Pattern of the Modal Scientific Miscreant


From The Nation:

In the summer of 2007, while the scientist Marc Hauser was in Australia, Harvard University authorities entered his lab on the tenth floor of William James Hall, seizing computers, videotapes, unpublished manuscripts and notes. Hauser, then 47, was a professor of psychology, organismic and evolutionary biology, and biological anthropology. He was popular with students and a prolific researcher and author, with more than 200 papers and several books to his name. His most recent book, Moral Minds (2006), discusses the biological bases of human morality. Noam Chomsky called it “a lucid, expert, and challenging introduction to a rapidly developing field with great promise and far-reaching implications”; for Peter Singer, it is “a major contribution to an ongoing debate about the nature of ethics.”

Three years after the seizure of materials from Hauser’s lab, the Boston Globe leaked news of a secret investigating committee at Harvard that had found Hauser “solely responsible” for “eight counts of scientific misconduct.” Michael Smith, Harvard’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, confirmed the existence of the investigation on August 20, 2010. Hauser took a leave of absence, telling the New York Times, “I acknowledge that I made some significant mistakes,” and adding that he was “deeply sorry for the problems this case had caused to my students, my colleagues and my university.” At the time he was working on a new book titled Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad. In February 2011 a large majority of the faculty of Harvard’s psychology department voted against allowing Hauser to teach in the coming academic year. On July 7 he resigned his professorship effective August 1. Hauser has neither publicly admitted to nor denied having engaged in scientific misconduct.

Science is driven by two powerful motivations—to discover the “truth,” while acknowledging how fleeting it can be, and to achieve recognition through publication in prominent journals, through grant support to continue and expand research, and through promotion, prizes and memberships in prestigious scientific societies. The search for scientific truth may be seriously derailed by the desire for recognition, which may result in scientific misconduct.

Scientists guilty of misconduct are found in every field, at every kind of research institution and with a variety of social and educational backgrounds. Yet a survey of the excellent coverage of fraud in Science and recent books on the subject—ranging from Horace Freeland Judson’s The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science (2004) to David Goodstein’s On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales From the Front Lines of Science (2010)—reveals a pattern of the most common, or modal, scientific miscreant. He is a bright and ambitious young man working in an elite institution in a rapidly moving and highly competitive branch of modern biology or medicine, where results have important theoretical, clinical or financial implications. He has been mentored and supported by a senior and respected establishment figure who is often the co-author of many of his papers but may have not been closely involved in the research.

Scientific misconduct is often difficult to detect. Although grant applications and research papers submitted to prestigious journals are rigorously reviewed, it is very difficult for a reviewer to uncover fabrication or falsification. Attempts at “replication”—repeating someone else’s experiment—are usually another weak filter for misconduct. Journals are reluctant to publish results of attempts at replication, whether positive or negative, thereby discouraging such attempts. In any case, particularly in the complex world of biology, it is often hard to repeat a specific experiment because of the multitude of differences, often unknown, between the original and the replication. Failure to replicate does not demonstrate fraud; however, it does indicate a problem to be looked into. Sometimes fraud is detected by a careful examination of published papers revealing multiply published or doctored illustrations; more often it is uncovered by the perpetrator’s students or other members of his laboratory. 

Disgrace: On Marc Hauser”, Charles Gross, The Nation