Harvard researcher Marc Hauser committed research misconduct in his studies of primate behaviour, the university said Friday.
Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported that Hauser, 50, the author of Moral minds: How nature designed a universal sense of right and wrong, a noted researcher in the roots of animal cognition, had been placed on leave following accusations by his students that he had purposely fabricated data in his research. His work relied on observing responses by tamarin monkeys to stimuli such as changes in sound patterns, claiming they possessed thinking skills often viewed as unique to humans and apes. (Available at http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~mnkylab/publications/recent/AnnRevPsych.pdf)
In a letter sent to the Harvard faculty, Dean Michael Smith confirms a university investigation found "eight instances of scientific misconduct" by Hauser. A research paper has been retracted as a result of the finding, another corrected, and a Science paper has a correction under discussion; "five other cases" were also investigated, according to the letter.
Hauser's work looked for the evolutionary roots of moral behaviour in the responses of cotton-top tamarins to teasing by researchers. His next planned book is Evilicious: explaining our evolved taste for being bad, according to his website.
"It is good that Harvard now confirms the rumours, so that there is no doubt that they found actual scientific misconduct, and that they will take appropriate action," says Emory University primate researcher Frans de Waal. "But it leaves open whether we in the field of animal behaviour should just worry about those three articles or about many more, and then there are also publications related to language and morality that include data that are now in question. From my reading of the dean's letter, it seems that all data produced by this lab over the years are potentially in question."
"Dishonesty in cognitive science is somehow more disturbing than dishonesty in biology or physical science," said psychologist David Premack, an emeritus professor of the University of Pennsylvania, in an email to USA TODAY. "The latter threatens the lives of people, producing a kind of harm we readily comprehend. The former puzzles us: it produces no physical harm, but threatens our standards, a kind of harm we do not readily understand. Because he caused no physical harm, we see him as discrediting everything he touched, including science itself. Hauser, a gifted writer, had no need for shortcuts."