Forum: Fudge Factor; November 2010; Scientific American Magazine; by Scott O. Lilienfeld; 1 Page(s)
As of this writing, the precise nature of Marc Hauser’s transgressions remains murky. Hauser is Harvard’s superstar primate psychologist—and, perhaps ironically, an expert on the evolution of morality—whom the university recently found guilty of eight counts of scientific misconduct. Harvard has kept mum about the details, but a former lab assistant alleged that when Hauser looked at videotapes of rhesus monkeys, in an experiment on their capacity to learn sound patterns, he noted behavior that other people in the lab couldn’t see, in a way that consistently favored his hypothesis. When confronted with these discrepancies, the assistant says, Hauser asserted imperiously that his interpretation was right and the others’ wrong.
Hauser has admitted to committing “significant mistakes.” In observing the reactions of my colleagues to Hauser’s shocking comeuppance, I have been surprised at how many assume reflexively that his misbehavior must have been deliberate. For example, University of Maryland physicist Robert L. Park wrote in a Web column that Hauser “fudged his experiments.” I don’t think we can be so sure. It’s entirely possible that Hauser was swayed by “confirmation bias”—the tendency to look for and perceive evidence consistent with our hypotheses and to deny, dismiss or distort evidence that is not.