Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Learning from Hauser’s Mistakes

A long standing debate between believers and non-believers over the status and nature of morality in a God-less world has been influenced in recent years by research that has shown that non-animals possess many more moral or proto-moral behaviors naturally than we once thought.  If we are to listen to Hauser, De Waal, Pinker, Churchland, and a number of others, there’s a compelling case for the evolution of morality in humans.  And that closes what appeared to be a gap in the naturalistic worldview as many believers see it. 

But just recently, renowned Harvard psychology professor Marc Hauser has gotten into some trouble over questions about his research methods.  In fact, he’s now been put on leave and there is an active investigation into some of his recent work.  Apparently, Hauser was being less than scrupulous or at least over enthusiastic in his gathering and evaluating of data from monkeys intended to help the case for a cognitive continuity between us and them. 

Hauser’s fall from grace, if you’ll pardon the expression, may seem like an opportunity for the non-naturalists about morality to gloat.  But let me use the case to illustrate a different point in favor of the scientific and naturalistic approach to epistemological questions. 

In Hauser’s lab, students and Hauser were observing rhesus monkeys to see if they recognized patterns played on a sound system.  As is often done with human babies, the monkey is thought to have noticed a change in a pattern if it turns it head, stares longer, or exhibits some other new behavior when a pattern is violated with a new stimulus. 

Hauser was one of the people responsible for observing the monkeys and recording whether they responded to the stimuli.  The discrepancies came out when it was found that Hauser was reporting observations that supported his hypothesis that the monkeys could recognize patterns as well as human infants far more often than any of the other, more impartial, observers.  When the tapes were watched carefully, and reviewed by objective parties, it became clear that Hauser was cooking the data:  the professor was reporting bogus data and how he aggressively pushed back against those who questioned his findings or asked for verification.  More details here:

Now Hauser has been found out, and many reporters who have pounced on the story have suggested that his misdeeds have cast doubts on the whole discipline.  That last bit strikes me as irresponsible hyperbole—each study and each set of data, whether produced by Hauser’s lab or not, should be evaluated entirely on its own merits.  Hauser’s misdeeds do not cast a pall on independent research with sound methods. 

But what is important to note here, and the silver lining, I think, is that we are seeing science working.  This is exactly what the diligent application of double blind controls, multiple trials, and repeatability are supposed to do in science.  The point of science is to root mistakes and falsehoods out aggressively. 

Science is no respecter of persons.  It establishes nothing on the basis of authority, or reputation.  Nor is it a source of dogma, or officially sanctioned doctrine.  Everything should be continually subjected to the most stringent levels of skepticism we can muster because it is only after a hypothesis has been subjected to this process and survived that we can attach some degree of certainty or probability to it.  Since we are so prone to exaggeration, enthusiasm, the allure of lucrative research grants, and just plain mistakes, we have to police ourselves. 

And there we can see the inherent superiority of the scientific method for discovering truths about the world over traditional religious methods.  Religions traditions are built around established truth claims that are beyond reproach.  Certain doctrinal claims such as “God is real,” “Jesus Christ is the son of God,” or “God provides salvation to those who seek it,” are fixed within the known for believers.  Of course, some doubts, some questioning are permitted, and even encouraged in some rare cases.  But ultimately it is the set of alleged truth claims that are the foundation of the whole enterprise.  If those turn out to be wrong, the entire edifice crashes down. 

Science is not about a fixed body of truth claims, its essence is the application of a method that has proven to be the best one we have for attaching any degree of confidence to a claim about what is real in the world.  Repeatability, openness, objectivity, impartiality, and critical scrutiny are the central principles, whereas all too often they are treated as vices in religious contexts.  (Consider the internal policies regarding the treatment of child molestation cases in the Catholic Church for a poignant illustration here.) 

For the believer, the Hauser case raises this penetrating question:  is the environment I am in that ordinarily fosters believing--church, clergy, friends, and family-- one that encourages enough skepticism and objectivity to expose error in my religious beliefs?  If I am wrong about God or my religion, am I in the sort of intellectual surroundings that would help me discover such a serious mistake?  Or am I in an epistemic environment that would continue to foster belief in me no matter what the truth? 

If your answer to that last question is “yes,” then you should decide on your priorities:  Do I want to believe that which is justified and hence more likely to be true, or do I want to elevate the importance of dogma and doctrine over truth and reasonableness?   Hauser can be grateful for the science’s keeping him on the straight and narrow.  


Matt said...

It's well known through example, that religious belief is not self-correcting. It only corrects itself when it does not agree with the current moral or scientific understanding of the world. And even then, it does not so much "correct" as "ignore" whatever dogma violates the current moral/scientific understanding. And it's always behind, playing catch-up with the secular world.

People of faith, true faith, not the inherently fallacious "reasoned faith" can't really answer the question you posited. It seems, to them, that it would be a false dilemma. Them having to choose faith or reason.

Most likely, they would fall back on a form of cognitive dissonance and say something like "reason is for this world" and "faith is for everything else."

I don't think their faith would allow them to ask those self-reflecting questions. That's not to say that a religious person cannot become faith-less; here I sit as proof, but rather, that the process is much more organic than a simple questioning in many people.

I think, in the end, this is one of those super-difficult issues to discuss because discussing faith from the view point of rationality is impossible. They're literally two different languages. Even trying to answer either of those questions you asked, a person of faith would say, "Well, I have faith."

On the topic of science vs. faith though, I agree 100%. If only faith was self-correcting. The only "correcting" of any kind religion has done, as I said before, is to try to become compatible with whatever the contemporary science or morality of a particular culture is. Faith, or religious belief, through infinite regression and theological twisting, is pretty much self-sustaining. Science, on the other hand, is not.

(Glad you're posting again)

T said...

Great blog!

Ketan said...

Haven't read the post, yet. You meant to say "non-humans" instead of "non-animals" in the first sentence?

Saint Brian the Godless said...

I find it ironic that the christians most vehemently claiming that morality is only from God, are the selfsame ones most in need of real morality themselves. Their version is based in coercion. Be 'good' or else, and their definition of 'good' is rife with other programming such as 'being faithful, never doubting.'
'Be good or else' cannot produce real morality in a person. Morality at gunpoint is not morality, and can only produce a sort of blind obedience based in fear, never any real moral sense such as empathy for others or unclnditional love. Morality born in self-centeredness is at best, an imago, an illusion, of real morality.
Many christians transcend this and do find real morality based in empathy, but they're not the loud voices out there crowing about how moral they are and how immoral everyone else is. Those are the bungled and the botched, the programmed robots, the 'mouthbreathers for Jesus' that insist that any self-improvement is a sacrilige and any knowledge is effete and pompous. They idolize ignorance and demonize all intellectuality, for they know at heart that their belief system cannot stand up to any of that rigor. Their religion keeps them dumb, for if they were to become smart enough to see it for what it is, they'd run from it like the devil.

Anonymous said...

Two things:
(a) It seems unfair to compare the "openness, objectivity, impartiality, and critical scrutiny" that are "central principles" in *professional peer reviewed* science, with with that of *layman* church groups, and then to identify the partial and subjective layman church groups with "religious tradition". If that isn't stacking the deck, what is? All we're doing here is ascribing negative attributes to "religious tradition", when such attributes are not true at all of the "religious traditions" academic side. If we're putting our spotlight on peer-reviewed science to get our "scientific tradition", we should similarly put our spotlight on peer-reviewed Biblical-studies/philosophy of religion to get our "religious tradition", and who here wants to say that such things are not characterized by "openness, objectivity, impartiality, and critical scrutiny". Hopefully no one.
(b) Was it really *that* inevitable that Hauser would be exposed. Honestly, exposing it within our lifetime probably took a fair amount luck too.

brenda said...

"there’s a compelling case for the evolution of morality in humans"

This is the naturalistic fallacy. Giving an account of how morality has evolved in humans is not the same as providing a philosophical justification for those morals. That I believe that murder is wrong because there is a story to be told about how that moral imperative came about does not therefore constitute a reason for why I should believe murder is wrong.

Things could have just as easily been otherwise. There exists a possible world where slavery is moral. It is not enough for those who practice slavery to say that their moral code evolved. They can do that. They have to provide a rational argument, not a naturalistic one.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Brenda, and all for the comments. Brenda, I'm not committing the naturalistic fallacy here. I didn't argue that we did evolve moral dispositions therefore we ought to be moral. But you do raise an interesting point: Could it have happened (easily) as you say, that slavery turned out to be moral. According to theists who believe that morality arises from God, the answer is no. And even on some evolutionary accounts this would be mistaken. It's looking more and more like in order to develop the kind of advanced cognitive abilities that would be presupposed by any moral sensibilities, a species would have to be cooperative. And in a cooperative social environment, it may be that you can't get autonomous, self directed creatures like ourselves unless they develop moral sentiments within a specific range. If that range precludes slavery and murder, for instance, then you won't find those evolving to be moral or proto moral proclivities. But this is all pretty speculative. You are right that many people want a reasoned argument to provide them with a justification for being moral, although for most of our moral actions, we don't explicitly reason through our choices much.


brenda said...

Well it all boils down to if one is a moral realist or not. At the present I don't see how moral realism is defensible without presuming a Law Giver (God). Or in other words:

Nietzsche was right.

But... in my experience most online atheists are almost complete philosophical illiterates. They've never debated anyone other than creationists and they react in abject horror to the abyss that opens beneath their feet.

Most atheists I've encountered want to have their cake and eat it too. They want their moral realism but they don't want any gods. Sorry kids, you can't have it.

In an atheistic universe you are going to be in bed with Nietzsche. I don't see any way around it.

Paul Rinzler said...

Brenda wrote:

"It is not enough for those who practice slavery to say that their moral code evolved. "

It is not enough for what (purpose) that those who practice slavery to say that their moral code evolved?

Anonymous said...

Science is no respecter of persons. It establishes nothing on the basis of authority, or reputation. Nor is it a source of dogma, or officially sanctioned doctrine.

LOL... that's just in theory.

Anonymous said...

Jk. This blog reminds me of the scene in 300 when the deformed dude wants to fight the Persians but he can't raise his shield. Leonidas tells him (paraphrased) that he can't get some because his shield is meant to guard his brother. Analogously, a scientist's efforts ought not only be self benefitting, but a benefit to his/her colleagues as well. Even if doing so puts his/her career at risk.

By covering another's mistakes and blind spots the probability of a successful operation increases--both in war and in science. This is because selflessness is the core of civilization