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Accusations of Misconduct Rock Cognitive Science

In the study of uniquely human traits—language, mathematics, moral behavior—there are few academic stars as bright as Marc Hauser, a psychologist at Harvard. His collaborators in academia are top-shelf (they include Noam Chomsky on language, for example). He is, among other things, the author of an interesting theory about morality that sidesteps the old dichotomous debate about whether ethical behavior stems from emotions or reason. It’s described in his popular-science book Moral Minds.

And now the Boston Globe reports that Harvard has been investigating Hauser for scientific misconduct. (I learned of the story from the new Retractionwatch blog.) This paper, which claimed monkeys can understand a crucial feature of language (that a change in a sequence of sounds doesn’t mean the pattern of sounds has changed), has been retracted. The data, writes its editor, “do not support the reported findings.”

All in all, quite a shock. As you might expect, skeptics are coming out of the woodwork to say they’ve had their doubts before (see, for example, this piece in New Scientist), but it’s not clear how much impact this will have on the reception of Hauser’s theories about the mind. He is on leave and working on a book (presumably “Evilicious: explaining our evolved taste for killing, torture, revenge, greed, mockery and masochism,” which Wikipedia says is “in press” from Viking).

Harvard is also keeping silent, refusing to give any details about the scope or results of its investigation. The Globe’s editorial writers agree with cognitive scientists that Harvard ought to come clean. Maybe there’s a good counterargument in favor of secrecy, but I can’t think of it.


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