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Scientific misconduct and skepticgate Ken Perrott Oct 11

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I have been interested in scientific misconduct recently – partly as a result of the Hauser scandal. Consequently I was reading about a recent conference on the subject. The documents included plagiarism right up there with the more commonly accepted forms of misconduct like falsification of evidence.

Plagiarism is the use of text from others’ writing without attribution. Now I realised that this was a big issue for student assessment at universities but apparently it is also an issue for scientific journals. Many journals now use a computer programme to check out submitted papers for plagiarized content.

Just imagine, though, there is a whole field of scientific publishing where such things would not be routinely checked. I am referring to popular science articles, newspaper articles – and reports to clients, including governments.

Well, the proverbial seems to be hitting the fan for one such report – the Wegman report. Gareth at Hot Topic briefly reports this in his article Wegman investigated for plagiarism, ’skepticgate’ looms.

What is the Wegman report?

This report is frequently quoted by climate change sceptics, contrarians and deniers. It is central to the “Hockey Stick Controversy” they promote*. This refers to climate change sceptics/deniers attempts to discredit the work of Michael Mann and his co-workers on historic trends in global temperature. In fact the claim that Mann’s work has been discredited is one of the central myths deniers use. See my post  Climate change deniers’ tawdry manipulation of ’hockey sticks’ which was a response to a local manifestation of this myth by blogger Poneke (13 years of Climategate emails show tawdry manipulation of science by a powerful cabal at the heart of the global warming campaign). Poneke even claimed, at the time, that the IPCC had dropped Mann’s work.

Climate change skeptics managed to get the US House of Representatives to hold Committee hearings on Mann’s ’hockey stick.’ As part of the political maneuvering some republicans formed the Wegman Committee to investigate and report on Mann’s work. Hence the Wegmann Report.

Incidentally around the same time other members of the House asked the authoritative  National Research Council to do their own investigation. This resulted in the report  Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Last 2,000 Years. Its very thorough, authoritative and was itself thoroughly reviewed. It basically supported Mann et al’s findings (with some criticisms), so you don’t often find deniers mentioning it* (although they will sometimes selectively quote extracts in a distorting way).

I have read both reports, was impressed with the National Research Council report but found Wegman’s report biased, and actually disingenuous.

Plagiarism found

For a while now the Canadian blog Deep Climate has been uncovering aspects of the political maneuvering behind the Wegman Committee. It has also been reporting a very detailed analysis of the Wegman report which found extensive and crude plagiarism. One of the persons plagiarised, Raymond Bradley a co-author of Michael Mann’s,  formally complained to Wegman’s employer which began an investigation (see University investigating prominent climate science critic).

Deep Climate has also released an analysis by John Mashey which exposed extensive plagiarism by Wegman and his students in other publications. Including some Ph.D. theses by students. (See Strange Scholarship - pdf file).

The Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (a political climate change denier) is currently carrying out a witch hunt against Michael Mann and the University of Virginia (see Ken Cuccinelli seems determined to embarrass Virginia). Ironically, one of the documents he relies on is the Wegman Report. Perhaps he should be directing his legal attentions at Wegman and his employer George Mason University – which after all is in his state.

This story is going to be interesting so keep an eye open for the results of the investigation.

The story has been picked up by several blogs and newspapers (see below) – strangely most of the usual critics of climate change science are so far silent.

*In my review of Ian Wishart’s book AIR CON, for example, I noted that he quoted extensively from the Wegman report and ignored completely authoritative National Research Council report (see Alarmist con).

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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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The myth of the noble scientist Ken Perrott Aug 25

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David Goodstein used this term to describe:

the long-discredited Baconian view of the scientist as disinterested seeker of truth who gathers facts with mind cleansed of prejudices and preconceptions. The ideal scientist, in this view, would be more honest than ordinary mortals, certainly immune to such common human failings as pride or personal ambition. When people find out, as they invariably do, that scientists are not at all like that, they may react with understandable anger or disappointment.

I think it is a useful term. But I don’t agree with Goodstein’s belief that scientists are guilty of promoting it. Certainly not in my experience.

Before Fermi Lab visit

I think of a scientist as very dedicated to his work. He is kind of crazy, talking always quickly. He constantly is getting new ideas. He is always asking questions and can be annoying. He listens to others’ ideas and questions them.

After Fermi Lab visit

I know scientists are just normal people with a not so normal job. . . . Scientists lead a normal life outside of being a scientist. They are interested in dancing, pottery, jogging and even racquetball. Being a scientist is just another job which can be much more exciting.

These are drawings and comments made by Amy, one of a group of US 7th Graders before and after their visit to the Fermi lab

True, there is an ethos of honesty in science which we can be proud of and attempt to adhere to. But we know that scientists are just as human as anyone else. They certainly are as susceptible as others to human failings. And this includes not only pride and personal ambition but also subjectivity, blinkered views, bias and even superstition.

Maybe in the past there was this public picture of the noble scientist but we now live in a more more sensible age. Biographies of scientists are no longer hagiographies. Anyone who has read a recent biography will be aware of how unpleasant Newton was personally. Of Albert Einstein’s treatment of his first wife and their fist child. Of Madame Curies’ affair. No, these heroes of science were real people, not the idealised noble scientist.

Some biographies will even discuss the scientific mistakes of these great scientists. Although, I personally think more should be made of these as they would help us understand the real processes that go on in scientific discovery.

Media beat ups, like the “climategate” concentration on stolen scientist emails, have also revealed how human, and even petty, scientists can be. And the recent news of scientific misconduct by Marc D. Hauser has exposed another, unpleasant, side of human failings (see Hauser misconduct investigation — Full text of Dean’s statement and Marc Hauser replies — acknowledges mistakes).

Human scientists but noble science

But scientists do evoke the image of trust – if you believe advertisements for cleaning products and cosmetics. How often have we seen white lab coats used in such ads. But I think this reputation comes more from the nature of science itself, rather than the scientist. After all, we know from experience that science is capable of delivering. We all depend on this reliability of science in our everyday lives.

This reliability comes from the scientific method – not from the character of individual scientists. Taken in isolation humans rely on pattern recognition. They also rely on brain processes which create our own version of reality. Rather than “seeing is believing” we are often confronted more with “believing is seeing.” It is only human to unconsciously select the information which fits with our preconceived views. To seek confirmation for our own biases.

This may have been a result of our evolution and has probably served us well in our attempts to survive and reproduce. But this approach is not a good basis for truly investigating and understanding reality. They are not a good basis for doing science. And we can certainly see the influence of subjective attitudes, protection of pet ideas, cultural and religious influences, etc., when we look at the history of science.

Modern science has developed methodologies to minimise subjective influences. One is the importance we now place on interaction with reality. On collection of evidence and the testing of any resulting hypotheses and theories against reality. Scientific theories are validated both by testing against reality and by their use in subsequent investigations and technological appliances.

The social nature of science also helps. Ideas and theories must be open to sceptical consideration of peers in the process of collaborative research, funding applications, conference presentations and scientific publications.

Scientific knowledge is progressive – it generally improves with time. This means that mistakes, and scientific frauds, do not remain undiscovered.  Scientific knowledge is always provisional. Ambitious scientists are eager to expose such mistakes. Science really is self-correcting. Irrespective of the human failings of individual scientists.

The noble scientist as a straw man

Scientists themselves have no illusions. After all they experience the human side of their colleagues all the time. I don’t know about the perception of the person in the street but suspect that the image of noble scientist would not be common in these cynical times. Personally, the only time I come across this myth is when it is used as a straw man by those who are critcising science or denying certain scientific findings.

You know. When confronted with scientific features they wish to reject the climate change or evolution denier will sometimes justify their rejection by arguing that scientists are not objective. That scientific fraud is common. The “scientific establishment” controls peer review. Or that science can’t escape from its cultural prejudices. Some theological critics of science fall back on the bias of the so-called “materialistic” or “naturalistic” “paradigm” in science.

They will accuse those they are debating with of having an idealised, fictional concept of the objective, honest scientist. The noble scientist.

A debating ploy, but one that really avoids the issue. And that is probably why it is used. They should be dealing with, and possibly critiquing if they can, the actual scientific evidence and its interpretation. Not the all too human individual scientist.

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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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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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