Prominent Evolutionary Psychologist Marc Hauser Under Investigation

Marc Hauser, whose work on moral psychology from an evolutionary perspective is well known, is going on leave from Harvard after evidence of scientific misconduct has come to light through an internal investigation:

The findings have resulted in the retraction of an influential study that he led. “MH accepts responsibility for the error,’’ says the retraction of the study on whether monkeys learn rules, which was published in 2002 in the journal Cognition.

Two other journals say they have been notified of concerns in papers on which Hauser is listed as one of the main authors.

A retraction which has already been written will appear in a future edition of Cognition. There have also been previous challenges to the credibility of Hauser’s work:

In 1995, he was the lead author of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at whether cotton-top tamarins are able to recognize themselves in a mirror. Self-recognition was something that set humans and other primates, such as chimpanzees and orangutans, apart from other animals, and no one had shown that monkeys had this ability.

Gordon G. Gallup Jr., a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Albany, questioned the results and requested videotapes that Hauser had made of the experiment.

“When I played the videotapes, there was not a thread of compelling evidence — scientific or otherwise — that any of the tamarins had learned to correctly decipher mirrored information about themselves,’’ Gallup said in an interview.

In 1997, he co-authored a critique of the original paper, and Hauser and a co-author responded with a defense of the work.

In 2001, in a study in the American Journal of Primatology, Hauser and colleagues reported that they had failed to replicate the results of the previous study. The original paper has never been retracted or corrected.

Hauser is writing a book with the tantalizing title Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.

via Leiter Reports.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Hitch

    Rather shocking, Marc Hauser is/was highly regarded.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Indeed, it’s very disappointing

  • Hitch

    I’d like to add that it is prudent to let the investigation unfold. Greg Laden who knows Marc Hauser personally as colleague has come out as a kind of character witness. That doesn’t mean too much.

    But we do live in a climate that tries to embattled scientists and discredit them. What the real scope of this is, is to be seen. Science is not perfect and stuff can happen. Stuff is routinely proposed that turns out to be wrong, and we have to distinguish between perspectives and outright falsehoods.

    But yes, given how it looks right now, it is troubling.

  • Baron Pike

    Evolutionary psychology is a presumptive “science” based on a questionable hypothesis rather than a hypothesis that questions the present state of science. The experimental emphasis is thus more toward confirmation than falsification. My guess is that if the research done at other institutions (UCSB?) were to be similarly scrutinized, Hauser would find a lot of company out there in the cold.

  • DuWayne

    Baron Pike –

    I would be very interested to hear exactly what you think the “questionable hypothesis” of evo-psych happens to be. It is like the “questionable hypothesis” of molecular biology? Or is it more like the “questionable hypothesis” of nuclear physics?

    Or could it be that you haven’t the least idea what the hell you’re talking about?

  • George W.

    Baron Pike-
    You don’t get to gingerly float around making unfounded criticisms without making a case for it. If you made a flippant comment like this on my blog I would give you a three day warning to back up your claims, followed by a prompt deletion of you comments if a logical argument was not made.
    What an absolute crock of shit. If you have an argument, present it, if not, stop putting verbose lipstick on your ignorant little pig….

  • Daniel Fincke

    George, there is a lot of reasonable criticism of the enterprise of evolutionary psychology that questions its scientific credibility and I think it is healthy that it is treated with skepticism by many to the extent that this helps insist that evolutionary psychology become as accurate as possible.

    Even though I personally think there is a lot of value in evolutionary psychology, I think of it as valuable as a speculative discipline and almost simply branch of philosophical inquiry more than a rigorous science since a lot (though not all) of what it offers are unfalsifiable hypotheses and “just-so” stories.

    Here is a good piece making the case against it if you’d like to see why Baron Pike is not just some nut for questioning it.

    • George W.

      When people accuse me of parroting bloggers I am friends with, or always agreeing with them, I will point to this comment.
      Dan, I fundamentally disagree with you. Perhaps my anger about this is peppered by a recent spat over “economics as a pseudo-science” at another blog I frequent, but I believe the remarks made by Baron Pike to be unequivocally unfair. I understand the debate over the flaws within the social sciences. I also understand the particular problems facing evolutionary psychology. I do not understand how someone can make a flippant remark, no matter how founded in popular reasoning, and impugn every person within a field of study without it raising the ire of any rational person. I was not commenting in reference to the criticism of evolutionary psychology in general, although I think the author might have been wiser to specify his claims. I was specifically attacking the notion that

      “if the research done at other institutions (UCSB?) were to be similarly scrutinized, Hauser would find a lot of company out there in the cold.”

      Dan, do you consider this a fair accusation or assessment of the current state of evolutionary psychology? Would you not consider it wise to back up such a brash claim?

  • DuWayne

    Daniel –

    The problem is that Pike didn’t question it, he made an ignorant blanket statement and one that irritates the hell out of me. If you want to criticize something, then fucking criticize it. Throwing out some blanket statement like Pike’s leaves no room for someone to address the issue. Not only that, but he just questioned the integrity of all evo psych researchers. I’m sorry, but that is complete and utter bullshit.

    My general response to the article you link to, is that the very problems Begley is decrying have been largely debunked under the heading of evo psych. I am going into neuropsychology and linguistics, with the intention of doing research in evolutionary psychopathology – focusing on addiction and the various causes of addictions. My interest in this was largely driven by the understanding that ultimately the notion that genetics drives behavior (excepting some neural pathologies) is absurd.

    Evolutionary psychology isn’t a monolith and certainly isn’t limited to the politics trump science bullshit that Begley is talking about. That bullshit gets all the press, because it is politically provocative, not because it is anything more than a tiny fraction of the field. There is far more research being done that involves psychopathology and neural-physical anthropology, than there is research into generalized human behaviors.

    Indeed a lot of the research involves cross-cultural studies, exploring what human behaviors might be described as universal. These studies have done a pretty bangup job of eviscerating the claims made about rape, murder and promiscuity (as well as many other ridiculous claims). Of course those claims were debunked before they ever surfaced, as a minimal amount of reading in cultural anth would indicate that these behaviors aren’t universal – that there are/were many cultures where there is no motivation for the first two and overt, environmental pressures that preclude the latter. The same is true of virtually every claim made by the folks trying to justify all sorts of shit with bunk science.

    As someone who is studying to engage in research that involves evo psych and real science, I am tired of people feeling justified in dismissing evo psych out of hand.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Thanks DuWayne. I agree that Baron Pike way over-spoke and didn’t mind your push back. Personally, I have promoted evolutionary psychologists on the blog on a number of occasions and their insights strongly influenced my dissertation even and have helped shift or fill in my ethical paradigms in a number of ways in the last 2 years. So, I’m totally with you in saying that evolutionary psychology is itself not the problem and that bad evolutionary psychology can be refuted with good evolutionary psychology.

    Ultimately, I think it’s just inevitably something that has to be done and done the best it can even before it’s scientific credibility is unimpeachable for every claim it makes. The social sciences already have this struggle of being less determinate than biology, which is in some ways less determinate than chemistry, which is in turn in some ways less determinate than physics. I think the problem is that with evo psych you have the same sorts of limits on conclusiveness that you have in the other social sciences, but to compound it you have psychologists directly trying to get to truths of evolution—which is historically primarily biology territory. So, there is some “don’t get your soft social science in my hard natural science” knee jerk.

    And when you add hair trigger political sensibilities afraid of people jumping straight from is to ought in crude ways, then you also have political activists and moral philosophers jumping up and down whenever evo psych says something that would be morally unpleasant about human nature. Being myself a student of Nietzsche, I am comfortable with the idea that some biological and psychological realities may be quite unpleasant to us morally and yet being an ethics specialist I also get extremely irritated with the frequency with which people jump from the is of our psychology to an ought for our ethics in crude ways.

    I am a naturalist about ethics who thinks we do get our best ethical guidance from consideration of our natural tendencies but not in such crude way as to say we should do whatever we naturally happen to do however we naturally happen to do it, as the crudest readers of evolution do. And since Social Darwinists really do and really did exist with ugly consequences, I understand why the burden of proof on me as an ethical naturalist is first to prove that I’m not one. And I don’t mind the pressure being applied to evo psych to constantly make those kinds of distinctions clear. It will help keep it honest and to shape it in a way that keeps it from being exploited in bad ways.

    But, at the end of the day, as crude and overly dismissive as Baron Pike’s remark was, it was also just a quick blog comment rant and nothing so important as to demand George’s condemnation of baseless trolling. You were fine to attack right back at the substance of Pike’s view. But since Pike’s view (though rhetorically overstated and, I think, on net wrong) is not some completely unheard of position in the arena of ideas.

    It is a position that others do make arguments for and not just ignorant trolling (however overstated and wrong it might be). So, my inclination was to clarify to George the preexisting controversy that the comment entered into which made it not simple trolling but just a very partisan and unnuanced blog rant, representing an actual position.

    And while I think that this incident with Hauser only vindicates the scientific community by showing how its mechanisms actually work successfully and do ferret out bogus results—if there is any thread for the opponents of evo psych to triumphalistically predict the discrediting evo psych’s leading proponents, well, this is it.