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Planet Earth

Monkeys 
& Morality

The institutions of science are slowly unwinding and assessing the problems that have been revealed in psychologist Marc Hauser's research.

By Kristin OhlsonJune 20, 2011 5:00 AM

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The academic community quaked last August when Harvard confirmed that it had found Marc Hauser, a cognitive scientist at the university, “solely responsible” for eight cases of scientific misconduct. Hauser was a rising star whose studies of primate behavior seemed to show that the foundations of language and morality are hardwired into the brains of humans and our kin. But a document provided to The Chronicle of Higher Education indicates that Hauser’s lab workers observed huge discrepancies between his descriptions of monkey behavior and the experimental results captured on video.

In October, the journal Cognition published a retraction of a 2002 paper by Hauser; two other journals announced that some raw data from two 2007 publications were missing, but both later announced that follow-up work by Hauser and co-authors replicated their earlier findings. Gerry Altmann, Cognition’s editor, doubts the scandal will taint the areas of inquiry in which Hauser made his name. “There have been many other important contributors to the field,” Altmann says. “He has been among the most prominent in part because of his research, but in part because of his ability to publicize.”

Although Hauser expanded the idea of an innate moral grammar, he did not originate the concept. Moreover, much related research does not rely on monkey studies, which may be particularly vulnerable to confirmation bias—the unwitting tendency to interpret observations in a way that fits preexisting beliefs.

It is not clear if that kind of bias is what caused Hauser’s troubles; he is on leave (the psychology department voted to bar him from teaching in the upcoming school year) and not talking. Perhaps more answers will emerge in his upcoming book, tentatively titled Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.

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