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Marc Hauser’s Troubles Shouldn’t Tarnish a Whole Field

The other shoe has dropped in Harvard’s investigation into allegations of scientific misconduct by Marc Hauser, the cognitive psychologist. Harvard announced last week that it had found Hauser responsible for eight instances of misconduct, and he apologized. According to Nature, the investigation began years ago, after three of his grad students complained to the university about how he interpreted his data.

That’s a sensitive topic for other scientists who work as Hauser does—observing primates to find insights into big questions about morality, language, culture and other aspects of the human mind. The reason, as Nicholas Wade points out in his excellent coverage, is this: When they work with monkeys and apes, human beings often have to interpret what the animal is doing. You play sounds on a loudspeaker while the monkey is turned away. If it looks back and up at the sound, you code that as a sign that the monkey is more interested in that sound than in others. You watch chimps fighting, and when one charges forward without doing any real damage, you code that as a bluff. You aren’t passively observing; you are, instead, deciding what you’re seeing.

Meanwhile, the animals are running around, engaged in many thoughts, feelings and actions aside from the those you’re interested in. Designing and running experiments that get unambiguous results, then, is hard, heroic work. If you happen to have a cat or dog and some office supplies, you can experience this for yourself: Just try duplicating Anne Corwin’s home-made cat-cognition experiment. (Those are her cats, hard at cognitive work, in the picture in this post.) Very often in animal-behavior work, no matter how rigorously people have defined your categories, and how well they’re trained, they’re making judgment calls that another observer might not agree with.

That leaves this kind of research vulnerable to human error and wishful thinking. [UPDATE: An alert correspondent just made an important point about this: In labs, researchers can and do create stringent safeguards to protect against bias. In the example I mentioned above, “you” would be plural. The person coding what the monkey did wouldn’t hear the sounds, and the person tracking the sound data wouldn’t see the primate.  We aren’t talking about crude “clever Hans”-type mistakes here.]

Rather, the hard work is in eliminating all possible sources of error, projection and wishful thinking.  But that’s a challenge all researchers face, in all fields.  As Peter Galison has explained in his great Image and Logic, physicists don’t look directly at the bare physical truth of subatomic particles. They look at what their instruments produce, and interpret. In the first half of the last century, for instance, a thriving discipline of ionography supplied scientists with traces in the emulsions of photographic plates. Different physicists interpreted these in different ways, Galison writes: “To some practitioners of the art (those coming from photography) it was an exploration of the fundamental processes of atomic, crystalline, and gelatinous materials. To cosmic ray physicists ionography was a probe of deep space, to nuclear physicists it was a look into the basic bits of matter, to the geochronologist it was a probe of the unimaginably distant past.”

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In some sense, all scientific work requires observers to decide what they’re seeing. For that matter, all seeing involves the brain deciding what it’s looking at. Hence the past few decades’ rich vein of research into visual attention, one famous example of which is this video. Can you spot the gorilla? When people are told to count the number of passes made in the basketball game, half don’t see the ape.

So it’s not as if animal-mind work is some kind of uniquely troubled empirical ghetto. The possibility that Hauser’s fall could taint the entire field, though, is clearly on the minds of some scientists. The primatologist Frans de Waal, for instance, consider’s Hauser’s impact to be “disastrous” for this kind of research. “This is a very small field — if one prominent person is under suspicion, then everyone comes a little bit under suspicion,” he told Nature’s Heidi Ledford. No wonder Hauser’s peers want Harvard to release the entire investigation in all its details.


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