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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Science publishes replication of Marc Hauser study, says results hold up

with 8 comments

There has been some news over the past few weeks about Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychologist found guilty of misconduct by the university last year. First, because Harvard had listed him in a course catalog, The Crimson said that he might be teaching again, following a ban. But that turned out not to be the case, as The Boston Globe reported.

Today, Science lifted the embargo on a paper by Hauser and Justin Wood, now of the University of Southern California, showing that results published in the journal in 2007 — and later questioned — have held up. The abstract:

Wood et al. (1) reported experiments on action perception with cotton-top tamarins, rhesus macaques and chimpanzees. All of the research materials are available to support the findings from the tamarin and chimpanzee experiments. However, there are only summary data, as opposed to raw data, for the rhesus monkey experiments because the researcher who performed the experiments inadvertently failed to archive the original field notes. Upon realizing that the notes were unavailable, Wood and Hauser reran all of the rhesus experiments, using the same design and test population. Each trial was videotaped and coded blind to the experimental condition. We found the same pattern of results: Rhesus showed statistically significant choice responses after observing the intentional hand grasp and hand-occupied elbow touch actions, and responded at chance levels after observing the accidental hand flop and hand-empty elbow touch actions. The direct replication of the originally reported results on rhesus monkeys in Wood et al. (1), including the raw data, is available below, and stored at www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/317/5843/1402/DC2.

(That link is not yet now live., but will be shortly, according to Science, which will publish the paper in this week’s issue.) According to the new paper, the authors added “more rigorous methods” to test the original results.

Hauser, as David Dobbs noted in Slate last fall, was using the experiments to “test whether monkeys can make simple linguistic and moral distinctions.” Here’s how Dobbs described the original results:

In one study, for instance, he tried to show that rhesus monkeys, cotton-topped tamarins, and chimpanzees could distinguish between intentional movements and those that seemed accidental. Each animal would be presented with two small containers, and then an experimenter would either a) grab one of the containers with a deliberate motion, suggesting the container might have food inside, or b) let his arm flop down in such a way that his hand would “accidentally” make contact with it, which presumably suggested nothing about its contents. Then the animal would be let at the containers. Which one would they check out first? On average, both monkeys and chimps were more likely to grab at a container that had been touched on purpose. Along with other experiments, this one suggested the monkeys shared some of the human ability to discern intentions; perhaps they possessed, too, the rudimentary “theory of mind” that’s considered a prerequisite for morality.

But there was a problem, as Dobbs explains:

In one instance of misconduct, he’s accused of bypassing protocols for watching and coding those dull films of one trial after another; as a result, he either saw monkey responses he desperately wanted to see or fabricated responses he didn’t see.

The replication suggests that the results published in Science are believable. As Retraction Watch readers may recall, Hauser has retracted a 2002 paper in Cognition. We’re still waiting, of course, for Harvard to release the report of its investigation into the entire affair.

Please see a post on why Science lifted this embargo early, on our sister blog Embargo Watch.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

April 25, 2011 at 12:28 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Interesting, but, not as interesting as if someone would tell us what actually happened…Harvard for example. Or even Hauser? If he wants to remain in academia in any capacity – and he says he looks forward to returning to teaching, so he does – he ought to hold up his hands and come clean. Set the record straight. That might not satisfy some people, but it’s got to be better than leaving it to rumour and what-ifs.

    Neuroskeptic

    April 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    • You should click on the link “bypassing protocols” in the second last paragraph of this report.

      klaus

      April 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm

      • I’ve seen that; but it doesn’t answer all of the questions by any means. Leaked documents never will, because for this issue to be “closed”, we need an official statement – from Hauser or Harvard or ideally both.

        Neuroskeptic

        April 26, 2011 at 6:10 am

  2. The original authors now report that results that they reported in Science are reproducible — by them! Well. Isn’t *that* confidence-inspiring.

    Spiny Norman

    April 25, 2011 at 3:37 pm

  3. Although I am sure the results are quite interesting in and of themselves, I am concerned about this.

    The point wasn’t whether the original article was right or wrong, the point was whether there was fraud, and also whether proper procedures were followed.

    Is it somehow more “okay” to make results up if you find out that you were right, later on?

    This isn’t a vindication of any kind, in my opinion. It is missing the point, which is that it’s not OK to make up data.

    A

    April 27, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    • “Is it somehow more “okay” to make results up if you find out that you were right, later on?”

      This is the most common type of misconduct I have seen in my (medical bioscience) research career – authors have a theory that’s basically OK and is backed up by some data, so their other data is then ‘massaged’ to make their case stronger. For instance, underlings are tempted to skimp on controls to give the PI what they want (to confirm their pet hypothesis). The thing is, they are rarely found out, if the overall hypothesis of the paper is correct. But it’s a bad habit for so many people to get into, because of course, sometimes the ‘story’ told in the paper isn’t correct, or that particular experiment later turns out to have significance elsewhere.

      Disillusioned postdoc

      May 18, 2011 at 6:53 am

  4. I still would like the ivory tower to release something about what misconduct findings resulted from Harvard’s inquiry. Fat chance for that.

    BUT, if ORI is in fact investigating, and they make a conclusion, then, by Federal Law, they have to make a public announcement.

    BTC

    April 30, 2011 at 5:58 pm

  5. Science magazine is saying, basically, “Hey, we published something that may have been incorrect initially, but it was later found out that it wasn’t! Hence, we didn’t make a mistake.”

    BTC

    April 30, 2011 at 6:00 pm


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