By Chris MacDonald
As most of you will have heard, 33 miners have been trapped in a mine in Chile since the mine they were working in collapsed on August 5. (Here’s the latest news on the story: NASA called in to support 33 trapped Chilean miners) Last week, rescuers succeeded in boring a small hole — about 3 inches in diameter — through the 2,300 feet of rock that separates them from the surface. That tube has allowed rescuers to send down “food, water, clothing, video and radio equipment.” It is expected to be months — yes, months — before a hole can be drilled that is sufficiently large to let the trapped men escape.
Tyler Cowen, the economist who co-writes the Marginal Revolution blog, posted this:
At lunch today, one topic was how the Chilean miner experience, when it is over, might revise our understanding of social science. A related question was to estimate the probability that there will be a killing before the time underground is over. How much would that chance go up if one woman were in the group? An equal number of women?
Is it unethical for us to “watch” them, talk about them, or speculate about them?
It’s not idle speculation. Or is it? In theory, since communication is possible, it would be possible to conduct social science research (or even medical research) on the trapped men. Certainly the video feed allows for the possibility of observational studies. Doctors are already monitoring (remotely) the men’s health; why not go further and study the men, so that we can learn about the effects of prolonged isolation on the human body and mind? Consent forms could be sent down (and back up) the newly-drilled access tube. Would doing so be ethical? Informed consent is certainly possible, but would it be legit? Do trapped miners count as a “vulnerable population,” in the same sense as prisoners and children and people mental health institutions?