What went wrong with Marc Hauser's search for moral foundations.

The state of the universe.
Sept. 3 2010 1:47 PM

A Rush to Moral Judgment

What went wrong with Marc Hauser's search for moral foundations.

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The Spelke studies—and the Hauser ones, too—pose one major problem, however: They're laborious as hell. You must deal with many unpredictable test subjects in time-consuming trials while trying to ensure absolute consistency. Then you must watch the trials played back on a monitor and code the results—was that a quick look at the bunny there, or just a baby gazing about? And it's best if the coding is done in a way that's blind to exactly what the baby or monkey is seeing or hearing, so the coder can't prejudge the response. All this takes many, many hours, of course, and creates additional room for error. And sometimes you spend weeks going through every step and find ... nothing. Nothing new, nothing to report, nothing to publish.

This can prove horrifically frustrating for someone in a hurry. And Hauser, even by his own account, was a man in a hurry. This added to the thrill of watching him, of course: In just a few years, he appeared to show in animals the rough equivalents of what Spelke, Susan Carey, and Alison Gopnik had spent two or three decades establishing in humans.

Last month his fast success proved literally incredible. Yet the fault lies not in Hauser's study paradigms nor even in his big ideas. (Others, like Spelke and primatologist Frans de Waal, have been wielding those to good effect.) I suspect we should blame instead his impatience—with the particular methods of his field, perhaps, but also with the slowness and uncertainty of science. In one instance of misconduct, he's accused of bypassing protocols for watching and coding those dull films of one trial after another; as a result, he either saw monkey responses he desperately wanted to see or fabricated responses he didn't see. In another, described in painful detail by Cognition editor Gerry Altmann, it appears Hauser simply made up the data altogether for one set of trials.

The ironies lie thick. One rap on Chomsky, for instance, holds that he didn't much bother with experimental evidence; he simply said an innate grammar had to be there for kids to learn language so fast. It fell to others to poke around for those modules in the lab and produce some real data. People who study language, cognition, and evolution can and do argue over what those data mean. But at least they have something concrete to fight about. That's what makes it science.

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So give Hauser this: When it came to his theory of the moral grammar, at least the man wanted evidence. Problem was he wanted it bad.

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David Dobbs is writing The Orchid and the Dandelion (Crown), a book exploring ideas about how genes and experience shape temperament, behavior, and fate. 

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