Ethics in Modern Science
by Erin Brache | published Sep. 9th, 2021
The idea of how far science, technology and psychology have come is unnerving to some.
With how much we already know, it’s even scarier to wonder what else is left to develop.
What’s stopping some mad scientist from secretly conducting crazy experiments on people or building a deadly weapon to destroy humanity? Well, a lot actually.
Science's Checkered History
Every Intro to Psychology class across the country discusses the Milgram Experiment, in which participants believed they were seriously injuring or killing another participant, but did not stop because a superior told them they had to continue.
This study is recognized as one of the most famous examples of unethical scientific research, but it certainly isn’t the only one.
Kirsten Condry, an associate professor with the department of Psychology at RIT, gave a talk last year called Radioactive Oatmeal: Scientific Ethics and the (Ab)use of Human Subjects in Research, which focused specifically on examples of subject mistreatment in scientific research.
The talk examined a study conducted in 1949 when Robert Harris, a professor of nutrition at MIT, fed about a hundred mentally disabled children oatmeal laced with radiation.
“There was effectively no consent. They lied to children ... they lied to the parents about what was going to happen,” Condry said.
"They lied to children ... they lied to the parents about what was going to happen."
Instead of properly describing the experiment to its participants, the researchers took a page out of Milgram’s book and abused the trust that we give scientists as proof that the test was safe.
“They let their authority stand in for all these things,” Condry said.
Reports of the experiment were only first published 45 years later in 1994. This was the first time the subjects learned of the radiation treatment.
This isn't the only example of a study that shook people’s trust in science.
In 1920, John Watson wanted to prove that the idea of classical conditioning was ingrained in humans.
Classical conditioning, in its simplest form, is unconsciously training a subject to react to something it previously would not have reacted to.
In what was named the “Little Albert” experiment, Watson met an 11-month old baby who was given the name “Albert” for the experiment and gave him a little white rat.
Every time Albert would be presented with the white rat, Watson would bang a steel bar with a hammer, scaring Albert and causing him to cry.
After multiple sessions of conditioning, Albert would scream when he saw not only a white rat, but anything resembling a white rat, such as a fur coat or cotton.
While this experiment would be considered unethical by today’s standards, many believe it unearthed a fact about humans that would have been much harder to learn otherwise.
Although the findings of the study are hard to refute, there are many regulations that have been put in place since then to try and stop unethical scientific research.
Modern Ethical Standards
Today, all universities have an Institutional Review Board (IRB) that determines whether a study is ethical and if it can be conducted.
There are many rules in place to ensure that every IRB is as diverse as possible.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, IRBs must have members of “varying backgrounds,” including race, sex, ethnicity and more.
Having insight from a diverse IRB allows for discussion about who, if anyone, will be negatively effected by the study, and how that can be fixed.
While most people may imagine IRBs as a group of professors deciding to only allow studies they like, one member of the IRB actually has to be someone from outside the university and science altogether.
“The reason is to give a real person’s perspective. Someone who doesn’t give a damn about the science," Condry explained.
Their job is to be the voice of the “regular” person and make sure that the scientists on an IRB don’t get too absorbed in the details of their work.
Along with IRBs, the U.S. govenment also has the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which has its own set of rules and regulations that need to be followed in order to conduct government research.
Even with all of these rules in place though, it's still possible to conduct unethical science.
IRBs can only control what research happens in universities, but there is a whole different section of scientific research funded entirely by corporations.
Corporate science doesn’t have to go through an IRB. It doesn't even have to follow the regulations set by the U.S. government as long as it doesn't receive funding from them.
There's a simple solution that corporations use to conduct unregulated research.
For example, if a corporation wanted to test a new product but didn’t want to abide by government regulations, it could just move its study to a country with more relaxed rules and test there.
Since the corporation funds its own research and isn't being conducted in a country that monitors the research heavily, there is nothing stopping these experiments from being as unethical and unsafe as they want.
What Do the Scientists Think?
A phrase tossed around when some feel science is progressing too fast is that scientists are “playing God.”
But what exactly does that mean?
Scott Merydith, a psychology professor at RIT, explained his definition of playing God.
"It means to me that you have the power of making an important decision over someone's life," he said.
This may initially seem like just killing or saving someone, but there are numerous ways to truly change someone's life other than bodily harm.
When asked if scientists should ever be allowed to play God, both Merydith and Condry gave the same one-word answer: “No.”
While some scientists are comfortable with the amount of effort devoted to the conservation of ethics in science, Condry disagreed.
“ [Regulations] are too weak as it is. There’s not enough oversight. ... People get wrapped up in their own theories and ideas,” she said.
"[Regulations] are too weak as it is. There’s not enough oversight. ... People get wrapped up in their own theories and ideas."
Nobody can deny that there is much more regulation and oversight on scientific research than there was 100 years ago. The rules we have today are made specifically to ensure that the science being done is as unbiased, safe and accurate as possible.
So even if you picture science as mad doctors creating death lasers, you can at least take comfort in knowing that your oatmeal isn’t radioactive.