Hauser Plagiarism Case Tabled (for the moment)

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So, a couple of days ago, Gilbert Harman, Philosophy Professor at Princeton, wrote four pages arguing that Marc Hauser’s 2006 book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong, plagiarized the work of John Mikhail. I mentioned it and linked to it in my Sunday Linkasaurolophus post.

Since then, the paper has been taken down from Harman’s website.

Apparently, Harman did not intend for the argument to be made public. It was more like brainstorming, a first step at putting together “the case for the prosecution,” as Harman puts it. It was a draft that he had meant to be presented only to a small circle, as Harman explained here:

For the record, my discussion was intended as a draft of a case for the prosecution and not a final verdict on this topic. I thought I was making it available for only a few people in order to get comments, but apparently it has had a somewhat wider audience than I intended. In the light of various comments I have received, I need to rethink the “case”, something I cannot do immediately, so I have removed that version from my web site.

Interestingly, my earlier post received an anonymous comment from someone claiming to be a student of Hauser’s. The comment stated that Harman’s piece was retracted, and that Hauser could not possibly have had a culture of fear in his lab, since he has trained so many successful scientists, and has won awards for teaching and mentoring.

I mention that just to point out two things. First, based on Harman’s own comment, the piece has not been retracted so much as it has been shelved until Harman has more time. When and if he puts something together that he is willing to stand behind in a public forum, it might be less critical of Hauser, or it might be more critical. We’ll just have to wait and see. In any event, I don’t think that the removal of the piece should necessarily be viewed as a repudiation of the original claims. Certainly, it seems reasonable to assume that the facts that Harman presented wil not change, even if his interpretation of them does.

Second, yes, Hauser has a reputation as a gifted communicator, teacher, and mentor. Yes, Hauser has trained a lot of successful scientists. And, I have no doubt that there are people out there who think very highly of him, at least highly enough to anonymously defend him in blog comment threads.

However, none of that is inconsistent with the portrayal of Hauser’s lab presented by other lab members, which paints Hauser as, at best, dismissive impatient, and, at worst, a bit of a bully.

That being said, my use of the phrase “culture of fear” to describe Hauser’s lab may have been a bit over the top.

I’ll keep my ear to the ground, and will post anything new that comes up on the Harman piece. In the meantime, if you’re interested in the whole Hauser saga, David Dobbs wrote several nice posts on it, four of which you can find (in chronological order) here, herehere, and here.

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5 thoughts on “Hauser Plagiarism Case Tabled (for the moment)”

  1. Interesting stuff.

    Climate of fear or whatever – never a good thing, but it’s not misconduct, so not sure how important it is.

    The plagiarism allegation, though, needs to be followed up. I’m not sure I buy Harman’s explanation of why he pulled the article though, I mean an initial sketch is fine, but why make it public if he didn’t want people to read it?

    Hopefully we’ll see a more detailed version soon.

  2. I hope he will actually follow up on this. The arguments that Harman put forth certainly struck me as compelling. My best guess is that he got a nasty note from Hauser, or from a Hauser supporter, and that he decided to go the discretion route. Of course, I don’t actually know.

    I think the question of whether the students in his lab fear(ed) Hauser is relevant only to the extent that it might give an indication of how much more dirt there is under the rug that people have been reluctant to bring forward.

  3. I was only in Hauser’s lab for one year, but saying there was a “culture of fear” would I think overstate the problem. It takes incredible management ability to deal with a lab full of people all trying to get top positions, not to mention trying to bring in the immense amount of reliable funding necessary to support non-human primate research (remember, you can’t lay off a monkey). I doubt anyone is fully up to the job, or that there’s a leading lab in the world that no one’s felt damaged by in any way. I personally found Hauser himself immensely generous with his time and ideas but the rest of his lab a bit difficult to navigate socially. Since the crisis has broken I’ve heard repeatedly from former students begging me to help defend Hauser and I’ve heard from other students who felt torn because they’d seen both the good and bad sides of the lab. I’ve also had friendly conversations with Hauser himself. This is all a mess as well as an ongoing court case, and I’m sure there’s things about lab management to learn from it, but demonising any of the sides is not going to get at the truth.

  4. Joanna,

    That’s good to hear. In my own (more limited) interactions with Hauser, it was clear that he was both brilliant and charming, but he also seemed like he could be arrogant and impatient. That paints a picture of someone who could be a great advisor or a terrible one (or anything in between). I’m glad that your experience was a positive one. The fact that there seem to be a lot of former lab members out there who are fond of him and eager to defend him is important, since it suggests that the experiences of the anonymous sources in the Boston Globe were perhaps more anomalous.

    You may not feel comfortable commenting on this, but I would welcome insights from you or anyone else who has spent time in his lab. The picture that comes to my mind, in the scientific misconduct case, is one of a scientist who is maybe just ambitious, and too convinced that his theories are correct. So, when an experiment seems to contradict his ideas, he assumes that the experiment was somehow flawed. I imagine him saying to himself, “Well, I know what the results should have been.”

    And it may well be that his theories are right. I’m not close enough to the field to have an informed opinion on that.

    I think your point about top labs sounds dead on. Before moving into evolutionary theory, I was in biochemistry, where top labs are more often than not run by domineering personalities, and characterized by extreme competition both within and among labs. My sense is that many biomedically oriented fields are the same. In a way, what is surprising is that there are not more issues of scientific misconduct.

    Or maybe there would be, if all publications received the level of scrutiny that Hauser’s have.

  5. I don’t feel comfortable commenting on a court case, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable defending someone who was an obvious cheater. But I still think from your comment that you have an overly hierarchical model. The pressure of high-end, expensive labs is endemic to the situation and affects more than just the PI, although ultimately the PI is responsible for the well-being of their staff and the validity of their research, they may not actually be able to entirely control that. But in saying that, I am not implying any particular model of the Hauser case in particular, I am just saying that you still make it sound like only the top of a lab is capable of being a problem, and that is just not the case.

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