Kill Whitey. It’s the Right Thing to Do.

A couple years ago, David Pizarro, a young research psychologist at Cornell, brewed up a devious variation on the classic trolley problem. The trolley problem is that staple of moral psychology studies at dinner parties in which you ask someone to decide under what conditions it’s morally permissible to kill one person to save others. Here, via Wikipedia, is its most basic template:

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch, which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

This has generated scores of studies that pose all kinds of variations. (You can take a version of the test yourself at Should You Kill the Fat Man?) Perhaps the richest has been the footbridge problem. The footbridge scenario puts the subject in a more active hypothetical role: You’re on a footbridge over the trolley track, and next to you, leaning perilously over the rail to see what happens, stands a very large man — a man large enough, in fact, to stop the train. Is it moral to push the guy over the rail to stop the train?

Researchers generally use these scenarios to see whether people hold a) an absolutist or so-called “deontological” moral code or b) a utilitarian or “consequentialist” moral code. In an absolutist code, an act’s morality virtually never depends on context or secondary consequences. A utilitarian code allows that an act’s morality can depend on context and secondary consequences, such as whether taking one life can save two or three or a thousand.

In most studies, people start out insisting they have absolute codes. But when researchers tweak the settings, many people decide morality is relative after all: Propose, for instance, that the fat man is known to be dying, or was contemplating jumping off the bridge anyway — and the passengers are all children — and for some people, that makes it different. Or the guy is a murderer and the passengers nuns. In other scenarios the man might be slipping, and will fall and die if you don’t grab him: Do you save him … even if it means all those kids will die? By tweaking these settings, researchers can squeeze an absolutist pretty hard, but they usually find a mix of absolutists and consequentialists.

As a grad student, Pizarro liked trolleyology. Yet it struck him that these studies, in their targeting of an absolutist versus consequentialist spectrum, seemed to assume that most people would hold firm to their particular spots on that spectrum — that individuals generally held a roughly consistent moral compass. The compass needle might wobble, but it would generally point in the same direction.

Pizarro wasn’t so sure. He suspected we might be more fickle. That perhaps we act first and scramble for morality afterward, or something along those lines, and that we choose our rule set according to how well it fits our desires.

To test this, he and some colleagues devised some mischievous variations on the footbridge problem. They detail these in a recent paper (pdf download; web), and Pizarro recently described them more accessibly at the recent Edge conference on morality. (The talk is on video, or you can download the audio.)

As Pizarro describes, the variations are all of a piece: All explore how the political and racial prejudices — and guilt — of both liberals and conservatives might affect where they stand on the absolutist-consequentialist spectrum.

Perhaps most revealing is what Pizarro calls the “Kill Whitey” study. This was a footbridge problem — two variations on a footbridge problem in one, actually — that the team presented to 238 California undergrads. The undergrads were of mixed race, ethnicity and political leanings. Before they faced the problem, 87 percent of them said they did not consider race or nationality a relevant factor in moral decisions. Here the paper‘s (.pdf) description of the problem they faced:

Participants received one of two scenarios involving an individual who has to decide whether or not to throw a large man in the path of a trolley (described as large enough that he would stop the progress of the trolley) in order to prevent the trolley from killing 100 innocent individuals trapped in a bus.

Half of the participants received a version of the scenario where the agent could choose to sacrifice an individual named “Tyrone Payton” to save 100 members of the New York Philharmonic, and the other half received a version where the agent could choose to sacrifice “Chip Ellsworth III” to save 100 members of the Harlem Jazz Orchestra. In both scenarios the individual decides to throw the person onto the trolley tracks.

Tyrone and Chip. Just in case you’re missing what Pizarro is up to:

While we did not provide specific information about the race of the individuals in the scenario, we reasoned that Chip and Tyrone were stereotypically associated with White American and Black American individuals respectively, and that the New York Philharmonic would be assumed to be majority White, and the Harlem Jazz Orchestra would be assumed to be majority Black.

So the guy on the bridge kills either Tyrone to save the New York Philharmonic or Chip to save the Harlem Jazz Orchestra. How, Pizarro asked the students, did they feel about that? Was sacrificing Chip/Tyrone to save the Jazz Orchestra/Philharmonic justified? Was it moral? Was it sometimes necessary to allow the death of one innocent to save others? Should we ever violate core principles, regardless of outcome? Is it sometimes “necessary” to allow the death of a few to promote a greater good?

Turned out the racial identities did indeed color peoples’ judgments — but it colored them differently depending on their political bent. Pizarro, who describes himself as a person who “would probably be graded a liberal on tests,” roughly expected that liberals would be more consistent. Yet liberals proved just as prejudiced here as conservatives were, but in reverse: While self-described conservatives more readily accepted the sacrifice of Tyrone than they did killing Chip, the liberals were easier about seeing Chip sacrificed than Tyrone.

But this was just college students. Perhaps they were morally mushier than most people. So the team went further afield. As Pizarro describes in the talk:

We wanted to find a sample of more sort of, you know, real people. So we went in Orange County out to a mall and we got people who are actually Republicans and actually Democrats, not wishy-washy college students. The effect just got stronger. (This time it was using a “lifeboat” dilemma where one person has to be thrown off the edge of a lifeboat in order to save everybody, again using the names “Tyrone Payton” or “Chip Ellsworth III”.) We replicated the finding, but this time it was even stronger.

If you’re wondering whether this is just because conservatives are racist—well, it may well be that conservatives are more racist. But it appears in these studies that the effect is driven [primarily] by liberals saying that they’re more likely to agree with pushing the white man and [more likely to] disagree with pushing the black man.

So we used to refer to this as the “kill whitey” study.

They offered some other scenarios too, about collateral damage in military situations, for instance, and found similar differences: Conservatives accepted collateral damage more easily if the dead were Iraqis than if they were Americans, while liberals accepted civilian deaths more readily if the dead were Americans rather than Iraqis.

What did this say about people’s morals? Not that they don’t have any. It suggests that they had more than one set of morals, one more consequentialist than another, and choose to fit the situation. Again, from the talk:

It’s not that people have a natural bias toward deontology or a natural bias toward consequentialism. What appears to be happening here is that there’s a motivated endorsement of one or the other whenever it’s convenient.

Or as Pizarro told me on the phone, “The idea is not that people are or are not utilitarian; it’s that they will cite being utilitarian when it behooves them. People are aren’t using these principles and then applying them. They arrive at a judgment and seek a principle.”

So we’ll tell a child on one day, as Pizarro’s parents told him, that ends should never justify means, then explain the next day that while it was horrible to bomb Hiroshima, it was morally acceptable because it shortened the war. We act — and then cite whichever moral system fits best, the relative or the absolute.

Pizarro says this isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just different. It means we draw not so much on consistent moral principles as on a moral toolbox. And if these studies show we’re not entirely consistent, they also show we’re at least determined — really determined, perhaps, given the gyrations we go through to try to justify our actions — to behave morally. We may choose from a toolbox — but the tools are clean. As Pizarro puts it at the end of his talk,

I am still an optimist about rationality, and I cling to the one finding that I talked about, which is that when you point out people’s inconsistencies, they really are embarrassed.

Image: Flickr/Heath Brandon

The depression map: genes, culture, serotonin, and a side of pathogens

Maps can tell surprising stories. About a year ago, Northwestern University psychologist Joan Chiao pondered a set of global maps that confounded conventional notions of what depression is, why we get it, and how genes — the so-called “depression gene” in particular — interact with environment and culture.

Chiao had run across data suggesting that many East Asians seemed to carry the “depression gene” — shorter variants, that is, of a mood-regulating gene known as the serotonin transporter gene, or SERT — at unusually high rates. Yet though dozens of studies over the prior 15 years had shown these short SERT genes made people more prone to react to trouble by becoming depressed or anxious,* it was not Chiao’s impression that this association held for most Asians. Then again, no one had gathered the data.

So she gathered it. Chiao and one of her grad students, Katherine Blizinsky, found all the papers they could that studied serotonin or depression in East Asian populations. These papers, along with similar studies in other countries and some World Health Organization data on mental health, painted a pretty good picture of short-SERT variant and depression rates not just in North American and Europe, but in East Asia. A pretty good picture — but seemingly twisted in the middle. The eastern half was upside down. For while East Asians carried the short-SERT “depression gene” variants at almost twice the rate (70-80%) that white westerners did (40-45%), they suffered less than half the rates of anxiety and depression.

You can see it in the maps. Below, the first map shows prevalence of the short-SERT ‘depression gene,” and the second shows prevalence of depression. Their colors should line up, but instead they conflict.

Fig 1. Known prevalence of S-S and S-L serotonin transporter gene variants worldwide. Yellow denotes low rates, orange middling rates (around 40-50%, and red high, around 80%. From Chiao and Blizinsky 2009.

Fig 2. Percentages of populace diagnosed with mood disorders at some time in lifetime. Again, yellow is low, in the single digits, while red is high, around 20%, and gray areas lack sufficient data. If the prevalance of the “depression gene” predicted the prevalence of depression, then this map should look much like the one above it. But — especially if you look at North American and Asia, which are the areas in interest here — it doesn’t. It looks almost ass-backwards. From Chiao and Blizinsky 2009. Gray areas lack sufficient data.

You can chart the data in other ways too, and it still looks weird. A well-established gene variant that is supposed to predict depression seems to predict just the opposite in East Asia.

Squaring two maps with a third

Why did fewer East Asians get depressed even though more of them carried the depression risk gene? It wasn’t as if life in East Asia was stress free. The gene seemed to generate vulnerability in one culture and resilience in another.

As Chiao recognized, several possibilities offered themselves. Might depression be underdiagnosed in East Asians and overdiagnosed in westerners? It might — but probably not enough to account for a complete reversal of the risk dynamic. Perhaps most East Asians carried some other gene that canceled the SERT gene’s depression risk? Again, could be, but it seemed an awfully strong effect.

To Chiao, these sorts of explanations couldn’t reconcile the two maps. The maps did start to make sense, however, when Chiao considered them in light of gene-culture evolutionary theory (aka dual inheritance theory). This is the notion that genes and culture influence each other, and that culture can shape the way genes express themselves and even how they evolve. To Chiao, the mismatch between the SERT map and the depression map smelled of gene-culture effects. The gene in question was obviously SERT. So what was the cultural suspect? What cultural difference between western whites and East Asians might affect both the prevalence and apparent effect of the so-called “depression gene”?

And what jumped out of that question, both to Chiao and Blizinsky and to Baldwin Way and Matthew Lieberman, a pair of UCLA researchers who happened to be asking the same questions in California, was the difference between individualism and collectivism.

This individualism – collectivism distinction comes not from Mao, but from a Dutch organizational sociologist named Geert Hofstede. Back in the 1970s, Hofstede did a massive study for IBM of several hundred thousand of the company’s workers in 70 countries. Hofstede found several cultural factors that shaped business practices differently in IBM offices around the globe, the most famous of which became the spectrum between individualistic cultures, which emphasize a person’s independence, and collectivist cultures, which emphasize a person’s interpersonal, social, and civic connections. The study wielded enormous influence and made the collectivism individualism spectrum a staple of certain strains of sociological studies. (For other echoes, see here.)  And as another map from Chiao’s paper shows, the white west generally leans toward individualism while East leans toward collectivism.

Fig 3. Collectivism in world cultures. Yellow is low in collectivism, red is high. From Chiao and Blizinsky 2009.

So how does individualism-v-collectivism relate to depression and depression genes? Here Chiao and Blizinsky, as well as Way and Lieberman (these connections were apparently ripe) turned to another emerging idea: That the short SERT gene seems to sensitize people not just to bad experience, but to all experience, good or bad. (I explored this “sensitivity gene” or “differential susceptibility” hypothesis at length in an Atlantic article last December and am now working on a book about it.)  Both Chiao & Blizinsky and Way & Lieberman published papers within the last year laying all this out: Chiao and Blizinsky last December (abstract; pdf), Way and Baldwin this June (abstract; pdf download; Replicated Typo has a good write-up here). And both pairs assert that these short SERT variants make people sensitive to social experience in particular.

Way and Lieberman, for instance, note several studies in which the short, or S/S variant, seems to magnify both the negative and positive effect of social support.

In a study of depressive symptomatology, when short/short individuals had experienced more positive than negative events over the last 6 months, they had the lowest levels of depressive symptomatology in the sample (Taylor et al., 2006), indicating that short/short individuals are more sensitive to positive life events as well as negative ones. Subsequent research has shown that this relationship between life events and affect for individuals with the short/short genotype was primarily driven by the social events, as the nonsocial events were not significantly related to affect (Way and Taylor, 2010). Other groups have found heightened sensitivity to positive social influences amongst short allele carriers as well, which has even been documented using neurochemical measures (Manuck et al., 2004). Thus, these results suggest that the 5-HTTLPR moderates sensitivity to social influence regardless of its valence [that is, whether the experience is positive or negative].

Because short/short individuals are more sensitive to the social realm, social support appears to be more important for maintaining their well-being. In support of this claim, short/short individuals exposed to a natural disaster (a hurricane) were at no higher risk for depression than long/long individuals provided they perceived that they had good social support (Kilpatrick et al., 2007). However, if short/short individuals exposed to this disaster perceived that they did not have good social support they had a 4.5 times greater risk for depression. Similarly, a randomized control trial designed to improve nurturant and involved parenting reduced adolescent risky behavior, but only amongst those with the short allele (Brody et al., 2009b). A similar differential sensitivity was seen among adolescents in foster care. If the short/short individuals had a reliable mentor present in their life they were at no higher risk for depression than adolescents with the other genotypes. However, if they did not have such support they were at a high risk for depression (Kaufman et al., 2004). Thus being embedded in a richly interconnected social network, as is present in collectivistic cultures, might be particularly im-portant for maintaining the well-being of short/short individuals.

This starts to explain the purported interplay of the S/S allele and a collectivist culture: If short-SERT people get more out of social support, a more supportive culture could buffer them against depression, easing any selective pressure against the gene. Meanwhile the gene’s growing prevalence would make the culture increasingly supportive, since those who carry it might be more empathetic. Studies have shown, for instance, that short-SERT people more readily recognize and react to others’ emotional states. In one still-unpublished study — a favorite of mine — marriage partners with S/S SERT alleles more accurately read and predicted their spouses’s emotional states than did people (sometimes those same partners) with L/L variants. This could make for some interesting dynamics at the breakfast table over the years.

A conversation between genes and culture

One major piece of the puzzle remains: How did the short SERT variant, which has generally been painted as bad news, become so prevalent in East Asia in the first place? Good question. The short-SERT variant appeared in humans only in the last 100,000 years. It was during this same period that humans moved out of Africa and spread around the globe. And it was during this time that the this S/S variant thrived in particular in people who moved east and took up residence in East Asia. Why did it blossom so spectacularly? And what came first, the high S/S rates or the collectivist culture?

Here the gene-culture dynamic must walk on tiptoes, as the sketchy evidence forces caution. Yet it can offer some speculative hypotheses. Drawing on work by Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill, for instance, Chiao speculates that both a collectivist culture and the socially sensitive S/S allele gained ground when high pathogen loads along human migration routes from Africa to East Asia rewarded socially sensitive, collectivist behaviors that defended against pathogens. (The high pathogen loads in turn rose from the warm, most climates and abundant bird and mammal life in those regions.) The heightened danger of infection, that is, may have selected for a more group-oriented mindset, such as more attention to group rules regarding sanitation, food preparation, and whatever elemental medical care (such as stopping to rest) might have helped people avoid or survive infection. The adjustment would have been partially cultural: Those who followed these practices would suffer less infection. But (the argument goes) the adjustment would also have been genetic, as selection favored an S/S SERT variant that made carriers more likely to observe the rules.

I’m not quite sure what to think of this idea. A paper exploring the link between high pathogen loads and lower IQ recently came under fire, and this may too; yet Chiao cites a strong correlation. Meantime, Replicated Typo offers an alternative but compatible mechanism for this gene-culture evolution, based more directly on migration routes. In any case, as Chiao notes, pathogen loads offer just one among several possible environmental or cultural factors, not mutually exclusive, that might have selected for collectivist behavior and socially sensitive genotypes, creating a feedback loop increasingly friendly to  behavior, gene, and a particular culture.

The new math

This is a lot to wrap your mind around. If you consider yourself of hard-nosed empirical bent, you might, after you take a deep breath or a long walk, cast about about for a “western-type” study that runs along more classic gene-environment lines. If you did, you would soon reel in a 2004 study of badly abused children. This study, by Joan Kaufman and others at the Yale genetic psychiatry lab of Joel Gelernter, looked at 57 school-age children who were so badly abused they were moved to foster homes.

First the researchers crossed the kids’ depression histories with their SERT genotypes. They found the expected: maltreated kids with the short SERT gene — the double whammy — suffered mood disorders at almost twice the rate as did maltreated kids who had the L-S or L-L variants or, for that matter, short-SERT kids with no maltreatment.

So far, so predictable. Then Kaufman laid both the depression scores and the SERT types across the kids’ level of “social support.” She defined social support quite narrowly: contact at least monthly with a trusted adult/mentor figure outside the home. This modest, closely defined social support, however, eliminated about 80% of the combined risk of the risk gene and the maltreatment. It virtually inoculated kids against extreme maltreatment and a proven genetic vulnerability.

It makes you wonder: What’s the real toxin in situations like this? We tend to view bad experience — abuse, violence, extreme stress, family strife — as toxic, and risk genes as semi-immunological weaknesses that let the toxin take hold. And maltreatment is clearly toxic. Yet if social support can almost completely block the effects of a severe toxin in a vulnerable individual, isn’t a lack of social support almost as toxic as the severe maltreatment? Even this clever study’s design and language frame “social support” as a protective add-on. But this framing implies that humanity’s default state is isolation. it’s not. Our default state is connection. To be unconnected — to feel alone — is to endure a trial almost as noxious as regular beatings and sharp neglect.

The University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo and William Patrick explore this beautifully in their book Loneliness, And Michael Lewis’s hysterically funny article about the Greek credit crisis, published just a few days ago, suggests that a hyper-individualistic default state doesn’t serve the world economy too well, either. Lewis describes how the Greek credit crisis, which currently threatens to spread to the European and perhaps the global economy, arose partly because a break in the social contract created an every-man-for-himself ethic in Greece, since everyone assumes everyone else cheats and that no one pays taxes. He signs off with this:

Will Greece default? There’s a school of thought that says they have no choice…. On the face of it, defaulting on their debts and walking away would seem a mad act: all Greek banks would instantly go bankrupt, the country would have no ability to pay for the many necessities it imports (oil, for instance), and the country would be punished for many years in the form of much higher interest rates, if and when it was allowed to borrow again. But the place does not behave as a collective … It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good. There’s no question that the government is resolved to at least try to re-create Greek civic life. The only question is: Can such a thing, once lost, ever be re-created?

If Greece doesn’t do some fast gene-culture evolution toward collectivism, the whole world may get depressed.

As gene-culture theory gets hold of the kind of data that allows for papers like Chiao’s, I suspect we’ll see a growing stream of studies showing that genes have different effects in different cultures. A few weeks back, for instance, Ed Yong wrote up a fascinating paper by Heejung Kim and colleagues demonstrating that a particular variant of an oxytocin receptor made Americans, but not Koreans, more likely to seek emotional social support in times of distress. As Yong noted, these studies all but insist that we may need to expand our definition of environment when we consider gene-environment interactions.

Many studies have looked at how nature and nurture work together but in most cases, the “nurture” bit involves something social that’s either harsh or kind, such as loving or abusive parenting. Kim’s study stands out because it looks as cultural conventions instead, and Ebstein says that it “provides an interesting new avenue for researching gene-environment interactions.”

In a sense, these studies are looking not at gene-x-environment interactions, or GxE, but at genes x (immediate) environment x culture — GxExC. The third variable can make all the difference. Gene-by-environment studies over the last 20 years have contributed enormously to our understanding of mood and behavior. Without them we would not have studies, like these led by Chiao and Way and Kim, that suggest broader and deeper dimensions to what makes us struggle, thrive, or just act differently in different situations. GxE is clearly important. But when we leave out variations in culture, we risk profoundly misunderstanding how these genes — and the people who carry them — actually operate in the big wide world.


*This so-called “depression gene” is, to most researchers, either of two “short” versions of the serotonin transporter gene —SLC6A4, and known by some as SERT. SERT appears to regulate levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin and to be crucial to mood, among other things. Because we effectively get one half of this gene from each parent — either a “long” or a “short” — each of us carries a version that is either long-long (L/L), long-short (L/S), or short-short (S/S). As many have pointed out, depression is far more complicated than one gene , which is probably why even the depression gene is so clearly probabilistic rather than predictive. But as we’ll see shortly, it’s far more complicated than that.

Yet others may recall that this depression-risk view of the gene was aggressively challenged by Risch et alia. That view got a lot of attention. Less attention went to the several strong rebuttals and critiques noting that Risch’s challenge was a) was rather selective in its choice of studies to include in its meta-analysis, b) weighted the studies in odd ways, so that the small ones least likely to see a genetic association were weighed as heavily as the large ones that were more likely to detect such associations; and c) ignored altogether a huge body of physiological work that details mechanisms through which SERT variants could affect one’s sensitivity to environment. As I noted in an earlier post, that leaves intact the SERT-depression link’s main framework.

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]



Edge corrects — no, make that ERASES — the record on Hauser

Where’d Marc Hauser go? He was here a few days ago.

Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt,
Sam Harris, Joshua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, David Pizarro

The Mayflower Inn
Washington, CT
Eastover Farm
Bethlehem, CT

Tuesday July 20 – Thursday, July 22, 2010

Edge’s Morality show lineup, cleansed of Hauser.

Hm. Edge, the highly interesting and edgy science-meshes-with-culture outfit run by impressario and lit agent John Brockman, held a fascinating conference a couple months ago on morality. The event (to which I was invited as press but, to my regret, could not attend) featured an all-star lineup of researchers on morality. I’m familiar with the research of many of them, and it’s great stuff; the opening talk by Jonathan Haidt is a wonderful argument for the strength and value of this line of research. And I was particularly happy to see that the lineup included David Pizarro, whose wonderful work was till then going underrecognized.

Among the stars invited was Marc Hauser. Made sense at the time; this was a couple weeks before the scandal broke. Today I got a tweet that he’d “withdrawn” his contribution at the Edge conference. I went to the conference-event site to see how Edge had announced this withdrawal …  and found he had all but disappeared. Hauser’s talk and photo had been removed. I scanned the page for his talk; gone. Finally I did a text search adn found a footnote to the introduction, in brackets, that said

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Marc Hauser, one of the nine participants at the conference, has withdrawn his contribution.]

No mention why, and there’s no link to the huge coverage. Other than this footnote, Marc Hauser was just gone. Other than the ed note, which is missable, the program page makes it look as if they never invited him.

I find this a problem. Edge exists to track the intersection of science and culture. Scientific misconduct, particularly if there are suggestions it might have been driven by the rewards of fame and media attention from places like Edge, is an extremely critical part of the intersection of science and culture.  This isn’t the way to respond to it. Hauser was there because he told an ambitious story about his science; and he’s been found guilty of misconduct because he spun the story out a bit beyond his facts. (Or, if you want to be more charitable, in the interest of bolstering his story he claimed some findings he couldn’t show evidence for.) Though I have not viewed his talk at this event, I think the talk — his own description of where his work stood right before the wheels came off — is an important and perhaps vital part of the scientific, cultural, and historical record. Edge would be well to paste some information in about the scandal and note the reader/viewer should read or view accordingly. But it shouldn’t just erase the record. It should repost the thing with a note explaining the situation.

Marc Hauser, Virginia Heffernan, & Stephen Fry — Neuron Culture’s August Best


Moving your blog generally creams one’s reader numbers. So I was happy to see that though I left Scienceblogs in mid-July, August was easily Neuron Culture’s highest traffic month ever.

What generates so much interest? Scandal and dustups. What’s new in the world?

My Marc Hauser coverage easily generated the biggest share of traffic, with my initial post on the revelations taking August’s #3 spot and a sort of climax post, This Hauser thing is getting hard to watch, drawing the most pageviews of the month.

Squeezed among Hauser scandal at the #2 spot was … Stephen Fry, or rather a photo of a poster quoting the good and funny man. That’s above. The poster, about the size of a really big living room TV these days, is just outside the British Library in London, where I’ve been working some since coming here. A quite nice place. And Fry’s reminder is apt: Not that many truly original ideas, and every idea builds on others. I was amazed when this took off so — until I saw that it had been Kottke’d.

The four and five slots accepted two holdovers from what I now like to call PepsiFizz: My exit post, A food blog I can’t digest, written when the can first popped, and my rejoinder to Virginia Heffernan’s Times Magazine column on the sticky mess, which was the last thing I wrote on it.

Will be interesting to see what September brings.


Inclusive takes on inclusive fitness flap. Fight notes.

A week ago, evo biologist heavyweight E.O. Wilson and others published a paper in which they challenged the standard explanation for why animals do nice things for one another. Nice behavior is a big deal, so the paper raised a big flap.

Let’s say you want to read just two things about this paper. Though my own survey has been less the exhaustive, I feel safe in recommending Zimmer and Hawks.

Zimmer lays it out nicely for the uninitiated, starting with a typically lucid intro:

Why are worker ants sterile? Why do birds sometimes help their parents raise more chicks, instead of having chicks of their own? Why do bacteria explode with toxins to kill rival colonies? In 1964, the British biologist William Hamilton published a landmark paper to answer these kinds of questions. Sometimes, he argued, helping your relatives can spread your genes faster than having children of your own.

For the past 46 years, biologists have used Dr. Hamilton’s theory to make sense of how animal societies evolve. They’ve even applied it to the evolution of our own species. But in the latest issue of the journal Nature, a team of prominent evolutionary biologists at Harvard try to demolish the theory.

The scientists argue that studies on animals since Dr. Hamilton’s day have failed to support it. The scientists write that a close look at the underlying math reveals that Dr. Hamilton’s theory is superfluous. “It’s precisely like an ancient epicycle in the solar system,” said Martin Nowak, a co-author of the paper with Edward O. Wilson and Corina Tarnita. “The world is much simpler without it.”

Now let’s say you want to know why so many other evo people find this objectionable. Go to Hawks:

I can’t believe the amount of attention the paper by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O. Wilson [1] has gotten. It was in last week’s Nature. The basic idea was that the evolution of eusociality in insects could be explained in a different way that the usual explanation, which involves calculating the relatedness of worker insects to their reproductive siblings. Eusociality has been one of the most visible applications of inclusive fitness theory — that is, the observation that the fitness of a gene that alters behavior may be calculated in terms of its effects on the reproduction and survival of relatives. The paper notes that some aspects of eusociality are not well explained in terms of relatedness, and derives an alternative explanation.

The weird part of the paper is the way it describes inclusive fitness as some kind of theoretical afterthought, useful only as an ad hoc explanation for eusocial insects. It contrasts the inclusive fitness concept with “standard natural selection” as if it were possible for organisms to erase the fact that they’re related to each other! And the authors imply that they have fatally damaged the concept of kin selection.

It’s so contrary to evolutionary theory, that I thought maybe I was missing something. But I’ve been spending time on another problem this week and haven’t had time to follow it up.

Fortunately, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins have both given the paper some attention, and written notes and reactions to it. First Coyne (“A misguided attack on kin selection”) reminds us of why kin selection has been such a successful part of “standard” evolutionary theory for the past fifty years. … [and] Richard Dawkins has also posted notes about the paper.

There’s more to come, surely. But if you mainly want to know what it’s all about, these two are a good start.

Guardian announces new blog network and scidom over the blogosphere


The Guardian launched a new blog network yesterday, with a strong lineup: GrrlScientist covering matters evo and orni (bird lovers, take note), Evan Harris covering policy and politics and such, Martin Robbins bringing the Lay Scientist to a new banner, and Jon Butterworth of UCL talking life and physics. I understand they’re planning to expand. You can follow them separately or all at once.

This makes a welcome and prominent addition to the growing clusterfield of blog networks emerging post-PepsiFizz. A couple more excellent new networks, including my own new blogging home, will emerge over the next week or so. Perhaps more yet after that. I think this new emerging model, with a sky full of different, interesting, and slightly overlapping constellations, stands to produce a rich and actually more accessible exchange about science.

Meanwhile, if you feel all this science blogging is a bit overwhelming, the Guardian launch announcement offers a reason for that. I’ll let John Hawks, who is well worth a regular read, bring that one on:

The Guardian now has a small network of science blogs. Their launch announcement includes this surprising factoid:

You would not know it from general media coverage but, on the web, science is alive with remarkable debate. According to the Pew Research Centre, science accounts for 10% of all stories on blogs but only 1% of the stories in mainstream media coveage. (The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at a year’s news coverage starting from January 2009.)

I’m not sure that science accounts for 10% of stories on science blogs, but the idea is irresistible. Just think if all the effort we spend on grant applications could be directed toward productive work!

Possibly related posts at NC:
Science bloggers diversify the news – w Hauser affair as case study
[Updated:] For Virginia Heffernan readers, some context on the Scienceblogs-Pepsi fizz
Are bloggers journalists? BoraZ nails this slippery thang to the floor

Journal editor’s conclusion: Hauser fabricated data

From Carolyn Johnson at the Globe. This is quite a blow.

Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal Cognition, which is retracting a 2002 article in which Hauser is the lead author, said that he had been given access to information from an internal Harvard investigation related to that paper. That investigation found that the paper reported data that was not present in the videotape record that researchers make of the experiment.

“The paper reports data … but there was no such data existing on the videotape. These data are depicted in the paper in a graph,” Altmann said. “The graph is effectively a fiction and the statistic that is supplied in the main text is effectively a fiction.”

Jeff Neal, a spokesman for Harvard, said in an e-mail, “We are pleased that we have worked directly and effectively with the editors of the effected journals, including Cognition, to ensure that the scientific record is fully corrected. We will continue to be available to work with journal editors to accomplish this important goal.”

Hauser did not immediately respond to an e-mail.

Last week, the university’s dean of arts and sciences confirmed that Hauser was found solely responsible for eight instances of scientific misconduct, involving three published papers and five additional experiments. The letter did not specify the issues for each experiment.

“There were problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results,” dean Michael D. Smith wrote in a letter.

“If it’s the case the data have in fact been fabricated, which is what I as the editor infer, that is as serious as it gets,” Altmann said.

Altmann’s right. It doesn’t really get any worse than data fabrication. And short of court or the university, it can hardly get worse than to have that conclusion reached by the editor of a major journal — someone with cred to protect, a lot of experience, and a privileged look at the data in question. This is an electrifying indictment.

See also (in order they appeared here):

Marc Hauser, monkey business, and the sine waves of science

Hauser update: Report done since JANUARY

Updated: This Hauser thing is getting hard to watch

Hauser & Harvard speak; labmates & collaborators cleared

Archeology grad student pulls the cover off Gitmo growth


A Stanford archeology PhD student named Adrian Myers has harnessed Google Earth to reveal something the US government has tried to keep under wraps: the growth of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. He did so drawing on readily available data, and in a way that violated no laws. Some very clever sleuthing — and a nice bit of quick-cycle archeology. Science has the (paywalled) story from ace archeology writer  Heather Pringle.

For human-rights advocates, Gitmo is terra incognita, a place of many unknowns, and its clandestine nature and location on foreign soil have helped fuel suspicions about the treatment of detainees there. In a new study published in World Archaeology this week, archaeology Ph.D. student Adrian Myers of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, strips away part of the secrecy. By analyzing a series of satellite images easily accessible on Google Earth, Myers has drawn the first independent map of Gitmo and charted its explosive growth over the past 7 years. “He has taken the archaeological eye and turned it on Google Earth images of a heavily clouded political prison,” says cultural anthropologist David Price of St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. “And this is telling us something about what’s going on at Gitmo.”

Beautiful stuff — and this techno-triumph by an archeology student speaks nicely of the eclectic nature of that discipline.


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