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a morality tale featuring a morality researcher

August 15, 2010

As reported in the NY Times this past week (8/12/2010), Marc Hauser of Harvard University finds himself in trouble because of questions about the “truthiness” of data he used in several papers during the past decade. Oddly enough, some of his research considers issues related to morality.

There are a few angles that interest me. As a researcher, he is expected to adhere to certain standards related to how he handles and reports the data he collects. From the information becoming available, he did not meet those expectations. The NY Times article mentions that much of the problem could be tied to poor record keeping and a lax attitude towards verifying that the data reported in the articles matched the actual data collected. These are not things that should happen in a laboratory where rigor and proper procedure are practiced. It is also possible that experimenter bias was involved in some (or all) of the situations bing examined. This insidious beast can slip in undetected when a researcher lets his or her scientific guard down – not maintaining a healthy level of skepticism when considering one’s own work can lead to problematic distortions. Both of these situations (a lack of scientific rigor and succumbing to experimenter bias) are BAD, but for someone not familiar with the scientific process, they might not seem that bad… However, from the details emerging, there is the possibility that Dr. Hauser was a very BAD scientist – falsifying data and intentionally distorting his findings to fit with the ideas he wanted to put forward. This notion that he intentionally mislead his colleagues and others in his field is about as bad as it gets for a research scientist – he will no longer be able to publish or seek funding for his work, he will be effectively shut out from the scientific community.

So, how and why did this happen? I don’t know, but speculation is always good fun… One interesting possibility is that it relates back to the tension noted above – sometimes scientific transgressions can be considered bad but not quite BAD. If Dr. Hauser lost sight of the importance and necessity of holding himself to the highest ideals of the scientific method, he might have thought that his sleights of hand were not really all that bad and that the end justified his means – possibly in terms of his own career or maybe he saw himself helping to move the field forward. Either way, once he gave up on a rigorous adherence to the scientific method, he was betraying the all those who recognize the importance of science.

Anyhow, morality tales are never fun. There is always a moral involved after all. Hopefully, this particular tale will inspire some young scientists to stay on the straight and narrow when it comes to pursuing their own research.

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