May 29 – Research Ethics


  • Norbert Wiener, “Cybernetics in History” (Chapter I) and “Role of the Intellectual and the Scientist” (Chapter VII), The Human Use of Human Beings (1954 Edition), Free Association Books, 1989, pp. 15-27 and 131-135
    • Chapter 1 presents a view of technology as it has developed historically. The basic viewpoint is summarized in the last paragraph: machines and communication technologies have been developed “to hold back nature’s tendency toward disorder by adjusting to various purposive ends.” Wiener views such technology as “the cement which binds its fabric together” and as a parallel to biological processes, with the study of nature, humans, and machines being united in “cybernetics“. This seems to be a positive portrayal of technology, but understanding of the central role of communication shifted people’s focus toward it in a way that has also been critical of technology.
    • In Chapter 8, Wiener’s analysis of the effects of communication technology turns more critical. The expansion of communication technology has shifted the purposes of communication in more commercial directions, leading to what we might now call “lowest common denominator” media that tries to avoid offense and is focused on profit rather than original expression. So Wiener knew, even before Marshall McLuhan, that changes brought about by the development of communication technology could be negative, and this forms one of the first pillars of the ethics of computing and information technology.
  • William M. K. Trochim, “Ethics in Research”, Research Methods Knowledge Base (October 20, 2006 Edition) <;
    • This brief piece describes the main elements of ethical research on human beings as it grew out of earlier histories of unethical research: voluntary participation, informed consent, avoidance of the risk of harm, confidentiality (or anonymity), and the right to service.
  • Dan Jones, “A WEIRD View of Human Nature Skews Psychologists’ Studies”, Science 328:1627, 2010
  • Martha J. Farah, “Neuroethics: The Ethical, Legal, and Societal Impact of Neuroscience”, Annual Review of Psychology 63:571-591, 2012
    • This paper presents a broad overview of ethical issues related to contemporary neuroscience. The discussion of “neuromarketing” provides one particularly potent example of how neuroscience research methods can lead to ethical issues. This is not unique to neuroscience, of course. Increasingly, science and technology can be used to influence people’s thoughts and desires in ways that may not ultimately benefit them.
  • OPTIONAL: Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “The Mind of a Con Man”, New York Times Magazine, April 26, 2013
    • Fascinating case study. Stapel’s fraud has shaken the entire field of experimental psychology and led to new initiatives to change what psychologists do and value. How might you change the incentive systems to prevent cases like this from arising?
  • JUST FOR LAUGHS: “Kripke Resigns As Report Alleges He Faked Results of Thought Experiments”, fauxphilnews, February 22, 2012


  • We discussed the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment, both of which contributed to the felt need to regulate psychological research, and both of which took place before the current system of institutional review was in place. Thinking about these experiments helps us to understand the elements of best practice that have developed since then: informed consent, privacy, avoidance of harm, etc.
  • Researchers are responsible to many different types of interested parties, and the ethics of the field tries to balance how they weigh in research practice.
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