Marc Hauser on leave from Harvard

By Razib Khan | August 10, 2010 11:56 am

Author on leave after Harvard inquiry – Investigation of scientist’s work finds evidence of misconduct, prompts retraction by journal:

Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser — a well-known scientist and author of the book “Moral Minds’’ — is taking a year-long leave after a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory.

The findings have resulted in the retraction of an influential study that he led. “MH accepts responsibility for the error,’’ says the retraction of the study on whether monkeys learn rules, which was published in 2002 in the journal Cognition.

Two other journals say they have been notified of concerns in papers on which Hauser is listed as one of the main authors.

It is unusual for a scientist as prominent as Hauser — a popular professor and eloquent communicator of science whose work has often been featured on television and in newspapers — to be named in an investigation of scientific misconduct. His research focuses on the evolutionary roots of the human mind.

Hauser is a prominent public intellectual. Here’s his Edge page. Obviously problems in some aspects of his work doesn’t necessarily invalidate all his findings, but it doesn’t look good for his credibility. This sort of incident points to the importance of trust within the culture of science. Collaborators and researchers who cited his results are scrambling to make sense of it all. I’ve cited Moral Minds in past posts, but I probably won’t be doing so now.

Via A Replicated Typo

MORE ABOUT: Marc Hauser, Psychology

Comments (22)

  1. Adriana

    I disagree with discontinuing to cite Moral Minds; the book is based on findings from many different scientists and there is no reason to disregard the whole book, at least not at the time being. There is no doubt that at least some animals have something akin to a “moral sense.”

    But of course, what books or works one cites is a matter of choice, and as such, I can respect it.

    It is always very sad when a respected public intellectual turns out to have been sloppy in data collection, or worse. At the same time, the silver lining is that science is remarkably self-correcting, because scientists will always try to replicate the findings of other colleagues.

  2. I disagree with discontinuing to cite Moral Minds; the book is based on findings from many different scientists and there is no reason to disregard the whole book, at least not at the time being. There is no doubt that at least some animals have something akin to a “moral sense.”

    you make a good point. i think the “moral sense” is totally valid and supported by many other researchers. but when i cite *moral minds* it’s with the expectation that readers may *purchase* the book, and so accept hauser’s own interpretation. until we see the report we’ll have to be agnostic about the extent of the problems in his lab, but i can’t recommend the book to those who are not already familiar with the literature until i get some clarity.

  3. Video of Hauser’s talk, and the discussion which followed, at the recent “New Science of Morality” Edge conference:

  4. This is the beauty of science, there are scientific “rock stars” but no one who is above reproach. You can bet that the catholic church wouldn’t be investigating one of their favorite sons.

  5. DK

    The retraction that does not spell out what’s wrong is not a retraction, it’s a joke and a travesty. Someone is trying to get away with telling half-truth. Either Hauser or his accusers. On the other hand, the pattern outlined in the article seems very familiar – lots of past fraud exhibited such patterns.

  6. CD


    I have to agree that this entire story is smelly. I had a look at what the retracted article actually says [].

    It’s utter bullshit that this was a highly influential paper. It shows that monkeys can tell apart the pattern in syllable sequences like we-we-li (first two syllables repeated) from the pattern in syllable sequences like we-li-li (last two syllables repeated). Similar abilities have been observed in all kinds of animals, so it’s not really as earth-shattering as that writer claims. And given the quantity of Hauser’s high-level publications in Science, Nature and the like, I doubt it that somebody like him would risk his career for an arcane paper in a journal like Cognition.

  7. CD


    Also, the pattern in that piece does not show any past fraud at all – apparently, there was a single result over a period of 30 years that couldn’t be replicated, which is rather impressive with messy behavioral data. Apparently, it was Hauser himself who published the failure to replicate. So much for a pattern of past fraud.

    Something is fishy in that story. Perhaps someone disliked Hauser?

  8. observer

    CD – Similar abilities have *not* been found in other animals, as you can tell from reading the abstract. This line of work (and this wasn’t the only study) has been Hauser’s biggest contribution to science and made a big splash. That you don’t understand it isn’t a reflection on his work. And Cognition is where the most important results in the study of human behavior have been published over the last several decades. One could perhaps make a case for Psych Science, but I’m partial to Cognition. For various reasons, the influential work is rarely published in Nature or Science.

    Just sayin’

  9. CD


    Similar abilities have been found in other animals, here are just two examples from Nature and Science with rats and bees, but there are other examples.

    The big thing about this specific Hauser paper was that it used methods that are very similar to those used with human infants (rather than conditioning methods), and that it used human speech with monkeys.

    Nothing against Cognition, which is excellent. My point is that I find it very hard to believe that somebody like Hauser with all his Nature/Science publications would take such risks to get a paper into Cognition.

  10. Observer

    Let’s face it… He has been making stuff up, his entire work cannot be trusted. He was caught on one thing, but who knows how much fabrication there is. The amazing thing is that Harvard was not able to keep this hidden, given that they relly don’t want to damage their “stars”; they bring in money and fame. Also, think about the broader consequences. 1. People like him set the productivity standards for “excellence”. He was very productive; anyone can be, when they fabricate data. However, now people will still expect this impossibly high publication rate from others who are not cheating. 2. Many of his students got good jobs based on his recommendation letters. Will they all get fired now? 3. Many scientists may have spent a lot of time following up on his “findings”. Wasted time and effort, sorry guys.
    He should be barred from academia, anywhere in the world, for the rest of his life.

  11. bioIgnoramus

    I know nothing whatever about Mr Hauser. But I have a little experience with scientific crooks, and that teaches that they don’t cheat just once. If this is really a one-off for Hauser, I’d be looking for someone within his group, rather than suspecting the man himself. But I’d also be asking around to see whether there have ever been suspicions about his other work, just in case. Of course whoever cheated – if cheating is what is in question rather than incompetence – might wonder why he’s being picked on when such a huge proportion of “climate scientists” routinely get off with the most improper behaviour. Hey ho.

  12. DK

    @CD: “It’s utter bullshit that this was a highly influential paper.”

    Incorrect. 87 citations over 8 years for a paper in a lesser journal in a field that is not, say, cancer-related is pretty damn good. Anything with IF around 10 is influential. Same way as PNAS (IF~10) is an influential journal.

    The pattern I referred to is this:
    – The retraction is BS. The way it is written it is not an honest retraction.
    – Public accusations like “there was not a thread of compelling evidence — scientific or otherwise” are not exactly run of the mill.
    – Previous paper not retracted even though its findings were not replicated by soem of its authors.
    – Statement “colleagues … have been aware for some time that questions had been raised about some of his research” reads to me as implying more than one paper. Nature News says two more papers are “flagged for investigation”.

    All I know at this point is that the pattern seems very familiar to known instances of fraud and that more information is absolutely required to be sure one way or another. That Prof. Hauser is not the one supplying such information does not inspire confidence in his honesty. That, too.

  13. CD


    Regarding the question of whether the retracted paper was influential, I assume that you refer to google citation counts, not to actual impact factors. While 85 google citations aren’t bad, it’s not unusual for Cognition either, and it’s dwarfed by more than 1600 google citations of Hauser’s paper with Fitch and Chomsky in Science. People clearly read it, but it wasn’t precisely the discovery of DNA.

    Regarding the pattern you seem to see, it seems to be based more on the general tone of the piece than on fact. I’m not really an avid reader of retractions, but it seems to me that most are rather tightlipped, including those that appear in Cognition. Sure, one would like to know more, but that’s not what usually happens. Last year, there was another retraction, check it out how informative it is. The “public accusation” you refer to is a single quote provided by this writer that might or might not accurately reflect what the researcher in question actually said, the claim that “colleagues were aware…” is not backed up by any sources at all except for the quote attributed to that single researcher. Finally, Hauser did report the failure to replicate for this other paper. Regarding the other papers under investigation, you might want to look there:

    This sounds a lot more like a problem with bookkeeping than with dishonesty, and in this case, they appear to have replicated their results. Nobody here knows what the problem really was, but I personally don’t like to judge people before knowing the facts, based on a newspaper article that relies more on an accusatory tone than on actual evidence.

  14. miko

    I think the only weird factor here is Hauser taking leave, if it’s related. SOP for the big shots seems to be to blame a former postdoc or grad student who was second or third author (usually Asian) and move on.

  15. SRPoole

    Actually, it was not a problem with bookkeeping or sloppiness and it *is* a problem with dishonesty. Hauser was investigated because his students accused him of *fabricating* data. This is embarrassing to Harvard and if it was just a matter of bookkeeping or sloppiness, it would have been dealt with quietly and we probably wouldn’t haven’t heard about it. The fact that is has come to a public announcement and a year leave of absence are signs that the crimes are indeed serious. Now that Harvard is done, the NIH and NSF will investigate and I’m certain the outcome will be outright data fabrication. Why am I so sure? I am affiliated with Harvard and rumors of Hauser fabricating data have been swirling around for years [this is an MIT IP address -Razib]. I know at least one graduate student who quit his lab because she said that he was fabricating data. And, as I said, he was investigated because other students of his accused him of outright fabrication.

  16. SRPoole

    Miko: for the Cognition paper under question, Hauser’s co-authors said the he alone “collected and analyzed the data”. The co-authors never saw the data. The problem is with the data, so Hauser is 100% responsible, not a student or postdoc.

  17. SRPoole

    Yes, Razib. There are many of us who are affiliated with both Harvard and MIT. Or Harvard and Tufts, etc. That is the way modern academia works. Thanks for pointing that out.

  18. srpoole, i am aware of that, as i assume are many of my readers (you almost certainly pass some of the other commenters on the red line). i was trying to add to your credibility since people regularly make up creds on weblogs.

  19. SRPoole

    Oh, in that case, thanks!

  20. Jess Tauber

    I met Dr. Hauser at a conference on language origins, and he disagreed with my hypothesis about iconicity being a stepping stone in the development of human language- curiously though he seemed both very sure of himself during the exchange, and yet almost completely ignorant of the literature on the topic.

    But I guess that charisma counts for more in todays world, at least until even the monkeys in your lab begin to lodge complaints!

  21. @murmur55

    Tip of the iceberg. Many other far more malignant and dangerous Harvard associates with connections to psychology or psychiatry who have not been subjected to scrutiny and should be ASAP. They all have used large amounts of state and federal funding. People died or had their careers destroyed. Investigate that.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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