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Schoolmarms and lightning bolts: Data faker meets Edge foundation in an unintentional reveal of problems with the Great Man model of science

Hey—I happened to run across an article by Virginia Heffernan on the now-notorious Edge foundation, and it contained a link to all sorts of people . . . including Marc Hauser, the disgraced primatologist who we’ve discussed in this space from time to time.

Here’s an Edge article by Hauser in 2002—almost a decade before Harvard “found him guilty of scientific misconduct and he resigned” (according to wikipedia). The folks at Edge didn’t seem to get around to updating Hauser’s bio for awhile; as late as 2017, the website described him as “Harvard College Professor, Professor of Psychology and Program in Neurosciences, and Director of Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory” etc etc.

First reading

If you read Hauser’s article straight, with no historical context, it’s a run-of-the-mill bit of empty philosophizing by a well-connected dude with more self-confidence than common sense (hey, I guess that could describe me too!), with yummy bits such as “one simply can’t be an educated member of the species Homo sapiens without knowing about the sciences” and “When Darwin provided his lightening [sic] bolt of intuition, he turned people around and caused them to look at problems in a new light” and “I fully agree that for those in the humanities to remain woefully ignorant of the sciences is to remain in the bleachers of an intellectual life.” I love that idea that people who “remain in the bleachers” are not truly involved. Not everyone can afford box seats, huh? What is it with those Harvard guys and their sports metaphors?

My favorite quote from Hauser’s short article, though, is “Each new paradigm shift changes the game.” Deep, huh? But, as they say at the Edge foundation, what does that got to do with cats?

Contextual reading

Next, let’s reread the article with full knowledge of Hauser’s scientific misconduct. This reading is anachronistic, as the misconduct did not come out until much later. Still, it might be revealing of a certain mode of thinking.

OK, here’s a position:

Making information accessible is, of course, for the good. One might argue, and sometimes I have, that some of the information disseminated by scientists is done in such a way that it is almost mischievously irresponsible.

It makes sense that Hauser wrote the above sentence, given the effort he put into hiding information that would spoil his carefully constructed story. I suppose that from Hauser’s perspective, it was “mischievously irresponsible” for his postdocs to reveal that he had “fabricated data for one study and falsified the results of others” (to again quote Wikipedia).

Hauser continues:

I am often shocked and appalled by scientists who have never read some of the classics of literature, who know little about history, and who continue to ignore insights from philosophy.

He’s talking about his postdocs again! Those narrow-minded philistines who only care about evanescent data, not the eternal truths intuited by Great Men.

This is where Hauser and I differ. I’m shocked and appalled by scientists who fake their data and who don’t revise their thinking in light of data. Hauser is shocked and appalled by scientists who don’t read Shakespeare.

Along the same lines, Hauser writes:

You applaud humanists who think like scientists, and point the schoolmarm’s finger at those who don’t.

Again, the “schoolmarm” represents the painful constraints of science. Star professor Hauser can’t be bound by any mere “schoolmarm”! He’s way too important for that. Edge foundation don’t need no schoolmarm.

Then this:

Many of these philosophical discussions explicitly ignore empirical work because that is not the underlying mission. I don’t think this is bad at all. It is healthy.

I agree with Hauser here. Pure theory is fine. For example, I’ve always said that if Satoshi Kanazawa had simply theorized about beauty and sex ratio, without mistakenly claiming empirical support for his ideas, that would’ve been fine.

But with Hauser it’s a bit different, as he did not just “ignore” empirical work; instead he actively misrepresented his data.

Hauser tried to have it both ways. On one hand, he expresses the value of data-free philosophical insight. On the other hand, he can’t resist borrowing—stealing, really—the legitimate authority of data-based scientific reasoning as a way to get social support for his theories.

More ridiculously (in retrospect):

[T]here is plenty of room for scientists to do their thing, humanists to do theirs, and for fertile interactions to arise between the two. I of course agree that the most fertile ground is in the interface zone, but that is a matter of taste!

The “interface zone,” huh? Is that what you call it when you falsify data? I guess the science part is when you make up the numbers, and the humanist part is when you refuse to share your records.

And some parts that are inadvertently revealing

There are significant constraints on science. Although science may well move on, it is often constrained by particular paradigms that are dominant, and often dominated by particularly powerful individuals. There are also ethical constraints . . .

Interesting that he sees the constraints as social rather than scientific. It may have pained Hauser to have been constrained by needing to follow particular paradigms and powerful individuals. But he didn’t seem to be constrained by the data.

The saddest thing

I suspect that what really destroyed Hauser was his allegiance to the Great Man model of science. And this makes me said. He could’ve been a functioning member of society, a star teacher who was also active in the animal-research movement, but that wasn’t enough. Maybe it was never enough.

Here’s Hauser:

I would rather think of science as changing as a function of radical new ideas that open the door to looking at problems in new and exciting ways, as opposed to simply gaining new information. . . . When Darwin provided his lightening bolt of intuition, he turned people around and caused them to look at problems in a new light. . . . when Chomsky provided his lightening bolt of intuition . . .

It’s striking how sloppy the writing is here: the lightning bolt that causes people to look at problem in a new light. I’m with Orwell here: sloppy writing can be a sign of sloppy thinking. If you have nothing of value to say, it can be hard to say it precisely.

But my main concern here is with the attitude that science is all about those geniuses—the Darwins and Chomskys with their lightning bolts of intuition—and not about “simply gaining new information,” i.e. the everyday process of scientific measurement.

You can see how this could create big problems for Hauser. To start with, if you think all that matters are the lightning bolts of intuition, then you’re putting yourself under a lot of pressure to stand in just the right place in that rain cloud, to be where the voltage is highest so you can throw that lightning bolt. Second, once you become a celebrated Harvard professor, then you’re under even more pressure, either to come up with that damn bolt of lightning, or to play the part and act as if you’ve already discovered it. Remember the Armstrong principle.

Science is created by scientists (and others). But science isn’t ultimately about scientists; it’s about science. Individual scientists can do great work, but I think the Great Man framework is a mistake. Details matter, and they matter for everyone, arguably more so for the greats than for anyone else. Darwin didn’t just have a lightning bolt of intuition; he also put in decades of hard work and careful observation. It’s too late for Hauser, but for the wannabe scientists and Harvard professors of the future, take note and use that as your model. Don’t ever think you’re too good for your data.

The reality club

One more thing. The entire essay is placed on the website under the heading, The Reality Club. I guess the question is: which reality do we care about? The scientific reality of measurement and data, or the social reality that a Harvard professor can get caught falsifying data and still be presented as an authority on science and philosophy. Ultimately, both realities matter. But let’s not confuse them. Let’s not confuse social power with scientific evidence. Remember Lysenko.

P.S. OK, why am I picking on these guys? Marc Hauser and the Edge foundation: are these not the deadest of dead horses? But remember what they say about beating a dead horse. The larger issue—a smug pseudo-humanistic contempt for scientific measurement, along with an attitude that money plus fame = truth—that’s still out there.

P.P.S. For more of the same, check out Hauser’s musings on religion and morality (“Recent discoveries suggest that all humans, young and old, male and female, conservative and liberal, living in Sydney, San Francisco and Seoul, growing up as atheists, Buddhists, Catholics and Jews, with high school, university or professional degrees, are endowed with a gift from nature, a biological code for living a moral life. . . . For example, if five people in a hospital each require an organ to survive, is it permissible for a doctor to take the organs of a healthy person who happens to walk by the hospital? . . .”) or moral minds (“I really need your data, I’m an experimentalist.”)

11 Comments

  1. Z says:

    > I love that idea that people who “remain in the bleachers” are not truly involved. Not everyone can afford box seats, huh?

    I took this to mean sideline spectators vs players, like bleachers at a high school football game where all the seats are bleachers.

  2. Garnett says:

    “If you have nothing of value to say, it can be hard to say it precisely.”

    Being precise facilitates criticism, and we can’t have that!

  3. yyw says:

    It’s the view that scientific research should be revolutionary instead of evolutionary.

  4. Martha Smith says:

    Andrew said,
    “Science is created by scientists (and others). But science isn’t ultimately about scientists; it’s about science. Individual scientists can do great work, but I think the Great Man framework is a mistake. Details matter, and they matter for everyone, arguably more so for the greats than for anyone else. Darwin didn’t just have a lightning bolt of intuition; he also put in decades of hard work and careful observation.”

    +1

  5. Terry says:

    “Darwin didn’t just have a lightning bolt of intuition; he also put in decades of hard work and careful observation.””

    We like to forget this. The idea of evolution had been evolving for decades before Darwin’s books. So even Darwin’s ideas weren’t really lightning bolts. They were the next step in a process, and Mendel’s work was the next step beyond Darwin.

  6. Steve says:

    The idea of evolution with selection is ancient. In some form it goes back to the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander. There is nothing new under the sun, which of course was first said by the Birds.

  7. Prestige mongering & jealousy just wither character and imagination. That is why I shunned academia, after seeing how some academics behaved.

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