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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

ERBs: What to do

What we talked about in the post below was "ethics-review" boards, those committees that approve the research done in universities. We had a glimpse of their politics and the rationales that keep them in power. We haven't yet asked whether anyone can actually do something about them.
   As bad as the picture sounds in that article... reality is worse. The sample "do not ask" question offered by Dr. Newhouse at the round table was all about what he called "sacred practices" in Native sweat lodges. The suggestion was that these rituals were to be kept secret. A fair-minded person might be sympathetic to that and assume the rituals were innocent and "private" to the tribe.
    On the other hand, a health scientist, psychologist, religion scholar, cultural-studies scholar, or criminologist might disagree. So might the Auditor General of Canada, who scrutinizes the budgets that actually build the sweat lodges and keep them running.
    However, prior censorship in university research extends to everything, from Native drug-running, to tobacco smuggling, to student exam anxiety, to animal husbandry, to plant genetics, to the women's volleyball team. So fair-minded grounds for censorship are not relevant in this discussion, even if the Ethics boards promise, some day, to be more reasonable.
     Ethics review today is about a lot more than protecting potential victims of research abuse. It's often keyed to shutting down enquiries, ones that ask thorny questions. It's about Chill and power. It's a close cousin to Campus Speech Codes and hall monitors who follow students around, to listen in on conversations and re-direct them to more progressive ways of thinking (one recently disbanded in Ontario; one now in the works in Alberta).
    How did all this happen? Its origins are in the war on science that has been waged by the Postmodern academy, underway since about 1970. I gave readers a glimpse of that in my blog Courting the Female Offender. In that blog, I talked about Gender Feminism and explained how, at root, it's a polemic against the European Enlightenment and the concept of empirical science. I talked about it as Female Exceptionalism, and explored how this was a self-referential and mystical construct, and how it obfuscated psychology the way Nazism perverted history and race theory.
     Put Female Exceptionalism next to "Aboriginal Sovereignty," a ground for not asking certain questions (see blog below), and the analysis sharpens. ERB-ism is verifiably an outgrowth and instrument of this Postmodernist war. It could even be the central weed in its poisonous field.
     But to understand it, and to understand how to disarm it, we have to ask how scholars managed to be captured by it in the first place. History instructs action.
     I'm not a scholar of ERBs (but there aren't any -- too dangerous, too hard to get funded!), so, won't go into the full history of them. In the blog below, I touched upon their frank politicisation and the spread of their reach, and wrote about how they began reasonably in medical research and metastasized into a universal mechanism of speech control.
     This is how it progresses. The undergraduate, doing elementary surveys of human subjects, gets referred to a university ERB. There, she learns you can't just ask people questions, no matter how sound those questions are or how airtight your research model is. You have to get approval for each and every question you ask. (Similarly, a professor [of psychology or sociology] can't use his classroom as a base for human research, not even if that exercise teaches the students about research methods. You can barely get away with a student-satisfaction survey.) Almost all surveying has to go through Ethical Review.
     Then, as a graduate student, our researcher gets exposed to more. All her work will be darkened by the shadow of review committees and biased academic supervisors. Then, she'll graduate, and may be hired into a junior position at a university. Don't even dream of tenure, not for several years. Juniors will be under formidable pressure and influence, so bucking the bully-in-power is not an option.
      Finally, the professor, having curbed her taste for difficult questions, gets tenure and goes forth to enquire into her specialty. She branches out, but the first thing she confronts is the Ethics Board. By golly, if she's canny, she'll just run for member of an ER board! From beginning to end, the academic is never free. 

Action, anyone?

Here's a proposed statement of principles:
  • You cannot ethically interfere in the performance of the human mind. You can't ethically curb research and enquiry; or curtail it or influence it. Humanity won that debate in the European Renaissance and is not about to concede the point.     
  • "Ethical" vetting of research is therefore an oxymoron and an Orwellian construct. It is exactly like saying "All people are free and we alone will determine the shapes and outcomes of your freedom."
  • Ethics Review boards, both in spirit and in action, are violations of the mission and mandate of scholarship. 
  • It is unethical for a scholar to submit to prior censorship or interference in the design of his research, and to afterwards claim his scholarship as valid.
  • It is the duty of scholars to prove or disprove empirical research; not to avoid it or prevent it from happening.
  • It is unethical for the scholarly community to accept scholarship conducted under ERB constraints.
  • It is unethical, then, to collaborate with Ethics Review at any level -- until said review is fundamentally curbed.
 Here's a proposed statement of action: Don't do it. Don't submit your research questions to the czars of research. Do your research independently; let them charge you with being a rebel and an Unsubmitted Person.
     Turn their hearing into a trial of the Research dictatorship. Invite students and the press. When they ban the public, don't submit. Have the public just file into the room.
     Do it the way the Yippees did their business in the 1970s, dismantling the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), that witch-hunting body made famous by Senator Joe McCarthy. Shame them into just going away.
     Don't even talk about politely reforming these excrescences. Don't be neutered by them or get sucked into endless games of moderating them*. The continued role of ER boards is an affront to academic life, and to submit is to be an accomplice.
*as, for example, using  "conflict of interest" as a reason for prior vetting. There can be a default statement at the top of every research report that says, "DISCLOSURE:...." etc. That nicely solves the issue of conflicts.

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