Thursday, August 19, 2010

My hero questioned...

In this field of studying human and animal minds, I've long been in awe of the intelligence and originality of Mark Hauser. (If you enter the name Hauser in the search box in the left column of this blog you will find no fewer than 20 previous posts on his work!)  He has published crucial experiments on morality in animals, leading him to suggest a universal moral grammar analogous to Chomsky' universal language grammar, and has also reported mirror self recognition and inferring intentions of others in monkeys. His 2002 paper with Chomsky and Fitch on language evolution is a classic.

It appears now that his ambition may have outstripped his intellect. I was saddened to read this recent article in the NYTimes saying that Hauser has gone on academic leave from Harvard after an investigation by the university found problems with his research.
... 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.
The papers on mirror self recognition and inferring intention are particularly in question. A psychology colleague at Columbia University noted:
First there was arbitrary interpretation of the videotapes to suit the hypothesis...The other was whether the data was real. There have been a number of papers using videotape, and all of them have to be reviewed to see if the data holds up.

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