Friday, 29 October 2010

the Hauser affair and the new york times (updated 6 nov.)

In an article on 25th October, Nicholas Wade, writing in the New York Times, gives the impression that I have stepped back from my initial interpretation of what I had been told about Hauser’s misconduct. He selectively quotes from me (see archived entries from August and September) to support the contention that the discrepancy between Hauser’s raw data and the published data were due to “devastating error, but not fraud”. In fact, there has been no stepping back. As I make very clear in this blog (and repeated in emails to Mr. Wade - see below), the information I have received, when taken at face value, leads me to maintain my belief that the data that had been published in the journal Cognition was effectively a fiction - that is, there was no basis in the recorded data for those data. I concluded, and I continue to conclude, that the data were most likely fabricated (that is, after all, what a fiction is - a fabrication). It is true that I did write here that there existed an alternative explanation for what happened, based on a sequence of errors. However, for that interpretation to be correct (i.e. that the data reported in Cognition were due to an unfortunate sequence of errors), the information I had been given, by Harvard’s Dean, would have to have been incorrect. Why exactly this is the case is simple: the investigation found no explanation for how the raw data might have given rise to the published data. As I pointed out in this blog, if all that had happened was that the wrong stimuli had been played to the monkeys, it would be possible to work out how the raw data did nonetheless end up as the published data. It’s not rocket science, and Harvard does, after all, have access to some of the best minds around. Indeed, some of those best minds were involved in the investigation, one way or another. So the only way that one could salvage the “unfortunate sequence of errors” explanation is if one supposed that not all the videotapes had been available for analysis. But again, my understanding is that they were. And in any case, if they weren’t, there would have been an explanation for how the raw data ended up as the published data (albeit an explanation that could not be verified). Again, I was told that there was no explanation for how one could go from the one to the other. So at the end of the day, it comes down to this: Do I believe what the Dean told me were the results of a long, careful, and painstaking investigation, or do I simply make up a “Just So Story” instead?

My frustration with the New York Times piece is that it was picked up by The Crimson, who went so far as to say that I had retracted my criticisms. For the record, I have not. I would implore all journalists to read carefully what I have written, rather than relying on hearsay and speculation.

I shall be writing to the editor of the New York Times to correct the misrepresentation of my views. I shall copy that letter to The Crimson. And when I have done that, I shall update this blog with a copy, regardless of whether NYT or The Crimson publish it. This entire saga is about the misrepresentation of truth. It is ironic that the journalists who profess to expose truth place such little value in it.

UPDATE: On sending the letter to the New York Times, I receive an automated reply saying that I was not permitted to publish the same text in any other medium. Consequently, I have decided not to post the letter here unless the New York Times choose not to publish it. If that’s the case, I will update this post with the (unpublished) letter. If they do publish it, I shall update with the appropriate link. In the meantime, the following snippets from email exchanges with Nicholas Wade should set the record straight:

15 Sep 2010, Nicholas Wade wrote at 19:27:
should one assume that you are now receding from or withdrawing your statement to me of Aug 27?  “Given the PUBLISHED design of the experiment, my conclusion is that the control condition was fabricated,”

15 Sep 2010, I replied at 19:33:
I'm not withdrawing it. ... Given the content of the examined videotapes, any other conclusion than the one I reached and which you quoted would simply be implausible. So I stand by what I said.

UPDATE (November 6th): After writing to Nicholas Wade, and then to the letters page of the NYT, and then to his editor, and receiving no reply, I wrote 6 days later again. I did eventually receive a reply. They stand by their article and make no apology for ignoring my email clarifications to Mr. Wade. Colleagues who have read previous entries on this blog have had no problem interpreting where I stood on this issue. But such colleagues are not in the business of selling newspapers and hype, whatever the cost. So to set the cat amongst the pigeons, I have been told, and I shall not reveal more, that when the details of the investigation are eventually published, words such as “shocking” will flow freely. Here is the letter that NYT declined to publish. I shall not respond to any requests from NYT in the future.

Nicholas Wade writes, in Difficulties in Defining Errors in Case Against Harvard Researcher (10/25/2010), that I have retreated from my suggestion that Marc Hauser, found guilty of scientific misconduct by Harvard University, had fabricated data.  He selectively quotes from me to conclude that Hauser committed “a devastating error, but not fraud”. In email exchanges with Mr. Wade, and on my blog, I explicitly wrote that I have not changed my interpretation of the evidence as described to me by the Harvard authorities. I explained how the alternative explanation, based on a sequence of errors, both lacked credibility and was inconsistent with information given to me by Harvard. The investigation of scientific misconduct is about the distortion of truth. The New York Times should care as much about the truth as does Harvard, and I trust that this clarification of my position can be added to the record.

Finally: I have been asked why I care about any of this, and why I felt the need to respond to journalists’ requests for my opinion (it was they that contacted me, not the other way around). The answer is simple: As the current Editor of the journal in which Hauser published 15 of his articles, one of which is now known to have contained fictitious data, it is my job to care. Just as it is my job to take a stand against the spreading of falsehoods, whether by rogue scientists, or rogue journalists. And that’s my final word on this matter, until, that is, the full details have been published and I can write here the following: “I told you so”.