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.

2 thoughts on “Short Takes: Morality, Monkeys, and Confirmation Bias

  1. I couldn’t agree more with point 1. Always check with the original sources if possible, ask for details, and generally be skeptical about any popular science article. Not that I’m suggesting that one dismiss everything out of hand, but rather to build up a good empirical filter or “baloney detector”. Most of the articles out there have good information if you learn to spot the exaggerated statements, etc., most of which aren’t even put out by the researchers, but rather the reporters who want to put a dramatic spin on the story, even to the point of manufacturing details or completely misinterpreting the results in a manner that the researchers themselves never intended. This is not to say that the researchers don’t have their own agenda, but far more often the reader of a popular science article has to wade through the reporters biases, exaggerations, and overall agenda before even having to worry about that of the researcher. I say this from firsthand experience of witnessing some close colleagues’ research misrepresented in a popular media article.

    That said, if one has their baloney detector well-tuned, there are a lot of interesting science articles out there, with lots of great information. One website that I frequent,, is a great overall resource for recent scientific work, but you still have to pay attention to the tendency for the articles to exaggerate or overemphasize the claims and implications of the given study.

    I’d have to think a bit more about your point 2. I think I know what you are getting at, and I probably agree with your sentiment. I will say, however, that I have little sympathy for the NOMA point of view of science and religion. After reading “Rocks of Ages” by Stephen Jay Gould, I found his formulation of NOMA contrived, and I suspect even calculated, to marginalize the importance of religion in addressing reality, under the guise of giving a fair treatment.

    I tend toward a layer cake sort of view of this issue, with science and religion overlapping quite a bit in their explanations or descriptions of reality, but providing layered explanations of the same reality, rather than operating in different spheres entirely. At the same time, each is more tuned to explain certain aspects of reality better than the other, so the overlap is not 100%. To elaborate, I do believe that science cannot really get at the questions of purpose and significance or the “why” questions, while religion is in turn not well-suited to the “how” and “what”, at least as far as the material world is concerned.

  2. That’s a good point about “popular science” vs. real science, Dan. Usually the claims made in actual journals are a good bit more circumscribed than what makes it into a newspaper. (I read, too, though with less understanding and more attention to archaeological discoveries!)

    So, NOMA more as the friendly border between the US and Canada, than as the Soviet-era Berlin Wall?

    My second point was really just a compressed reassertion of something I’d written previously, which I linked to: namely, if what we experience as thought and intention is merely a biological phenomenon, what reliability and truth value can we assignment to our own thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *