Marc Hauser's excuse making for faking data

Sep 07 2012 Published by under Scientific Misconduct

From the CHE:


In the statement, Hauser calls the five years of investigation into his research “a long and painful period.” He also acknowledges making mistakes, but seems to blame his actions on being stretched too thin. “I tried to do too much, teaching courses, running a large lab of students, sitting on several editorial boards, directing the Mind, Brain & Behavior Program at Harvard, conducting multiple research collaborations, and writing for the general public,” he writes.

Utterly ridiculous. This is the J.O.B. of an active, scientific research generating, field leading Professor appointed at Harvard and many other Universities.

It is not part of the job to falsify data.

27 responses so far

  • Pinko Punko says:

    His is a pathetic rationalization. I presume he didn't expect that he was really going down the path he went down, but he should just admit that his ego drove him to fabricate what he convinced himself was true. This is pure ego. He's important so he must continue to make important discoveries. Failed experiments are for less important people.

  • miko says:

    He also says this: "I take responsibility for all errors made in the lab, whether or not I was directly involved."

    Asshole tries to shift blame to members of his lab, who risked their careers (where are they now?) to blow the whistle on his shit. I'm sure the mucky-mucks at Harvard are thanking them and looking out for their interests.

  • Hermitage says:

    That kind of excuse wouldn't fly if he were a grade-schooler; his statement simply shows he hasn't learned jackshit from this experience. If anything, he's grown a persecution complex on top of his arrogance.

  • poke says:

    Hey now, this could be worse: at least he didn't try to write off his transgressions as research for his morality books.

    You know, gotta experience this stuff first hand to be an authority!

  • This may be a reason why committed fraud, in the same way that "I want a lot more money than I have" is a reason for robbing a bank or committing insider trading violations. But it is no more an excuse or justification than that would be.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I find an interesting distinction between the cases where the motivations appear credibly to be "I just want to stay viable" versus those cases where the motivations lean more toward "I'm super turbo famous or I have a super turbo famous model/finding and I am motivated to further burnish my outsized ego by the 'need' to continue accomplishing amazing shit".

  • comrade physioprof says:

    I don't see anything interesting in that distinction. Both cases boil down to allowing the desire to get shitte you want to override your conformance with professional ethical norms.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Rock star assholes at fancy institutions are the worst though.

  • [...] DrugMonkey notes that Marc Hauser has offered an explanation for faking data (as reported on the Chronicle of Higher Education Percolator blog). His explanation amounts to: [...]

  • Alex says:

    I want to make clear that by offering an explanation and noting a pattern I am NOT making an excuse. Plenty of other people have faced similar situations and have made the right choice.

    That said, everything I have heard (admittedly anecdotally, not a statistical study) is that most academic dishonesty, from freshman lab reports to fabricated journal articles, begins in a desperate moment, not a lazy moment. Somebody feels in over their head, and makes the wrong choice. Most of the case studies offered by the campus office that handles plagiarism and cheating show students who managed time poorly or were overwhelmed, and then they made the wrong choice.

    I want to make absolutely clear that their choice is wrong, and noting their desperation is not a way of making an excuse.

    Perhaps there's nothing that systems should do differently from a cheating perspective--plenty of people succeed honestly in academic science, and plenty of others manage to get by or get out in an honest manner. If we want to talk about relieving the pressure that the system puts on people, we should talk about how to help the vast majority who don't cheat. Whether it's grade forgiveness policies for people who improve after a weak freshman year, or a laboratory culture that doesn't regard "alternative careers" as a sign of weakness, people need to know that there's an honorable way to not "make it" and go on with dignity.

    However, my quiet suspicion is that if we did more (at every level) to reduce pressure and make honest failure an honorable option, and provide an honest path out, besides the benefits for honest people who find the stress overwhelming, we might also reduce the incidence of cheating. Whether it's the freshman who knows that the world won't end if he fails this class or the postdoc who knows that the world won't end if he doesn't make Glamour Magz, people who see an honest way out might be less likely to cut corners.

    All that said, some cheaters are just plain pathological liars. I've met one or two. They aren't responding to pressure, they just can't show the world an honest face. For those people, the only thing you can do is identify them and then stay as far away as possible. Here's an interesting and related read that showed up in my RSS today:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/08/06/120806fa_fact_singer

  • APS says:

    I too noticed this and was like whhhaaaa?! We are all under pressure - but also, I really did not like the way he implied he was not himself the main source. In fact it was people from within his lab who really got this whole thing to start coming out.

    I'd like to add some more detail to the "pressures" as someone who worked in a related field around the same times. One of the things that the more general levels of this discussion is missing is how theoretically hot these issues were (a specific form of the nature vs. nurture issue) and how religious and nasty the innateness side was about the whole thing. I was working in related fields around the time of some of the retracted papers. A lot of powerful innateness people like Hauser were vocal and visible in the field writing popular books (Chomsky, Pinker), but also acting as paper and grant reviewers, editorial boards, conference organizers. They had a cohesive, supportive group among themselves - mostly east coast US - and were quite brutal to other viewpoints. I am biased since I am on the other side (west coast!) but we were definitely the underdogs. (And afaik, some of this continues to this day - look up how Daniel Everett's research has been badmouthed so vehemently, and eventually his access to the population he's been working on for decades has been thwarted). My initial PhD advisor was someone who they called "wicked witch of the west". After a few years I became interested in slightly different topics. But the nastiness and dirty fighting in that field was likely also a factor in me leaving the field.

    So I would add to the above the pressures: to prove your theory right and squash the opponent ideas right up there in why this happened. As scientists we are supposed to be impartial. While this may be impossible to achieve perfectly for any one, that's what we strive for. To me Hauser's case shows that he simply did not strive, did not try. He just wanted to keep on being "right". It's almost tragic how hard people were working on all sides of the theory (and how much science funding was being poured into) to really nail things down in this area - when it turns out one of the major voices was simply faking data.

    This is one of the reason I think we need to be careful about scientists being quasi-religious about certain theories. I don't mean we should question evolution or anything like that. But the culture of science should be to reduce our biases and try to discover things as opposed to let our biases drive what we do (sometimes to such fraudulent extremes).

  • MudraFinger says:

    @Alex:
    "That said, everything I have heard (admittedly anecdotally, not a statistical study) is that most academic dishonesty, from freshman lab reports to fabricated journal articles, begins in a desperate moment, not a lazy moment. Somebody feels in over their head, and makes the wrong choice. Most of the case studies offered by the campus office that handles plagiarism and cheating show students who managed time poorly or were overwhelmed, and then they made the wrong choice."

    Personally, Hauser strikes me as a prevaricating douchebag, but that doesn't necessarily invalidate your point. It turns out, there IS some research on the topic of limited decisional capacity leading to bad decision-making and behavior, albeit, conducted by social psychologists, several of whom have recently demonstrated enormous douchebaggery themselves - so you have to take the research with a grain of salt, but still:

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597811000422

  • Drugmonky says:

    the postdoc who knows that the world won't end if he doesn't make Glamour Magz

    Why do you think I spend so much blogging time deflating the Glamour myth?

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Because CPP spends an equal time fluffing it?

  • Drugmonky says:

    APS-

    Let's face it. Hauser *had* to fake data because he signed up for a theory which simply is not true. There is no way to legitimately demonstrate what he wanted to demonstrate.

    This is a trap for the more theoretically driven parts of science. Generate the data first...

  • miko says:

    Yes, here is a guy who was clearly in love with his hypotheses because they would make him more prominent in his field and sell books.

    Let's note he is still a rich guy hanging out on cape cod, and probably well connected enough to have a soft landing in some kind of bullshit situation. He clearly has powers of self-justification the rest of us can only dream of, and has probably convinced himself this is the fault of others.

    I did find an article that said, without naming them, that the 3 whistleblowers involved have been able to stay in science and their careers are on track. If true, this is a relief and very rare in these situations.

  • zb says:

    "This is a trap for the more theoretically driven parts of science. Generate the data first..."

    Indeed. But, it's not just that Hauser signed up for a theory which wasn't true, but that he wasn't willing to let the data change his mind (as, APS says in the "religious" battle on the question). The theory dogma seems especially dangerous in fields that are not easily falsifiable (which, unfortunately, includes many areas of science these days).

    In some fields the attachment to the theory seems to drive as much fraud as the most egregious examples of the drug companies.

  • Beaker says:

    There exists a train of thought that argues if a particular theory is particularly beautiful, then it earns precedence over competing theories, data be damned. Francis Crick sometimes argued this viewpoint. I have heard this view from some other internationally famous scientists I've known. Bold thinking? Or hubris? Beauty over truth pisses me off.

  • zb says:

    It's those theoreticians. Before you're allowed to do theory you should have to spend at least a year chained to a lab bench of some sort, training monkeys, or running gels, or patching neurons, or slicing brains, something tedious and messy.

  • I am very, very wary of scientists whose careers are organized around proving some grand theory or hypothesis.

  • There exists a train of thought that argues if a particular theory is particularly beautiful, then it earns precedence over competing theories, data be damned

    That's basically the world view of physics -- that theory is more important than data and that experimentalists are just service providers to help the theoreticians argue with each other, and the cutting edge physics research like string theory can't even be demonstrated experimentally.

    Yes, that's pretty alien to the experimental focus of biology, but biology has the opposite problem where the theoreticians (computational biologists) are the ones seen as service providers. Both viewpoints are kind of messed up in my opinion. Neither data nor theory can stand alone.

  • Dave says:

    Not sure that I would call computational biologists the theoreticians of biology. That does them a disservice.

  • miko says:

    Was recently relating to Bashir how I was told that a very robust experimental observation had to be false because it contradicted with an untested theoretical prediction. Guess who was right?

    I find that in my field, many computational people simply aren't interested in the biology they are purportedly modelling. Or at least not any of the biology that makes their job harder. They are truly just interested in the models themselves.

  • Drugmonky says:

    zb-

    People like Hauser rarely conduct research that is tedious. Notice how his models rely on showing a monkey a mirror? Once. You'll never see something as training a rat in drug discrimination. Or even as experimentally complicated as a repeated measures study of any sort. The comparative cognition types are interested in "spontaneous behavior" you see...

  • @miko
    True,we all know cases in real life similar to the old joke about the physicist analyzing the dairy industry and starting out "Consider a spherical cow moving in simple harmonic motion", but this sort of disinterest in the details cuts both ways though.

    Recently in the bioinformatics blogosphere there was the case brought up of a paper on DNA methylation that contained the text "(insert statistical method here)" -- in the published version! Presumably to the experimentalists writing the paper, and to the reviewers reading it, the statistics were just a boring formality.

  • zb says:

    What CCP said. Hauser is a theoretician for the sake of this argument, and the quality of the experiments are a case in point. It's the attitude, which undermines what I consider the true value Science.

    Feynman sometimes said the right things (The Caltech address) but sometimes slipped (complaints about real cat muscles, as opposed to theoretical ones)

  • Based on the evidence, or lack of, an investigation into Harvard is
    called for as a matter of urgency ("Harvard report shines light on ex
    researcher’s misconduct", Boston Globe, May 30 2014)

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/0 ... story.html

    The inconsistencies clearly evident in the Harvard Report raise very
    serious questions regarding the motives of those involved in the
    'Investigation' of Dr Marc Hauser.

    For example:

    1(a) "Hauser then wrote an e-mail suggesting the entire experiment
    needed to
    be recoded from scratch. “Well, at this point I give up. There have
    been so many errors, I don’t know what to say. . . . I have never seen
    so many errors, and this is really disappointing,” he wrote.
    In defending himself during the investigation, Hauser quoted from that
    e-mail, suggesting it was evidence that he was not trying to alter data.
    The committee disagreed.
    “These may not be the words of someone trying to alter data, but they
    COULD certainly be the words of someone who had previously altered
    data..."

    1(b) "COULD" ??!!

    2(a) 'Later that day, the person resigned from the lab. “It has been
    increasingly clear for a long time now that my interests have been
    diverging sharply from what the lab does, and it seems like an
    increasingly inappropriate and uncomfortable place for me,” the person
    wrote...'

    2(b) Question : Who was that "person"?

    Answer : "Much has been redacted from the report, including the
    identities of those who did the painstaking investigation and those who
    brought the problems to light".

    I am reminded of two passages:

    1. Matthew 7 v 5

    2. "Many people presumably know that they have done something wrong
    based on reactions by others, but don't admit to the wrongdoing or take
    responsibility. Some of these people are excessively narcissistic, a
    disorder that can bleed into the presidency...President George W. Bush
    failed to admit to the public that he went to war with Iraq for reasons
    other than the one concerning weapons of mass destruction..." ~ Marc
    Hauser (Source : 'Moral Minds - How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense
    Of Right And Wrong", Ecco 2006 - Page 155).

    An investigation into Harvard - and beyond - should take place
    immediately.

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