The Chronicle Review

One Bad Apple, and the Threat to Science


August 23, 2010

At the beginning of August, Mark V. Hurd, chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, resigned abruptly under a cloud. It took a week or two for the full story to emerge and for the world to discover precisely what cloud it was that had fallen on him. At first, we learned that he was accused of sexual harassment. But then quickly that allegation was dropped, and we learned next that he had fudged his expense accounts.

Then, finally, after more digging by the press, the real story came out. Nobody in the company could stand him. He was a dreadful bully. More than this, although he was making a major profit for Hewlett-Packard, the feeling was that he was doing so at the expense of the company's long-term prospects. The board grabbed the pretext of the expenses, and he was gone.

Now compare that with the story of Hurd's near namesake, Marc D. Hauser. As the world now knows, Hauser is a leading evolutionary psychologist and a full professor at Harvard. For the past decade, he has been a rapidly rising star. He has published major papers (in good journals) on humans and other primates, on issues to do with language acquisition and on the possible biological bases of morality. One recent paper purported to show that moral feelings and reasoning can be separated from religious beliefs and commitments. He wrote a very well-received book, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (Ecco, 2006). And he has spoken far and wide. Last year, he was a keynote speaker at a major conference at the University of Chicago, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, The Boston Globe reported that, following complaints by his graduate students, he had been under investigation by his university for the last three years for scientific misconduct. As with Hurd, the story has been slow in emerging, and we still don't have it in full. But from a letter released by the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, it appears that in a number of experiments, some published, some not, he had been fiddling with the results in some fashion.

What some saw as clearly going one way, he recorded as going other ways­—other ways that confirmed his hypotheses about the importance of biology in the acquisition of language and moral abilities. As a result, Hauser has been found "solely responsible" for eight instances of "scientific misconduct," and he told a reporter from The New York Times that he made "some significant mistakes," and he was "deeply sorry for the problems this case has caused to my students, my colleagues and my university."

Suppose Immanuel Kant had invented a moralometer­—an instrument you point at someone who has done wrong, and it tells you where he or she falls on a scale of one to 10. ("Ten" being ethnic cleansing and "one" being sticking your tongue out at the teacher when he is not looking.) My suspicion is that, with respect to actual misdeeds, Hurd and Hauser would score about the same, say around five or six. It might be more if Hurd were actually guilty of sexual harassment, and it might be more if it turned out that Hauser had really bullied his students. But you can get the idea.

And yet, by and large the Hurd case leaves me cold, or rather (like everyone else), I could not understand why Hewlett-Packard would want to fire someone who was so successful, even though the illicit expenses ran into tens of thousands of dollars. Sure, he did wrong, but that is for him to live with. Get the money back, put in controls, and move on.

The Hauser case, however, really makes me mad. In part, this is because I was taken in by Hauser's actions. I have been praising his work to the sky, and I feel a bit stupid. I blame Hauser, and in part I blame Harvard for taking so long to tell us about it­—something the university has done only with reluctance as the news became public.

For once, I think my reaction tells us less about Michael Ruse and more about something else, namely about the nature of science. Seventy years ago, the great sociologist Robert K. Merton made a number of points about science, and they seem still to hold today. Above all, he stressed that science is a community activity. Scientists may not always work together, although of course that is now very much the norm, but they do rely on each other, particularly for the ideas and theories that they use in their own research. In turn, they contribute—and want to contribute—to the general pool of knowledge.

Charles Darwin sat on his ideas about evolution through natural selection for 20 years, but when his priority was threatened (by the arrival of a paper from Alfred Russel Wallace with the same ideas), he quickly wrote up The Origin of Species and published it. What is distinctive about science (excluding commercial science and the obvious demands of making a living and so forth) is that scientists do not do what they do for money, but rather for respect and acclaim. You don't charge others for your ideas and equally you don't expect others to charge you for their ideas.

Now against this background, ask what can go wrong, why it doesn't normally go wrong, and why it does sometimes go wrong. What can go wrong is that someone doesn't play the game. Most obviously, someone pinches someone else's results—plagiarism—or someone fakes the results—fraud. Morally, there really isn't a lot of difference between the two. But the scientific community judges the latter far more sternly than the former.

If you pinch the ideas from someone else, say a grad student, one person suffers, but the community does not; it still gets a good idea or result. If you fake the ideas or results, and publish them, the poison spreads. We are all now at risk of using phony information, and our own work suffers. The community suffers.

This explains my reaction to Hurd and Hauser. By and large, no one much suffered from Hurd's bad behavior in regard to his expense reports. Many of us stand to suffer from Hauser's bad behavior. But now you ask why did they do it? Hurd is no big puzzle. Padding your expense accounts so you can spend on a pretty actress is too common to need remark—which explains why no one thought this could be the real reason for firing Hurd. But Hauser? A full professor at the world's leading university? Even if the results were not as he expected, it might have taken a bit more time, but surely he could have done something with them? It is rare that a good experiment fails to show anything interesting, even if it is not quite what you set out to find in the first place. Indeed, sometimes it is the experiment that did not seem to work that turns out, down the road, to be the really exciting investigation.

Sociologists offer conflicting explanations for scientific misconduct. Perhaps Hauser is just a "bad apple:" He just doesn't care about the integrity of science. However, sociologists and psychologists point out that a lot of the motivation for doing science (and very much part of the training) is getting it right for its own sake. I used the metaphor of science as a game, and there is truth to it. You can get a good score in golf by cheating, but there is more satisfaction in working hard and getting a good score without cheating. Likewise in science.

We don't know the full story about Hauser, but the problems with the bad-apple scenario lead many to another explanation, "organizational climate." Today, you have to build teams, attracting grad students and postdocs, and this costs money. You have got to get grants, preferably from well-respected sources like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, in a highly competitive world. Fail to do this, and as a researcher, as a major player, you are dead. Or at least, you cannot do the sophisticated and expensive work that today's science demands. Perhaps in part, even Hauser at Harvard felt those pressures. Perhaps in part, precisely because he was at Harvard and so much was expected of him, he felt those pressures. My suspicion is that if that is the case, we will still be pretty cross, but we will all feel a certain sympathy. The grant imperative has taken a lot of pleasure out of being an academic.

Finally, a word about why the Hauser affair particularly is so upsetting and why it might have bigger consequences. Evolutionary biology today, especially anything to do with humankind, is loathed and feared by a range of critics, from prominent philosophers (like Jerry A. Fodor, author of What Darwin Got Wrong?), to the supporters of intelligent-design theory (like Phillip E. Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial), to the out-and-out young-earth creationists (like Ken Ham, the force behind the Creation Museum in Kentucky). Like sharks in the water, they circle waiting for a sign of blood. They seize on issues that supposedly discredit evolution and parade them publicly as the norm and the reason to reject modern science.

If anyone doubts what I am saying here, think of the recent controversy over global warming sparked when critics of the idea illicitly obtained e-mails and other confidential material of the researchers at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. For several months, much was made of incautious remarks made by the researchers about using "tricks" to conceal unwelcome findings and pushing for the firing of unfriendly editors. More measured reflections showed that in fact the researchers were guilty of virtually none of the sins of which they were first accused and that their work was of good quality. Global warming is a reality. But the damage was done.

Most of us feel a tremor of schadenfreude at the troubles of a prominent Harvard professor, but no one will be following the Hauser story with the unabashed glee of the critics of modern evolutionary theory. Wait for them to start pumping up the publicity, and fear the sideways damage that might be inflicted on all of the good work out there. One man's mistakes rebounds on every evolutionist. But that's science for you.

Michael Ruse directs the program in the history and philosophy of science at Florida State University. His latest book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, was just published by Cambridge University Press. He contributes to The Chronicle Review's blog, Brainstorm.