The New York Times recently revisited the case of Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychologist accused of research fraud. Nicholas Wade’s new article suggests that Hauser might be more sloppy than dishonest, the victim of a bureaucratic legal process that makes no allowances for innocent mistakes, and that the situation is starting to turn in Hauser’s favor:
Also last month his principal accuser outside of Harvard, Gerry Altmann, allowed that he may have spoken too hastily. Dr. Altmann is the editor of Cognition, a psychology journal in which Dr. Hauser published an article said by Harvard to show scientific misconduct.
When first shown evidence by Harvard for this conclusion, Dr. Altmann publicly accused Dr. Hauser of fabricating data. But he now says an innocent explanation, based on laboratory error, not fraud, is possible. People should step back, he writes, and “allow due process to conclude.”
Here’s Altmann’s response:
[Wade] selectively quotes from me to support the contention that the discrepancy between Hauser’s raw data and the published data were due to “devastating error, but not fraud”. In fact, there has been no stepping back. As I make very clear in this blog (and repeated in emails to Mr. Wade – see below), the information I have received, when taken at face value, leads me to maintain my belief that the data that had been published in the journal Cognition was effectively a fiction – that is, there was no basis in the recorded data for those data. I concluded, and I continue to conclude, that the data were most likely fabricated.
From there, the article gets feisty and strange.
Dr. Hauser’s difficulties began in 2007 when university officials went into his lab one afternoon when he was out of the country and publicly confiscated his records, an action based on accusations by some of his students.
For the next 18 months he had no idea what he was accused of.
Well, unless he actually had fabricated data, in which case he might have had a tiny shred of an idea.
A troika of Harvard department heads then delivered a secret report.
Hold on now, that sounds Russian!
Then there’s this:
Harvard’s investigation has been “lawyer-driven,” says a faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity, and has stuck so closely to the letter of government-approved rules for investigating misconduct that the process has become unduly protracted — it lasted three years — and procedurally unfair to the accused.
“I think it legitimate to ask why the Harvard brass did not push back against their lawyers,” this member said. “At Harvard we now have the Un-Larry administration — no risk-taking, no thinking outside the box, no commitment to principles that challenge standard university practice,” he said, referring to Harvard’s previous president, the economist Larry Summers.
It’s not clear to me why Harvard’s lawyers would be so keen on besmirching a distinguished and popular professor, or how bending the rules to avoid bringing charges against Hauser would demonstrate a “commitment to principles.”