Wait, what? Who is welcoming exemption from ethical review?


This will not end well. Social scientists are happy to see human studies rules relaxed.

If you took Psychology 101 in college, you probably had to enroll in an experiment to fulfill a course requirement or to get extra credit. Students are the usual subjects in social science research — made to play games, fill out questionnaires, look at pictures and otherwise provide data points for their professors’ investigations into human behavior, cognition and perception.

But who gets to decide whether the experimental protocol — what subjects are asked to do and disclose — is appropriate and ethical? That question has been roiling the academic community since the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office for Human Research Protections revised its rules in January.

The revision exempts from oversight studies involving “benign behavioral interventions.” This was welcome news to economists, psychologists and sociologists who have long complained that they need not receive as much scrutiny as, say, a medical researcher.

I would have expected social scientists to be even more acutely aware of the bias of self-interest than us clueless nerds over in the other sciences. If there’s anything we should have learned from the history of scientific experimentation it’s that scientists do not provide good ethical oversight of their own research. Some do seem to know that.

“Researchers tend to underestimate the risk of activities that they are very comfortable with,” particularly when conducting experiments and publishing the results is critical to the advancement of their careers, said Tracy Arwood, assistant vice president for research compliance at Clemson University.

Yes. Onerous and annoying as they are, we have human research review committees to specifically provide input from outside the blinkered perspective of the researcher. That’s necessary. Not everyone sees it that way.

A vocal proponent of diminishing the role of institutional review boards is Richard Nisbett, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and co-author of the opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Social science researchers are perfectly capable of making their own determinations about the potential harm of their research protocols, he said. A behavioral intervention is benign, he said, if it’s the sort of thing that goes on in everyday life.

“I can ask you how much money you make or about your sex life, and you can tell me or not tell me. So, too, can a sociologist or psychologist ask you those questions,” Dr. Nisbett said.

He’s a psychology professor, and he thinks that in a study in which a professor is asking personal questions of a student, there are no social pressures on the student, and they are completely free to ignore the question? Jesus. I guess I wouldn’t trust any papers published by that guy, then.

If those questions are really benign, then shouldn’t the study proposal fly through the institutional review board process without a hitch?

I mean, I could propose a whole bunch of experiments that involve having students drink lots of vodka before undergoing various cognitive tests, and drinking to excess is the sort of thing students do in everyday life, so it must be benign, and why should I get an IRB to rubber stamp something that the students are doing anyway, am I right?

You don’t want to know what I could argue biology experimenters ought to be able to do without outside assessment because students are already doing it anyway.

Comments

  1. chrislawson says

    I have had to fill out horribly designed ethics approval forms that ran to 30 pages for the simple version (non-interventionist, low risk, anonymised questionnaire about non-personal matters), and print numerous hard copies because the ethics board refused to read anything online (I shudder to think how many reams of paper they shred at the end of every meeting), so I have every sympathy with people who want to improve ethics approval processes…but cutting back ethics board jurisdiction and leaving it to researchers to decide what’s ethical is a terrible idea.

  2. says

    I agree that social science does need ethical supervision. However, it is also true that IRBs can impose all sorts of burdens on what is essentially observational research that don’t really protect people, but are just a lot of rules that are applied indiscriminately. You might consider the (fairly radical) position of Carl Schneider, which does merit consideration and thoughtful response. Excerpt:

    “IRB review of social-science research suffers from all the problems of fundamentally misconceived regulation that I just described. [Basically, IRBs are unacccountable and lack relevant expertise.] But those problems are exacerbated by the fact that the IRB system was designed for biomedical research. Thus IRBs too often ask questions and impose restrictions ill suited to social-science research. In addition, many kinds of social-science research are ideologically controversial, tempting IRBs to use their power to promote their own preferences.”

  3. says

    A behavioral intervention is benign, he said, if it’s the sort of thing that goes on in everyday life.

    Mr. Nisbett strikes me as being a fucking idiot. When I was a child, being raped was something that went on in everyday life. “Everyday life” does not mean benign. I’d expect a professional to at least know that.

  4. says

    Oh, I agree that streamlining the procedures would be a terrific idea — there is so much useless paperwork now that I suspect is ultimately counterproductive, because if you are serving on the IRB, are you really going to read all those 30 page forms closely? I think not.

  5. says

    First of all, Nisbett did not propose that a professor was asking these questions of students. Obviously that would be problematic, but if a Research Assistant asks the questions and the answers are not associated with identifiable information about the respondents, it’s a different situation.

    In the second place, Nisbett may have spoken imprecisely, but the concept he is invoking is called “minimal risk,” i.e. that the risks associated with the research procedure are the same as those encountered in everyday life. He is not saying that just because some misfortune sometimes occurs to people in everyday life that a researcher can inflict it on them — he is saying that if a procedure does not increase that risk it is acceptable. For example, you could be in a trainwreck on your way to participate in the study, but that doesn’t make all studies unethical.

    Here’s the link to Schneider’s book at MIT press, and here’s the JSTOR version.

  6. says

    Sure. Some studies are in fact unethical. In my view that includes the most famous study in social psychology, the Milgram experiment. I doubt that would get approved today.

  7. Rich Woods says

    I mean, I could propose a whole bunch of experiments that involve having students drink lots of vodka before undergoing various cognitive tests, and drinking to excess is the sort of thing students do in everyday life, so it must be benign, and why should I get an IRB to rubber stamp something that the students are doing anyway, am I right?

    I’d volunteer for that study!

  8. says

    Giliell, in general people are quite forthcoming about their sexual behavior when they know they’re doing a confidential interview with a non-judgmental interviewer. You might be surprised to know, however, that asking about income is actually more problematic. It’s pretty standard to put the income question at the end of the interview so people won’t terminate or get grumpy. I expect that says something about our culture. . .

  9. consciousness razor says

    A behavioral intervention is benign, he said, if it’s the sort of thing that goes on in everyday life.

    Well, that’s obviously a disastrous way to put it. As Caine pointed out, all sorts of horrible shit happens in everyday life. It’s not even clear what I’m supposed to imagine about “non-everyday life.” A comet landing on my head? Unicorns flying out of my ass? Doesn’t happen every day, sure… How about winning a thousand dollars in the lottery? What’s supposed to be the real connection between “benign” and “everyday” occurrences? How could anyone seriously entertain that as a condition for being benign? I mean, I am assuming we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. Pretty sure we’re not #2 either. Maybe that’s my problem.

    cervantes:

    He is not saying that just because some misfortune sometimes occurs to people in everyday life that a researcher can inflict it on them — he is saying that if a procedure does not increase that risk it is acceptable.

    That doesn’t sound right either. As a subject in the study, will they always have the same rates of these things happening to them as the general population? Why would a researcher need to do anything like that, of their own accord, no matter what the study is about or how that’s being investigated?

    Suppose the study involves asking how much money you make. Well, how often do people ask you that? What is your risk, on any given day, of having that experience? I don’t know, but it’s certainly not often for me.

    So, will this study have a truly enormous sample of people, most of whom won’t be asked how much money they make, in order to ensure the risk is not increased compared to non-participation?

    Doesn’t seem like most studies work that way, or that there’s usually any sort of internal logic behind doing it that way. Often, the probability will be one, because all subjects are asked (e.g.) how much they make. Or maybe only half of them will be asked that, while the other half isn’t. In any case, you probably don’t answer that question every day, every other day, once a year, or very often at all. Maybe never. Your risk, as a non-participant in a study, is very low, but in the study it’s presumably not. (Otherwise, they’ll probably have trouble getting useful data.) Indeed, you may be put in situations in a study that are extremely artificial, because they are (supposed to be) well-designed to study some very precisely-articulated question about some very particular phenomenon, which is distinct somehow from a bunch of other very particular phenomena. You may have never been and may never be in that very situation, even if it’s supposed to be an “everyday” event in some sense, perhaps among the population at large which has billions of people in it (not dozens or thousands or anything close to the size of a normal study). So very generally, how would this sort of approach “not increase risk”? That doesn’t sound right at all.

    Why not mine that data from the general population, if you just wanted information about that, instead of conducting some kind of experiment on a group of people where you are (simply by conducting the experiment) increasing the rate at which this thing happens in the world? That information is already out there, if you want it, unless you want to know things like how people respond (possibly very negatively, because it may not be at all benign) to being asked such questions or to being put into such situations. And if that’s what you’re doing, then of course I don’t see why some kind of ethical review would be unnecessary.

  10. timberwoof says

    I’m not keen on HHS determining that sexual orientation “therapy” is a benign behavioral intervention. Long live Politzania!

  11. says

    Being asked how much money you make is hardly traumatic. Again, you don’t have to answer, it’s confidential, and you have already consented to being asked some nosy questions. I don’t think very many people would have a problem with that. (The census asks people that question, BTW, as does the IRS, obviously. I don’t think people are harmed by that.)

  12. says

    I shudder to think that an experiment like the classic one that tested a subject’s willingness to torture on command (I forget the name) would happen with relaxed pre-experiment review! Many of the subjects had long lasting symptoms of (what we now know of as) PTSD.

  13. DLC says

    I have to wonder if Milgram or Zimbardo could have gotten their experiments past an IRB ?

  14. consciousness razor says

    Being asked how much money you make is hardly traumatic.

    So you say. I’ve been pretty fucking poor for most of my life, and it definitely makes me uncomfortable any time questions like that come up. Trauma? I don’t know, but I also don’t see what that has to do with whether or not an ethical review ought to be a part of the process.

    Being asked a question also doesn’t kill me, and I could’ve said that’s the standard we’re supposed to use, for determining whether or not something is unethical…. but pretty much everybody would say that’s absurd.

    If you stole a bottle of wine from me, I’d be a little upset and that would be unethical. Yet I would not say that by itself would be a “traumatic” experience for me. I like wine and so forth, but that’s just a possession that was stolen. Nonetheless, it should not be done, and “researchers” (like everyone else) should not go around stealing wine bottles from people, even if somehow they could claim they’re doing it “for science.” So assuming (as I do) that you’re reasonable and agree with all of those totally uncontroversial points, what actual criteria do you have in mind here, that could tell us something substantial about how research ought to be conducted?

    Again, you don’t have to answer, it’s confidential, and you have already consented to being asked some nosy questions. I don’t think very many people would have a problem with that. (The census asks people that question, BTW, as does the IRS, obviously. I don’t think people are harmed by that.)

    None of this has anything to do with whether their chances are increased or decreased or stay constant, etc. Please consider any other example you like, but try to pick one that won’t distract you from that point.

  15. blf says

    Being asked how much money you make is hardly traumatic.

    Neither is being asked you many slaves you own.

    Basically, bullshite. Perhaps in the confined and stuffy and small world of classical mythology such a question is de rigueur, but in the current-day real world, it’s a risky question. And in many situations not at all appropriate.

  16. notthatanyonecares says

    On topic but off thread. For decades I have pondered the validity of experiments that is dependent upon asking students for responses. We are rewarded from our very first educational experiences to give the ‘expected’ answer. So, when a professor asks a question as part of an experiment does the student give the ‘expected’ answer or the ‘correct’ answer?

    When I went to sign in here I was asked ‘What is 2 + 3?’ The square root of 25 is correct but not expected so … you see why I am confused?

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