Symmetry study deemed a fraud

From Nature:

TRIVVERSFew researchers have tried harder than Robert Trivers to retract one of their own papers. In 2005, Trivers, an evolutionary biologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, published an attention-grabbing finding: Jamaican teenagers with a high degree of body symmetry were more likely to be rated ‘good dancers’ by their peers than were those with less symmetrical bodies. The study, which suggested that dancing is a signal for sexual selection in humans, was featured on the cover of this journal (W. M. Brown et al. Nature 438, 1148–1150; 2005). But two years later, Trivers began to suspect that the study data had been faked by one of his co-authors, William Brown, a postdoctoral researcher at the time. In seeking a retraction, Trivers self-published The Anatomy of a Fraud, a small book detailing what he saw as evidence of data fabrication. Later, Trivers had a verbal altercation over the matter with a close colleague and was temporarily banned from campus. An investigation of the case, completed by Rutgers and released publicly last month, now seems to validate Trivers’ allegations. Brown disputes the university’s finding, but it could help to clear the controversy that has clouded Trivers’ reputation as the author of several pioneering papers in the 1970s. For example, Trivers advanced an influential theory of ‘reciprocal altruism’, in which people behave unselfishly and hope that they will later be rewarded for their good deeds. He also analysed human sexuality in terms of the investments that mothers and fathers each make in child-rearing.

Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, calls the dancing paper “a lark” and “journalist bait” that lacks a firm basis in theory. “It was cute rather than deep,” he says. But he describes Trivers’ earlier work as “monumental”, and says that it would be a travesty if Trivers became known for one controversial study rather than his wider contributions to evolutionary biology. “Trivers is one of the most important thinkers in the history of the biological and social sciences,” Pinker says.

More here.