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.