Marc Hauser: the end is nigh?

By Razib Khan | August 14, 2010 12:09 pm

David Dobbs has a link roundup and commentary on what’s been going down with l’affaire Hauser. It doesn’t look good for Hauser et al., though it seems that the downfall was precipitated ultimately from within if press reports are to be believed. Part of the issue here seems to be that there’s a level of opacity in the scientific process, and you have to trust the scientists themselves over the short term. Over the long term the system of science and its general culture tends to self-correct, at least in the natural sciences, but over the long term careers can rise and fall, and science is produced by human beings. We know that science is possible, it’s been done for at least a few centuries even with the most constrained definitions, but we also know that it isn’t necessarily entailed by the existence of any complex society. A particular set of contingent conditions need to come together to allow for its emergence and perpetuation. So it’s all fine and good to observe that science as a system self-corrects, but without the individual incentives and institutional checks & balances it may never have a chance to flower.

This brings me to Dobbs’ comment about more “open science”:

One worry about more open review — which I can relate to as a journalist — is that one’s ideas get opened up and spread around before publication. This raises worries about ownership and priority and credit, worries that are reasonable, or at least hard to resist, in a culture that especially prizes and rewards these things, and which bases tenure, not to mention fame and prestige and all the accompanying goodies, on breaking the big theory or story. Science in that way closely parallels journalism.

Others argue that our emphasis on individual credit overlooks the collaborative nature of science to start with, and that a more honest approach (in a couple sense of the term) is to share data far earlier in the process. Such open science, the argument goes, would a) let many eyes mine the data so we get more out of it, b) reduce duplication of efforts, and c) serve as a constant check against everything from misreading data to fabricating it.

As the production and transmission of information becomes more “transparent” due to the nature of communication technology I wonder if concerns about ownership will abate, simply because transparency will allow for better reconstruction of the chain of creation and so implied ownership. This may not suffice for patents, but when it comes to scientific glory where reputation and not money is at stake, it may be good enough.


Comments (12)

  1. occamseraser

    “…but when it comes to scientific glory where reputation and not money is at stake, it may be good enough.”

    But money is also at stake: grant $, book $, lecture curcuit $, merit $
    Issues of IP and “ownership” will always matter.
    “Money changes everything” (C. Lauper)

  2. Zora

    Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I read a book on religion (since lost, author and title forgotten) that aimed a passing shot at academia: any intellectual effort dedicated primarily at money/fame/tenure was compromised at its root. Selfless devotion to uncovering truth or presenting useful information, on the other hand, could be a spiritual endeavor.

    When academics become bureaucrats, skilled at adopting the expedient beliefs and massaging the right egos in order to assure a safe little niche in the bureaucracy, they corrupt scholarship.

    The Hauser scandal is one result of careerism run amok.

    Spinoza is a better role model for intellectuals. Support yourself with manual labor, if necessary, and write fearlessly.

  3. hilzoy

    Um, have you ever tried to do serious research while supporting yourself with manual labor? I have. It’s really, really hard. Manual labor is tiring (at least, mine was.) You spend eight hours a day — more, if you count commuting — doing something other than your research. Even when I was trying to do serious research while doing less physical work — computer programming, working at a battered women’s shelter — it was pretty tough.

  4. Anthony

    “b) reduce duplication of efforts”

    Is this really a feature? Aren’t we better off having two independent data sets rather than one?

  5. bioIgnoramus

    @Anthony, some sciences are underpopulated – work isn’t replicated enough for the sceptical man to put much trust in it – others overpopulated – the careerists are in a perpetual sprint to be first to the line, and lots of money and talent is wasted in needless replication of work, particularly if many of the workers skimp in some important respects so that the results, even if apparently replicated, are still untrustworthy.

  6. John Emerson

    In science the apparatus and supplies normally required for most serious research preclude self-funding for anyone but the very rich. There may be a few fields where this isn’t true but the research biologists I used to know were running high-dollar operations.

    In something more humanities-like it’s quite possible (I’ve done it). But you need to find a job which is neither stressful nor exhausting, but they are becoming fewer, and hopefully it should be enough different in kind than your research that you come to the research fresh.

    Leibniz, who was a man of the world and even a bit corrupt (the opposite of Spinoza) is supposed to have said something like “People would disagree about arithmetic if there was enough money in it.” But I can’t remember the source, and at the moment I personally am the main internet source.

  7. DK

    Is it a typo: “et al.,” instead of “at all”? In the context, I don’t think you can refer to “Hauser and others”.

    Between seeing Harvard’s response, asking one of my Boston buddies and reading between the line of Wade’s NYT note, it looks like it might, in fact, be the worst possible scenario. Naked F word. And yes, peer review totally sucks and sucked for a very long time.

    when it comes to scientific glory where reputation and not money is at stake

    Oh, c’mon, the two are intimately linked.

  8. Is it a typo: “et al.,” instead of “at all”? In the context, I don’t think you can refer to “Hauser and others”.

    yeah, i shouldn’t have been “et al.” we don’t know the full story yet.

  9. It bears reminding that in this particular case, some of Hauser’s most interesting* work uses a research species is critically endangered. This has bearing on data replication issues even beyond the fact that primatology is a tiny, tiny discipline. Not just anyone can gain access to a population for study. Not just any institution, for that matter, could have them.

    *in the sense that “omg, these NewWorld primates express behavior like some OldWorld primates”.

  10. Vasha

    Leibniz, who was a man of the world and even a bit corrupt (the opposite of Spinoza) is supposed to have said something like “People would disagree about arithmetic if there was enough money in it.”

    That was actually Hobbes, and the full quote from Leviathan is “Men care not, in [geometry], what be truth, as a thing that crosses no man’s ambition, profit or lust. For I doubt not, but if it had been a thing contrary to any man’s right of dominion, or to the interest of men that have dominion, that the three sides of a triangle, should be equal to two angles of a square; that doctrine should have been, if not disputed, yet by the burning of all books of geometry, suppressed, as far as he whom it concerned was able.”


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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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