Monday, 16 August 2010

It is easy for human observers to see the response they want and so to be fooled by the monkeys

It seems frantic haste can affect science too. In the previous post I wrote about the pressure to do more in less time, of Lord Dacre and the authentication of fraud. Now we have this from the Harvard scientist Marc Hauser:

Dr. Hauser reflected on what he had learned from Dr. Marler.

“Only once can I recall Peter giving me an explicit bit of advice, and this is when my impulsivity was getting the best of me,” Dr. Hauser wrote. “Peter kindly told me to slow down, reflect more, and publish less.”

He didn’t listen, and even now he is writing “furiously”, though a letter leaked to the Boston Globe shows that there has been a Harvard investigation into his research results, which has found serious errors and misrepresentations; that may be the result of fabricating evidence or is due to sloppy working methods and record keeping.

The newspaper articles suggest a probable explanation: he wanted to have big new ideas, to work across a number of fields, and he wanted popular appeal (he was going to be the new Steven Pinker). In this he has been very successful…. And thus the urge, surely, to push those ideas just a little further than the facts warrant:

Dr. Terrace said there had been problems for some time with Dr. Hauser’s work.

“First there was arbitrary interpretation of the videotapes to suit the hypothesis,” he said. “The other was whether the data was real. There have been a number of papers using videotape, and all of them have to be reviewed to see if the data holds up.”

Dr. Terrace noted that it was easy for a researcher to see what he wanted in a videotaped animal’s reactions, and that independent observers must check every finding.

The mind has a propensity to go beyond the facts, and make connections that do not exist. It sees what it wants to see…. Intellectual discipline and integrity, and a rigorous academic field, can be the means to stop this tendency. However, the need for fame and glory can jump over these obstacles; seemingly quite easily in this case. Did Harvard play along?

Of course the people who do the serious work remain relatively anonymous:

Dr. Hauser, 50, was trained by two researchers renowned for the rigor of their field work on animal behavior, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney of the University of Pennsylvania. “Marc was our first graduate student,” Dr. Seyfarth said. “But many years ago, we decided that Marc’s way of doing things and ours were not really the same. We just differed about our approach to research.”

It is difficult to have original ideas that are strongly rooted in academic rigour. Often the best work will be small improvements, greater precision and depth in a quite limited field; but not startling epistemological leaps that attract attention outside the subject area. Thus the best work is often done by people who remain unknown to the world outside their discipline. A fate, it appears, that did not appeal to Dr Hauser.

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