To What Extent Can We Adequately Study People Who Do Not Share Our Views?

2904 words - 12 pages

In the 1960s several cases of human rights abuse through research came to light1. In the field of biomedical research, examples include the secret radiation experiments carried out on sick and healthy people by the US Energy Department in the 1940s and 1950s, and the Tuskegee study to investigate the effects of untreated syphilis on illiterate black men by the US Public Health Department (1932-1972)1. In the field of political science, Project Camelot was started in December 1964 by the US Defense Department to try to establish the factors which led to internal conflict in Latin American countries. Social scientists protested vehemently at what they saw as a blatant attempt by the US Government to interfere with potential revolutions in Latin America, and the project was abandoned in June 1965 before any fieldwork was undertaken1. These experiments have become notorious: their methods were invasive and harmful, and the results they were intended to generate might not have had any practical use. They were certainly carried out by powerful organisations using comparatively powerless groups as research subjects.In psychology, the obedience experiments by Stanley Milgram conducted in the early 1960s led volunteers to believe they were giving people dangerous electric shocks to investigate the effects of punishment on memory and learning2. Before carrying out his experiments, Milgram consulted a number of experts, including psychiatrists, to gather their opinions as to whether people were likely to obey orders to administer such shocks. The consensus of opinion was that very few people were likely to obey in such circumstances3. In fact, the vast majority did obey, some continuing to obey the experimenter's orders to administer shocks even when they thought they had killed the recipient2.Milgram's experiments have generated numerous discussions of the ethical issues raised1. He worked at the prestigious Yale University, and conducted his experiments in a laboratory setting wearing a white coat, which gave him an air of authority. Participation was undoubtedly a stressful experience for the volunteers. However, Milgram argued that it was not the experiment itself that caused the stress, but the volunteers' response to it: they all had to choose whether to obey and they could have all chosen, as a minority did, to disobey his instructions and refuse to administer the 'shocks'3.The difference between Milgram's obedience experiments and earlier studies such as the Tuskegee study is that although Milgram set himself apart by taking on the role of 'scientist', he was otherwise studying people just like himself. His experiments were prompted by the Nazi atrocities in the second world war and the excuse given by many Nazis when called to account that they were 'only obeying orders'. He, and many others, didn't think this was a valid excuse, and expected his experiments to prove the exact opposite of what in fact he found: that the majority of ordinary people...

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