Friday, August 13, 2010

Fooled by monkeys

A big-shot psychology professor has been accused of mindreading monkeys:
Marc Hauser, a Harvard academic who gained prominence with the publication of a book on the origin of morality, has gone on leave after an investigation by the university into problems with his research. ...

The journal Cognition published an article by Dr. Hauser and others in 2002 saying that tamarin monkeys could learn certain rules much as human infants do. The journal is about to run a retraction ...

Dr. Hauser is a fluent and persuasive writer, and his undoing seems to have been his experiments, many of which depended on videotaping cotton-topped tamarin monkeys and noting their responses. It is easy for human observers to see the response they want and so to be fooled by the monkeys. ... cotton-topped tamarins were said to recognize themselves in a mirror. When he received the videotapes, Dr. Gallup could see no evidence that this was the case.
I don't want to accuse him of fraud, because his work is probably typical of bogus research in the field. I could say that he relied on instinctual monkey morals for his research practices, but that would be a cheap shot. I do think that it is a little odd that the NY Times refers to him as an "academic", "writer", and "researcher", but not a professor. His Harvard web page identifies him as a professor. The newspaper is usually conscientious about getting titles right. It does refer to one of his critics as a professor, and link to an article saying Professor Is a Label That Leans to the Left.

Hauser is famous for arguing that morality is a hard-wired instinct that not ground in any religious teaching. He argues:
One problem is that we cannot, without lapsing into tautology, simultaneously say that God is good, and that he gave us our sense of good and bad. For then we are simply saying that God meets God’s standards. ...

These studies provide empirical support for the idea that, like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance. These facts are incompatible with the story of divine creation.
I say that bogus mindreading is the hardwired instinct. He is naturally fooled by those monkeys.

Update: Harvard has reprimanded Hauser, after a three-year investigation.

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