Research Ethics and Public Opinion

New York Grand Central Station. Photo courtesy of Jens Fricke.

Guest post by Scott Desposato.

Does public opinion have any place in research ethics? I’m grateful to Stephanie Schwartz for her recent post critiquing my study on public attitudes toward field experiments, and for the chance to respond to her comments. She suggests that we can’t address deep ethical issues with surveys, criticizing the idea that we can learn about research ethics from the opinions of our subjects and the public.

She correctly notes that there are limits to what we can learn about ethics from public opinion. We can learn what people think is ethical, but their opinions by no means make anything ethical or not. Naziism was popular, as were segregation and apartheid. That didn’t make them right.

But what’s unique about recent experiments is that we often don’t ask subjects if they want to be subjects.  Schwartz may be right that scholars should know more about risks than subjects – but voluntary consent allows potential subjects to judge for themselves if the knowledge gains are worth the risks. Since we aren’t asking for consent, we  don’t know how subjects feel about forced participation. If they would have chosen not to participate, we are effectively forcing subjects into studies against their will. This seems like something that scholars should want to know.

At this point, social scientists have administered treatments to literally hundreds of millions of subjects without their consent. One thing we’ve learned anecdotally is that when subjects detect such experiments, they are often very upset (see, for example, here and here). With my one little survey, we now have data on what  3,000 US residents think about two types of experiments. It turns out that up to half of them don’t want to be in some studies without their consent.

I don’t think we are in any danger of what Schwartz calls an “over-reliance on public opinion” to guide our discussions of ethics. In fact, I think we have the opposite problem.

Scott Desposato is Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies at the University of California, San Diego. 

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