Evolutionary psychologist under investigation for shoddy research at Harvard

Harvard's media-friendly evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser, famous for his 2006 book Moral Minds, is under investigation for misrepresenting research on morality in primates. Students asked Harvard officials to raid Hauser's lab three years ago; they didn't like what they found.

Like his colleague Steven Pinker, Hauser believes that primates (including humans) possess psychological traits - like morality - which go back quite far in our evolution. In other words, humans possess an innate sense of right and wrong that they share with their evolutionary cousins, the monkeys and apes. He's written extensively about the moral and cognitive traits of tamarin monkeys, as well as human babies. But, according to the New York Times' Nicolas Wade, who has been following this unfolding academic melodrama, Hauser's students got so fed up with wrongdoings in his lab that they reported him to Harvard authorities three years ago. They claimed he was misrepresenting his research, an accusation which was mirrored by other colleagues. Wade reports:

In one case, according to an article in The Boston Globe on Tuesday, Gordon G. Gallup Jr. of the State University of New York at Albany asked Dr. Hauser for videotapes of an experiment in which cotton-topped tamarins were said to recognize themselves in a mirror. When he received the videotapes, Dr. Gallup could see no evidence that this was the case.

Despite the investigation, Hauser continued to teach and publish for three years without any comment from Harvard or any action being taken.

Wade spoke with Hauser's colleague Michael Tomasello from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and writes:

"Three years ago," Dr. Tomasello said, "when Marc was in Australia, the university came in and seized his hard drives and videos because some students in his lab said, ‘Enough is enough.' They said this was a pattern and they had specific evidence."

Harvard told the psychology department that its members could take no action against Dr. Hauser while the inquiry was in progress. "He's been in slow-motion fall for the last three years, but it hasn't slowed him down one bit," Dr. Tomasello said. Then in January, the faculty committee "came back with eight counts, which I have from someone in authority who read the report," he said.

The result of these "eight counts" finally reached the public last week, when Harvard asked that the prominent journal Cognition to retract one of Hauser's papers. That is tantamount to admitting that the research in the paper could not be verified. Wade explains:

The journal Cognition published an article by Dr. Hauser and others in 2002 saying that tamarin monkeys could learn certain rules much as human infants do. The journal is about to run a retraction saying that an internal examination by Harvard "found that the data do not support the reported findings."

"We therefore are retracting this article," it continues. "MH accepts responsibility for the error." The initials M.H. refer to Dr. Hauser.

It's unclear whether the university believes the research was faked, or whether Hauser simply couldn't find video records to back up his scientific claims. Hauser has had problems before where colleagues have asked for records of his research and he's been unable to produce them:

Another paper with problems appeared in Science magazine in 2007. It addressed the question of whether tamarins, rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees could infer a person's intentions. The magazine received a letter in June from Justin Wood of the University of Southern California, the senior co-author of the paper. Ginger Pinholster, director of public relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science, said that Dr. Wood wrote that a Harvard examination of the paper had failed to find any field notes or records associated with the rhesus monkey part of the experiment, and that he and Dr. Hauser had then repeated the experiment with the same results as reported.

Currently Hauser is on leave, writing a book called Evilicious. It's about the origin of our desire to do bad things. No news yet on what the other "counts" against Hauser from Harvard are, nor whether any of his other publications will have to be retracted.