Marc Hauser’s Trolley Problem

Many of you may be following the Marc Hauser case. If you aren’t: the NY Times has reported on it (here and here), the Chronicle of HIgher ed has published a leaked document from a former research assistant in Hauser’s case, Language Log, John Hawks and NeuroAnthropology have all posted some links, greg laden has a hilarious post about his perception that Hauser could make his new world monkeys consistently do surprising things. And so on.

I have a weak sense of the details, but I do know that accusations of fraud, regardless of whether fraud was committed, tend to have a range of effects on people involved, especially the administration of a university, the graduate students in a lab, and the fellow researchers in an accused’s field. One might think of this as Hauser’s trolley problem, a tool he’s fond of using himself in order to supposedly get at the basic biological modules or organs of morality. In this case, the person on the track, about to be flattened by a runaway trolley, is Hauser himself. One can imagine a number of scenarios: should one pull a lever to save Hauser? Should one push an unnamed (fat) graduate student or post-doc onto the track to save Hauser? Should one divert the trolley onto a track containing five other researchers who work on moral cognition, or leave it on the track towards Hauser to save those five? Should one derail the trolley and risk destroying a building (cognitive science at Harvard) that might contain sleeping researchers, etc. etc. etc.

As many journalists have noted, there is irony in the fact that Hauser’s forthcoming book is called Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad. But it’s more than irony, it’s a question of scale and temporality. Whatever evil is at stake here, it might have both a distant cause (evolution) and a proximate one (the institutional pressure to publish and the problem of being a star scientist), and neither Hauser nor anyone else seems able to mount a theory that would accommodate both. If there is a problem with Hauser’s style of research, it’s probably not that it is fraudulent. More likely, the problem is that his theories cannot explain the possibility of fraud arising as a result of the intense desire to prove that fraud has an evolutionary origin.

Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

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