to the appropriate federal funding agencies, which conduct their own review.   At the conclusion of the federal investigatory process, in cases where the government concludes scientific misconduct occurred, the federal agency makes those findings publicly available.”

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A paper by Marc Hauser retracted — Harvard Magazine Ken Perrott Aug 11

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Well, this could be embarrassing. But I hope not.

Marc Hauser, who was one of the participants in the “New Science of Morality” seminar (see The new science of morality and Is and ought) is under a cloud. His Harvard laboratory has been investigated for the last three years because of charges of scientific misconduct. (See Psychologist and author Marc Hauser takes leave of absence as paper is retracted.)

Information is still rather vague and there is no indication yet of his own degree of culpability. However, as research leader he has had to take responsibility and one of the papers he is a joint author of is being retracted (Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins). Two other papers are also being questioned- one because of incomplete video records and field note taking by a co-author of Hauser.
Retraction Watch has some details, inclkuding an email response from Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal concerned, Cognition. (See Monkey business? 2002 Cognition paper retracted as prominent psychologist Marc Hauser takes leave from Harvard). The play on the word monkey abviously relates to Hausers work with monkeys and other primates.

Science self-correcting

On the surface this news looks bad for science. However, we should hold our judgment until there is clearer information. Particularly on what specific role Hauser played in the misconduct and the degree of awareness he had of it at the time. There is no indication at this stage that Hauser’s leave from Harvard should be interpreted as a disciplinary action.

More importantly, we should recognise that we are seeing one of the methods science has for self correction. The science community treats deliberate distortion of evidence, poor record keeping and biased interpretation of results very seriously.

There are going to be people who use this news to attack science. But we should ask them if they are prepared to submit their beliefs, ideology or claims to such scrutiny? And are they willing to be disciplined if an investigation finds that they have made distorted or false claims?

Human morality research

My interest in Hauser relates to his ground breaking work on human morality. He is author of the book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. There is no suggestion at all that this current issue discredits the book in any way. Particularly as it is largely a description of research performed by large numbers of different people.

Edge has videos from the New Science of Morality seminar. One of these is of Hauser’s presentation. Go and have a look. There are also a number of other videos of his presentations on line. The three below are to a lecture he gave last November.

Human Morality Part 1

Human Morality Part 2

Human Morality Part 3:

See also: Reading the Coverage of a Retraction: Failure to replicate is not evidence of fraud

Thanks to HENRY (Marc Hauser on leave — investigation uncovers scientific misconduct).

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