Research on torture: Should we put limits on what topics researchers can study?
Recently, in a blog entry on The Monkey Cage, Joshua Tucker (a professor of politics at NYU) posed a difficult question: Should social scientists be conducting research on torture? I’ve simplified the question somewhat here for the purpose of being as clear as possible while also recognizing that this is a complex and sensitive issue.
Here is a link to the original blog entry: <a href="http://www.themonkeycage.org/2009/05/social_science_torture_and_eth.html
” target=”_blank”>Torture, Social Science, and Ethical Responsibility
Do we need some sort of social science code of ethics that sets certain research topics off limits? (e.g., something equivalent to doctors refusing to work on projects about devising more effective/painful instruments of torture.) Or is that an automatic affront to intellectual freedom?
Tucker discusses whether social scientists who study torture should only publish results if they provide support for the argument against the use of torture in any context. He notes that he would support the publication of good empirical findings that would “come out in one particular direction”, i.e. against torture, but that publishing results in the other direction might be problematic.
Tucker’s question about the notion of having a “social science code of ethics” which would set certain research topics off limits is a thorny one. First, it would be more than challenging to find an agreed-upon list of what kinds of topics should — and shouldn’t — be studied. If you look back to a previous blog entry entitled “Oral Sex (Yes, Oral Sex) and Academic Freedom”,we talked about how certain politicians in Georgia wanted to stop academic research into sexual behaviours (such as oral sex and male prostitution). Depending on your beliefs about any of a number of controversial societal issues as well as your views on the importance of furthering scientific knowledge, you might be for or against certain kinds and topics of research. But in a diverse society, could we all agree on what topics should be off limits for researchers? Obviously not. Tucker notes that banning research on particular problematic topics might well be “an affront to intellectual freedom” and I agree with that statement. But the concern about banning research on particular problematic topics isn’t just about intellectual freedom. It’s also, arguably, about what we might miss out on learning if we disallow research on topics that are considered to be controversial or even unethical.
When we’re talking about unethical research, we’re usually talking about classic teaching cases in research ethics such as <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment
” target=”_blank”>Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Study. Both these projects, in different ways, involved the deceptive and blatantly unethical treatment of human subjects. However, even the harshest critic of both these studies has to acknowledge — perhaps begrudgingly — that we learned more from these two studies than simply how to better treat human participants. From Milgram’s work, we have learned more not only about the social phenomenon of extreme obedience to authority but also about compliance and conformity more generally. Zimbardo’s work has informed inquests into the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and has provided valuable insight into the reasons why cults are so effective. Both studies have helped psychologists and other behavioural scientists as they work to answer the question of “why good people do bad things”.
There’s a difference between unethical research and research on topics we consider to be “unethical” — like torture or discrimination or violent crime, to cite some examples. These topics have much to teach us about human nature — even the negative aspects. Both Milgram and Zimbardo’s projects were considered to be “unethical”, not because of the topics the researchers explored, but because of the way in which they were conducted. Reflection on these and other cases of unethical research has resulted in a focus on the way in which research is conducted: guidelines for the ethical conduct of research, the review, approval and oversight of research by ethics review boards and discipline-specific codes of conduct for ethically sound research, e.g. the requirement for debriefing in most psychology human-subject research. So, we can — and should — address issues of process in research in an attempt to ensure that research is conducted in an ethical manner. However, should we put limits on the kinds of topics social science researchers should be exploring? I think not.