Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Monkey morals at Harvard

I am beginning to think that Harvard's Marc Hauser is a victim of a witch-hunt:
Under Harvard’s faculty policy, the university cannot make known its evidence against Dr. Hauser, nor can he defend himself, until the government’s report is ready. That leaves both in difficult positions. Harvard has accused a prominent professor of serious failings yet has merely put him on book leave. Dr. Hauser, for his part, cannot act publicly to prevent the derailment, at least for the moment, of his rising scientific career.

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 mentioned this case before here, and some of his research here.

My gut feeling is that trying to learn morality by studying monkeys is a wacky thing to do, with dubious scientific value. The experiments involve subjective monkey interpretations, and no one should believe his results anyway unless they were well replicated. If some Harvard big-shot got famous for claiming that human morals were hardwired 20M years ago by monkeys, and he turned out to have bad professional morals himself, then we could all celebrate his foolish error. He thought that humans have monkey morals, and his own behavior is a prime example.

But now I think that his persecutors are the ones with the monkey morals. Why does it take three years to figure out whether he did anything wrong? And why the secrecy? If someone thinks that his experiments were bogus, then it would be better to just publicly say so, and force him to make a public defense. Apparently Hauser has redone some of his experiments. The scientific community should be able to form its own opinion of the validity of his work, not just some secret Harvard committee.

There is a scene in the new movie, The Social Network, about Harvard's morals:
Tyler refuses to sue them, instead accusing Mark of violating the Harvard student Code of Conduct. Through their father's connections they arrange a meeting with Harvard President Larry Summers, who is dismissive and sees no potential value in either a disciplinary action or in Thefacebook website itself.
A three-year secret investigation of monkey experiments is not going to improve Harvard's reputation, no matter what it ends up saying.

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