Short Takes: Morality, Monkeys, and Confirmation Bias

Here’s a headline designed to set off the irony sirens: “Expert on Morality Is on Leave after Research Inquiry”. Turns out the story’s more about confirmation bias than about hypocrisy:

Dr. Hauser is one of Harvard’s most visible academics, being frequently quoted in articles about language, animals’ cognitive abilities and the biological basis of morality. He is widely regarded as a star in his field.

In a widely noticed book of 2006, “Moral Minds,” he argued that a universal moral grammar is genetically wired into the human mind, similar to the universal grammar posited by Noam Chomsky to underlie the language faculty. Dr. Hauser is currently working on a book called “Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad.”

Dr. Hauser is a fluent and persuasive writer, and his undoing seems to have been his experiments, many of which depended on videotaping cotton-topped tamarin monkeys and noting their responses. It is easy for human observers to see the response they want and so to be fooled by the monkeys.

In other words, Dr. Hauser looked for evidence of moral behavior among the cotton-topped tamarins, and so saw it. Other scientists watched the same tapes and didn’t see what Dr. Hauser saw, probably because they weren’t looking for it. Two points, then I’m done:

  1. Generally, when told confidently that “research has shown X,” ask for the details of the research, especially when that research claims to cross the NOMA border.
  2. More specifically, our Lord, in His “Sermon on the Mount,” made it clear that morality is a matter not merely of behaviors, but also–and especially–of intentions. Science has a place for physical behaviors, but mental intentions are inscrutable to it. Attempts to scientifically account for morality will inevitably treat mental intentions as physical behaviors, a move destructive to science and rationalism.

Now I’m done.

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