Marc Hauser's consequences

By Razib Khan | August 29, 2010 12:14 pm

Update: Results so far….

Too harsh – 3.0%
About right – 15.0%
Not harsh enough, though he shouldn’t be ostracized – 26.0%
He should be ostracized from science – 56.0%

The editor of Cognition believes that Marc Hauser was guilty of fabrication in light of what he’s seen in the Harvard report on Hauser’s misconduct. Marc Hauser is on on leave, and will be supervised in his research in the future. But, he continues to teach extension courses. It doesn’t seem as if his work on human moral cognition is under a cloud. There are other researchers working in the same area who have been able to replicate his general findings. Rather, it seems that it was the work on cotton-top tamarins which is under scrutiny, in large part because Marc Hauser was the only one who was doing that sort of research on that organism.

In the end this is about a violation of trust. Alison Gopnik told Nicholas Wade that “It’s always a problem in science when we have to depend on one person.” Science is a famously a self-regulating culture. The system works because science is about something real, and scientists are constrained by the data. But, science is also a human enterprise so conscious and unconscious bias enters into the system. The question is whether the system works well enough that scientists trust their colleagues to report truthful results. If every scientist had to check in on every other scientist I suspect that the system would collapse because there aren’t enough labor hours to go around. Science is very competitive, and many people work many hours for only modest renumeration. Careers hang in the balance, and many are weeded out. People accept this because there is at least a perception of a minimal level of fairness. Finally, on a social scale the economic growth which our society depends on is driven in large part by scientific innovation. The culture of science is the engine upon whom billions depend.

My first thought about what has happened with Hauser is that he is “too big to fail.” He’s at Harvard, and, he has powerful friends. It reminds me of what a friend of mine told me about what occurred at a major tech corporation he had worked at. Apparently there had been an incompetent hire who lasted for years because no one wanted to take responsibility and fire him, because the very fact that managers actually hired him was a negative reflection on their discernment if someone eventually passed judgement on this individual. So there wasn’t an incentive to bite the bullet, and the incompetent employee was moved from department to department for years.

But I’m curious what readers think. Below is a survey asking what you think of the magnitude of Marc Hauser’s punishment in relation to his infractions. I’ll update the results at the top of this post every day for a week.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.


Comments (31)

  1. miko

    Harvard will probably fire him eventually, it’s looking more and more like they won’t be able to find a Chinese postdoc to blame it on.

  2. in case someone comes in through the RSS confused: the embed doesn’t work in RSS. so you’d have to click through, so you should see it above.

  3. A social advocate makes virtue of failure. The worse the cure the better the treatment – and the more that is required. Hauser can now study himself and publish without limit. What will be the ultimate conclusion? Economics, another erudite con game, already knows that answer: HETEROSKEDASTICITY!

    “…it is not right that matters, but victory.”

  4. sarahjones

    The analogy with the incompetent hire at a tech company is wrong. The best analogy I can think of is a doctor or lawyer who commits severe malpractice. Or a worker who commits treason against his company by stealing money or selling trade secrets to the competitors. Who would consider letting such individuals continue to practice or work for the company? Disbar him for life.

    And what on earth does the fact he didn’t commit fraud in ALL aspects of his work have to do with anything?? Can you imagine a comparable defense in the business world…”Well he didn’t steal from EVERY investor…just from the ones he thought he were least likely to catch him.”

    Wake up Harvard!

  5. 20 ppl have responded to the survey, and 2/3 think he should be ostracized from science!

  6. There remains the mysterious three year Harvard investigation to be reckoned with. I think Hauser flat lied, but he had systemic support structures. This says something about Harvard too, does it not?

  7. Colugo

    My guess is that the fallout is ongoing and the consequences have barely begun.

    The study that catalyzed the investigation was on rhesus, not cotton tops.

    The cotton top research was important to the Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch vs Jackendoff & Pinker debate of the last decade. This is going to shake up the rivalry of the various approaches to linguistics.

  8. I’m very conflicted on this. On the one hand, science isn’t like a religion where people who fail to follow the rules must be somehow thrown from the flock. On the other hand, there’s a very deep problem when someone is actively lying. Putting out false data is one of the worst things a human can do because it is a lie to all of humanity and a type that interferes with our ability to understand the universe. That’s pretty severe. But does ostracizing him actually accomplish anything? Does it make such incidents less likely in the future? I doubt it. The real question that might need to be asked is given this behavior is it worth our resources to have him keep doing work if that work needs to be tightly supervised? Is that a useful way of allocating our resources?

  9. sarahjones

    Religion? Huh? It’s about accountability and punishment for a crime. Do you think that people who commit treason should be allowed to continue to serve in government? Doctors who knowingly practice medicine to harm their patients should be allowed to continue to practice?

  10. results so far….

    Too harsh 3.1% 3
    About right 15.6% 15
    Not harsh enough, though he shouldn’t be ostracized 26.0% 25
    He should be ostracized from science 55.2% 53

  11. Science? It seems to me that he was on the fringe on science, where no one takes his results too seriously anyway. What was he doing, trying to investigate monkey morality or something silly like that? If he is wrong, then let someone prove him wrong.

  12. It ain't over

    1) Colugo: the information leaked to the chronicle of higher education focused on concerns about a study with rhesus. The retracted Cognition paper was cotton tops.

    2) Why are we voting on the consequences as if they were over? The results of the Harvard investigation have been passed on the Office of Research Integrity and the Attorney General’s Office is investigating. There might be jail time before this is over.

    3) Ostracization is a decision of the community, not Harvard. And it is almost inevitable at this point

  13. Colugo

    “on the fringe on science”

    A month ago Hauser was perhaps his generation’s most lauded figure in the field of the evolution of behavior. (OK, Pinker is only five years older ..) He has published with Chomsky, Antonio Damasio, and Peter Singer and been cited countless times by psychologists, linguists, anthropologists, and experts in other fields. Apparently he was a huge influence on Chomsky late in his career. In addition, Hauser was perhaps the leading authority on the evolution of morality. (I know, there’s RD Alexander, but that was then.)

  14. Sarah, you are correct. That was a very bad analogy on my part.

  15. #14, my bad. i shouldn’t have let the comment you’re responding to through, as it was retarded on the face of it. plenty of people though hauser was pushing crap research, but he was anything but fringe.

  16. Sven DiMilo

    There remains the mysterious three year Harvard investigation to be reckoned with. I think Hauser flat lied, but he had systemic support structures.

    no, he had lawyers.
    Good ones. Dershowitz, reportedly.

  17. miko

    Hauser was in no way fringe, but much of what he did was in this the hand-waving world of evolutionary psychology. The opportunity to support your personal grandiose assertions (and book sales) about morality or language evolution with psychological “data” (ahem) must be fairly hard to resist, particularly if you think you are immune to scrutiny for reasons of stature, employer, ego, and experimental design.

    I voted “do not ostracize.” It’s unnecessary, he will never get anything through peer review again, and my understanding is he’s not allowed to have grad students or postdocs, so that pretty much means nothing will happen in his lab anyway. Who cares if he writes popular books? There is an asterisk by his name forever.

    Anyway, he’ll be fired ultimately. I guess he could pay his own registration fee for SfN, but who would let him talk?

  18. John Emerson

    The best analogy I can think of is a doctor or lawyer who commits severe malpractice.

    Medicine, law, the police, and many sorts of business professionals are all very bad at policing their own ranks, and they also often tend to resist enforcement from outside the profession. It’s sort of like Mafia loyalty. No one should be surprised that academics are too.

  19. John Emerson

    The argument that since his discipline is weak, he shouldn’t be punished is pretty lame. If the discipline’s so bad that something like this doesn’t make it worse, the whole discipline should be defunded.

  20. bioIgnoramus

    He should change his name and take up Climate Science.

  21. Chris T

    This is the worst kind of scientific misconduct. The fabrication of data can make large areas of research suspect or even invalid wasting much time and resources trying to unwind it all. The further back the fabrication, the worse the setback can potentially be.

    The man has permanently discredited himself.

  22. miko

    “The argument that since his discipline is weak, he shouldn’t be punished is pretty lame.”

    In case that was a comment at me….I was not arguing that he shouldn’t be punished, I was noting that he was in a position where it was easy and self-serving for him to fake data. For example, you can easily fake that protein X phosphorylates protein Y by mislabeling a figure, but the population of labs and ease of validation of standard molbio experiments makes it unlikely that an (interesting) fabricated result will stand very long. Hauser’s results would never have been seriously contested if accusations of fraud had not come from within his own lab. Monkeys are moody and complicated, the experiments are hard, no one is surprised when results are hard to replicate, he has the reputation, etc, etc.

    “Medicine, law, the police, and many sorts of business professionals…”
    Not that I would defend those particular fields, but I’m probably one of the few academics that thinks that the private sector (in general–not finance or doctors, for example) does a far better job with meritocratic reward and deserved punishment than academia does. It is also much, much better at managing problem personalities, and clearly and consistently evaluating work. I even have theories on why this is so (way OT).

    bioIg, I’m afraid after evo-psych, climate science would be a big step up the rigor scale–climatologists actually measure things in nature.

    I’m pegging Colm Feore to play Hauser in the original Showtime movie. And Colin Farrell as the cottontop who wouldn’t look at the damn speaker when he was supposed to.

  23. John Emerson

    21: He should change his name and become a global wrming denier. Big bucks there.

  24. John Emerson

    Anything that’s defined as a profession has that omerta.

    As for private business, if it’s a competitive business with evident payoffs they get rid of deadwood and punish internal deception, but efficient businesses deceive the public as a whole whenever it makes sense for them to do so.

  25. miko

    @25. It is easy to generalize and say that “private business” means the predatory companies we all love to hate. But most businesses are much more boring than that: small, providing services mostly to other businesses, with little use for grand Machiavellian deceptions of bewildered consumers. Not that they wouldn’t.

    But within companies there is–in general–a shared set of goals and shared sense of success or failure. In a science department, the funding is brought in by individual PIs to their own lab, and there is often a sense that there is only so much prestige to go around. Most people in the workforce are just working. In academia, you have a lot of poorly socialized Achievers who aren’t even expected to play well with others… add a bit of narcissism and a complete lack of experience at managing others, yet you are in charge of 15 fawning (to your face) grad students and postdocs. I have seen “personnel” issues between academics that fester for months or years that wouldn’t be tolerated for a week in a private company with a post-1980s work culture.

    Trainees in academia are fodder for the PIs research ambitions–most will not become independent researchers or academics. When you are a junior employee (in a professional capacity) in a company, they are heavily investing in the development of your skills and, unless you suck, hoping you stay and continue to contribute. This structural distinction makes a huge difference in how people treat each other and behave.

    Maybe I have been extremely lucky in companies and unlucky in universities, but I don’t think so. Academia loves to think of itself as this quirky, lovable, socks-n-Birks, mellow intellectual party, and it can be (though we’re dealing with the Birks one funeral at a time), but that’s mostly bullshit. I’ve seen far more toxic work environments in universities than anywhere else.

  26. John Emerson

    I don’t disagree about the toxicity of university life. It’s generally agreed upon and the disgruntled-PhD novel is a genre.

    Businesses have to a greater or lesser degree a well-defined goal and a chain of command charged with meeting that goal. This is less true of enormous enterprises like GM, but it’s generally true and it makes it easier to supervise (hire, terminate, promote) personnel. Universities have neither a well-defined goal nor a definite chain of command.

    Most businesses are honestly filling their niche, but some businesses are systematically dishonest (used cars, insurance), some enterprises are predatory (at all levels, including small) , most businesses resist the public interest if it doesn’t coincide with their own, many businesses violate ethics her and there….. and so on.

  27. We do not know when he started faking data. At least since 1995. Perhaps earlier.
    The onus of proof has shifted.
    There are, I think, two separate matters to be addressed:
    1. First, what may be (or should be) done by all his colleagues, peers, reviewers, associates and co-workers to re-examine their association and correct – and be seen to be correcting – past failings or doubts. Past reviewers of his work, I think, have a special responsibility to come out from behind their veil of anonymity. In fact Journals which have published his papers and have contributed to his – apparently undeserved – reputation need to be at the forefront of the review. Transparency will be needed if some of the damage done is to be repaired.
    2. The repercussions for Hauser himself is a separate matter. Harvard is the key player in that since it would seem that his tenure is itself based on the inclusion of some “dodgy” publications. Harvard has a moral issue here since clearly someone else was probably denied tenure. His publishers and his “public” will need to make up their own minds and effect their own “punishments”.

  28. To those who think he shouldn’t be ostracised from science… what would someone have to do to make you think they should be?

    What he did was the worst kind of scientific misconduct.

  29. Christopher

    “I voted “do not ostracize.” It’s unnecessary, he will never get anything through peer review again, and my understanding is he’s not allowed to have grad students or postdocs, so that pretty much means nothing will happen in his lab anyway. Who cares if he writes popular books? There is an asterisk by his name forever. ”

    I think being unable to have graduate students or peer reviewed paper published seems like a good definition of “ostracization” from the scientific community.

  30. bioIgnoramus

    “he’s not allowed to have grad students or postdocs”: then sack the bugger and be done with it.


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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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