Fallout from Hauser affair spreads

By Ken Perrott 01/09/2010

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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