Harvard Professor Found to Have Used False Data About Monkeys

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The decision is in: star Harvard professor and renowned evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser "committed research misconduct." Hauser, whose lab investigated primate behavior and cognition, used false data when testing primates' responses to stimuli. In plain language: Hauser alleged a monkey had done something it had not. It's a particularly "sensitive topic for other scientists who work as Hauser does," observes David Berreby at Big Think, because, in this field, "human beings often have to interpret what an animal is doing"--not easy to do well.

What is the likely fallout over this debacle? Harvard did not handle the situation as many would have liked, remaining fairly tight-lipped about its own investigation into Hauser's findings. Some fear the field itself will suffer from the bad publicity.

  • Why This Is So Bad This case "really makes me mad," says Florida State University's Michael Ruse at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Why? It's not just that he resents being "taken in" and "blame[s] Harvard for taking so long to tell us about it." It's that data fakery is a special kind of awful for the scientific community. "If you pinch the ideas from someone else ... one person suffers, but the community does not; it still gets a good idea or result. If you fake the ideas or results, and publish them, the poison spreads." In addition, because evolutionary biology is a field "loathed and feared by a range of critics," (much like climate science) it gives detractors something to latch onto: "They seize on issues that supposedly discredit evolution and parade them publicly as the norm and the reason to reject modern science." Thus "one man's mistakes rebound on every evolutionist."
  • Why It Might Have Happened: 'The Grant Imperative' Michael Ruse also, though, points to a weakness in the current academic structure that might explain how this happened:
The problems with the bad-apple scenario lead many to another explanation, "organizational climate." Today, you have to build teams, attracting grad students and postdocs, and this costs money. You have got to get grants, preferably from well-respected sources like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, in a highly competitive world. Fail to do this, and as a researcher, as a major player, you are dead. Or at least, you cannot do the sophisticated and expensive work that today's science demands. Perhaps in part, even Hauser at Harvard felt those pressures. Perhaps in part, precisely because he was at Harvard and so much was expected of him, he felt those pressures. My suspicion is that if that is the case, we will still be pretty cross, but we will all feel a certain sympathy. The grant imperative has taken a lot of pleasure out of being an academic.
  • We May Be Talking Multiple Levels of Bad Science, points out David Dobbs at Neuron Culture. If recent reports are accurate, Hauser essentially said a monkey turned its head in response to a stimulus when it did no such thing. But not only does that mean Hauser was making up data, it means that his entire setup was flawed. "To do this rigorously," he explains, the "coder," or person marking what a subject--be it human or animal--does "should not know what the subject is being exposed to at any given moment." That means Hauser's coders should have had no idea what the monkeys were hearing when they turned or didn't turn their heads. For Hauser's falsification to work, he must have known what the monkeys were hearing.
  • 'Extremely Disappointing,' concludes Kate Shaw at Ars Technica. "[Hauser] has made significant headway in narrowing the cognitive gap between humans and other animals, not only through his research but also through his public appearances, his charismatic teaching style, and his popular writing." She hopes "the fallout ... will ... encourage responsible science, experimental replication, and an even more thorough review process."

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