Hauser: more facts and more questions

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There's an excellent discussion of some methodological issues behind the Marc Hauser scandal at Neuron Culture, "Updated: This Hauser thing is getting hard to watch". The post points out that the information released so far leaves many questions unanswered about what the lab's official methodology was, and what Hauser and other lab members really did.


  1. Lance said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    The New York Times reported on the decision yesterday, and two parts confused me; I wonder if you've got any more insight.


    The sanctions to be imposed on Dr. Hauser are confidential, but could include involuntary leave, extra oversight, and restrictions on the ability to apply for grants and supervise students, Dr. Smith said.

    It's easy to get the impression, from the discussion here and the discussion at Neuron Culture that Hauser's misconduct is more severe than these possible sanctions make it sound. Am I underestimating the sanctions, or overestimating the misconduct?


    In view of Dr. Hauser's prolific output, the finding of missing data in just three experiments, two of which he was able to repeat with the same results, is perhaps not greatly surprising.

    Is the NYT saying that this sort of misconduct is expected? There seems to be a disconnect between Harvard's decision that there was deliberate scientific misconduct, and the NYT's assessment that missing data in a handful of experiments is "not greatly surprising".

  2. Jonathan Badger said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    In regard to the second point, I think it would depend greatly on how many "experiments" are being referred to in total. If by "missing data" in an "experiment" the NYT means that data for an entire study is missing, then that's quite a bit different from just missing the data for a single data point.

  3. John Lawler said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Nobody has mentioned money yet, but presumably this was sponsored research, and somebody may want their money back. If so, Harvard will have to pay, and that puts the PI into lawsuit territory.

  4. mgh said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    Lance, "involuntary leave" is probably the most extreme penalty the university can assign a tenured professor. "Missing data" refers to loss of laboratory notebooks and original records (which never should be, but often are, misplaced as lab members come and go and computers get replaced), not the misconduct itself.

    John Lawler, as several articles including the NYT piece have noted, the studies were funded by the NIH and NSF, and accordingly the relevant investigative arms — the Office of Research Integrity for the NIH; the Office of the Inspector General for the NSF — are now involved, as well as some kind of federal attorney, according to the Harvard spokesperson cited by the NYT.

  5. Curt Anderson said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

    A concern on my mind is about what happens to his graduate students, research assistants, and previous students. If Hauser has been falsifying data, then he's potentially damaging to anyone that has worked with him. Are his previous students under suspicion now for scientific misconduct, even if only because they worked with him? What about any students of his on the market that suddenly lack the clout of their old advisor, or are being passed up because of their association to Hauser? Any of his current students would be ill-advised to stay with him, which likely would affect their own theses and dissertations, not to mention any publications in the works. And do the whistleblowers themselves now have a problem with being perceived as unloyal? If I were a student in his lab at any time, I'd be worrying about how his problems are trickling down to me and affecting my career. Even if he is found to be guilty only of violating his protocols and having lax research standards, and not of falsifying data, I think this has the potential to affect his students in some very negative ways.

  6. Andrew Greene said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 9:14 pm

    A new question for Language Log arises at the end of today's front-page article in the Times, in which Dr. Hauser is quoted as saying "Research and teaching are my passion."

    What's up with the singular/plural disagreement?

  7. Will said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    @Curt, I think this is a valid concern, but I do think the administration is doing their best to address this. They emphasize in multiple places that the misconduct was perpetrated "solely" by Hauser. And none of the press coming from either the Harvard administration or various newspapers is casting the students in negative light. If anything, the newspapers are making the students look like especially good scientists — casting aside the comfort of a cozy position for the sake of truth.

    Of course, that's not solving all the problems for the students that were working in his lab, but it clearing them the most threatening liability — that they were somehow in cahoots with Hauser, and they too were Doing Bad Science (aka Doing BS).

  8. Will said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 12:03 am

    @Andrew, I think that's a particularly weird case. It makes sense on a semantic level, since I believe his claim is to only a single passion, but it so happens that this is passion is best described with the plural noun phrase, "research and teaching". So to be syntactically correct, the verb "are" has to be used, but to semantically correct the singular "passion" has to be used. I too would interested in a how this would be analyzed by someone with formal training in syntax (something I don't have).

    Although it's also quite possible he was going to say "Research is my passion" and threw in the "teaching" because that goes along with the job. That is, the sentence became plural, but the passion did not.

  9. Barbara Partee said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 2:48 am

    @Andrew and @Will – it is indeed a tricky case. Let's assume that semantically he really means that those two things together are his passion; then singular number on the the predicate nominal is normal, as in 'Ice cream and pie is my favorite dessert', which is not synonymous with 'Ice cream and pie are my favorite desserts'.

    But the number on the verb seems to be up for grabs – If you google "Strawberries and cream is" and "Strawberries and cream are", you'll find plenty of examples of each choice with a singular predicate nominal following ('is a great dessert', 'are a great favorite', etc.). That's evidently because of competition between syntactic agreement with the form of the subject and semantic agreement with its intended referent.

    When the sentence is turned around – "My passion is … ", "My favorite dessert is …", "One problem is …", with what was in some sense originally the predicate apparently now the subject, English pretty uniformly then goes for the singular verb, since now the surface subject is both syntactically and semantically singular. These are called "specificational sentences" and they have a lot of fascinating syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic properties and are much studied.

    In some languages, the first NP in a specificational sentence seems not to become the subject and verb agreement is with the second NP. So where English would say 'The problem is his parents', the very closely related Dutch language would have (I'm using English words) 'The problem are his parents'. (I'd need a Dutch speaker to tell me whether that extends to "My passion are research and teaching" – I've learned about the phenomenon but don't have full intuitions about it. And since passions aren't as easy to individuate as desserts, it would seem very natural to me to just insist on "My passions are …" in that case, rather than be forced to choose which NP to make the verb agree with.)

    This is a nice example of an area where trying to understand the fine points how people actually use the language is really exciting, and where trying to figure out prescriptive rules that take both semantics and syntax into account would be much harder than at first meets the eye. Different languages and different dialects within a language evidently make different choices in this domain, all of which can be made good sense of. (Cf. the history of the change from old French "Ce suis je" ('It am I') to "C'est moi" (It's me).)

  10. Debbie said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    @Barbara Partee, a little late and off topic but what about, 'Phil and Mandy's friends' vs 'Phils's and Mandy's friends'?

  11. Barbara Partee said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 3:49 am

    @Debbie — yes, that's a related topic, also full of puzzles. When it's Phil and Mandy, you can in fact make the distinction you mentioned, but then what if it's Phil and I/me? If we have separate friends, "Phil's and my friends" works fine, but what do we do for joint friends? "Phil and I's friends" sounds impossible, though that would be the natural parallel to "Phil and Mandy's friends"; is "Phil and my friends" possible for that meaning? Maybe, though "Phil and my" may feel too non-parallel for some people. And what about "one of us's"? … [I once without thinking about it uttered "One of our stomachs is growling", and it immediately sounded funny to both of us, but "One of us's stomach is growling", which would seem to be semantically closer to the intended meaning, is morphologically ugly — we just want to always replace "I's" or "us's" by "my" or "our", regardless of meaning.]

  12. groki said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 5:58 am

    Barbara Partee: we just want to always replace "I's" or "us's" by "my" or "our"

    for me, it extends to other pronouns, too, at least in reasonably formal contexts:

    2nd sing.: Phil and your friends (not *Phil and you's friends)

    3rd sing.: Phil and his/her friends (not *Phil and he's/she's friends)

    2nd pl.: one of your stomachs (not ?one of you's stomach) [this one is a close call, not as obviously wrong to my ear as the others]

    3rd pl.: one of their stomachs (not *one of them's stomach)

  13. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 8:06 am

    @groki 'one of your stomachs' sounds like you're talking to a cow!

  14. NW said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    Well, the topic _did_ begin as animal communication.

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