New Details on Data Problems in Hauser Lab

The Chronicle of Higher Education has more details on the investigation of Harvard University cognitive scientist Marc Hauser, based on a statement a former research assistant gave to Harvard investigators in 2007. The assistant apparently became concerned after reviewing videotapes of an experiment testing the ability of rhesus monkeys to distinguish patterns of syllables played through a loudspeaker. The findings were never published, although the experiments are similar to those reported in a 2002 Cognition paper that suggested that cotton top tamarins can learn a type of abstract rule similar to what human infants do as they learn language. The journal's editor has said that the tamarin paper will be retracted. The Chronicle provides an inside account of what may have gone wrong with the unpublished rhesus monkey experiments:

According to the document that was provided to The Chronicle, the experiment in question was coded by Mr. Hauser and a research assistant in his laboratory. A second research assistant was asked by Mr. Hauser to analyze the results. When the second research assistant analyzed the first research assistant's codes, he found that the monkeys didn't seem to notice the change in pattern. In fact, they looked at the speaker more often when the pattern was the same. In other words, the experiment was a bust.

But Mr. Hauser's coding showed something else entirely: He found that the monkeys did notice the change in pattern—and, according to his numbers, the results were statistically significant. If his coding was right, the experiment was a big success.

After a testy e-mail exchange with Hauser, the research assistant and a graduate student reviewed the videotapes and coded the results independently.

They then reviewed Mr. Hauser's coding and, according to the research assistant's statement, discovered that what he had written down bore little relation to what they had actually observed on the videotapes.

For a summary of the Hauser case, see the news article in this week's issue of Science.

*This article has been corrected. An earlier version of this article said that results from an experiment with rhesus monkeys were included in a 2002 Cognition paper, however these results were not published.

Greg Miller

Greg Miller is a science and technology journalist based in Portland, Oregon.