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The Crimson: Wrong About Hauser

I was very disappointed to read The Crimson’s recent editorial on Marc D. Hauser. Not satisfied to have helped run Professor Hauser out of academia, The Crimson complains that the university failed to heed its call last spring to fire Hauser, thus allowing him the face-saving gesture of resigning.

The Crimson, usually such an ardent champion of those whose rights have been trampled, is on the wrong side of this issue. Harvard has not made clear what Hauser is actually accused of doing, much less the evidence underlying the conclusion that misconduct occurred. In fact, the tide of information slowly trickling out is swinging in the opposite direction, calling into question just how serious Hauser’s infractions really were. I agree with The Crimson that the Harvard administration has badly handled this case; its silence has let The Crimson and many others jump to conclusions that cannot be justified on the basis of what is known. Rather than hopping on this bandwagon, The Crimson should have been standing up for due process and counseling patience. Both fairness and prudence should have dictated a “let’s wait until the facts are known” stance.

The basis for The Crimson’s position is that a secret Harvard investigation concluded that Hauser engaged in some undefined misconduct. Many, The Crimson included, assumed the worst, but the available information does not justify such conclusions. Here’s what we know: Four years ago, lab members contacted the University, alleging that Hauser had ignored colleagues who disagreed with his scoring of experimental data; when they on their own reviewed tapes of the monkey trials, they concluded that Hauser’s scoring was wrong, and that publications based on his scorings were thus faulty. They claimed that Hauser refused to consider their concerns and pushed forward with publishing the data. After a three-year review, Harvard’s investigative panel concluded that Hauser had engaged in scientific misconduct on eight projects, three of which were published in the scientific literature. Subsequently, a research assistant leaked an affidavit to the press; Harvard then took the unusual step of confirming that an investigation had taken place and that Hauser had been found to have engaged in misconduct, but refused to provide any further details because a federal review is now ongoing. Whether compelled by the University or advised by his attorneys, Hauser has not commented either on the investigation or on the speculations in the press.

So, what do we know about this misconduct? A wide variety of actions qualify as “misconduct” and some are more serious than others. I’ll start with the three published papers. In the first, which appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Hauser and a colleague last year published a “correction” in the same journal because “It has been discovered that the video records and field notes are incomplete for two of the conditions.” As a result, they returned to the field site, re-did the experiment, and confirmed their previous findings. Certainly, one cannot condone the loss of crucial data records underlying a paper, but it is important to recognize that the results reported initially appear to be correct. This example would not seem to be a grievous form of misconduct.

The second paper was published in Science. In April, that journal issued an announcement that original data for this study, too, had been lost, but that Hauser and colleagues had re-run the experiment and the results were found—after extremely careful review by the journal (much greater than that to which most papers are subjected)—to completely corroborate the initial study. In other words, this sounds very similar to the previous case: poor record-keeping, not something more serious that resulted in the publication of incorrect results.

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The third paper, published in the journal Cognition, was retracted, which means that the results reported in the paper are in some way faulty. Without more information, we cannot know what happened. The lab members complained that Hauser ignored them when they informed him of doubts about the data scoring, and apparently the investigative committee agreed and considered this misconduct. But misconduct of what sort? Did Hauser just make up the data or knowingly publish incorrect results, as many seem to believe? Or is there some more mundane—if not condonable—explanation, such as that he trusted his own observations more than his associates, that he was too lazy to go back and re-examine the tapes, or too stubborn to consider that he might have made a mistake? Or maybe he has a perfectly plausible explanation which failed to convince the investigating committee. Personally, I’d like to hear the full story before accepting the absolute worst case scenario.

Lastly, Hauser was found to have engaged in misconduct in five other projects which were either never published or in which the problems were corrected prior to publication. As a scientist myself, I have to wonder what kind of misconduct that might have involved. It’s one thing to accuse somebody of publishing a paper based on made up data or knowingly incorrect analyses, but irregularities in the research project that do not lead to publication are a potentially less serious matter.  Perhaps, in fact, the problems were recognized by Hauser, and that’s why the projects weren’t published or were corrected before publication. Of course, I can think of very serious types of misconduct that occur even in the absence of publication of a paper, but I can also think of many much less serious breaches. In the absence of more information on these projects, I have trouble assuming that these are terrible offenses, given that no paper including incorrect results was published.

Finally, I’m bemused that The Crimson has so much faith in Harvard’s secret investigative committees, given its usual skepticism of University procedures and motives. University investigations are not legal proceedings, and the standards of evidence and fairness are not the same as in a courtroom. Moreover, the University’s objectives are not just to treat the accused fairly, but also to protect the accuser and the university’s interests. Many believe that these conflicting goals lead the accused individual to be treated unfairly, and there are some famous examples of such investigations being overturned upon further review.

So, what’s the bottom line? Does the information publically available support The Crimson’s position that Hauser should have been fired last spring? To me, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Jonathan B. Losos ’84 is a professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

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