Sunday, March 1, 2015

ethics reviews gone wild

My next door office neighbor, Paul Frijters, is in the news right now due to being ridiculously harassed over alleged unethical experimental methods. The study used RA's of different races to try to board buses with empty fare cards in order to examine whether drivers are more likely to let white and east asian people ride for free (they are). At issue is whether it is ethical to "defraud" the transit system in such a way.

Note that the RA's did not request a free ride. It was entirely up to the busdrivers how to respond to the RAs having an empty card. And of course the transit system didn't lose any money from the study in the first place because these RAs wouldn't have been taking these 2km rides at all otherwise... But most importantly, the study went through the proper ethical clearance channels and was approved. It's abundantly clear that the reaction of the transit system to the proof of some degree of racism is the only reason the University reacted the way it did. Politics.

Not only do I wholeheartedly agree with Ian Ayres's defense of this research, this incident should be raising enormous red flags about the ludicrous state of ethical clearance for economics research. In so many cases, it serves not to protect the subjects but to cover the asses of the university in the event of any controversial press, especially that which incites ill political will.

This on top of the fact that social science ethical clearance was designed in the tradition of medical research ethical clearance, and is often still handled by the same people, so that the obvious and significant risks inherent to biological testing are looked for in completely benign games that economists have their subjects play in order to study decision making. We've gone from one extreme in which the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments can be run to another extreme in which experimenters aren't allowed to sell things on ebay because people might regret their purchases. And if they eventually can, it's after months and months of back and forth and wasted time dealing with internal review bureaucracies.

Social science is suffering. Australian social science, even more than U.S. social science, far more than European social science*, is suffering. It's time to streamline the ethical review process and bring some common sense back.

Update: I should probably point out*** that despite being affiliated with UQ, I do not speak on their behalf, nor do I know anything about Paul's case other than that which was publicly reported, and all is not said and done. Regardless of what mess of details is involved, however, I 100% support the research program as important and ethical and 100% stand by my assessment of IRBs having gone completely off the rails. The latest anecdote I hear is of a project that was denied because the results might be used to make money. Welp, I guess all of science can call it quits; our job is apparently inherently unethical...


*Internal review boards don't even exist in Switzerland. Doesn't matter - unethical research has no chance of getting published so self-regulation works well, in the same way that economists sustain much better experimental practices than psychologists. But you do see particularly cool studies** coming from Europe :)

**Before you start objecting that killing mice is actually unethical so clearly IRBs are needed in Switzerland, read further. The researchers took research mice that were slated for killing already and gave people the option to pay to save their lives. Armin Falk is now taking care of some of the most spoiled mice in Europe as a result. It was not possible for any mouse to be worse off as a result of the experiment.

***It has been gently pointed out to me, by a few people actually, that Australia does not guarantee freedom of speech. (Or privacy. Don't get me started.) I knew that but I think I'm going to continue taking the enormous risk of blogging for all two dozen of my readers :)


Wanda said...

Where I went to grad school, healthy mouse carcasses could be donated to the local zoo.
Also, most if not all of the mice in that experiment have since died of old age.

Anonymous said...

Is that the Paul Frijters who was caught self-plagiarizing some years ago?

Britney Spears said...

Hallo, Vera. I noticed Anonymous comment above. You may want to look at "Front Matter," The American Economic Review, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Mar., 2005), just before the comment by Bernanke. It is unrelated but may tell you something about his history.

Vera L. te Velde said...

Doesn't seem to be online, annoyingly enough.

Vera L. te Velde said...

Unrelated, but you got me curious enough to look it up. I personally wouldn't call it plagiarism to divide a topic into two smaller papers even if the background information is too word-for-word for comfort. *shrug* But no the short answer is I have no idea about it.

Britney Spears said...

Hallo, Vera. Here is a link:
at the bottom of page 4, although it requires membership.

Vera L. te Velde said...