As Nicholas Wade reports in Wednesday’s New York Times, Marc Hauser, whose work on morality we’ve discussed before, is under investigation by Harvard. Apparently some of his work on tamarins either can’t be replicated or is not supported by videotapes and other data produced by Hauser’s lab.
These are serious charges. Hauser’s work has been important in understanding the phylogenetics of primate behavior and cognition. One of his papers has already been retracted, and a few others seem on the verge. On the other hand, we shouldn’t rush to judgment before Harvard’s investigation is complete. Remember that there are many reasons besides deliberate fraud for data to be unreliable. There is also the matter of who is responsible, since a senior investigator, while formally responsible for the work in his lab, might not have been there to oversee every observation or data point collected by his students. At this point we have no idea what happened.
Three personal observations:
1. Harvard is rightly keeping its investigation under wraps until it’s complete. (Hauser is on leave for a year.) But it is incumbent on the university to make the results public at the end. Hauser’s own career and reputation must of course be handled with care. But we’re talking here about a whole swath of literature on primate behavior, and scientists ultimately need to know how far to trust that swath. There is no excuse for keeping the final report under wraps.
2. The Schadenfreude that I’ve heard about, some of it in Wade’s report, is absolutely inexcusable. It is shameful for scientists to cast aspersions on Hauser’s work until Harvard’s report is complete. Even if, like Herbert Terrace, you think his conclusions have been insufficiently supported by data, you should be aware that bringing that up now feeds into accusations of fraud. If Hauser is exonerated, such loose talk could nevertheless affect his reputation for life. The proper response to questions about the veracity of Hauser’s work is simply “No comment.”
3. Finally, the superannuated Nicholas Wade, whose work has not impressed me much, should be given some other beat at the Times, or even set out to pasture. Look how he takes Terrace’s opinion about what happened and turns it into a general indictment of primate research (my emphasis). Yes, one has to be careful, but Wade’s repetition of this comment as reportage is simply unfair.
Dr. Hauser is a fluent and persuasive writer, and his undoing seems to have been his experiments, many of which depended on videotaping cotton-topped tamarin monkeys and noting their responses. It is easy for human observers to see the response they want and so to be fooled by the monkeys.
Dr. Terrace said there had been problems for some time with Dr. Hauser’s work.
“First there was arbitrary interpretation of the videotapes to suit the hypothesis,” he said. “The other was whether the data was real. There have been a number of papers using videotape, and all of them have to be reviewed to see if the data holds up.”
Dr. Terrace noted that it was easy for a researcher to see what he wanted in a videotaped animal’s reactions, and that independent observers must check every finding.