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Fed Report Finds Research Misconduct By Harvard’s Hauser

Was Harvard’s Marc Hauser too invested in his own hypotheses?


The federal Office of Research Integrity has just posted its report on Marc Hauser, the charismatic Harvard professor whose stellar career blew up in scandal last summer when he was accused of fudging his data. The Globe continues its leading streak on this story with today’s report by Carolyn Johnson here, including this:

Marc Hauser, a prolific scientist and popular psychology professor who last summer resigned from Harvard University, had fabricated data, manipulated results in multiple experiments, and described how experiments were conducted in factually incorrect ways, according to the findings of a federal research oversight agency posted online Wednesday.

The report provides the greatest insight yet into the problems that triggered a secretive three-year internal university investigation that concluded in 2010 that Hauser, a star professor and public intellectual, had committed eight instances of scientific misconduct. The document, which will be published in the Federal Register Thursday, found six cases in which Hauser engaged in research misconduct in work supported by the National Institutes of Health. One paper was retracted and two were corrected, and other problems were found in unpublished work.

Read the full Globe story here. And check out our past stories on Hauser, whose writing included fascinating work on whether morality is hard-wired. (One wonders: If it is, did he have a glitch in a circuit?) They include The Marc Hauser Files: Was It Confirmation Bias?, The Marc Hauser Counter-Offensive Begins and Monkey Business: Harvard Details Hauser’s Misconduct.

The Marc Hauser Files: Was It Confirmation Bias?

Was Harvard's Marc Hauser too invested in his own hypotheses?

Scientific American weighs in on the continuing saga of Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser who faces still-murky charges of “scientific misconduct” and remains on academic leave.

The piece raises the possibility that Hauser, a superstar in the field of primate psychology and (in an irony that has not been lost on those following the case) the evolution of morality, may not have actually “fudged” his data, but in fact succumbed to confirmation bias, “the tendency to look for and perceive evidence consistent with our hypotheses and to deny, dismiss or distort evidence that is not.”

The past few decades of research in cognitive, social and clinical psychology suggest that confirmation bias may be far more common than most of us realize. Even the best and the brightest scientists can be swayed by it, especially when they are deeply invested in their own hypotheses and the data are ambiguous. A baseball manager doesn’t argue with the umpire when the call is clear-cut—only when it is close.

Scholars in the behavioral sciences, including psychology and animal behavior, may be especially prone to bias. They often make close calls about data that are open to many interpretations. Last year, for instance, Belgian neurologist Steven Laureys insisted that a comatose man could communicate through a keyboard, even after controlled tests failed to find evidence…

Two factors make combating confirmation bias an uphill battle. For one, data show that eminent scientists tend to be more arrogant and confident than other scientists. As a consequence, they may be especially vulnerable to confirmation bias and to wrong-headed conclusions, unless they are perpetually vigilant. Second, the mounting pressure on scholars to conduct single-hypothesis-driven research programs supported by huge federal grants is a recipe for trouble. Many scientists are highly motivated to disregard or selectively reinterpret negative results that could doom their careers…

Daily Rounds: Medicare Fraud; Hope For Hauser?; Legalizing Pot; Heavy Smoking And Alzheimer’s; Thyroid Radiation Threat

Medicare Database Offers Window Into Doctor Fraud and Abuse – WSJ.com One New York City-area family-practice doctor "pocketed more than $2 million in 2008 from Medicare, the federal insurance program for the elderly, government records suggest. That made her one of the best-paid family-medicine physicians in the Medicare system. But more noteworthy than the sum is her pattern of billing, which strongly suggests abuse or even outright fraud, according to experts who have examined her records. This doctor didn't do typical family medicine. Instead, she administered a wide array of sophisticated tests, including polysomnography sleep analyses, nerve conduction probes and needle electromyography procedures—some of which have been flagged by federal antifraud authorities for special scrutiny.” (Wall Street Journal)

Harvard Case Against Marc Hauser Is Hard to Define – NYTimes.com“The still unresolved case of Marc Hauser, the researcher accused by Harvard of scientific misconduct, points to the painful slowness of the government-university procedure for resolving such charges. It also underscores the difficulty of defining error in a field like animal cognition where inconsistent results are common.” (The New York Times)

Pot Legalization Divides California's Black Voters : NPR “Voters across California are divided on the issue of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, but the division is especially true for black voters throughout the state. The California NAACP is endorsing Proposition 19. But some black religious leaders fear that passing the ballot measure would only hurt already struggling communities.” (npr.org)

Heavy smoking in midlife may be associated with dementia in later years “Heavy smoking in midlife is associated with a 157 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and a 172 percent increased risk of developing vascular dementia, according to a Kaiser Permanente study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.” (EurekAlert)

Thyroid Cancer Patients Shield Others From Radiation – NYTimes.com “One person alarmed about the situation is Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, whose office has been studying the issue. He accuses the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of turning a blind eye to the problem. ‘My investigation has led me to conclude that the levels of unintentional radiation received by members of the public who have been exposed to patients that have received ‘drive through’ radiation treatments may well exceed international safe levels established for pregnant women and children,’ Mr. Markey said in a statement.” (The New York Times)