09 September 2010

Marc Hauser

Marc Hauser seems to be in some trouble, although it is rather difficult to get a fix on how much.

Hauser is a big name in the field of evolutionary psychology. He's the co-director of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Program at Harvard University, Director of its Cognitive Evolution Lab, and adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of Education and the Program in Neurosciences.

In 2002 his paper, “Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins,” was published by the journal Cognition. Of course he has written much else, but I mention that paper because it is at the heart of the still developing scandal. Here's some info about the cotton-top tamarin. It's a small monkey, the sort of animal one would want to study if one were trying to prove, say, that humans are distinctive vis-a-vis moral/cognitive development even compared to other primates. Or that humans aren't that distinctive.

Hauser's experiments appear to have involved hidden loudspeakers within the living environment of these monkeys. The monkeys would, not surprisingly, sometimes turn about to look toward the loudspeakers when they started talking. But how frequently they turned around was used as a measure of whether they thought the loudspeakers were saying something interesting. After all, if the same-pld-stuff kept coming from the loudspeakers, then over time it would just become ambiant noise, and the monkeys would learn to ignore it.

By videotaping the environment, and carefully watching the tape for monkey turn-arounds, and correlating all that to what was coming out of those speakers at diferent times, one can presumably draw some conclusions about the recognition of speech by monkeys, and even (if the data set is large enough) about whether monkeys notice things like grammatical errors.

This is all founded on experiments that Elizabeth Spelke has run with human infants, as David Dobbs has explained in SLATE.

Here's what the Chronicle of Higher Education said on August 13. The findings published in Cognition in 2002 can not be relied upon. The conclusions are not supported by the data. So ... what happened? Did someone else look at the videotape and see monkeying around inconsistent with what the paper reported?

I suspect there are some big issues that are at stake here, and I wish Harvard were more forthcoming about its investigation.

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