Noam Chomsky on Marc Hauser’s Resignation

A letter circulating among some scholars criticizes Harvard for its handling of the investigation that led to Marc Hauser’s resignation this week. I’ve read it, and I asked permission from its authors to reprint it here, but that request was denied. Among the signatories is Noam Chomsky. I asked Chomsky for his comment on the Hauser resignation and he e-mailed the following:

Mark Hauser is a fine scientist with an outstanding record of accomplishment. His resignation is a serious loss for Harvard, and given the nature of the attack on him, for science generally.

The nature of the attack. One narrative of the Hauser scandal is that he was hounded from his position by scandal-lovin’ reporters (my coverage of Hauser is footnoted in the letter) and that Harvard behaved irresponsibly by caving in to pressure and publicly commenting on the investigation, albeit without providing much in the way of specifics. What’s more, this line of thinking goes, such scrutiny and public shaming could have a chilling effect on experimental science.

As for whether the news media helped drive Hauser from Harvard, I’ll refrain from offering an opinion.

But whether or not you believe Marc Hauser’s resignation is a serious loss for Harvard obviously hinges on whether you believe he did anything wrong. If he was skewing data to obtain the results he wanted, then his resignation is not a loss at all. Scientists like that shouldn’t be in laboratories. They shouldn’t be scientists.

If you believe it was a fairly minor matter, perhaps the result of a computer glitch or an incompetent research assistant—the sort of thing that’s probably inevitable during a long career in science—then it would be an outrageous miscarriage of justice.

The problem is that we don’t have all the evidence. Harvard’s report on its investigation isn’t public, and a federal inquiry at the Office of Research Integrity is apparently still going on. Some of the results in question from Hauser’s papers have been replicated. We don’t know about the others.

In short, we don’t know everything.

What we do know is that Harvard spent three years investigating the charges against him and concluded they were serious. Multiple members of his laboratory risked their careers by reporting him to university officials. I can’t imagine that Harvard wanted to bring down such a successful researcher, a guy who was bringing in lots of grant money and keeping a bunch of graduate students gainfully employed. And I can’t imagine that the people who worked in his lab were excited about turning in their mentor and the guy who would be the key to their future research careers.

Maybe the research assistants, the people who worked with Hauser every day, were wrong. Maybe Harvard’s three-year investigation was wrong, too. That’s possible, but it would be very strange.

I’ve raised an eyebrow once at The New York Times’s coverage of the Hauser story, and I’d like to elevate it again. In the Times article about Hauser’s resignation, we get five paragraphs hinting that Hauser may be the victim here. One of those paragraphs includes the following line:

Only one of the eight counts, about an article published in the journal Cognition in 2002, seemed to involve a possibly serious breach of research ethics.

That would be an interesting and relevant fact, if it’s true, but I have no idea how the reporter knows this. Even people I’ve talked to who were close to Harvard’s investigation, former members of the lab, don’t know specifically what the eight counts are. That information has certainly never been published anywhere. And without knowing what the counts are, it seems extremely tough to assess their seriousness.

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