Thursday, July 21, 2011

What Did Marc Hauser Do?

Marc Hauser, the cognitive psychologist who's been under scrutiny over a case of scientific misconduct since August last year (see past posts), has resigned from Harvard University.

He'd already been suspended from teaching, but until this announcement, it looked as though he might be able to hang on and resume his research, which focussed on the evolution of language and morality. Not any more. Hauser says he's quitting the field that made him famous:
“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.”
So that's the end of the Hauser controversy, then?

Not really. The problem is, we still don't know what actually happened. It's hard for anyone to draw a line under this and move on, as Hauser seems to be doing.

Harvard have been reluctant to reveal any more than the barest details of the case. When the allegations first appeared, they set up an internal investigation. In August 2010 this concluded that Hauser was "soley responsible" for 8 cases of scientific misconduct.

But no-one - outside Harvard's investigative committee - knows what they were. He's been found guilty, and he's been punished, but no-one knows the crimes or the evidence against him.

Am I alone in finding this situation unsatisfactory?

Marc Hauser has published hundreds of scientific papers as well as various books. Only a small number of papers were implicated in the misconduct allegations. But to scientifically evaluate the rest of Hauser's work, we need to know what happened - and how easy the misconduct was to detect.

It makes a big difference, for example, whether the misconduct was the kind of thing that could have been going on, leaving no trace, for many years prior to this.

The lack of firm facts has led to discussion of the case being dominated by rumours and speculation. In October last year, for example, a newspaper published an article claiming that the case against Hauser might not be as strong as it first seemed.

This led to a rebuttal by Gerry Altman, then Editor of Cognition, a journal from which Hauser retracted a paper. Altman said that based on the information he had, Hauser was indeed guilty. But he admitted that he was going on what the Harvard investigation told him; he had not had access to the full data.

When Harvard found Hauser guilty, the Dean of his Faculty justified their secrecy:
The work of the investigating committee as well as its final report are considered confidential to protect both the individuals who made the allegations and those who assisted in the investigation.

Our investigative process will not succeed if individuals do not have complete confidence that their identities can be protected throughout the process and after the findings are reported to the appropriate agencies.

Furthermore, when the allegations concern research involving federal funding, funding agency regulations govern our processes ... For example, federal regulations impose an ongoing obligation to protect the identities of those who provided assistance to the investigation.
However, while this is certainly important, I don't see why it would prevent Harvard from releasing the conclusions of the report. They don't need to name the people who gave evidence against Hauser - but they do need to spell out what he did, and what they think he didn't do, so that the scientific community can come to their own conclusions as to the validity of the rest of Hauser's work.

In his letter, the Dean closed by saying that Harvard were going to
form a faculty committee this fall to reaffirm or recommend changes to the communication and confidentiality practices associated with the conclusion of cases involving allegations of professional misconduct.
I hope so.

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