Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Marc Hauser and morality

"Our moral instincts are immune to the explicitly articulated commandments handed down by religions and government." (p.xviii)

"I will argue that this marriage between morality and religion is not only forced but unnecessary, crying out for a divorce."
(Marc Hauser, Moral Minds [USA: HarperCollins, 2006], p.xx)
The author of the book Moral Minds is the Professor of Psychology, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University. He is now in trouble. It has been found out that Hauser has eight misconducts in his research work.

It all started with an experiment. Here is what The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote:
"It was one experiment in particular that led members of Mr. Hauser's lab to become suspicious of his research and, in the end, to report their concerns about the professor to Harvard administrators.

The experiment tested the ability of rhesus monkeys to recognize sound patterns. Researchers played a series of three tones (in a pattern like A-B-A) over a sound system. After establishing the pattern, they would vary it (for instance, A-B-B) and see whether the monkeys were aware of the change. If a monkey looked at the speaker, this was taken as an indication that a difference was noticed.

The method has been used in experiments on primates and human infants. Mr. Hauser has long worked on studies that seemed to show that primates, like rhesus monkeys or cotton-top tamarins, can recognize patterns as well as human infants do. Such pattern recognition is thought to be a component of language acquisition.

Researchers watched videotapes of the experiments and "coded" the results, meaning that they wrote down how the monkeys reacted. As was common practice, two researchers independently coded the results so that their findings could later be compared to eliminate errors or bias.

According to the document that was provided to The Chronicle, the experiment in question was coded by Mr. Hauser and a research assistant in his laboratory. A second research assistant was asked by Mr. Hauser to analyze the results. When the second research assistant analyzed the first research assistant's codes, he found that the monkeys didn't seem to notice the change in pattern. In fact, they looked at the speaker more often when the pattern was the same. In other words, the experiment was a bust.

But Mr. Hauser's coding showed something else entirely: He found that the monkeys did notice the change in pattern—and, according to his numbers, the results were statistically significant. If his coding was right, the experiment was a big success.

The second research assistant was bothered by the discrepancy. How could two researchers watching the same videotapes arrive at such different conclusions? He suggested to Mr. Hauser that a third researcher should code the results. In an e-mail message to Mr. Hauser, a copy of which was provided to The Chronicle, the research assistant who analyzed the numbers explained his concern. "I don't feel comfortable analyzing results/publishing data with that kind of skew until we can verify that with a third coder," he wrote.

A graduate student agreed with the research assistant and joined him in pressing Mr. Hauser to allow the results to be checked, the document given to The Chronicle indicates. But Mr. Hauser resisted, repeatedly arguing against having a third researcher code the videotapes and writing that they should simply go with the data as he had already coded it. After several back-and-forths, it became plain that the professor was annoyed.

"i am getting a bit pissed here," Mr. Hauser wrote in an e-mail to one research assistant. "there were no inconsistencies! let me repeat what happened. i coded everything. then [a research assistant] coded all the trials highlighted in yellow. we only had one trial that didn't agree. i then mistakenly told [another research assistant] to look at column B when he should have looked at column D. ... we need to resolve this because i am not sure why we are going in circles."

The research assistant who analyzed the data and the graduate student decided to review the tapes themselves, without Mr. Hauser's permission, the document says. They each coded the results independently. Their findings concurred with the conclusion that the experiment had failed: The monkeys didn't appear to react to the change in patterns.

They then reviewed Mr. Hauser's coding and, according to the research assistant's statement, discovered that what he had written down bore little relation to what they had actually observed on the videotapes. He would, for instance, mark that a monkey had turned its head when the monkey didn't so much as flinch. It wasn't simply a case of differing interpretations, they believed: His data were just completely wrong.

As word of the problem with the experiment spread, several other lab members revealed they had had similar run-ins with Mr. Hauser, the former research assistant says. This wasn't the first time something like this had happened. There was, several researchers in the lab believed, a pattern in which Mr. Hauser reported false data and then insisted that it be used.

They brought their evidence to the university's ombudsman and, later, to the dean's office. This set in motion an investigation that would lead to Mr. Hauser's lab being raided by the university in the fall of 2007 to collect evidence. It wasn't until this year, however, that the investigation was completed. It found problems with at least three papers. Because Mr. Hauser has received federal grant money, the report has most likely been turned over to the Office of Research Integrity at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."
Hauser's case might create a ripple effect across the scientific community as there are other scientists whose work made reference to his findings.

Michael Ruse who used to praise Hauser's work "to the sky" can't help but to feel "a bit stupid" and "mad" because of what Hauser has done to the scientific community. Ruse further complained that "If you fake the ideas or results, and publish them, the poison spreads. We are all now at risk of using phony information, and our own work suffers. The community suffers."

That is another way of saying that the scientific community works on trust. And Hauser has betrayed that trust.

When trust is compromised, the scientist loses his credibility. The credibility of works made reference to him will be doubtful. The credibility of all graduate researchers studied under him will be affected in one way or another.

The fact is that the entire scientific community depends heavily on trust. And another synonym of 'trust' is, of course, 'faith'.

Let's go back to the two quotes by Hauser at the beginning of this post. He claims that morality is immune to religion and government. I wonder if it was due to this conviction that Hauser thought it was not immoral to provide false report; betraying the faith the government and the scientific community have on him, and so lying to the whole world?

When morality is individualized and domesticated, one just wouldn't know what is it anymore?


scruffy said...

Wow. All it requires is one immoral act to poison the work of respected scientists and the area of scientific research, especially if your work gets "highly acclaimed." This makes me think of Luther, who according to most historical sources (so I read) got caught up in a highly questionable work written by a supposed Christian Jew which talked about how certain Jewish customs degraded Christian beliefs/rituals. This was one of the motivating factors behind Luther writing his diatribes toward the Jews late in his life (e.g Concerning the Jews and their Lies). If morality is purely individualistic and subjective, and is immune to religion and government, then surely more cases of these will happen, both in religion and science... makes me shudder at the thought that some people are arguing for a relative morality.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi scruffy,

Thank you for sharing.

So that's why Luther wrote the antisemitic work huh. I didn't know that his 'Concerning the Jews and their Lies' is motivated by a Christian Jew's work. Thank you for telling that. Do you know the name of the Jew and his book that particularly influenced Luther?

reasonable said...

I agree with the idea that morality can exist without having the need to be grounded in religion. :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi reasonable,

Then it depends on what do you mean by "morality" and "religion".

If by 'morality' you mean general ethical values based on no-physical-harm principle, and by 'religion' you mean legally and politically established religious institution and its teaching, then I think I am in agreement with you :)

scruffy said...

Hi bro,

I believe the work in question was from Anthony Margaritha, entitlec The Whole Jewish Faith (Der Ganze Judische Glaube , published in Augsburg in 1530. I came across it while doing research for my CH paper last semester. If you like, I'd be happy to send the paper/bibliography to you so you can go and assess the sources too...

scruffy said...

The work was so bad that the Lutheran church historian Eric W. Gritsch referred to it as a "collection of the worst items of medieval anti-Judaism." (Toxic Spirituality. MN:Fortress Press, 2009, pg 20.)This issue really strikes a chord with your post, about how immoral acts in the area of research, when undiscovered, can have really grave consequences!

Sze Zeng said...

Hi scruffy,

Thank you for sharing your paper! :)