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Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad


The other day, a friend told me that when he saw me blogging on Noam Chomsky, he was surprised not to see any mention of disgraced primatologist Marc Hauser. I was like, whaaaaaa? I had no idea these two had any connection. In fact, though, they wrote papers together.

This made me wonder what Chomsky thought of Hauser’s data scandal. I googled *marc hauser noam chomsky* and the first item that came up was this, from July 2011, reported by Tom Bartlett:

I [Bartlett] asked Chomsky for his comment on the Hauser resignation and he e-mailed the following:

Mark Hauser is a fine scientist with an outstanding record of accomplishment. His resignation is a serious loss for Harvard, and given the nature of the attack on him, for science generally.

Chomsky is a mentor of Hauser so I can’t fault Chomsky for defending the guy. But why couldn’t he have stuck with something more general, something like, “I respect and admire Mark Hauser and am not aware of any improprieties in his work.” Or maybe something like, “It is possible that—well, he has published quite a lot in various areas. It’s possible that some of the papers went to press without sufficient rethinking, but I don’t know of any cases.” That’s actually what Chomsky did say, a year earlier.

So what happened, that Chomsky changed his tune and got so aggressive? “A serious loss for Harvard” etc? My guess (without any evidence, but, hey, I’m free to guess) is that, as we discussed previously, Chomsky seems to be surrounded mostly by admirers or his haters. The admirers give no useful feedback, and the haters are so clearly against him that he can ignore them. Basically, he lives in a world in which everything is a battle, so it’s hard for him to do nuance. Or, to put it more carefully, he can do nuance, but if he thinks it’s a war going on, he goes into war mode.

P.S. Lots of details on Hauser in this news article by Charles Gross.


  1. Rahul says:

    What’s the substantive difference between what Chomsky did say, versus what Andrew wishes Chomsky had said?

    PS: I’m not a Chomsky lover nor hater.

  2. Roger says:

    Maybe Chomsky is aware of the improprieties. Why would you want him to say that he is not?

    It is true that Hauser has many accomplishments on his record. Chomsky was asked for a comment and gave a comment. What’s the problem? If Chomsky were in war mode, he could have made a much more aggressive statement, such as saying that Harvard should not have fired Hauser.

  3. Andrew says:

    Rahul, Roger:

    Given what Hauser has done, I think it’s ridiculous to say that “it is a serious loss for Harvard . . . and for science generally” that Hauser has left. I think it would be completely appropriate for Chomsky to say that he personally respects Hauser, he has no idea what happened so that Hauser misrepresented his data, etc etc. But, hey, when someone breaks the rules and is forced to leave, I’d say that the serious loss occurred, not when Hauser left, but when he did what he did the scientific misconduct in the first place.

    • Rahul says:

      Depends. What’s the quality of his non-disputed work? What’s his teaching contribution.

      Dismissal can be the absolute right thing to do and yet also a big loss for Harvard both at once, can it not? That he broke the rules in Year X does not automatically invalidate the fact that he could indeed have been a fine scientist in his Career before Year X.

      • Andrew says:


        I agree that the story is sad, I just think Chomsky’s pointing to “the attack” on Hauser seems to miss the point. For simplicity I’ll quote from wikipedia:

        In 2011, the university found him guilty of scientific misconduct and he resigned.[2] Because his research was financed by government grants, the US Office of Research Integrity also opened an investigation. In 2012, the investigators concluded that Hauser was guilty of research misconduct: in particular that he fabricated data for one study and falsified the results of others. . . . Michael Tomasello, another well-known animal cognition researcher, claimed that some of Hauser’s previous students personally told him that there “was a pattern and they had specific evidence ”. . .

        Forget about Harvard. I wouldn’t want this guy teaching anywhere, unless it were part of some program of restitution.

        • Rahul says:

          As an aside, what’s the technical difference between “fabricated data” versus “falsified the results”?

          Is there any? Just curious about the misconduct details.

          • jrkrideau says:

            Less effort and coding if you just write CI [10 20]
            than if you have to create the fake data and then calculate the CI.

            Less work but more downside if and when the auditors arrive or, like R&R, you need to cough up the spreadsheet.

            Wasn’t it once suggested that Burt used up his entire Xmas holidays one year to create a post-hoc data set?

            • Steve Sailer says:

              “Wasn’t it once suggested that Burt used up his entire Xmas holidays one year to create a post-hoc data set?”

              Lots of things have been “suggested” about Sir Cyril Burt, but the reality, after endless rehashings, remains murky:


              The Cyril Burt case is a good example of politically motivated attacks on a social scientist, attacks that may (or may not) have been accurate.

              Much of the history of the IQ Wars, such as Stephen Jay Gould’s posthumous attack in The Mismeasure of Man on Morton (now known to be an ironic example of what Freud called “projection”) suggests that accusers are not always in the right or innocent in their motivations.

              • Andrew says:

                I wonder (this is just pure speculation) if Burt was doing his science in what might be considered a pre-modern world, in which the distinctions between data and hypotheses were not as clear as they are now. It’s pretty clear that Hauser was breaking the rules and he knew he was doing so, but maybe things were different in Burt’s era. And maybe Chomsky can’t really tell the difference, partly because he’s not in a quantitative environment and partly because he’s so used to everything being politicized.

              • Steve Sailer says:

                That’s a good point. Burt’s single biggest finding — that women have about the same average IQ as men — was made over 100 years ago (1912). He died at 88 in 1971.

  4. ezra abrams says:

    A web page with the words “noam chomsky” that didn’t elicit dozens of long posts, with thousands and thousands of words ?
    I did not think such a thing possible.

    One day, a smart PhD student in psychology or poli sci is gonna do a thesis on why NC provokes not only extreme reactions, but extreme logorrhea as well; the only comnparable situation is the talk page on the Wikipedia “intelligent design” page (although, to be fair, this lack of competition is due mainly to the retirement of marxists from active life)

  5. Steve Sailer says:

    Behavioral studies of the higher animals have a long track record of hard-to-replicate findings. There is a fair degree of subjectivity in the interpretation of the behavior.

    Ironically, perhaps the best known example was Nim Chimpsky, the baby chimp whom Herbert Terrace had raised by his grad students to prove Chomsky wrong: chimps could learn American Sign Language! Impressively, after a number of announcements about Nim’s progress, Terrace eventually announced that he had been wrong and Chomsky had been right. But, the 2011 documentary “Project Nim” still made Terrace out to be the villain:

    • Erin Jonaitis says:

      Huh. In my world there are moral failings other than “does bad science.” Like “knowingly subjects own family to dangerous living conditions for the sake of proving himself right.” That’s what I remember from the movie — that the guy’s scientific aspirations controlled his family’s lives to a crazy and weird extent. And I remember feeling sorry for the chimp, too. Although it’s been a couple years since I’ve seen it and I could be remembering selectively.

  6. J Bulbulia says:

    Interesting topic. Here’s how I see it. Chomsky has set his prior to favour the weak against the powerful. This comes from a long experience of confronting bullies, and of understanding how power works. I take Chomsky’s response to indicate that Hauser might not have been dealt with fairly, and that Harvard chased Hauser away from convenience, which, if true, really would be “bad for science.”

    What should one’s prior be set to here and how should we update belief in light of the evidence? Given Hauser’s record (and *diversity*) of accomplishments, given how professional jealousies work — especially at a place like Harvard I imagine, given how easy it is for people to raise accusations, and given how management operates, I can see how Chomsky could plausibly construct an image of a witch hunt. And he might be right. The truth need not be some shaded grey.

    Was it a witch hunt though? Consider the other side. Given the pressures on Hauser to publish in high impact journals, given the ease of obtaining results from “interpretation” (Steve Sailer’s point), given that there *were* accusations against Hauser (and not just one, I am told), given that (so far as I am aware) Hauser did not immediately open his books to the world, etc etc. … we might be tempted to read Harvard’s responses the other way, as conveniently weak, and to feel some indignation they were too soft.

    What is your prior, what is your evidence? Your response will tell you something about your experience, and the larger context of interpretation that it supports To be fair, I haven’t followed the details of this case. However I think it affords yet another reason why data acquisition, deposit, and analysis, should be routinely transparent. It’d be better to have more information with which to form a clearer judgement in these cases, to know better who to protect.

    However, to bring this back to something not horrible — and in fact quite encouraging! — there’s a great little paper by Mark James Adams and colleagues estimating uncertainty in the subjective ratings of Orangutang personality using multi-level Bayesian data analysis. The paper also handily deals with the ordinal quality of the ratings, and with their various dependencies (i.e. builds multivariate GLMMs). Who knows where primatology will end up in ten years, but as an outsider, I find work like this extremely encouraging.

    Adams, M. J., King, J. E., & Weiss, A. (2012). The majority of genetic variation in orangutan personality and subjective well-being is nonadditive. Behavior genetics, 42(4), 675-686.


    *FYI I discovered that Adams also has a interesting website, with some great material on data visualisation.

  7. Norbert Hornstein says:

    Wow, Andrew really has a Chomsky problem doesn’t he? I, of course, don’t know A personally, “My guess (without any evidence, but, hey, I’m free to guess)” is that he suffers from Chomsky derangement syndrome. It’s something that you can catch from your friends if they happen not to be fans or from other maladies, including misinformation, envy, political disagreement, among other things. Here A seems to think that Chomsky’s anodyne remarks re Hauser are aggressive. I second the general puzzlement in the comments for I just don’t see it. But then I am a partisan: I really do admire the guy, both for his work in linguistics and philosophy and his politics. But this is not point of this comment. I wanted to discuss Hauser.

    Does A know the facts here? From what I could gather, Hauser was thrown out for supposedly cooking the books. Does A know that ALL of the disputed work has been replicated? Let me say that again: all of published work singled out for censure has been replicated. Given A that replication is (or should be) the gold standard for experimental work, this seems to me pretty good prima facie evidence that Hauser did NOT cook the books. He may have been sloppy, he might have been able to do it better, but the very fact that ALL the work replicated indicates that he did something right.In fact, given some of A’s recent posts on this topic he might want to invite Hauser to blog about how to do replicable work in psychology, an area, A has noted is not known for the robustness of its experimental results. I am pretty sure that Chomsky knows this about Hauser’s work. Maybe that explains why he is not nearly as dismissive of Hauser as A thinks he should be. Maybe A thinks that replication doesn’t really matter, however. All that really matters is whether Hauser is “disgraced.” Whether he deserves to be is another matter entirely. Right? Just asking.

    • Andrew says:


      Why don’t you take it up with the Harvard psychology department? I have a lot of respect for these people as a group, and they didn’t want Hauser teaching in their department. I certainly wouldn’t want someone who fabricated data to be teaching in my department. Then again, I’m a statistician. I take data seriously.

    • Andrew says:

      P.S. See here for some details. Lots of falsification going on, not just “he may have been sloppy, he might have been able to do it better.” More like, he knowingly wrote untruths. “He never exposed monkeys to a particular sound pattern described in the experiment, despite reporting the results in a graph.” And, in another case, “Hauser falsified the coding, causing the results to pass a statistical test used to ensure that a particular finding was not just a chance result.”

      I was not planning to invite Hauser to blog here, but if he wants to send me something, I’d be interested in what he has to say. Perhaps he feels that his hypotheses are true, so by faking his data he was just helping science along. My guess is that this motivation is at the heart of many scientific frauds.

      Instead of Hauser faking his data, I’d prefer if he had been honest about his data and then honestly explained why he believed his claims, despite the lack of clear evidential support. The guy was a tenured professor at Harvard, for chrissake. Nobody was holding a gun to his head forcing him to make things up. He should have had the courage of his convictions and not have hidden behind fake data.

      • Norbert Hornstein says:

        To repeat, all the disputed work replicated. There is nothing to retract. He was right. Not, he though he was, but from all we know right now, he was. For you this counts for nothing? Form over substance?

        • Andrew says:

          You got it. I don’t want to have someone around who writes things he knows are false, who falsifies data, who publishes a graph of made-up numbers that purport to be real. Unless he has a really good reason, like if it’s during WW2 and he’s doing atomic research and he wants to publish some fake data to put the Germans on the wrong track. Otherwise, if he really believes his results I think he should have the confidence to publish his actual data and his actual experimental protocols.

          To a statistician, the data are substance, not form. If you think that when a paper has fabricated data that “there is nothing to retract,” I think that’s just sad. I think honesty in reporting of data and measurement is central to science, and to scholarship more generally.

          • Norbert Hornstein says:

            I resist being put into the nutty position of defending data fabrication. So, let’s stipulate that making up data is bad. But, I do think that ‘l’affaire Hauser’ has been vastly overblown. His alleged fakery did not disrupt the forward march I’d science. He was substantially correct. How do I know? Because to this date nobody has shown that his reported results do not stand. Cr all the huffing and puffing, for all the purported cooking of the books he was right. And not just once but all three times (I.e. the published work). So though I too would like people to report their findings truthfully and though like everyone else I think that honesty is the best policy, if one is interested in advancing science, the sin of fakery has not been, in my view, the main impediment to good scientific work. The brouhaha over Hauser,I believe, has less to do with what he did than with the views he defended. As I discuss this more on my site facultyoflanguage I will end my remarks here and send the interested reader to that site.

            • Andrew says:


              You write, “alleged fakery . . purported cooking of the books . . . brouhaha.” I’ll go with the federal research oversight agency that found fabrication and multiple instances of falsification. I wouldn’t want someone like that running around in my university and I’m not surprised that the Harvard psychology department wanted him out of there.

              One more thing, and this is a biggie:

              You write, “like everyone else I think that honesty is the best policy.” No, that’s not true. Not everyone thinks that honesty is the best policy. Marc Hauser did not think honesty was the best policy. He thought the best policy was to publish statements that he knew were false, to make up data and to falsely describe his data collection. Diederik Stapel did not think honesty was the best policy. Jonah Lehrer did not think honesty was the best policy. Dr. Anil Potti did not think honesty was the best policy. Etc etc etc. Lots and lots of people don’t think honesty is the best policy. As a noted psychology researcher once wrote, “we evolved a taste for being bad.”

              • Thomas says:

                Suppose someone committed a murder and we discovered that a detective had planted evidence at the scene of the crime to convict him. It seems pretty straightforward that, even where the detective was right about who committed the murder, she should lose her job and the planted evidence should be discounted.

                Would her dismissal be a “serious loss for justice”? Well, perhaps in the sense that if she had not allowed herself to be corrupted by her zeal to put the killer behind bars, her skill at identifying who did it might still be at the service of society. But now that we know she can’t be trusted…

            • DK says:

              I resist being put into the nutty position of defending data fabrication.

              Nd yet it’s exactly what you are doing – defending data fabrication because it might have gotten things right.

              If the data were made up, it’s a mortal sin in science. Full stop, no subtleties. One of the few things that are really simple.

            • Wonks Anonymous says:

              I don’t see a link to Faculty of Language. Did you forget to add it, or did Andrew remove it?

              • Andrew says:

                Hey—you gotta be kidding! I don’t remove people’s links. I delete spam posts, but this wasn’t spam.

              • Norbert Hornstein says:

                Andrew did not cut anything. I did not provide a link, just a name for the site: I propose that faking data is not the main problem and that though it is not to be condoned, it is also not nearly as serious as the reactions to it suggest. At any rate, you can see for yourself. BTW, though ‘not being spam’ is a low threshold, I am glad to have cleared it.

              • Wonks Anonymous says:

                Norbert, you are really bad at promoting your site. Your link is to an email address rather than the url.