The Marc Hauser Affair–Update

Today’s science section in the New York Times carries a long piece on the Harvard evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser.  It will be remembered that he is the researcher who has been accused of fraud by (among others) his students and who is on compulsory leave this year to write a book.  This whole business started back in 2007 when the university seized some of Hauser’s files.  Since then, there have been withdrawn papers, admissions of “significant mistakes,” and lots of accusations.  However we are still waiting for the full story and a proper assessment.  It is now in the hands of the government, the Office of Research Integrity, and apparently they can take up to eight years (!) to come to a finding, although one very much hopes that there will be no such delay here (or anywhere else for that matter).

The overall gist of today’s piece, by veteran reporter Nicholas Wade, is that the world may have been too quick to rush to judgment, and more and more people are now emerging to say that they are nothing like as sure that Hauser was as at fault as we have thus far been led to believe.  The nicest point, made by an anonymous faculty member, is that “At Harvard we now have the Un-Larry administration,” referring to the former president of Harvard Larry Summers, where we have “no risk-taking, no thinking outside the box, no commitment to principles that challenge standard university practice.”  The implication being that Hauser got caught by an administration that was terrified of just about anything difficult or possibly threatening from the viewpoint of bad news and reputation, and hence it did nothing to protect its own.  It threw him to the wolves (or rather to the overly cautious university lawyers).

Obviously this is an ongoing story.  The general points I have made about plagiarism hold whether or not Hauser is guilty.  For myself, I am very much hoping that the main charges do not stick.  In part, this is because I know Hauser and like him.  In part, this is purely self interest – I have used his work and found it supportive of my own ideas.  In part, this is because of the overall worth of science.  I don’t want one of its stars dragged through the mud.  I felt before that Harvard had not acted as it should – three years to get this far and we still don’t really have the story – and I still feel this way.  Guilty or not guilty, it has not served the cause of justice.

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