In Marc Hauser’s rush to judgment, what was he missing?



Over at Slate I look from another angle at the Marc Hauser meltdown, with an emphasis on separating the problems of Hauser’s misconduct from the merits of the methods and hypotheses he was wielding.

When the university last month found Hauser guilty of scientific misconduct—ugly and serious words, those, meaning in this case either tweaking data or fabricating it outright—someone really, really big started a long fall in slow motion.

He won’t land for months yet, as everyone stays mum while federal funders and others investigate. In the mean time, what are we to make of his magnificent, downward arc? What was he trying so hard to prove, and why, to try to prove it, did he climb way out on a skinny limb, like some reckless rhesus?

It’s worth asking these questions, for such a scandal affects more than just the people at its center. Methods, theories, entire disciplines get needlessly sullied. Hauser will likely land hard. We might want to move some things out of the way before he hits.

Those things include the good work done by others searching for the evolutionary roots of cognition and behavior, including moral behavior. I conclude that Hauser was perhaps a bit too much in a hurry to bolster the answers he suspected were true — a fault that impugns his impatience, but not necessarily his hypotheses or the experimental paradigms he used, many of which were borrowed and adapted from researchers such as Elizabeth Spelke who wield them quite rigorously. The demands of such research

can prove horrifically frustrating for someone in a hurry. And Hauser, even by his own account, was a man in a hurry. This added to the thrill of watching him, of course: In just a few years, he appeared to show in animals the rough equivalents of what Spelke, Susan Carey, and Alison Gopnik had spent two or three decades establishing in humans.

Last month his fast success proved literally incredible. Yet the fault lies not in Hauser’s study paradigms nor even in his big ideas. (Others, like Spelke and primatologist Frans de Waal, have been wielding those to good effect.) I suspect we should blame instead his impatience—with the particular methods of his field, perhaps, but also with the slowness and uncertainty of science. In one instance of misconduct, he’s accused of bypassing protocols for watching and coding those dull films of one trial after another; as a result, he either saw monkey responses he desperately wanted to see or fabricated responses he didn’t see. In another, described in painful detail by Cognition editor Gerry Altmann, it appears Hauser simply made up the data altogether for one set of trials.

The ironies lie thick. One rap on Chomsky, for instance, holds that he didn’t much bother with experimental evidence; he simply said an innate grammar had to be there for kids to learn language so fast. It fell to others to poke around for those modules in the lab and produce some real data. People who study language, cognition, and evolution can and do argue over what those data mean. But at least they have something concrete to fight about. That’s what makes it science.

So give Hauser this: When it came to his theory of the moral grammar, at least the man wanted evidence. Problem was he wanted it bad.


Another shame here too: That in his hurry, Hauser seems to have rushed past not just caution signs but some of science’s deeper beauty and possibility. As Isaac Asimov once purportedly said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, “hmm … that’s funny.” Surprises generate not just key insights but much of the fun and interest in science. A particularly sharp researcher once told me, for instance, that the work’s greatest joy was how often the work surprised — those times when you don’t find what you’re looking for, and suddenly realize you have something new. And while the new and unexpected — the “bad” answers — often indicate a dead-end, they sometimes lead you down a productive path you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. This particular researcher has not only done tons of good science but seems one of the happiest scientists I’ve ever met.

You don’t get those those productive anomalies if you stack the deck. If Marc Hauser did what it appears he’s done, he didn’t just stain a lot of good tools and good people. He robbed himself of a lot of fun as well.

[Image by Mark Alan Stamaty, courtesy]



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