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Mind

Marc Hauser's Scapegoat?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticSeptember 1, 2010 8:00 PM

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The dust is starting to settle after the Hauser-gate scandal which rocked psychology a couple of weeks back.

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Harvard Professor Marc Hauser has been investigated by a faculty committee and the verdict was released on the 20th August: Hauser was "found solely responsible... for eight instances of scientific misconduct." He's taking a year's "leave", his future uncertain.

Unfortunately, there has been no official news on what exactly the misconduct was, and how much of Hauser's work is suspect. According to Harvard, only three publications were affected: a 2002 paper in Cognition, which has been retracted; a 2007 paper which has been "corrected" (see below), and another 2007 Science paper, which is still under discussion.

But what happened? Cognition editor Gerry Altmann writes that he was given access to some of the Harvard internal investigation. He concludes that Hauser simply invented some of the crucial data in the retracted 2002 paper.

Essentially, some monkeys were supposed to have been tested on two conditions, X and Y, and their responses were videotaped. The difference in the monkey's behaviour between the two conditions was the scientifically interesting outcome.

In fact, the videos of the experiment showed them being tested only on condition X. There was no video evidence that condition Y was even tested. The "data" from condition Y, and by extension the differences, were, apparently, simply made up.

If this is true, it is, in Altmann's words, "the worst form of academic misconduct." As he says, it's not quite a smoking gun: maybe tapes of Y did exist, but they got lost somehow. However, this seems implausible. If so, Hauser would presumably have told Harvard so in his defence. Yet they found him guilty - and Hauser retracted the paper.

So it seems that either Hauser never tested the monkeys on condition B at all, and just made up the data, or he did test them, saw that they weren't behaving the "right" way, deleted the videos... and just made up the data. Either way it's fraud.

Was this a one-off? The Cognition paper is the only one that's been retracted. But another 2007 paper was "replicated", with Hauser & a colleague recently writing:

In the original [2007] study by Hauser et al., we reported videotaped experiments on action perception with free ranging rhesus macaques living on the island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. It has been discovered that the video records and field notes collected by the researcher who performed the experiments (D. Glynn) are incomplete for two of the conditions.

Luckily, Hauser said, when he and a colleague went back to Puerto Rico and repeated the experiment, they found "the exact same pattern of results" as originally reported. Phew.

This note, however, was sent to the journal in July, several weeks before the scandal broke - back when Hauser's reputation was intact. Was this an attempt by Hauser to pin the blame on someone else - David Glynn, who worked as a research assistant in Hauser's lab for three years, and has since left academia?

As I wrote in my previous post:

Glynn was not an author on the only paper which has actually been retracted [the Cognition 2002 paper that Altmann refers to]... according to his resume, he didn't arrive in Hauser's lab until 2005.

Glynn cannot possibly have been involved in the retracted 2002 paper. And Harvard's investigation concluded that Hauser was "solely responsible", remember. So we're to believe that Hauser, guilty of misconduct, was himself an innocent victim of some entirely unrelated mischief in 2007 - but that it was all OK in the end, because when Hauser checked the data, it was fine.

Maybe that's what happened. I am not convinced.

Personally, if I were David Glynn, I would want to clear my name. He's left science, but still, a letter to a peer reviewed journal accuses him of having produced "incomplete video records and field notes", which is not a nice thing to say about someone.

Hmm. On August 19th, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article about the case, based on a leaked Harvard document. They say that "A copy of the document was provided to The Chronicle by a former research assistant in the lab who has since left psychology."Hmm. Who could blame them for leaking it? It's worth remembering that it was a research assistant in Hauser's lab who originally blew the whistle on the whole deal, according to the Chronicle.

Apparently, what originally rang alarm bells was that Hauser appeared to be reporting monkey behaviours which had never happened, according to the video evidence. So at least in that case, there were videos, and it was the inconsistency between Hauser's data and the videos that drew attention. This is what makes me suspect that maybe there were videos and field notes in every case, and the "inconvenient" ones were deleted to try to hide the smoking gun. But that's just speculation.

What's clear is that science owes the whistle-blowing research assistant, whoever it is, a huge debt.

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