Follow-up on evolutionary psych fail

(We noticed the story earlier here.) 

The Chronicle of Higher Education has made public the substance of a document provided to Harvard.  The author was a research assistant in Hauser’s labs.  CHE is reporting the assistant’s version as though it is established truth.  Perhaps there is another side.  As things are now, it is not a pretty story.

An internal document, however, sheds light on what was going on in Mr. Hauser’s lab. It tells the story of how research assistants became convinced that the professor was reporting bogus data and how he aggressively pushed back against those who questioned his findings or asked for verification. …

The former research assistant, who provided the document on condition of anonymity, said his motivation in coming forward was to make it clear that it was solely Mr. Hauser who was responsible for the problems he observed. The former research assistant also hoped that more information might help other researchers make sense of the allegations. …

The experiment [which led students and research assistants to come together over the issues] tested the ability of rhesus monkeys to recognize sound patterns. …

 Researchers watched videotapes of the experiments and “coded” the results, meaning that they wrote down how the monkeys reacted. As was common practice, two researchers independently coded the results so that their findings could later be compared to eliminate errors or bias. …

They then reviewed Mr. Hauser’s coding and, according to the research assistant’s statement, discovered that what he had written down bore little relation to what they had actually observed on the videotapes. He would, for instance, mark that a monkey had turned its head when the monkey didn’t so much as flinch. It wasn’t simply a case of differing interpretations, they believed: His data were just completely wrong.

As word of the problem with the experiment spread, several other lab members revealed they had had similar run-ins with Mr. Hauser, the former research assistant says. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. There was, several researchers in the lab believed, a pattern in which Mr. Hauser reported false data and then insisted that it be used.

I’ve omitted many of the details, which can be found on the CHE website.  One of the important features is that they were investigating the capacities of monkeys to recognize sound patterns.  That’s thought to be a component of language learning.  The extent to which cognition is language based or language involving is right hugely important.  IMHO.

9 thoughts on “Follow-up on evolutionary psych fail

  1. I find it a bit contentious to entitle this blog post ‘evolutionary psych fail’. After all, Hauser is not ye typical evolutionary psychologist (I should think people like Leda Cosmides or David Buss are far more representative of that field). Also, I don’t see how the scientific misconduct of one person could reflect on the whole field of evolutionary psychology.

  2. Alice, I don’t think the phrase “Method X fail” implies anything general about the use of the method. I could be wrong, so I’m glad you’ve brought it up.

    Hauser does get called an evolutionary psychologist, and I think his work may give weight to that field’s claims. Still, I think you are right that others are more closely associated with it. Would you care to characterize the differences? I think I might have said earlier that of course Hauser’s work is much more experimentally grounded. Now, however, there are questions.

  3. I just don’t see what it is about Hauser’s alleged misdeeds — involving, as far as I can tell, the marshaling of observational data — that has anything in particular to do with evopsych. “Science fail” would, I think, be more accurate. Though the fact that the alleged misdeeds have been exposed, and this exposure will further stimulate the extension of the frontiers of knowledge, might make that designation also misleading.

  4. JJ, according to at least one recent review paper (Jaime Confer et al., American Psychologist 2010) evol psych is the study of human behavior as a result of evolved psychological mechanisms. So most papers in this field, for example, as published in Evolutionary Psychology and Evolution & Human Behavior, two leading journals in the field, study human subjects.
    Work of biologists who study animal cognition, like Marc Hauser, has bearing on evolutionary psychology but in a less direct way, namely as a way to examine differences and similarities in cognition and behavior between humans and nonhuman animals. Hauser’s work has puzzled authors working in that field for years. For example, there are studies to suggest that self-recognition in a mirror is limited to humans and a few other species such as dolphins and chimpanzees. Hauser was the only author who published a paper suggesting self-recognition in a new world monkey. Comparative psychologists called his striking ability to show hitherto uniquely human cognitive capacities, such as learning abstract rules in his cottontop tamarins the “Hauser effect”. The concern now is that the Hauser effect might be an artifact of sloppy experimenting or downright scientific misconduct.
    I am very annoyed with the situation because as a philosopher of mind I have often cited Hauser’s work. I can deal with experimental error – after all, monkey cognition is a difficult field where the data are sometimes hard to read off (for example, some studies like the ones published by Hauser rely on differences in durations of looking time), but not with deliberate data misreporting or fabrication. If philosophers can’t trust scientific findings, the project of harmonizing philosophy and science as advocated by people like Quine gets in jeopardy.

  5. Alice, if my research involved theses that were given credibility by Hauser’s work, I’d feel ill and angry.

    But about his work: Hauser does study human cognition and he does see it as the result of evolved psychological mechanisms. That’s a central thesis in his book Moral Minds: How Nature Shaped Our Sense of Right and Wrong. (Hope I have the full title right….)

  6. It’s true that Hauser and others believe his work to be relevant for human cognition. Hauser draws extensive implications of his research in his review papers and books. But his methodology involves the study of *animal* cognition. Typically along the lines of ‘capacity X is thought to be uniquely human. My cottontops can do X, so X is not uniquely human’. There are a lot of hidden assumptions there (for instance, the belief that like behaviors are caused by similar cognitive dispositions). As I once heard Collin Allen remark on a plenary talk, studies on animal cognition tend to look a bit like trophy hunting, where the ability of a nonhuman species to do some or other human feat is invariably seen as an important discovery: look what my monkey/dolphin/crow,… can do. Such a trophy hunting climate, where human cognition is always set as a benchmark against which other animals are assessed may be conducive of practices where animal behavior is interpreted in such a way that the desired results are obtained.

  7. Alice, areas I work in so stress the difference between analogous capacities and homologous ones that I’m surprised not everyone does, but maybe that’s because I tend to look at work using fMRI. Not sure about that, though.

    Hauser’s done quite a bit of collaborative work on humans and some of its published.

  8. Reading this story I noticed something that reminded me of a post on this blog. Earlier you posted this question about being addressed as “Ms./Mrs.” rather than “Dr.” in correspondence.

    In the article linked in this post they use both “Mr. Hauser” and “Dr. Hauser” to describe the individual in question. I am wondering whether the title confusion is becoming wide-spread. Or maybe the title “Mr.” is being used in this case because he has been accused of misconduct and it is showing disrespect? I am not sure.

  9. Bakka- I don’t know what the CHE’s standard practice is, but I know that the New York Times, for example, uses “Dr.” only for medical doctors, and will use “Mr.” or “Ms.” (or maybe sometimes “Mrs.”, though I don’t think so) for people with Ph.D.s I think that’s a bit dumb and the argument for it I’ve seen is also dumb, but it’s possible that the CHE is following NY Times style guide here. The examples of the use of “Dr.” that I noticed in the article were all in quoted speech or documents, rather than something written by the article’s author. So, my guess is they are using the NY Times style guide and calling people other than medical doctors “Mr.” or “Ms.”, but when they are quoting someone or a document that uses “Dr.”, they don’t change the quote.

Comments are closed.