Harvard Psych department may have a job opening.

... because Marc Hauser has resigned his faculty position, effective August 1.

You may recall, from our earlier discussions of Hauser (here, here, here, and here), that some of his papers were retracted because they drew conclusions that weren't supported by the data ... and then it emerged that maybe the data didn't support the conclusions on account of scientific misconduct (rather than honest mistakes). Harvard mounted an inquiry. Hauser took a leave of absence from his position while the inquiry was ongoing. Harvard found Hauser "solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty member investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards." In February, Hauser's colleagues in the Psychology Department voted against allowing him to return to the classroom in the Fall. Meanwhile, since Hauser's research was supported by grants from federal funding agencies, the Office of Research Integrity is thought to be in the midst of its own investigation of Hauser's scientific conduct.

So perhaps Hauser's resignation was to be expected (although it's not too hard to come up with examples of faculty who were at least very close to scientific fraudsters -- close enough to be enabling the fraud -- who are still happily ensconced in their Ivy League institutions).

From Carolyn Y. Johnson at the Boston Globe:

“While on leave over the past year, I have begun doing some extremely interesting and rewarding work focusing on the educational needs of at-risk teenagers. I have also been offered some exciting opportunities in the private sector,” Hauser wrote in a resignation letter to the dean, dated July 7. “While I may return to teaching and research in the years to come, I look forward to focusing my energies in the coming year on these new and interesting challenges.”

Hauser did not respond to e-mail or voicemail messages today.

His resignation brings some resolution to the turmoil on campus, but it still leaves the scientific community trying to sort out what findings, within his large body of work, they should trust. Three published papers led by Hauser were thrown into question by the investigation -- one was retracted and two were corrected. Problems were also found in five additional studies that were either not published or corrected prior to publication.

“What it does do is it provides some sort of closure for people at Harvard. ... They were in a state of limbo,” said Gerry Altmann, editor of the journal Cognition, who, based on information provided to him by Harvard last year, said the only plausible conclusion he could draw was that some of the data had been fabricated in a study published in his journal in 2002 and retracted last year. “There’s just been this cloud hanging over the department. ... It has no real impact on the field more broadly.”

Maybe it's just me, but there seems to be a mixed message in those last two paragraphs. Either this is the story of one bad apple who indulged in fabrication and brought shame to his university, or this is the story of a trusted member of the scientific community who contributed many, many articles to the literature in his field and now turns out not to be so trustworthy. If it's the latter, then we're talking about potential impacts that are much bigger than Harvard's reputation. We're talking about a body of scientific literature that suddenly looks less solid -- a body of scientific literature that other researchers had trusted, used as the basis for new studies of their own, perhaps even taken as the knowledge base with which other new findings would need to be reconciled to be credible.

And, it's not like there's no one suggesting that Marc Hauser is a good guy who has made important (and presumably trustworthy) contributions to science. For example:

“I’m deeply saddened by the whole events of the last year,” Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, said today. “Marc is a scientist of enormous creativity, energy, and talent.”

Meanwhile, if the data from the Harvard investigation best supports the conclusion that Hauser's recent work was marred by scientific misconduct characterized by "problems involving data acquisition, data analysis, data retention, and the reporting of research methodologies and results," this seems to count against Hauser's credibility (and his judgment). And, although we might make the case that teaching involves a different set of competencies than research, his colleagues may have decided that the his to his credibility as a knowledge-builder would also do damage to his credibility as a teacher. The Boston Globe article notes:

Another researcher in the field, Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said today that Hauser’s departure was not unexpected. “Once they didn’t let him teach –- and there are severe restrictions in his ability to do research -- you come to office and what do you do all day?” he said. “People in the field, we’re just wondering -- this doesn’t change anything. We’re still where we were before about the [other] studies.”

What could Hauser do at work all day if not teach and conduct research? Some might suggest a full slate of committee work.

Others would view that as cruel and unusual punishment, even for the perpetrator of scientific misconduct.

7 responses so far

  • “I’m deeply saddened by the whole events of the last year,” Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, said today. “Marc is a scientist of enormous creativity, energy, and talent.”

    I think you are misreading this quote as defending Hauser. Actually, this statement is very carefully crafted to *not* defend Hauser. Note that Pinker didn't say that he was "surprised" or "shocked" by the events, nor did he say that Hauser is a scientist of enormous "integrity". These omissions are more salient than the meaningless puffery he included.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    While I am glad to see Hauser go, he may be just the low-hanging fruit.

    What if the entire subfield is marred by bogus, pseudo-scientific premises?

    How would that impact the ethics of the participants, and their (alleged) "knowledge-building" activities?

  • Drugmnky says:

    N-c,
    If they believe in their underlying...theory? Orientation?..then I am less bothered by valid descriptions of their experiments. Cheating does not allow critique of those underlying hypotheses but good, honest reports of methods and findings do. Big difference.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I see your point, DM, but I am less sanguine about the ability to engage in worthwhile critical exchanges with these folks and the relative applicability of their "empirical" studies to such a dialogue.

    To me, it is like studying leprechauns -- sure, some grad students in that field might get a valid (though utterly pointless) dissertation empirically counting the density of four-leaf clovers in County Cork.

    But the major "rock stars" of leprechaunology are going to be the people who can actually produce leprechauns. And the only way to do that is by using Hauser's methods.

  • Drugmnky says:

    yeah, I agree with your points. I don't like their take on the world and find several more parsimonious explanations more likely.

    Buuuuuut, there have been other times/areas of science where the leprechauns turned out to be real, no?

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I suppose Helicobacter pylori is the best example of your point, DM, and I'm sure there are many others.

    That said, I think there are very few parallels between the history of H. pylori (and probably most other such stories) and the whole monkey intelligence subfield.

    In the former case, something was discovered that the whole field thought couldn't exist and didn't generally look for; in the latter, there is a whole subfield devoted to studying something that does not exist.

  • Eskimo says:

    Neuro-conservative, if you could provide some critiques of the "monkey intelligence subfield" (links perhaps?), it might be enlightening. Intelligence is a pretty elastic word. In addition, does the word monkey include chimpanzees?