The Marc Hauser Maneno. Truth Will Out.

A fairly accurate and well done, and more up to date, account of what has gone on with the Marc Hauser investigation is here, in a piece punished in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade: In Harvard Lab Inquiry, a Raid and a 3-Year Wait.

It is very clear that the Fourth Estate is on the verge of a detailed and clear description of events.

At this point in time, it is probably a good idea for Harvard to release their internal report or a very good summary of it. Here’s why:

1) There are people who have worked over the years in Hauser’s lab. As long as a cloud of uncertainty rests over this lab, it rests over them as well. That needs to be addressed.

2) There are people who know exactly what happened. It would appear that they are mostly remaining silent, and that can’t last forever.

It would be in Harvard’s interest to simply state the facts, and to be the first to do so. Harvard tends to take the long view of things, willing to either wait out events for decades (the college is, after all, nearly a half millennium old) or taking the punches of a given scandal which could never be as large as the institution’s Olympian reputation. But the world is a little different today. Information does not wait, and people do not care as much as they once did about the clout of an institution, no matter how nice the typeface on their letterhead or how crimson and ivy their countenance. People these days tend to respect a different institution more: Truth and openness.

Let’s have the report, and soon.

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27 thoughts on “The Marc Hauser Maneno. Truth Will Out.

  1. The people who know exactly what happened seem to be the ones who blew the whistle. And if Harvard wanted the truth out, it would already be out.

  2. The guy is a superstar. He’s prominent in Brockman’s stable of ‘Third Culture’ scientist-writers that includes Jaron Lanier, David Gelernter, and Lee Smolin. He discussed the mind onstage with the Dalai Lama and was filmed on the USS Beagle. PBS science shows featured him as an expert. A grade school textbook features his cotton top marmoset research. His coauthors include Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, and Paul Damasio.

    This is a big fucking deal. The ramifications of this are enormous. How many papers use the papers under investigation as a major source? Critics of Harvard, of academia, of the science of behavioral evolution, and of evolution itself are going to pounce on this. They would be stupid not to.

  3. I pity anyone who based their own experiments on his published work; that could be an awful lot of work over the years just flushed down the toilet. I doubt anyone has the time and money to carefully review the impact on their previous work and do the necessary experiments to check if their work is still supported or must be refuted.

    Now as for the folks saying “maybe not all his published work is bunk”, the only method accepted for demonstrating whether or not it is bunk is to reproduce the results using the same claimed experimental conditions, or if the original experiment is believed to be faulty use a modified experiment.

  4. It is also quite likely that people accused Professor Hauser of wrongdoing, and then the investigation found a few records missing and directed him to withdraw the articles. If it took three years of combing through data to find a problem, then probably the original accusions were more colorful than the actual facts. If the original accusations had been vindicated, their originators might not be hiding out. Oh wait –they’re not hiding. They’re spreading unfounded rumors about “fabrication” and “cheating.” I liked your original position, Greg Laden: don’t rush to judgment.

  5. Why the demand and rush for immediate publication? I’d rather have accuracy and completeness than speed. The NYT articles are clearly reporting based on the political factors of Columbia v. Harvard – this isn’t just about allegations of malpractice. The wisest course is to suspend judgment until publication and to end all speculation until some balanced persepctive can be provided. This is clearly beyond the ability of a number of posters unfortunately.

  6. The one person I see quoted over and over on this story is Michael Tomasello. Some of his coauthors are people who earlier appeared as coauthors with Marc Hauser. Does anybody know if there is bad blood between the two of them? Some of Tomasello’s quotes come across as spiteful.

  7. The comments sound spiteful, but it could be the reporting that makes them seem that way. In my experience, when reporters call they already have their story written and they wait for a quote that fits into the story. So it can come out making a quite different point than the speaker intended. This is why it would be better to know all the facts before talking about “cheating” or “falsification.” Journalism needs colorful narrative to be popularly interesting. Reporters supply it when the facts may not. The NYT rhetoric for example –first the article says that Cheney and Seyfarth are known for their “careful” research, then quote Seyfarth saying that Hauser worked differently. He meant “in the lab rather than in the field” but the quote rhetorically seems to imply “not careful.” Also, co-authors have to be worried about being treated the same way. That tempts them to assign blame and distance themselves. So they are even more likely to say things that can be misused by reporters.

  8. Re LLL #11: Oops. NYT said that Seyfarth and Cheney are “renowned for the rigor of their field work.” Then he is quoted as saying “not the same.” I shouldn’t have put scare quotes around “careful;” no one actually used that word in the paragraph quoted. I mention this only because I was being picky about NYT’s rhetoric and therefore should be more careful myself.

  9. The difficulty for any employing institution in situations like this is legal.

    If the investigation comes under the rubric of employee discipline, the privacy rights of the disciplined employee may be violated by disclosure. This then limits the ability of the employer to terminate the employee. Tenure only makes the situation worse– often involuntary termination is fraught and expensive– your best option is to have the employee resign.

    An employee holds some serious cards in these cases. So– there are many possible scenarios in which Harvard’s best option is silence. It could be that the employee is blameless. It could be that the silence is part of a deal to let the employee resign quietly. It could be that the facts are not yet clear. It could be that the facts that would clarify the situation in regard to one employee would violate other employees’ rights to privacy.

  10. @ onlooker.

    I noticed Tomasello being quoted in the New York Times, New Scientist, and the Boston Globe. The quotes sound like excerpts from a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Tomasello is very anti-Chomsky, and I wonder if he is trying to milk this for all it’s worth, thinking that it will discredit nativist or generativist approaches to syntax. (Of course, conceptually it shouldn’t. Very little, if anything, in Chomsky hangs on work done by Hauser.)

  11. That’s unfair. There’s no need to vilify Michael Tomasello, the other visionary in this field (and who has done so much to highlight and develop many of the same themes that Marc Hauser has). The connection to a Chomsky motive is far-fetched; I originally found it very surprising that Chomsky would co-author (with Hauser or with anyone) a paper about language and evolution, as Chomsky’s position for decades has been that language is special and uniquely human and seems to have popped into existence somehow.

    Note that the press can make anything sound like fire and brimstone. Tomasello is quoted in Harvard Magazine as saying,
    â??Marc Hauserâ??s rights are being protected. Harvardâ??s rights are being protected Whoâ??s looking out for the scientific community? Weâ??re in a quandary.â?

    My feelings, exactly. As a cognitive scientist and experimentalist, I’m feeling physically nauseated by this situation, particularly by the ambiguity surrounding it. Michael Tomasello has every right to be extremely upset, as his lab’s research is among that most likely to try to build on Hauser’s.

  12. @S. With respect, I disagree, and think that Onlooker’s comment was quite fair to its subject matter. Tomasello is known mainly an aggressive naysayer (“Universal Grammar is Dead!”, famously), and I don’t see how he can be viewed as any kind of visionary, since he proposes no viable alternative to the ideas he says “no” to.

    But even if I go along with your evaluation rather than mine (let’s say he’s a great visionary), he is without any doubt an intellectual antagonist of Hauser’s. Under those circumstances in particular, to tell a NY Times reporter at (evidently) great length all the negative things you’ve heard second or third hand about the Hauser story (including your own colorful assessment of his behavior while the investigation is going on) strikes me as reprehensible.

  13. @T., you write:

    Tomasello is known mainly an aggressive naysayer (“Universal Grammar is Dead!”, famously), and I don’t see how he can be viewed as any kind of visionary, since he proposes no viable alternative to the ideas he says “no” to.

    If you really think Tomasello is mainly known for his anti-UG position you would do well to look a bit further. Even a quick glance at his publication record will show that (1) he does in fact present visionary and viable alternatives for UG, but more importantly, (2) he’s worked on a broad range of topics, only a few of which led him to make a splash in the generativist pond.

  14. @Mark,

    The sneering tone of your message (“spash in the generativist pond”) is par for the course these days, and part of the problem.

    I also think you are dead wrong about the facts, but this is not the place to go into the details, I think.

  15. Tomasello must have waited three years, quite patiently, for news of the scandal to come out. The field of animal cognition is not huge, and I have no doubt that T knows some of H’s previous students. The investigation was no secret amongst H’s lab members. Meanwhile, Hauser was continued to be cited regularly, everywhere, as an expert on Morality. (!) If you wouldn’t feel a sense of outrage in this situation, you have no moral compass.

    Whether T is a visionary is beside the point, but anyone who doesn’t think he is hasn’t read his work. He’s a leader in three different fields: primate cognition, early social cognition, language acquisition, and he ties these three together to offer a comprehensive account of the phylogeny and ontogeny of language much more compellingly than any defender of the Universal Grammar Hypothesis (UGH) ever dreamed of.

  16. PS I should say that those of us who find UGH ridiculous LOVED Hauser’s article with Chomsky… Hauser seemed to have convinced Chomsky to jettison almost entirely the idea that there are domain-specific innate universals of language, with the (lame) exception of recursion. So disagreeing with Chomsky is motive only to lament Hauser’s downfall.

  17. @T. (first comment)

    Tomasello’s notion of how language works, insofar as he reveals it in his writing and in his talks, is absurdly superficial, in my opinion. If you can name even one serious empirical problem in linguistics that receives a specific solution in Tomasello’s world view, I will be surprised. And I don’t mean broad-brush questions like “how do babies acquire language”, I mean the *specific* problems in actual instances of language acquisition or actual thorny questions of linguistic structure that have led linguists who care about language structure to view things as they do. Like any random page in Guasti’s textbook of language acquisition, for example, or any random page in a recent phonology, morphology, syntax or semantics textbook.

    @T. (second comment)

    Actually, in case you are wondering, I don’t think the Hauser, Chomsky, Fitch article in Science was a positive contribution, either intellectually or strategically. It was rank speculation, building on other pieces of rank speculation. Shouldn’t have been published.

    But it did have something to say, and you have misunderstood it. The paper was not discussing “language” at all, but a theoretical construct created in the paper called “FLN”, “Faculty of Language: Narrow Sense”, distinguished from “FLB”, “Faculty of Language: Broad Sense”. What you and certainly Tomasello would call “language” is FLB. Their idea about recursion concerned FLN. Two different topics entirely. It’s hard to see how any fair-minded reader could miss that. After all, the distinction is repeated and emphasized on literally every page of the paper.

    Now I’m not going to use the comments section of someone else’s blog to teach you the paper, especially since I do think it’s weak. But if you insist on talking about it, you have an obligation to stop repeating misrepresentations of it that you have probably heard elsewhere, and read the damn thing. That way at least when you criticize it (or sneer at it), at least you’re engaging with what they actually wrote, not some mixed-up parody.

    And by the way, lest there be any doubt what I think about the main topic here, if Hauser did what he is reported to be accused of (I am choosing my words carefully, with strong emphasis on “if”), yes he’s done something terrible. But that does not give ghouls and rubberneckers a license to indulge their own instincts for bad behavior.

    I’m going to stop, so if you want the last word, have it.

  18. Sorry, I meant domain-specific innate universals of language = FL*N* = traditional UG, at least as Chomsky himself understands it.

    Traditional UG is not supposed to include domain-general factors! It is supposed to be specific to SYNTAX in fact.

  19. @l.

    UG is Chomsky’s cover term for the “the theory of the genetic endowment for language” that solves the poverty-of-the-stimulus problem — whatever that endowment turns out to be. He and others have made many proposals about what exactly that looks like. It is supposed to be an empirical discovery, not part of the definition of UG, that many of the properties of UG are specific to language in humans, and that many of the properties of UG are unique to humans.

    As I understand their paper, Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch use the name FLN to denote the intersection of these two subcomponents of UG: the ones that in humans are specific to language, and the ones that are unique to humans. Then they speculate that the only thing that lies in this interestion is the recursivity of Merge.

    In this approach, however, it could very well turn out that some, even many properties of UG lie outside of FLN. For example, it might logically turn out that the universal laws that restrict how pronouns pick their antecedents (“Binding Theory”) is just what you get whenever an organism has some capacity that is not itself domain-specific to language or species-specific to humans, and that capacity cooccurs in the organism with FLN. Binding Theory belongs to UG, as traditionally understood, but part of it would lie outside FLN, in Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch’s sense.

  20. I find Chomsky’s work extremely rich and useful for understanding language, both his speculations on language evolution and his syntactic theory. That said, is there anything in Chomsky that seems a bit naive or question begging to me? I can think of one thing. He tends to assume that whatever accounts for the poverty-of-the-stimulus facts will also be specialized for language. I.e., that these two definitions of UG will turn out to be co-extensive. But that seems like a non sequitur to me. Surely non-specialized innate competence could also pick up some of the poverty-of-the-stimulus slack. There may, for example, be a general tendency for the mind to form branching phrase-like structures as a way of organizing information with language just being a special case.

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