Thursday, August 12, 2010

Monkey Business

I see Harvard's in the news yet again, as the Boston Globe broke a story about psychologist Marc Hauser, who is "taking a year-long leave after a lengthy internal investigation found evidence of scientific misconduct in his laboratory."  One paper has been retracted, others are under examination.  As discussed over in Shots in the Dark, an unpleasant issue is that Harvard is being silent regarding its investigation.  It's not clear to me what the right approach in such cases are -- what rights to privacy, if any, does an academic have in such situations, or, assuming improper behavior is found, is it incumbent on the institution to correct the scientific record itself?  The issue is also raised in a New York Times article.  Feel free to discuss the institutional ethics in the comments. 

I have no inside insight on what has actually transpired;  however, I have served on university committees with Marc in the past, and found him an enjoyable colleague.  I hope to the extent possible the issues are resolved satisfactorily.

This controversy provides an interesting contrast with the current hubbub over the P not equal NP paper -- best considered over at Richard Lipton's blog here, here, here, and here.  In theory we don't have to worry about people "forging" a proof in the way that experimental data might be forged, but proofs can easily have mistakes or unclear gaps, and this is not viewed as misconduct -- just embarrassing.  I wonder what the state is in computer systems work -- I can't recall hearing of cases where there were accusations of misconduct with data, although I've certainly heard mutterings that experiments in papers were carefully chosen to (excessively) highlight positive results.  Such cases can lead to heated discussions in PC meetings, and to some interesting discussions post-publication, but I haven't heard people suggest that that level of data manipulation corresponds to misconduct.  Our field seems to have, for now, sidestepped these particular issues. 

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

isn't this common with harvard? tribe and ogletree got to keep their jobs for offenses that would have causes undergrads to be expelled, with minimal punishment. i guess harvard is just teaching its students the lesson that one just needs to become successful enough that they can get away with egregious misdeeds.

Anonymous said...

Years ago I did my undergraduate thesis in Marc's lab. I've since moved into studying statistics. But at the time, I was a resolute believer in evolutionary psychology.

There's a reason I made that switch. The entire field often seemed a bit too - I don't want to say unscientific, but maybe that's the word - overreaching. The theories were exciting, but hard to prove.

To become a star in the field, there seemed to be two methods: 1) make waves with really radical claims (religion, genetic intelligence, differences between the sexes, etc) or 2) come up with some really clever ways of scientifically supporting the popular theories.

I liked Marc's lab because he chose the latter route. But the problem with clever solutions is that sometimes they're a bit of a stretch. Like inferring that monkeys have learned something by recording how long they look at one object versus another ("dishabituation"). A researcher could subconsciously look more at the card he wanted the monkey to look at, creating bias. Or looking at the entirely black eyes of a 300g animal on a low quality VHS recording is a difficult way to get accurate measurements. Etc.

All of which is to say that having worked in the lab, I would be absolutely shocked to learn that intentional deception took place. But not so surprised to hear of accidental bias introduced by an overzealous researcher.

And I don't think that's a problem confined to Marc's lab; in fact, Marc worked very hard to eliminate bias, but I think it's inherent to the work. The field as a whole should confront the fact that training and interacting with monkeys is often as much an art as a science.

chris said...

In response to the first comment:
Undergrads would not have been expelled. They would have been Ad Boarded and suspended for one academic year if found guilty. Ogletree and Tribe damaged their reputations and it was exposed to the public, which is far worse than being suspended for a year.