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Marc Hauser’s Fall From Grace

Once celebrated researcher continues work despite investigation

By Eric P. Newcomer and Elyssa A. L. Spitzer, Crimson Staff Writers

All was quiet inside Marc D. Hauser’s Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, perched 10 floors above ground level in Williams James Hall.

The lab, which had been abuzz with activity in past academic years, was dominated by a silence pregnant with lingering uncertainties. On an afternoon late last month, two researchers manned the empty floor as a video camera pointed at a blank wall and an antiquated television set displayed the uneventful scene in black and white. Uneaten dog treats sat on disposable plates scattered throughout the lab.

The place was so quiet, in fact, that it betrayed little of the national frenzy currently surrounding the lab’s steward. Hauser is away.

On Aug. 10, the Boston Globe reported the psychology professor was taking a one-year leave of absence after a three-year internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his lab. Days later, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith confirmed that a committee found Hauser “solely responsible” for eight instances of misconduct—three of which were published studies that needed to be retracted or corrected to remove unsupported findings.

The University, Smith said, is cooperating with the Public Health Service Office of Research Integrity, the National Science Foundation Office of Inspector General, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.

As Hauser faces federal inquiry, many of his former co-authors, graduate students, and undergraduate advisees struggle to comprehend how the man they knew as a prolific researcher, skilled communicator, and heavyweight in the field of cognitive psychology became enmeshed in scandal. Interviews with these former co-workers paint a picture of a professor who pushed himself and his lab to publish his research at a pace that was impressive—even by Harvard’s standards.

RISE TO THE TOP

When the investigation began in 2007, Hauser had maintained, by all accounts, a hands-on presence in the lab.

Even now, Hauser continues to work on his latest book “Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad,” which traces the origins of the human desire to do evil. Even while based in Cape Cod this summer, he managed his lab, and he will continue to lead his lab this year as he spends some time away from campus, researchers say.

When discussing his research, Hauser does not keep his excitement hidden: the man with the thinning gray hair and carefully trimmed goatee bobs his head, furrows his brows, and gestures with his hands to emphasize his points.

He was a distinct presence in the classroom, winning multiple awards for his teaching and gaining the recognition as one of Harvard’s most popular teachers by the senior class in 2001 and 2008. Last year, students gave Hauser a CUE score of 4.93 out of 5 for his ability to “generate enthusiasm” in his 15-person class “Psychology 2381: Hot Topics in Cognitive Science and Neuroscience.” One student said the class was the best at Harvard. Another wrote, “It’s awesome!!!!”

Passionate is one word colleagues use to describe Hauser, who started as an assistant professor in 1992 and rose to the post of associate professor in 1995 and full faculty member in 1998.

Ambitious is another word—but the trait is not necessarily pejorative, according to Psychology Department Chair Susan Carey.

“I would not think there is not a single professor at Harvard who is not ambitious, in the sense of intellectually ambitious,” Carey says. “I would describe myself as ambitious. I am working hard to describe age-old problems, and I think I can make progress.”

Noam Chomsky, an emeritus professor of linguistics at MIT and Hauser’s mentor of more than 15 years, agrees.

“He’s ambitious in the sense that he wanted to understand hard problems and open up new directions and break through impasses, not just in the work that he did with me but in much else,” says Chomsky, who worked with Hauser on several academic papers, including a 2005 paper published in Cognition titled “The Evolution of the Language Faculty: Clarifications and Implications.”

“[T]he term ambitious suggests trying to get ahead and be famous,” Chomsky says, often achieved by rushing to publish. He adds that he has “no reason to believe” that Hauser was driven by that urge.

THE DRIVE BEHIND THE MAN

Hauser graduated in 1981 from Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles six years later.

Throughout his career, Hauser and his research teams received over $7 million in grants, not including funds from Harvard. Since 2000, he has published 143 journal articles or chapters and four books, including “Moral Minds,” according to his curriculum vitae.

During that period, he served on the editorial boards of at least five publications, oversaw graduate students’ research, and taught undergraduate courses.

Hauser’s research has focused on cognitive behavior in animals and moral psychology, and his papers span topics from primate intelligence to the role of emotions in moral psychology.

One former co-worker, who requested anonymity due to the ongoing federal inquiry, recalls instances that hinted at Hauser’s temptation to draw premature conclusions from his research that he could publish.

The former researcher points to an instance in which Hauser considered using a “statistical test that supported a conclusion that would have led to a publishable paper.”

But, the conditions necessary to use the test were not met, meaning that “the data did not show what [Hauser] wanted to show,” the former researcher says. After extended discussion, Hauser decided not to use the test and held off on publishing the paper, according to the individual.

“The fact that it took that level of discussion to make that decision was definitely concerning to me,” the former co-worker says. “It felt like [Hauser’s] motivation to publish, especially in prestigious journals, may have clouded his objectivity.”

Most colleagues interviewed for this article say they are reluctant to jump to any conclusions about Hauser’s conduct until more information becomes public. Harvard is not revealing many of the details it uncovered during its three-year-long inquiry, citing confidentiality requirements.

In his time as a professor, Chomsky says he has seen students who “go into print without thinking very hard” as well as those who are so hesitant to publish that he has had to hold their hand on the way to the thesis office.

“I think Marc is somewhere around the middle of that spectrum,” Chomsky says. “It is possible that—well, he has published quite a lot in various areas. It’s possible that some of the papers went to press without sufficient rethinking, but I don’t know of any cases.”

IN THE PUBLIC EYE

Traces of the popular professor’s presence remain in his lab. His wife Lillian Basse Hauser has been known to come by the place. Their family dog has also participated in experiments, researchers say.

Always accessible to students and colleagues, Hauser posted his Google calendar for public viewing online, in which he lists meetings with family as well as top Harvard administrators, before news of the investigation’s conclusions became public. His CV, which is still available online, lists his home address.

Weeds lean over the pebbled pathway to his home, a royal blue Coolidge Avenue two-family house near the Charles.

His home phone number is also listed in his CV. It has been disconnected.

—Staff writer Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at newcomer@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Elyssa A.L. Spitzer can be reached at spitzer@fas.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following corrections:

CORRECTIONS: September 15, 2010

An earlier version of the Sept. 13 news article "Marc Hauser's Fall From Grace" incorrectly stated that psychology professor Marc Hauser lives on Kirkland Street. In fact, he lives on Coolidge Avenue.

The article also stated that Hauser became a Harvard professor in 2005. The correct year is 1998.

The article also incorrectly suggested that a Post-it note stuck to a computer screen labeled "Sofia" found in Hauser's laboratory referenced his daughter.

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