Evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser may have fabricated data in a 2002 publication, according to the editor of the journal, Cognition.
The Boston Globe today reports that Gerry Altmann, editor-in-chief of the journal, says that he has seen some of the findings of Harvard University’s internal misconduct investigation of its famed psychologist. According to that investigation, there was no record of some of the data reported in the paper as a graph.
“The graph is effectively a fiction,” Altmann told the Globe. “If it’s the case the data have in fact been fabricated, which is what I as the editor infer, that is as serious as it gets."
Hauser retracted the paper following the investigation, but gave no clear explanation of why. For more about the investigation and the 2002 paper, check out ‘Harvard probe kept under wraps’.
Update: In a statement, Altmann clarified for us what was missing in the videotapes.
In the 2002 Cognition paper, Hauser and his colleagues reportedly trained cotton-top tamarins to recognize two different “grammars”. These grammars were patterns in the sequence of syllables, for instance “wi wi di” (AAB) vs. “le we we” (ABB). One group of monkeys was trained on the first pattern, and the other group trained on the second pattern.
The investigators then played these sounds on a hidden loudspeaker, and watched the monkeys to see if they turned to look in the direction of the sound more often when they heard a different “grammar” than the one to which they were accustomed. Hauser and his colleagues claimed that they did, suggesting that the monkeys were able to distinguish between two underlying grammars. But Altmann says that, according to the Harvard investigation, Hauser lacked the critical control data showing how often the monkeys turned toward the loudspeakers when hearing their familiar grammar. “Perhaps they would turn round as often if they heard anything coming from that speaker,” Altmann wrote. “The experiment as run did not allow any conclusions to be drawn regarding monkeys’ ability to distinguish between different grammatical patterns.”
And that has led Altmann to conclude that the data were likely fabricated. “I am forced to conclude that there was most likely an intention here to deceive the field,” he says. “This is, to my mind, the worst form of academic conduct.” But this is just conjecture, he adds, and Harvard’s investigation gave no explanation for the discrepancy between what was on the tapes and what was in the paper. “Perhaps, therefore, the data were not fabricated,” he allows. “But I do assume that if the investigation had uncovered a more plausible alternative explanation (and I know that the investigation was rigorous to the extreme), it would not have found Hauser guilty of scientific misconduct.”
“Simply losing your tapes isn’t misconduct,” he added in a phone interview.