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.