Harvard Probes Claims Of Scientific Misconduct

NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Nicholas Wade, a science writer for The New York Times, about prominent Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser. Harvard University says it has found evidence of scientific misconduct in Hauser's work. He was recently forced to retract a paper that he had published, and is now on leave.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A Harvard psychology professor was recently forced to retract a paper that he had published, and is now on leave from the university. The work of professor Marc Hauser has been the subject of an internal Harvard investigation. Hauser is a highly regarded scholar, something of an academic star. He's written on the psychology of morality.

Nicholas Wade has been covering this story for the New York Times, and he joins me now. First, tell us a bit more about professor Marc Hauser.

Mr. NICHOLAS WADE (Science Reporter, The New York Times): Well, he's one of Harvard's most visible researchers. He's notable for the way he crosses disciplinary fields in a way that few scientists do, and he's made quite a mark for himself.

SIEGEL: Now, in the case of the paper that he published in the journal Cognition, that he's since retracted, what was it that professor Hauser claimed that he's had to retract?

Mr. WADE: It was an experiment with monkeys in which he was trying to see if they could follow abstract or logical rules.

SIEGEL: Whether monkeys could follow abstract or logical rules - and the research, according to the article, said they could?

Mr. WADE: Yes, it did.

SIEGEL: I gather, though, that it doesn't only concern the single journal article in Cognition. There's other work of his that's been under review?

Mr. WADE: Yes, there are two other papers. Now, with these two other papers, their inquiry committee could not find any of the original data to support these experiments. So Hauser presumably told them that, well, he just lost the data, and if they didn't believe him, he'd go and do the experiment again, which is exactly what he did. And he got the same results, as originally published.

SIEGEL: You wrote - in your story, you mentioned a complaint from some years ago from 1995, about another experiment with cotton-top tamarin monkeys. The question was, could they recognize themselves in a mirror? And there was some dispute as to whether they could, I gather. We're not talking about whether you read the numbers on a voltmeter or in a centrifuge the same way. These are fairly subjective observations, aren't they?

Mr. WADE: Yes, the particular experimental (unintelligible) that Hauser had is sort of tricky and does depend on one's personal observation. The rule is you should always get an independent observer to score your results as a check on what you think you've seen. It's not clear if this was always done in Hauser's experiments.

SIEGEL: Were these findings of his - about the behavior of monkeys, and at what level of primate we can expect certain learned behaviors - are they cutting-edge stuff? Are they important in the field, so far as you know?

Mr. WADE: Yes, they're very important. They're an extension to monkeys over a technique that has been developed for human infants. That gives you insights into what's in babies' minds, which turns out to be a lot more than people thought. And Marc Hauser took this technique; he applied it to his monkeys; and he reported that there was lots more going on in the monkeys' minds than what we have thought.

So it's very important research. So researchers in other universities are calling on Harvard to make clear exactly what the problem is, and so that the integrity of the scientific literature can be maintained.

SIEGEL: Is this handling of this matter by Harvard - is this sort of typical of a major research university's handling questions about research? Or is it unusually secretive? How would you describe it, in your experience?

Mr. WADE: It's particularly secretive. Harvard has said, really, only one thing about the whole affair, which is that it directed Hauser to correct three papers and explain to the editors what had gone wrong, which - Hauser did the first, but not the second. He did not explain to the editors what had gone wrong.

And this actually throws into question not just these three papers, but everything else that Hauser has published during the last eight years. So that's why other researchers feel that Harvard should come clean as quickly as possible and explain exactly what the problem is.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Wade, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WADE: You're very welcome.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Wade, science reporter for the New York Times.

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