Philosophical Ramifications as Popular Psychologist Resigns

It might have been easy to miss in the drama of the News International scandal, with both Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks testifying, but yesterday marked the end of academia’s own foundation-rattling scandal.  Marc Hauser, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, will resign from the University effective August 1st, after a long internal investigation found him guilty of eight counts of scientific misconduct this time last year.  So far, besides Dr. Hauser’s resignation, three published papers have been affected: a 2002 paper in Cognition which was retracted, and two other papers which have been corrected.  Several other papers were amended before publication.

It is hard to know what ‘scientific misconduct’ actually implies – some of the more serious allegations made against Dr. Hauser (it should be noted, from individuals not affiliated with Harvard, and with no access to the internal investigation) have been data fabrication and data falsification.  Further, there are unsettling claims that Dr. Hauser pressured graduate students and research staff to accept a particular interpretation of results – a violation of more than scientific ethics.  However, it must be said, that neither of these claims have been substantiated, and that we do not know the actual misconducts that Dr. Hauser was investigated for or guilty of.

Working in the fields of animal cognition and morality, Dr. Hauser’s work is of great interest to natural philosophers.  Unfortunately, some of the research most affected by this scandal was that which was most interesting to philosophers.  In the retracted Cognition paper, Dr. Hauser’s work suggested that cotton-top tamarind monkeys could learn algebraic rules.  Rule-following is seen as an almost prototypical human capacity, marking out the boundaries of the conceptual.  Elucidating even simple, pseudo-rule following in primates would be a large move forward in the naturalization of rule-following.

The question now remains to what extent one should re-examine the whole of Dr. Hauser’s corpus of work in light of these recent events.  This question will not only embroil the domain of evolutionary psychology, but will certainly ripple out and have implications for philosophers of morality and mind, who utilize Dr. Hauser’s research in their own work.

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