by Denyse O’Leary
The experiment tested the ability of rhesus monkeys to recognize sound patterns. Researchers played a series of three tones (in a pattern like A-B-A) over a sound system. After establishing the pattern, they would vary it (for instance, A-B-B) and see whether the monkeys were aware of the change. If a monkey looked at the speaker, this was taken as an indication that a difference was noticed.The method has been used in experiments on primates and human infants. Mr. Hauser has long worked on studies that seemed to show that primates, like rhesus monkeys or cotton-top tamarins, can recognize patterns as well as human infants do. Such pattern recognition is thought to be a component of language acquisition.Researchers watched videotapes of the experiments and "coded" the results, meaning that they wrote down how the monkeys reacted. As was common practice, two researchers independently coded the results so that their findings could later be compared to eliminate errors or bias.According to the document that was provided to The Chronicle, the experiment in question was coded by Mr. Hauser and a research assistant in his laboratory. A second research assistant was asked by Mr. Hauser to analyze the results. When the second research assistant analyzed the first research assistant's codes, he found that the monkeys didn't seem to notice the change in pattern. In fact, they looked at the speaker more often when the pattern was the same. In other words, the experiment was a bust.But Mr. Hauser's coding showed something else entirely: He found that the monkeys did notice the change in pattern—and, according to his numbers, the results were statistically significant. If his coding was right, the experiment was a big success.
The research that was the catalyst for the inquiry ended up being tabled, but only after additional problems were found with the data. In a statement to Harvard officials in 2007, the research assistant who instigated what became a revolt among junior members of the lab, outlined his larger concerns: "The most disconcerting part of the whole experience to me was the feeling that Marc was using his position of authority to force us to accept sloppy (at best) science."
MARC D. HAUSER, an evolutionary psychologist and biologist, is Harvard College Professor, Professor of Psychology and Program in Neurosciences, and Director of Primate Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. He is the author of The Evolution of Communication, Wild Minds: What Animals Think, and Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong.[ … ]Along with Irv Devore, he teaches the Evolution of Human Behavior class, a Core Course at Harvard with 500 undergraduate students. The interdisciplinary course, "Science B29" (nickname: "The Sex Course"), has been running for 30 years, was started by Devore and Robert Trivers, and is the second most popular course on campus, behind "Econ 10". Section teachers over the years comprise a who's who of leading thinkers and include people such as John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, and Sarah B. Hrdy. In 1997-98, he sponsored a trial run of "Edge University" in which the students in Science B29 received Edge mailing as part of required reading in the course.