Saturday, August 28, 2010

Exposed scientific dishonesty illustrates why science is so great

That title may sound counter intuitive, but give me a chance to explain.

You may have heard about the bit of academic scandal that's been happening at Harvard recently. Marc Hauser is a Professor in the Departments of Psychology, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology. He was the leading researcher on the evolution of morality and moral behavior in primates and humans and an author of a number of books, including Moral Minds and (in progress) Evilicious: Our Evolved Taste for Being Bad.

In a somewhat amusingly ironic twist, he was found guilty of scientific misconduct, including fabrication of data that will result in several papers being retracted.

This is a very serious situation, especially since Marc Hauser was such a big name in his field. His career is effectively over, and now reseachers in the field have to rethink everything they've learned from him (and cited from him). It's even more serious for his students, whose futures are uncertain when their graduate advisor has such a black mark on his record. It's upsetting to the field of science as a whole, which does rely on a certain level of trust for practical reasons. We peer review to the best of our abilities, but you still have to hope everyone else is being honest like you since it can take time to expose problems.

It's also a little jarring to me personally. Not only will I have to reexamine what I read in one of his books that I greatly enjoyed, but I almost went to graduate school in one of the departments he teaches in. Academic scandals aren't the best way to start your graduate career.

But we have to remember this is what makes science so great. Science is not dogmatic. It's based on peer review and constant criticism. Scientists are still human and make errors, sometimes purposefully and sometimes not, so it's important to have these checks in place. Hauser was a giant in his field, but even he was not immune to scrutiny. It was his own graduate students who brought these problems to our attention at great personal risk.

Some people are using this as a chance to pooh-pooh the whole field of evolutionary psychology. I'm sure it's only a matter of time for creationists like Ken Ham to squeal with glee and twist the facts for their own "Never trust science!!!" agenda. But I really don't think this is quite so tragic. Isn't it good to know that we still expose bad science, even when we may have political reasons to not? Would we rather have evolutionary psychology trucking on without criticism, or get the fraudulent data out in the open? I'd be more concerned with the field if it was just being swept under the table. While it's sad such dishonesty occured, I'm happy to know that we can still sniff it out, correct it, and punish those who perpetuate it.

Maybe I'm being overly optimistic (I know, unusual for me). But I think it's good to use this as an example of why science is the best way of exploring the world around us: Because when our findings are wrong, we'll admit it.

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