Marc Hauser has been a rising star on the science scene for several years. He’s published lots of articles, written books, and given lots of speeches. Riding largely on the coattails of Elizabeth Spelke, a bona-fide star in the field of human infant cognition, Hauser was set to revolutionize the way we think of primates and moral development.
And then the shit hit the fan. Three years ago, university officials seized his hard drive and other records after multiple complaints from staff and students that his work was possibly scientifically suspect or even fabricated in some instances.
After a lengthy investigation, it turns out that there was a lot of truth to the allegations. It’s still somewhat unclear whether there was outright impropriety in the form of fabricating results or whether various omissions, commissions, and “inconsistencies” were due to piss poor record keeping and sloppy data gathering. But all of that is an issue for the ethics committee.
The upshot of all this, regardless of Hauser’s eventual academic fate, is that the suspect research is being pulled from journals, and that future scientists will not cite it in support of their own work. And that is why science is awesome. It doesn’t always catch its mistakes right away, but eventually, the truth almost always comes out.
In fact, this little fiasco highlights two of the qualities of science that make it so reliable. It is slow, tedious, and rigorous, and it is removed from its authors. Generally speaking, new scientific ideas are met with resistance. Especially when they overturn previously held foundational beliefs. I recall seeing a Science Channel special on Gamma Ray Bursts, intense energy discharges from distant galaxies. When they were discovered, the consensus was that they could not possibly come from outside the galaxy. The first scientist to propose such an outlandish idea was shouted down from all sides. But he and others persevered, and soon the evidence was undeniable. Today, astronomers agree. They are from outside our own galaxy.
Granted, there were certainly some professional careers on the line, and politics were involved. That’s a sad but intractable reality since research needs funding. But in the end, what saved the day was the replication of results and persistence of evidence. It was a slow process, but because of its rigorous protocols and methodical pace, the strength of the end result was undeniable.
Importantly, the observations of gamma ray bursts were replicated by other scientists all over the world. Had everything relied only on the testimony of one researcher, there might have been no progress at all. But science doesn’t require anybody special to do the work. All it requires is that the work is done in the same way. If fifty people run an experiment in exactly the same way and all fifty get the same results, then we can trust the results.
These same strengths are what contributed to Marc Hauser’s fall from grace. He tried to get ahead of himself. He rushed experiments through without proper protocols or record keeping. He was more interested in getting the results he wanted than following where the evidence led. And he got caught.
How awesome would the world be if religion followed the same rigorous standards!