Did Marc Hauser Get a Raw Deal?

Nicholas Wade has been covering the Marc Hauser scandal for The New York Times, and he has a new article today headlined “Difficulties in Defining Errors in Case Against Harvard Researcher.” The upshot is that maybe there was a rush to judgment against Hauser, and that the case against him may not be as straightforward as it originally seemed.

Wade summarizes an article I wrote for The Chronicle about Hauser, which was based on an internal document provided by a former research assistant in Hauser’s lab. He writes:

The e-mails leaked to The Chronicle of Higher Education were portrayed as an instance of Dr. Hauser pressuring his students to reach conclusions they thought unjustified. But they could also have involved a technical difference of opinion about how to score rhesus monkey behavior, a matter in which Dr. Hauser is trained and the two students were not.

A couple of points. First, in addition to Hauser, three members of Hauser’s lab (two research assistants and a graduate student) scored the experiment in question—not two. The first research assistant to score the tests had two years of experience with rhesus monkeys. The other research assistant actually wrote the software for the online coding system. I’d like to know who’s arguing that they weren’t trained. Hauser? Someone else? Besides, if they weren’t trained, then why would Hauser let them score experiments in the first place?

Also, the two research assistants weren’t actually students at the time, but paid, full-time members of Hauser’s lab.

Characterizing what happened as simply a “technical difference of opinion” doesn’t jibe with the extremely detailed account (which includes e-mails from Hauser and members of the lab) provided by the former research assistant. Hauser’s scores were drastically different. If Hauser was right, the experiment was a success. If the others were right, it was a bust.

Because of this discrepancy, the two research assistants and the graduate student wanted to double-check the results. As revealed in multiple e-mails, Hauser fought to keep this from happening. So they went behind his back and checked the videotapes themselves. They followed the same protocols that were followed when the experiment was originally scored. What they found was that many of Hauser’s scores didn’t appear to have any relation to the behavior of the monkeys. According to the former research lab assistant, these weren’t close calls. They concluded that Hauser’s scores were flat-out wrong. And not wrong just once or twice, but wrong again and again.

There are really two issues here. One is that Hauser’s results were so different from those of three other researchers. The other is that he seemed to be trying to use his authority to push through results that were questionable at best in order to turn a failed experiment into a triumph.

So, after talking with other members of the lab who described similar run-ins with Hauser, the research assistants and the graduate student brought the issue to the attention of Harvard authorities. In so doing they were putting their own careers in jeopardy. Making an enemy of one of the most prominent researchers in your field, not to mention your mentor, is never a good idea. They all knew that. But they did it anyway.

Obviously, there’s more to come in this case. The details of Harvard’s three-year investigation (which found Hauser solely responsible for eight counts of scientific misconduct) are still confidential, and the investigation by the government’s Office of Research Integrity continues. And Hauser himself has yet to offer a public defense of his actions.

One more quote from the New York Times article:

Harvard has accused a prominent professor of serious failings yet has merely put him on book leave.

According to an e-mail that Michael D. Smith, Harvard’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, sent to faculty members in August, the university has imposed “appropriate sanctions” against Hauser. While the dean didn’t specify what those sanctions were,  he wrote that they could include “involuntary leave, the imposition of additional oversight on a faculty member’s research lab, and appropriately severe restrictions on a faculty member’s ability to apply for research grants, to admit graduate students, and to supervise undergraduate research.”

That sounds like more than mere book leave to me.

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