Search Results for "Marc Hauser"

Sep 07 2012

Marc Hauser makes an excuse for cheating. What he could have done instead.

DrugMonkey notes that Marc Hauser has offered an explanation for faking data (as reported on the Chronicle of Higher Education Percolator blog). His explanation amounts to:

  • being busy with teaching and directing the Mind, Brain & Behavior Program at Harvard
  • being busy serving on lots of fancy editorial boards
  • being busy writing stuff explaining science to an audience of non-scientists
  • being busy working with lots of scientific collaborators
  • being busy running a large research lab with lots of students

DrugMonkey responds that busy is part of the job description, especially if you're rolling in the prestige of a faculty post at Harvard, and of being a recognized leader in your field. I would add that "I was really busy and I made a bad decision (but just this one time)" is an excuse we professors frequently hear from students we catch cheating. It's also one that doesn't work -- we expect our students to do honest work and figure out their time management issues. And, we're expected to work out our own time management issues -- even if it means saying "No" to invitations that are sometimes tempting.

By the way, Marc Hauser didn't actually admit that he faked data, or committed research misconduct of any kind, so much as he "accepts the findings" of the Office of Research Integrity. Moreover, his comments seem to be leaning on that last bullet point (the rigors of supervising a big lab) to deflect what responsibility he does take. From the CHE Percolator:

He also implies that some of the blame may actually belong to others in his lab. Writes Hauser: “I let important details get away from my control, and as head of the lab, I take responsibility for all errors made within the lab, whether or not I was directly involved.”

But that take—the idea that the problems were caused mainly by Hauser’s inattention—doesn’t square with the story told by those in his laboratory. A former research assistant, who was among those who blew the whistle on Hauser, writes in an e-mail that while the report “does a pretty good job of summing up what is known,” it nevertheless “leaves off how hard his co-authors, who were his at-will employees and graduate students, had to fight to get him to agree not to publish the tainted data.”

The former research assistant points out that the report takes into account only the research that was flagged by whistle-blowers. “He betrayed the trust of everyone that worked with him, and especially those of us who were under him and who should have been able to trust him,” the research assistant writes.

So, Hauser is kind of claiming that there were too many students, postdocs, and technicians to supervise properly, and some of them got away from him and falsified methodology and coding and fabricated data. The underlings challenge this account.

In the comments at DrugMonkey's, hypotheses are being floated as to what might have spurred Hauser's bad actions. (A perception that he needed to come up with sexy findings to stay a star in his field is one of the frontrunners.) I'm more inclined to come up with a list of options Hauser might have fruitfully pursued instead of faking or allowing fakery to happen on his watch:

  1. He could have agreed not to send out manuscripts with questionable data when his underlings asked him.
  2. He could have asked to be released from some of his teaching and/or administrative duties at Harvard so he could spend the needed time on his research and on properly mentoring the members of his lab.
  3. He could have taken on fewer students in order to better supervise and mentor the students in his charge.
  4. He could have sought the advice of a colleague or a collaborator on ways he might deal with his workload (or with the temptations that workload might be awakening in him).
  5. He could have communicated to his department, his professional societies, and the funding agencies his considered view that the demands on researchers, and operative definitions of productivity, make it unreasonable hard to do the careful research needed to come up with reliable answers to scientific questions.

And those are just off the top of my head.

I'm guessing that the pressure Marc Hauser felt to get results was real enough. What I'm not buying is the same thing that I don't buy when I get this excuse from student plagiarists: that there was no other choice. Absent a gun to Hauser's head, there surely were other things he could have done.

Feel free to add to the list of other options someone facing Hauser-like temptations could productively pursue instead of cheating.

18 responses so far

Aug 28 2010

Punishment, redemption, and celebrity status: still more on the Hauser case.

Yesterday in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade wrote another article about the Marc Hauser scientific misconduct and its likely fallout. The article didn't present much in the way of new facts, as far as I could tell, but I found this part interesting:

Some forms of scientific error, like poor record keeping or even mistaken results, are forgivable, but fabrication of data, if such a charge were to be proved against Dr. Hauser, is usually followed by expulsion from the scientific community.

“There is a difference between breaking the rules and breaking the most sacred of all rules,” said Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia. The failure to have performed a reported control experiment would be “a very serious and perhaps unforgivable offense,” Dr. Haidt said.

Dr. Hauser’s case is unusual, however, because of his substantial contributions to the fields of animal cognition and the basis of morality. Dr. [Gerry] Altmann [editor of the journal Cognition] held out the possibility of redemption. “If he were to give a full and frank account of the errors he made, then the process can start of repatriating him into the community in some form,” he said.

I'm curious what you all think about this.

Do you feel that some of the rules of scientific conduct are more sacred than others? That some flavors of scientific misconduct are more forgivable than others? That a scientist who has made "substantial contributions" in his or her field of study might be entitled to more forgiveness for scientific misconduct than your typical scientific plodder?

I think these questions touch on the broader question of whether the tribe of science (or the general public putting up the money to support scientific research) believes rehabilitation is possible for those caught in scientific misdeeds. (This is something we've discussed before in the context of why members of the tribe of science might be inclined to let "youthful offenders" slide by with a warning rather than exposing them to punishments that are viewed as draconian.)

But the Hauser case adds an element to this question. What should we make of the case where the superstar is caught cheating? How should we weigh the violation of trust against the positive contribution this researcher has made to the body of scientific knowledge? Can we continue to trust that his or her positive contribution to that body of knowledge was an actual contribution, or ought we to subject it to extra scrutiny on account of the cheating for which we have evidence? Are we forced to reexamine the extra credence we may have been granting the superstar's research on account of that superstar status?

And, in a field of endeavor that strives for objectivity, are we really OK with the suggestion that members of the tribe of science who achieve a certain status should be held to different rules than those by which everyone else in the tribe is expected to play?

29 responses so far

Aug 20 2010

Harvard Dean sheds (a little) more light on Hauser misconduct case.

Today ScienceInsider gave an update on the Marc Hauser misconduct case, one that seems to support the accounts of other researchers in the Hauser lab. From ScienceInsider:

In an e-mail sent earlier today to Harvard University faculty members, Michael Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), confirms that cognitive scientist Marc Hauser "was found solely responsible, after a thorough investigation by a faculty member investigating committee, for eight instances of scientific misconduct under FAS standards."

ScienceInsider reprints the Dean's email in its entirety. Here's the characterization of the nature of Hauser's misconduct from that email:

Continue Reading »

4 responses so far

Aug 19 2010

Is objectivity an ethical duty? (More on the Hauser case.)

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education has an article that bears on the allegation of shenanigans in the research lab of Marc D. Hauser. As the article draws heavily on documents given to the Chronicle by anonymous sources, rather than on official documents from Harvard's inquiry into allegations of misconduct in the Hauser lab, we are going to take them with a large grain of salt. However, I think the Chronicle story raises some interesting questions about the intersection of scientific methodology and ethics.

From the article:

Continue Reading »

6 responses so far

Jul 19 2011

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

Aug 11 2010

What kind of problem is it when data do not support findings?

And, whose problem is it?

Yesterday, The Boston Globe published an article about Harvard University psychologist Marc Hauser, a researcher embarking on a leave from his appointment in the wake of a retraction and a finding of scientific misconduct in his lab. From the article:

In a letter Hauser wrote this year to some Harvard colleagues, he described the inquiry as painful. The letter, which was shown to the Globe, said that his lab has been under investigation for three years by a Harvard committee, and that evidence of misconduct was found. He alluded to unspecified mistakes and oversights that he had made, and said he will be on leave for the upcoming academic year. ...

Much remains unclear, including why the investigation took so long, the specifics of the misconduct, and whether Hauser’s leave is a punishment for his actions.

The retraction, submitted by Hauser and two co-authors, is to be published in a future issue of Cognition, according to the editor. It says that, “An internal examination at Harvard University . . . found that the data do not support the reported findings. We therefore are retracting this article.’’

The paper tested cotton-top tamarin monkeys’ ability to learn generalized patterns, an ability that human infants had been found to have, and that may be critical for learning language. The paper found that the monkeys were able to learn patterns, suggesting that this was not the critical cognitive building block that explains humans’ ability to learn language. In doing such experiments, researchers videotape the animals to analyze each trial and provide a record of their raw data. ...

The editor of Cognition, Gerry Altmann, said in an interview that he had not been told what specific errors had been made in the paper, which is unusual. “Generally when a manuscript is withdrawn, in my experience at any rate, we know a little more background than is actually published in the retraction,’’ he said. “The data not supporting the findings is ambiguous.’’

Gary Marcus, a psychology professor at New York University and one of the co-authors of the paper, said he drafted the introduction and conclusions of the paper, based on data that Hauser collected and analyzed.

“Professor Hauser alerted me that he was concerned about the nature of the data, and suggested that there were problems with the videotape record of the study,’’ Marcus wrote in an e-mail. “I never actually saw the raw data, just his summaries, so I can’t speak to the exact nature of what went wrong.’’
The investigation also raised questions about two other papers co-authored by Hauser. The journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B published a correction last month to a 2007 study. The correction, published after the British journal was notified of the Harvard investigation, said video records and field notes of one of the co-authors were incomplete. Hauser and a colleague redid the three main experiments and the new findings were the same as in the original paper. ...

“This retraction creates a quandary for those of us in the field about whether other results are to be trusted as well, especially since there are other papers currently being reconsidered by other journals as well,’’ Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said in an e-mail. “If scientists can’t trust published papers, the whole process breaks down.’’ ...

In 1995, he [Hauser] was the lead author of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at whether cotton-top tamarins are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. Self-recognition was something that set humans and other primates, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, apart from other animals, and no one had shown that monkeys had this ability.

Gordon G. Gallup Jr., a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Albany, questioned the results and requested videotapes that Hauser had made of the experiment.

“When I played the videotapes, there was not a thread of compelling evidence — scientific or otherwise — that any of the tamarins had learned to correctly decipher mirrored information about themselves,’’ Gallup said in an interview.

A quick rundown of what we get from this article:

  • Someone raised a concern about scientific misconduct that led to the Harvard inquiry, which in turn led to the discovery of "evidence of misconduct" in Hauser's lab.
  • We don't, however, have an identification of what kind of misconduct is suggested by the evidence (fabrication? falsification? plagiarism? other serious deviations from accepted practices?) or of who exactly committed it (Hauser or one of the other people in his lab).
  • At least one paper has been retracted because "the data do not support the reported findings".
  • However, we don't know the precise issue with the data here -- e.g., whether the reported findings were bolstered by reported data that turned out to be fabricated or falsified (and are thus not being included anymore in "the data").
  • Apparently, the editor of the journal that published the retracted paper doesn't know the precise issue with the data, either, and found this unusual enough a situation with respect to the retraction of the paper to merit comment.
  • Other papers from the Hauser group may be under investigation for similar reasons at this point, and other researchers in the field seem to be nervous about those papers and their reliability in light of the ongoing inquiry and the retraction of the paper in Cognition.

There's already been lots of good commentary on what might be going on with the Hauser case. (I say "might" because there are many facts still not in evidence to those of us not actually on the Harvard inquiry panel. As such, I think it's necessary to refrain from drawing conclusions not supported by the facts that are in evidence.)

John Hawks situates the Hauser case in terms of the problem of subjective data.

Melody has a nice discussion of the political context of getting research submitted to journals, approved by peer reviewers, and anointed as knowledge.

David Dobbs wonders whether the effects of the Hauser case (and of the publicity it's getting) will mean backing off from overly strong conclusions drawn from subjective data, or backing off too far from a "hot" scientific field that may still have a bead on some important phenomena in our world.

Drugmonkey critiques the Boston Globe reporting and reminds us that failure to replicate a finding is not evidence of scientific misconduct or fraud. That's a hugely important point, and one that bears repeating. Repeatedly.

This is the kind of territory where we start to notice common misunderstandings about how science works. It's usually not the case that we can cut nature at the joints along nicely dotted lines that indicate just where those cuts should be. Collecting reliable data and objectively interpreting that data is hard work. Sometimes as we go, we learn more about better conditions for collecting reliable data, or better procedures for interpreting the data without letting our cognitive biases do the driving. And sometimes, a data set we took to be reliable and representative of the phenomenon we're trying to understand just isn't.

That's part of why scientific conclusions are always tentative. Scientists expect to update their current conclusions in the light of new results down the road -- and in the light of our awareness that some of our old results just weren't as solid or reproducible as we took them to be. It's good to be sure they're reproducible enough before you announce a finding to your scientific peers, but to be absolutely certain of total reproducibility, you have to solve the problem of induction, which isn't terribly practical.

Honest scientific work can lead to incorrect conclusions, either because that honest work yielded wonk data from which to draw conclusions, or because good data can still be consistent with incorrect conclusions.

And, there's a similar kind of disconnect we should watch out for. For the "corrected" 2007 paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the Boston Globe article reports that videotapes and field notes (the sources of the data to support the reported conclusions) were "incomplete". But, Hauser and a colleague redid the experiments and found data that supported the conclusions reported in this paper. One might think that as long as reported results are reproducible, they're necessarily sufficiently ethical and scientifically sound and all that good stuff. That's not how scientific knowledge-building works. The rules of the game are that you lay your data-cards on the table and base your findings on those data. Chancing upon an answer that turns out to be right but isn't supported by the data you actually have doesn't count, nor does having a really strong hunch that turns out to be right. In the scientific realm, empirical data is our basis for knowing what we know about the phenomena. Thus, doing the experiments over in the face of insufficient data is not "playing it safe" so much as "doing the job you were supposed to have done in the first place".

Now, given the relative paucity of facts in this particular case, I find myself interested by a more general question: What are the ethical duties of a PI who discovers that he has published a paper whose findings are not, in fact, supported by the data?.

It seems reasonable that at least one of his or her duties involves correcting the scientific literature.

This could involve retracting the paper, in essence saying, "Actually, we can't conclude this based on the data we have. Our bad!"

It could also involve correcting the paper, saying, "We couldn't conclude this based on the data we have; instead, we should conclude this other thing," or, "We couldn't conclude this based on the data we originally reported, but we've gone and done more experiments (or have repeated the experiments we described), obtained this data, and are now confident that on the basis of these data, the conclusion in well-supported."

If faulty data were reported, I would think that the retraction or correction should probably explain how the data were faulty -- what's wrong with them? If the problem had its source in an honest mistake, it might also be valuable to identify that honest mistake so other researchers could avoid it themselves. (Surely this would be a kindness; is it also a duty?)

Beyond correcting the scientific literature, does the PI in this situation have other relevant duties?

Would these involve ratcheting up the scrutiny of data within the lab group in advance of future papers submitted for publication? Taking the skepticism of other researchers in the field more seriously and working that much harder to build a compelling case for conclusions from the data? (Or, perhaps, working hard to identify the ways that the data might argue against the expected conclusion?) Making serious efforts to eliminate as much subjectivity from the data as possible?

Assuming the PI hasn't fabricated or falsified the data (and that if someone in the lab group has, that person has been benched, at least for the foreseeable future), what kind of steps ought that PI to take to make things right -- not just for the particular problematic paper(s), but for his or her whole research group moving forward and interacting with other researchers in the field? How can they earn back trust?

7 responses so far