At Terra Sigillata, Abel notes that the Director of Duke University’s Catholic Center is butting in to researchers’ attempts to recruit participants for their research. As it happens, that research involves human sexuality and attitudes toward sex toys.
Here’s how Abel lays it out:
Father Joe Vetter, director of Duke University’s Catholic Center, is protesting trial participant accrual for a study being conducted on campus directed by Dr Dan Ariely, the James B Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics in the Fuqua School of Business (story and video). …
Ariely and his postdoctoral fellow, Dr Janet Schwartz, received IRB approval to recruit female study participants from the Duke campus community to examine the influence of Tupperware-like sex toy parties on sexual attitudes. A recruitment advert had been posted on the university website, as is commonly done for any clinical or social science study, but was pulled yesterday following the objection of Rev Vetter.
If I understand his quotes correctly, Vetter believes that studying sex toys somehow condones behavior that threatens relationships:
“It’s not fostering relationships, and it seems to me that one of the things that we want young people to do is to figure out how to have deep, intimate friendships and relationships,” he said. “I would draw the line at a different place. I don’t think that it’s a good idea.”
I’m not privy to the hypothesis being tested but I suspect that the team is investigating how social norms toward adult products are influenced by groupthink. Ariely has not commented publicly on this story other than to say, rightfully so, that he won’t comment so as to not contaminate the results. However, I suspect that it may now be too late.
Abel’s post has a nice discussion of some of Dan Ariely’s published research and personal history. Here, I want to weigh in with a few thoughts about Vetter’s objections to the trial participant recruitment. (Abel’s post also includes one of the actual ads that was pulled — click over and have a look.)
As Abel points out, Ariely and Schwartz had to submit their research protocol to Duke’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) for approval. The IRB’s primary task is to look after the welfare of the human subjects, making sure that they are not exposed to undue risk and that any risk they are exposed to is outweighed by the likely benefits of the research.
And part of what the IRB scrutinizes before granting its approval is the method by which trial participants will be recruited to the study — including the ads.
Apparently, Father Vetter doesn’t agree that the ads that the IRB OK’d were actually OK. Indeed, maybe he doesn’t agree that the research itself can be expected to produce valuable knowledge, or that it does so while looking after the welfare of the study participants. But last time I checked, we don’t give individual members of the community a veto over what kind of research ought to be conducted. The community’s interests are represented by the IRB — and the community whose interests are being represented are generally rather more diverse than a single individual or a single campus organization.
I think it’s fine for campus organizations and their members to express their views on research projects that are placing ads to recruit participants. As well, obviously, it’s perfectly appropriate for grown-ups (which is what female college students ages 18 and older are) to make their own decisions about whether to participate in a research study that is looking for participants. On the other hand, I think it’s really problematic for an individual or a campus organization to try to be an IRB unto itself (unless that campus organization is the IRB).
As for the concern that participating in a “Tupperware-like sex toy party” might somehow be a threat to the goal of fostering deep, intimate friendships and relationships, I daresay a priest might not be the best authority on this question. Indeed, Ariely and Schwartz’s research might result in actual scientific knowledge bearing on that question, giving us something more reliable than our preexisting hunches.
But as a former female college student, and someone who has been a deep, intimate friendship and relationship with my better half for more than 15 years now, let me suggest that making physical pleasure something that is only allowable in the context of a relationship is the kind of thing that might encourage a young woman to enter a relationship that she’d really be better off without. (And if Father Vetter doesn’t think married people make ample use of sex toys, he could use some more reliable sources of data.)
You see, it’s likely that the members of the Duke University community would draw the line in many different places. There’s no reason to privilege where Father Vetter would draw it. However, given the mission of the IRB to dedicate itself to the welfare of human subjects of research, where they draw the line is what matters.
UPDATE: Abel has noted in comments that the ads recruiting study participants were not pulled because of Father Vetter’s objections, but because the researchers recruited all the subjects they needed. In other words, it looks like Father Vetter was just voicing his (and his organization’s) concerns with the subject, which is not a problem at all.