Harvard investigates Hauser

August 13, 2010 • 7:04 am

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  One of his papers has already been retracted, and a few others seem on the verge.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.

60 thoughts on “Harvard investigates Hauser

  1. You are fundamentally misinformed. Harvard’s investigation is complete (computers and videotapes were confiscated, people were questioned, Hauser lawyered up (with Alan Dershowitz!), and it took three excruciating years) and Hauser was not exonerated; just the opposite, in fact.

    I have it on excellent first-hand authority that the retracted papers are merely the tip of the iceberg, that Hauser himself almost certainly fabricated data, repeatedly, and that what you see from Harvard now is stonewalling and sweeping-shit-under-the-rug. If and when the entire truth emerges into public knowledge it will seem even more shocking than it does now.

    I am posting this anonymously because someone I love is directly involved.

      1. Reading the comments below, Torbjörn, it seems that nobody has noticed your post or read the article you point to.

        If that article is genuine, then it’s all over bar the drawing and quartering and Mr/s Anonymous, please’s post is just old hat.

    1. The part that annoys me in this dust-up is an implicit accusation that all of his work is wrong. Well, except the explicit accusation in the first comment.

      Maybe he did the bad thing. Maybe he didn’t. Or maybe he got sucked in by wishful thinking and “Clever Hans effect.” So, who knows, and we’ll see…

      But anonymous posting to the Evil of Dr. Hauser is cowardly bullshit. If you can’t stand behind your accusations, with your real name, then don’t make them. It’s cowardly bullshit. Period.

      Kind of like that douche-baggery that went on with Chris Mooney and “The Intersection.”

      1. *shrug*
        believe me or don’t.

        I know what I know directly from the people that first came forward, and their names are not public knowledge. These people are pretty unhappy about the whitewashing and pussyfooting that’s going on because they put their careers and emotional health on the line for scientific integrity. They’re still on the line and are feeling silenced (for more than three years a small number of people have been sitting on this information while Hauser gets feted as an expert on morality for chrissakes).

        If you think my posting the truth as I see it anonymously (instead of under my usual nym; btw Coyne has a valid e-mail address and I’m willing to be vetted to some degree) is cowardly bullshit, I don’t care. If you want to believe I’m pulling a Tom Johnson, I don’t care. Probably I should have stayed shut up but seriously–the dude did some extremely sleazy shit, shit that was proven with solid evidence, and yet may essentially walk. It’s frustrating.

        As far as I know the detail about Dershowitz has not been publicly reported, so if that comes out soon perhaps it will lend credence to the rest of my claims. This is all I feel I can do right now, and if it’s insufficient to trump your skepticism, *shrug*

        1. But if you cannot (for whatever reason) substantiate an accusation, isn’t it better not to make it? Otherwise it’s indistinguishable from someone just making up stuff to sully his reputation.

        2. I would call “anonymous, please” an impostor. I have worked and published with Hauser. (Coyne has a legitimate email address so he can google me. I’m posting anonymously because I don’t want to spend my time on interview requests.) In the eyes of some posters here, having worked with Hauser probably makes me suspect. They can think whatever makes them feel better, but I just wanted to point out that I have seen Hauser as an extremely careful experimenter who goes to great lengths to make sure that his data are reliable. I don’t think I need to mention the impressive breadth and the depth of his knowledge. Also, I have never seen anybody as supportive with his students.

          I actually don’t like to comment on this sad story because there are more than enough rumors out there, but given that “anonymous, please” keeps claiming that she or he has inside knowledge that Hauser repeatedly faked data, let me just state that what she or he claims to be inside knowledge is not supported by any facts I’m aware of, and actually not even by inside rumors. Let’s wait for the facts to come out.

          And for [insert preferred deity here]’s sake, this is a free country and not North Korea. Since when is hiring a lawyer – if Hauser hired one – evidence of guilt? If you have evidence, provide it instead of repeating unsubstantiated accusations while cowardly hiding behind a pseudo.

          1. Your characterisation of Hauser as “an extremely careful experimenter who goes to great lengths to make sure that his data are reliable” is directly refuted by Dean Michael Smith’s (belated) letter to the Harvard faculty. Hauser was found to have intentionally and repeatedly violated scientific standards.

    2. The wording that “Hauser faked/fabricated data, repeatedly” is used by another “anonymous, please” on Greg Laden’s blog (comment 1 on http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2010/08/what_i_know_about_marc_hauser.php), and on Melody Dye’s blog (http://scientopia.org/blogs/childsplay/2010/08/the-politics-of-ideas-theres-something-rotten-in-the-state-of-denmark/, either by Melody Dye herself or some other commentard, I couldn’t quite figure out the alignment of the comments), each time without providing evidence for the accusation.

      I just wonder why anyone would be so obsessed with rumors about Hauser without backing them up. But I assume that the IP address of “anonymous, please” is logged, so it should be possible to find out whether this poster has inside information?

  2. Professor Coyne, you make some sound points, no doubt. I agree with you. It’s true that there seems to be a “gotcha” mentality to many of the peoples’ responses. But it’s fair to say that that mentality comes from long standing doubts about Professor Hauser’s work, not from this particular retraction. So I respectfully disagree with one point, that the proper response is “no comment.” I think the proper response is detailed analysis of his results as we know them. But I agree that analysis should come without the smug editorializing we seen so far.

  3. Speaking of how the science review process works or should work, a more upbeat datum. Pharyngula notes on the published paper Sigmund alerted on the other day: “That ridiculous article on Biblical diagnosis has been officially retracted,”.

  4. On Nicholas Wade – I reviewed his (Templeton-funded) book The Faith Instinct for Free Inquiry; I thought it was pretty bad, in a journalisticky way – sloppy, unargued, full of unjustified leaps.

  5. “anonymous, please”, this is precisely the kind of irresponsible posting that the comment requesting people to hold judgment until the outcome is published, is designed. Claiming knowledge “on excellent first hand authority” gives you neither authority nor permission to anonymously speculate and you serve no-one’s interests but your own by your grandstanding.

    So, when you see pleas to withold opinion until all facts are published, you might want to consider that the request specifically applies to you.

    1. Mr. anonymous also posted the same comment on Greg Ladens’ blog in response to the latters’ take on the matter.

    2. Point is I already know way more facts about this than will ever be published. Your skepticism is commendable, but I am neither speculating nor opining. Believe it or don;t.

      1. a,p – I’m not doubting what you know…you could be a central character in the investigation for all I know with more lines to the truth than Ratzinger. I’m questioning your speculation before anything is actually published. The fact you don’t see the reason for this is all the more reason you should shut up until the appropriate time.

  6. I disagree strongly with your statement that Dr. Hauser is only “formally” responsible for published research from his lab. He is completely, totally and absolutely responsible. He took the accolades for this research, and he’ll have to take the crap if it turns out there was scientific sloppiness or misconduct (unless it can be shown that he was actively deceived).

    1. Exactly! If you’re only “formally” responsible, your name shouldn’t be on the paper. I’ve always found it appalling that some PIs think it’s appropriate to demand co-authorship on projects into which they’ve had only marginal input, if any. And anyway, Hauser is the only commonality of all the papers that have been retracted. It’s hard to believe that he’d just happen have the misfortune of attracting so many devious underlings to get scammed by them repeatedly.

    2. What I meant here is that it is a different sort of responsibility when you actually fabricate data compared to when one of your students fabricates data and fools you into thinking it’s real data. Of course the investigator takes “responsibility” in both cases, but the meaning of that word differs for both.

    3. It’s always embarrasing for the top honcho to be duped, although it does happen. The Beringer “fossils” comes to mind, but that was an 18th century hoax. I stayed out of teaching + research because I could see that I’d be burdened with so many other things that I wouldn’t be able to oversee things properly – so I remain burdened with my own (and collaborative work) but I know I can vet all the work. So if Hauser’s case were one of too much work and not enough supervision that may be more an indictment of the university environment.

      I’ll be waiting for Harvard’s report, but as I stated elsewhere, whether or not any of that report becomes public depends on any agreement that may be set between the university lawyers and Hauser’s lawyer.

  7. I’m no fan of Wade, but I am a tad sensitive to ageist remarks. I wonder if the superannuated Richard Dawkins also notices them?

    (Wade YOB: 1942; Dawkins DOB: 26 Mar 1941)

    1. I meant it in the sense of “obsolete,” not “old”. Crikey, I would be superannuated if it were just years1

    1. Let’s not forget that Tomasello is a competitor of Hauser’s. If he can throw dirt at Hauser, more potential grants for him.

      The first thing the Tomasello group did when the Hauser story broke was … to modify the Hauser wikipedia entry. Check the edit history. Not sure it was Tomasello himself, but it came from his institute.

      1. That’s interesting a,nt – the NYT article referenced above says that Tomasello “is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany”, whereas Hauser is, or was, at Harvard.

        Forgive my naivette about funding and grants, but would a Max Plank Institute “co-director” normally be competing for grants with a Harvard prof ?

        1. Right. Tomasello is a notoriously ferocious and aggressive competitor with Hauser and his intellectual allies over questions about the nature of mind and cognition. That is why I think his comments to the NY Times are way out of line, borderline unethical.

          But no, I doubt they are direct competitors for many grants.

      2. Actually, looking at the edit history you mention, I do not see the evidence that the edits come from the Tomasello group. Can you clarify?

        1. If you look at the contrib of user richkanu (14:07, 10 August 2010), this user’s only other contribution was the article about a member of Tomasello’s institute, which s/he created from scratch. (Not mentioning the name because there is no evidence that this person created his/her own wikipedia entry, so I don’t want to seem to accuse him/her, which is why I was vague in the first place. You can see the name by clicking on user contrib, but please refrain from posting it because there is no evidence that this person was personally involved.)

          To some extent, it’s speculation, but I find it rather surprising that somebody contributes a single entry in her/his entire life for a specific person who is not really a household name (which is not to say that this person didn’t do good research), and then moves with lightening speed to add her/his take of the Hauser story as soon as it breaks.

          Regarding the grants, Tomasello and Hauser don’t compete for national grants, but they are competitors for big international grants (e.g., the McDonnell foundation to name just one). And, of course, they are scientific competitors as well.

          1. Dear Anon N. T.,

            Though I am no friend of Tomasello-style cognitive science, I don’t think your Wikipedia story is evidence of anything. It could have been someone whose girlfriend’s brother’s friend’s landlord once took a course on primate cognition who edited the Wikipedia articles in question. Or not.

            If there is one lesson for everyone in this affair, it should be that the facts matter, and we should always try to get them right. There is enough genuine bad behavior in evidence (or at least under discussion) here that we don’t have to invent more…

            1. Dear Schadenfreudehasser,

              I can’t say that I disagree with you. I just found it striking that somebody was interested in writing an entry about a relatively unknown researcher in Tomasello’s group but about nothing else, and that this writer was so excited about the Hauser story that s/he amended the Hauser entry as soon as the story broke. That is, what I found unusual was the combination of not really being an active member of the wikipedia community, and then moving so quickly when the Hauser story appeared. But as you write, without access to the server logs, any conclusions are little more than speculation.

              What I do count as documented genuine bad behavior, however, is how Tomasello uses his name to spread dirt and rumors without anybody questioning whether he actually knows anything about the investigation. That’s disgusting independently of what the outcome of the Hauser story is.

  8. The Times now has this quote from Michael Tomasello: “Three years ago when Marc was in Australia, the university came in and seized his hard drives and videos because some students in his lab said, ‘Enough is enough.’ They said this was a pattern and they had specific evidence.”

    Hopefully Hauser himself will make a statement sometime soon (since it’s likely Harvard will stay mum). Charitable explanations seem less and less likely now.

  9. Is it too premature to worry that someplace like the Discovery Institute will be seizing on this incident and trying to make it their version of Climategate? For some time Moral Minds has been offered as (forgive me) Exhibit A to counteract the “there can be no morality without god” claim…

  10. one, nobody really cares what the dishonesty institute does or does not do.

    two, I’ve never needed to use Hauser’s work to counter issues of “Moral Law” myself. If you find yourself relying solely on Hauser’s work, that’s a problem in and of itself. I would suggest exploring beyond what Hauser had to say on the issue of animal behavior.

    1. … of slightly more interest, given his current position, would be how Francis Collins spins this info., given his own “Moral Law” argument.

      I’d love to smack that argument upside the head, again, and I’d love to see Collins stretch his neck out with it now that he’s the director of NIH.

  11. There’s a real problem here, isn’t there? Harvard’s silence for the sake of Hauser’s privacy (according to the Wade article yesterday) versus the need of both researchers and the public to know which part of Hauser’s work can be trusted? It’s not about prurient gossip, it’s about which experiments have to be discounted.

    1. Not to mention the cloud of doubt and innuendo that now attaches to Hauser’s co-authors and students.

      I can see it now: Hauser ex-student attempts to continue his/her career, and university board responds: “Yes, you’re such a keen and honest scientist, prepared to defend the integrity of science regardless of the cost to Hauser and the reputation of Harvard that we’d just love to have you on our tenure track.”

  12. If you want to know what is motivating Anon. I think I know…

    I have first hand experience with Harvard deans who are trying to keep something secret….

    They are perfectly happy to torpedo the “little people” (grad students, postdocs, jr collaborators) to preserve the institution’s reputation…

    My guess is they are using very intense hardball tactics to keep the whistle-blowers from spilling the beans…. And remember these are grad students and postdocs who haven’t been able to get letters of reference from their mentor for the past 2 years… And they have not been allowed to say why…

    They are completely screwed …. and the deans do not care….

    Put yourself in that position, of a whistle-blower witness who has been completely fucked by Harvard secrecy, and you can see where Anonymous is coming from

    1. Thanks! The “at least three papers” seems to be also ‘at most’. Unless they are seminal, this shouldn’t be such a big impact outside of the awful situation for all persons involved.

      [The description of the experiments leaves out if they are double-blinded. I.e. if the videotape reviewers are unfamiliar with the specific experiment, the sound turned off and random periods of silent speakers are present.

      Before reading that, I didn’t think one could do behavioral studies double-blind, but now I suspect otherwise. This is exciting stuff!]

    2. But oops, I missed this:

      The document is the statement he gave to Harvard investigators in 2007.

      So it is hearsay. Moreover, it seems to be hearsay from “the research assistant who instigated what became a revolt among junior members of the lab”.

      So maybe the papers were problematic, at least in parts, but the rest is still up in the air. Except that we now _know_ there is one very pissed individual out there, besides the indications here on this thread.

  13. Harvard FAS Dean Michael Smith finally goes on the record, saying in a letter to the faculty that Hauser was found “solely responsible” for “for eight instances of scientific misconduct,” which include problems with “data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results.”

    Hauser’s defenders, especially those who were willing to insinuate that the problems could have originated with Hauser’s students and not him, or that this was all just a part of an anti-Hauser smear-campaign, should acknowledge their error.

      1. This [Harvard Magazine]?

        “[…] The committee’s report indicated that three publications needed to be corrected or retracted, and this is now a matter of public record.

        […] 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.

        […] 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.”

        But “problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results” is not misconduct as such, as discussed above.

        What are the FAS standards?

    1. It is possible for one person to be guilty of misconduct and for others to take advantage of the situation to push their own agenda in illegitimate ways.

      This happens all the time in politics outside the academic world. (Think about how the 9/11 attacks have been used to justify all sorts of logically unrelated, and in some cases awful, things.) It’s a very human and very insidious dynamic that I think we should watch out for in all the cognitive sciences as we now enter a post-“Hausergate” world.

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