Yesterday in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade wrote another article about the Marc Hauser scientific misconduct and its likely fallout. The article didn’t present much in the way of new facts, as far as I could tell, but I found this part interesting:
Some forms of scientific error, like poor record keeping or even mistaken results, are forgivable, but fabrication of data, if such a charge were to be proved against Dr. Hauser, is usually followed by expulsion from the scientific community.
“There is a difference between breaking the rules and breaking the most sacred of all rules,” said Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia. The failure to have performed a reported control experiment would be “a very serious and perhaps unforgivable offense,” Dr. Haidt said.
Dr. Hauser’s case is unusual, however, because of his substantial contributions to the fields of animal cognition and the basis of morality. Dr. [Gerry] Altmann [editor of the journal Cognition] held out the possibility of redemption. “If he were to give a full and frank account of the errors he made, then the process can start of repatriating him into the community in some form,” he said.
I’m curious what you all think about this.
Do you feel that some of the rules of scientific conduct are more sacred than others? That some flavors of scientific misconduct are more forgivable than others? That a scientist who has made “substantial contributions” in his or her field of study might be entitled to more forgiveness for scientific misconduct than your typical scientific plodder?
I think these questions touch on the broader question of whether the tribe of science (or the general public putting up the money to support scientific research) believes rehabilitation is possible for those caught in scientific misdeeds. (This is something we’ve discussed before in the context of why members of the tribe of science might be inclined to let “youthful offenders” slide by with a warning rather than exposing them to punishments that are viewed as draconian.)
But the Hauser case adds an element to this question. What should we make of the case where the superstar is caught cheating? How should we weigh the violation of trust against the positive contribution this researcher has made to the body of scientific knowledge? Can we continue to trust that his or her positive contribution to that body of knowledge was an actual contribution, or ought we to subject it to extra scrutiny on account of the cheating for which we have evidence? Are we forced to reexamine the extra credence we may have been granting the superstar’s research on account of that superstar status?
And, in a field of endeavor that strives for objectivity, are we really OK with the suggestion that members of the tribe of science who achieve a certain status should be held to different rules than those by which everyone else in the tribe is expected to play?