Field of Science

Slate's Report on Hauser Borders on Fraud

Love, turned sour, is every bit as fierce. I haven't written about the Hauser saga for a number of reasons. I know and like the guy, and I find nothing but sadness in the whole situation. Nonetheless, I've of course been following the reports, and I wondered why my once-favorite magazine had so long been silent.

Enjoying my fastest Wi-Fi connection in weeks here at the Heathrow Yotel, I finally found Slate's take on scandal, subtitled What went wrong with Marc Hauser's search for moral foundations. The article has a nice historical overview of Hauser's work, in context, and neatly describes several experiments. The article is cagey, but you could be excused for believing that (a) Hauser has done a lot of moral cognition research with monkeys, and (b) that work was fraudulent. The only problem is that nobody, to my knowledge, has called Hauser's moral cognition research into question -- in fact, most people have gone out of their way to say that that work (done nearly exclusively with humans) replicates very nicely. There was some concern about some work on intention-understanding in monkeys, which is probably a prerequisite for some types of moral cognition, but that's not the work one thinks of when talking about Hauser's Moral Grammar hypothesis.

I can't tell if this was deliberately misleading or just bad reporting, and I'm not sure which is more disturbing.

Slate's science reporting has always been weak (see here, here, here, and especially here), and the entire magazine has been on a steady decline for several years. Sigh. I need a new magazine.

1 comment:

Psi Wavefunction said...

I don't know the first thing about the whole Hauser kerfuffle, but the news reports do sound a bit fishy to me. This case doesn't appear as clear-cut as some make it out to be, and is probably a political clusterfuck of epic dimensions, before one even gets to the moral side of things. So I just try ignore the news sources and press releases altogether, since if they can't even report scientific findings with any semblance of accuracy, what can we expect from intrinsically messy political stories?

Still, this case pisses me off in some ways -- a side interest of mine is cultural evolution (ie. the possibility of non-genetic/non-biological evolutionary systems), and in organising a student directed seminar on the subject, I came across quite the resistance to the very concept of human culture, etc being 'mere' extensions of biological phenomena (let alone the idea that cultural phenomena themselves may act much like biological systems). Cartesian Dualism and Pluralism run strong in the academic community, especially in the humanities. To the point where I've been -ridiculed- for not believing in 'choice'; and when a prof stoops so low as to ridicule an undergrad about something, you know there's heated issues in the field. So many people are still unable to accept that morality and all other aspects of the "mind" domain are rooted in physical matter.

The Hauser debacle is definitely not helping. It's quite sad, as now the rest of the field will be tarnished, and it will be even harder for monists to survive in humanities departments. As you mentioned, even the research not accused of any fraud becomes rejected when a PI is caught, but even worse, their entire field comes into question. The whole incident, fraud or no fraud, sucks already.

Sadly, all it takes is for one crappy report by some high-volume magazine to kick down a fledgling field, regardless whether any misconduct was even done. Wonder how many decent projects, idea and people have been ruined because of shitty reporting...