Morals and Marc Hauser

Marc Hauser, as many know, is a prominent psychologist at Harvard who is well known for research into primate cognition and the evolution of morality.  Many may also know that he has been accused of research misconduct in a very public (and one-sided) way.  It has truly been unfortunate not only for the people involved, but for those of us who rely the integrity of research in general and Professor Hauser’s work in particular.

As Nicholas Wade now reports, it appears that the case against Professor Hauser is not what it seemed and has encountered difficulties.  My sense of the situation, as an attorney, is there clearly was a rush to judgment and a shocking lack of process that has resulted in a Kafkaesque experience for Professor Hauser.  It obviously has taken a financial and emotional toll on him.  Harvard certainly has done him no favors.

The most disturbing aspect of the story is that Hauser’s defenders contend his critics were “scholars known to be virulently opposed to his research program.”  This sort of thing, if true, is completely unacceptable.  You can be opposed to someone’s research program without engaging in vicious attacks or making allegations that can ruin lives and careers.

This leaves me wondering who this critics are and what might be their motivations.  It would be one thing if such critics are opposed to Hauser’s research into morality and his argument that moral behavior is naturally evolved, no religion necessary.  This is of course a hot button issue that can crank up the temperature in any room.

But it is quite another thing if the criticism is aimed at Hauser’s primate cognition research — honestly, the stakes in such studies are not that high, and the findings — no matter which way they come out, are not going to unsettle anyone’s world view.  If Hauser’s critics are “virulently opposed” to this aspect of his research, the motivations are surely personal and petty.

The bottom line at this point is that it appears that none of Hauser’s research into morals has been touched by the investigation.  This is good news.

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3 thoughts on “Morals and Marc Hauser

  1. cogscientist

    Wow…have you read none of the news stories? There was a 3 year investigation during which everyone kept quiet — it was just about 3 years to the day from when Harvard started investigating until the news broke in the Globe. It was nearly 3 years from when Harvard started investigating until they made a final determination of guilt, during which time (at least some of that time) Prof. Hauser had access to the evidence and report made against him and he was given ample time to reply to all of them. As an attorney, can you not appreciate that it’s hard to reconcile that with “a rush to judgement” and being “accused of research misconduct in a very public (and one-sided) way.” No, he was accused in private via the correct channels.

    Who accused him? It’s been printed in many, many sources that it was several of his own students, not anyone “virulently opposed to his research plan.” That line that you’ve taken out of context from an already one-sided NY Times piece was actually referring to the people talking publicly now, not the actual accusers. Why is that? Because the actual accusers don’t desire a limelight.

    Also, as an attorney, I would have thought you’d be much better at examining motives. What motive does Harvard have for falsely finding a star professor guilty (and, as you’d have it, relying on his enemies’ unsubstantiated testimony to do so)? None. Doing so would put them at risk of lawsuits from Marc, would make other honest professors not want to come (or want to leave) Harvard and ding their reputation. Harvard, if anything, has a strong incentive to sweep this under the carpet. What about the student accusers? Well, imagine being at the start of your career in a small field and making a mortal enemy of your mentor and one of the brightest stars in that field. Either these students were both stupid and hateful or they had integrity.

    All this isn’t to say that people can’t hold out complete judgment for the federal investigations to end and such. However people should be reasonable about doing so. Also, don’t count on ever knowing the full details. Usually these investigations end with about a paragraph of detail being published on the ORI’s website and that’s it. But then again I’m sure you don’t trust the judgment of grand juries, judges or trial juries either so I guess in the end it doesn’t matter what the feds find…

  2. admin Post author

    I have been following the stories, but not so closely. You make some provocative points, to which I will respond as best I can in the morning.

  3. admin Post author

    After doing a fair amount of reading about the history and circumstances of this issue, I am going to take a soft stand in favor of what I said in the post. This investigation, such as it is, has some of the characteristics of a star chamber proceeding, with some accusers who apparently remain anonymous and not having full access to investigator’s findings. The whole thing has taken far too long, and does not comport with what I consider to be basic notions of fairness inherent in due process. I can think of many reasons institutional and precautionary reasons why Harvard might act as it has. Finally, I’m not quite sure what axe it is you are grinding, but your last sentence is baffling and makes me wonder what your motives are. You seem to be personally invested in the case.

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