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Exposed scientific dishonesty illustrates why science is so great

That title may sound counter intuitive, but give me a chance to explain.

You may have heard about the bit of academic scandal that’s been happening at Harvard recently. Marc Hauser is a Professor in the Departments of Psychology, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology. He was the leading researcher on the evolution of morality and moral behavior in primates and humans and an author of a number of books, including Moral Minds and (in progress) Evilicious: Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.

In a somewhat amusingly ironic twist, he was found guilty of scientific misconduct, including fabrication of data that will result in several papers being retracted.

This is a very serious situation, especially since Marc Hauser was such a big name in his field. His career is effectively over, and now reseachers in the field have to rethink everything they’ve learned from him (and cited from him). It’s even more serious for his students, whose futures are uncertain when their graduate advisor has such a black mark on his record. It’s upsetting to the field of science as a whole, which does rely on a certain level of trust for practical reasons. We peer review to the best of our abilities, but you still have to hope everyone else is being honest like you since it can take time to expose problems.

It’s also a little jarring to me personally. Not only will I have to reexamine what I read in one of his books that I greatly enjoyed, but I almost went to graduate school in one of the departments he teaches in. Academic scandals aren’t the best way to start your graduate career.

But we have to remember this is what makes science so great. Science is not dogmatic. It’s based on peer review and constant criticism. Scientists are still human and make errors, sometimes purposefully and sometimes not, so it’s important to have these checks in place. Hauser was a giant in his field, but even he was not immune to scrutiny. It was his own graduate students who brought these problems to our attention at great personal risk.

Some people are using this as a chance to pooh-pooh the whole field of evolutionary psychology. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time for creationists like Ken Ham to squeal with glee and twist the facts for their own “Never trust science!!!” agenda. But I really don’t think this is quite so tragic. Isn’t it good to know that we still expose bad science, even when we may have political reasons to not? Would we rather have evolutionary psychology trucking on without criticism, or get the fraudulent data out in the open? I’d be more concerned with the field if it was just being swept under the table. While it’s sad such dishonesty occured, I’m happy to know that we can still sniff it out, correct it, and punish those who perpetuate it.

Maybe I’m being overly optimistic (I know, unusual for me). But I think it’s good to use this as an example of why science is the best way of exploring the world around us: Because when our findings are wrong, we’ll admit it.

Comments

  1. says

    As Dawkins and others have said, Science isn’t a religion. Science is a system. That system is constantly testing itself. Those ideas, and individuals, that fail have gone by the wayside. Other than receiving a “Revelation from God” religions don’t work in the same way.

  2. LS says

    I forget where I heard the story, I think it was in a rather big-name documentary about religion by one of our ‘Atheist Celebrities.’ But wherever I heard it, the story essentially reflected on a professor the storyteller had known, who had invested a great deal of his career in a particular hypothesis, and discussed it in classes etc. One day a visiting professor heard him discuss his hypothesis in class, and pointed out some data which completely invalidated the resident professor’s hypothesis. Rather than getting upset, the resident professor thanked the visitor, happy to have progressed beyond a bad hypothesis. Despite the fact that he’d spent a great deal of his career developing this idea. When I heard that story, told with all the personal details and minutia that I can’t remember now, I started to tear up with pride. I was, and am, so proud of our species for what it has accomplished through science. Not just the end results, either, but the scientific culture of honesty and international community as well. Then again, I also cried when Kain and Cecil accidentally burned down the Village of Mist in Final Fantasy IV yesterday. I’m kind of a wuss like that.

  3. says

    I think that this could be expanded beyond science to include all human thought. The people I most admire are those that can look at the ideas they hold most dear and change and shed those ideas when they discover new data the disproves the notion they once held. I’ve also lost a lot of respect for people I once respected because of this. One example is as such:I went to a science fiction convention this year, mainly because the Guest of Honor was an author I really respected and he was offering a workshop on writing. I was jazzed to be able to learn from one of Canadian sci-fi’s greats. The main point he was making is that you should have an elevator pitch for your novel, you should be able to boil the whole thing down to a central concept that you can explain very quickly. All right, sounds good so far, and for what it’s worth I agreed with his point and saw the validity. However, I wanted to know if he had seen any successful books that didn’t fit this pattern. He refused to answer my question saying that it would undermine his point, and then mentioned something about self-publishing and how people say that because John Scalzi did it then it’s the way to go. Ok, I’ll admit it at this point I still respected the guy and felt like an ass for asking the question. Part of me was furious though. I like to study the exceptions to the rule and see why they are such. A lot of times the exceptions are so bizzare and out there that they demonstrate why the normal way of doing things is the best in most cases (at least in attempting to get publish, mileage may vary elsewhere). I was also mad because he refused to answer because it felt like he was taking an adversarial approach, as if my question was an attack. It wasn’t. I asked it in a completely neutral tone.Later I saw him act like an ass to a fellow panelist that happened to be a philosopher, and what respect I had remaining flew out the window. The worst part, this author is an avowed atheist who’s made the point before about atheists not acting like jerks to religious people. It’s also colored my reading of this authors books as well. Having some cash I had purchased a few of his books to read before I’d met him, and after that convention I read one that I hadn’t yet read, and I could hear and almost feel his attitude seeping through the page, a certain smugness that I might have missed before.Sorry, I know I had a point coming along eventually. What I saying is that honesty with ourselves and our peers should apply in fields other than science. We should endeavor to make it the human norm. To do otherwise risks looking hypocritical in the eyes of all.

  4. Vanessa says

    I believe you are talking about Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion (TV special). He told this story of a professor he had as an undergraduate.

  5. EdenBunny says

    No, LS is correct; it was Final Fantasy IV. Kain and Cecil never got to the Village of Mist in the Richard Dawkins special….:D.

  6. Rollingforest says

    I saw a church sign today that said, “If God is pulling at your heart, don’t let your mind interfere.”Translation: “Don’t think, just believe whatever we tell you.” Scary.

  7. says

    This really is why I love science, no idea, no research, no individual scientist is above criticism. There is no such thing as a question that you’re not allowed to ask (just try raising questions about the historical validity of Joshua in a bible study group) and while hypocritical pastors often keep preaching (see Ted Haggard’s new church) a scientist caught in academic dishonesty will watch his/her career crumble. Yay Science! O/Also, just noticed I’m the 5th ‘most liked’ commenter and got a huge kick out of that lol :).

  8. says

    A small furniture store here in the south does the same kind of platitudes on their signs. The most recent one is “Let Jesus turn your efil around”. As bad as that is, they’ve had worse up there, even worse than the one you mentioned. Maybe we can hold a contest for the ‘worst religious platitude on a sign’ contest?You can totally run with that Jen.

  9. says

    You’re totally right Jen, and it’s really, really unfortunate about Hauser. I still recommend “Moral Minds” to lots of people, and I was really looking forward to his new book.

  10. chicagodyke says

    one of the sayings in my Atheist Book of Reason is “put not ye faith into Celebrity; for they shall disappoint ye.” a famous sci fi author is a neolibertarian asshole? color me shocked, not. these guys are elevated to their status because they can be counted upon to keep the market in a right-leaning direction, influencing young readers in a way that TV or newspapers cannot. there are so many winger sci fi writers out there, and in america, anyone who is not is treated like a ‘specialty’ market and shoved to the lower shelves and minor book tour circuit. i tossed my cookies when i read that the DoD hired a bunch of very well known sci fi authors to help them imagine how to kill brown people in the middle east better. keep in mind i’m a life long sci fi reader with a sci fi library of ~2K volumes in my home. i could barely rewrite that paragraph and it would be true for TV people, writers, famous bloggers, politicians, etc. americans are so addicted to celebrity worship, it’s hard to know what to say sometimes. it is very strange to be a person with no TV, or newspaper subscriptions. i can’t always understand the perspective of others. but the amount of time my mind dwells on celebrity is mostly limited to comments like this one, which are infrequent. i guess that makes me a freak.

  11. chicagodyke says

    meh, i guess i’m just a scrooge. but i can’t help but say that the Academe has a long way to go before it can claim a totally clean house. sorry, i did High Academic kabuki for a long while, and mingled with its lords and ladies. there’s plenty of unscientific, self-serving, not based on real data, fudgery taking place there. hello, can we start with the “scientific” field of economics? jeebus, that’s so filled with such bunk it’s hard to know where to start. yet those responsible for entities like the catfood commission sit atop the highest academic thrones, paid millions in book and speaking fees and salaries, invited to all the Serious policy events. don’t get me started on the racist, sexist, arm chair scholar field of anthropology, which is only just now beginning to undo hundreds of years of serving imperialism as intellectual handmaiden. re my other comment: and then there are the celebrity academics. who are often just as discredited as the guy in this post, but somehow still manage to land choice TV gigs and book contracts. i love the fact that a purist like me can have a nice career in the academe and get lots of perks for doing nice stuff like writing and reading and teaching. but Iraq cured me of my purist, innocent love of it. it’s a long story and it’s late and i’m lazy, but go look for my very early corrente post titled “the hand of the Storm is from Heaven.” sigh. yes, true science rocks. corrects itself. does wonders to make us all proud to be Rational. but i haven’t even touched on the practice of modern day scientific research, Big Pharma, and the increasing influence of bean counting administrators more concerned with a university’s endowment than the practice of real, critically reviewed science. that’s a post in itself. shorter me: it’s more common that something like this is swept under the rug with a slap on the wrist, than it is for such a public shaming to take place. for every one you hear about, there are 10 you don’t. unis don’t like the bad publicity, and being mostly little feudal kingdoms run by princely administrators, it’s easy to hide the corruption that is widespread.

  12. John Sherman says

    Usually scientists prove their love of truth by going back and revising mistaken old science with new data. But a situation like this proves that even when it hurts us in the eyes of people, scientists (and those of a scientific temperament) will always promote the truth.

  13. says

    Well I have to say, I’ve long viewed ev psych askance. But people who I respect who are in the field say that they have predicted a number of results that have been upheld and that no other approach would have predicted. So I try not to view them as a bunch of guys coming up with Just-So Stories about why 50 year old men simply must sleep with 16 year old girls, why women are naturally bad at math, etc. But there do seem to be some real turdballs in the field (and it’s hard to find an evolutionary biologist who will cut them much slack), and the pop side of it is horrible.

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