Adventures in Ethics and Science

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Tony P
    November 6, 2009

    As someone active in the marriage equality fight in RI, I have to say I’ve had my fill of religious bigotry.

    I want serious limits put on the exercise of religion in the political sphere and in the educational sphere too.

  2. #2 sadsdasdas
    November 6, 2009

    Who wants to bet the Catholic fuckwad is protesting the sex toy attitudes study by day, and molesting his altar boys by night?

  3. #3 domsooch
    November 7, 2009

    Ah the intolerance of the tolerant . . .
    So let me get this straight, both janet and tonyp want this priest to just shut the heck up.

    Janet, you give us a quote: “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” This in response to him PHONING SOMEONE UP to complain. (I tried to find an article he may have written, but couldn’t. He really would have gotten it if he had actually had the nerve to actually write something!!)

    That quote of yours, if it were about any other topic and about any other organization, it would sound like something a newly minted stepford wife would say. So let me just mutatis mutandis this argument somewhere else: Janet would you also agree with this statement??: ‘I think its really problematic for an individual or a campus organization to be a political force unto itself when the president and others like him have done such a great job being in political power. I mean who are they or we for that matter to question anything an organ of the university or of the state for that matter does.’

    creeping Stalinism.

  4. #4 David Jentsch
    November 7, 2009

    Janet clearly notes that voicing one’s concerns over the nature of an experiment is a completely acceptable behavior. What is more questionable, though, is 1) an active attempt to lobby an organization to override the considerations of a diverse and thoughtful institutional review board and 2) [to a lesser extent] attempts to use one’s authority (conferred, in this case, through Vetter’s religious position) to affect the outcome of a legitimate research program. Had he written a letter to the editor of the paper in his private capacity, that would have been fine. Had he shared his concerns with his friends over dinner, that would also be fine. Voicing opinions civilly is never a problem. Deciding that one’s (sometimes relatively idiosyncratic) political/philosophical positions means you can actively try and influence academic freedom and research is not. And let us be clear about the fact that he seemed to be trying to do precisely that – determine that he knew better than researchers whose academic freedom and compliance with research board review meant that what they were doing was absolutely legitimate.

    This is about individuals who decide that their personal opinions trump that of the IRB, that they have the right/authority to try and override IRB decisions and attempt to do so. Thankfully, the withdrawal of the notice of the study was, apparently, not contingently linked to Vetter’s behavior.

  5. #5 DJ
    November 7, 2009

    domsooch@2 (dooshnozzle?),
    Your comment should read:
    So let me set up a strawman to knock down…

    Anyway,
    I think sometimes when we let the nutters go all out in the public forum they make our argument for us. In my state there are pro-life signs all over the place, each and every one of which boldly inserts god into their slogans. Clearly showing they are making a religious argument which basically ensures that abortion will remain a legal option.

    As far as this particular occurance, I can see where it could negatively impact actual science to develop this argument in public, but it appears as if the d00d was too late in complaining about the ads.

  6. #6 Mike Olson
    November 7, 2009

    I’ve self-labled as socially liberal, personally conservative. Meaning that what other folks do is their business and they should have a right to do it without facing some sort of authoritarian disapproval. Frankly, I never used to be afraid of discussing my sex life with friends. I’m not talking about the intimate details of a partners preferences here…just a discussion of what might make the whole experience better, what could help it to work. However, I live in a rural town of approximately 600 people. I grew up here. Upon finding myself a single parent at the age of 32 I discovered that all of those folks who chose to sit around and smoke dope and variously party their asses off, without pursuing any real education or career, had “found God,” or were “working the steps.” Suddenly, my rather conservative sex life was open to opinion. The idea that I’d had sex outside of the bonds of marriage was open to question. Specific acts were reasons for derision. All of this, because even though these folks might have done these things at one time…suddenly, they had God and morals. Frankly, I don’t think God works that way(encouraging the creation of pariahs). Some people just don’t believe in God. But, in this context I’m simply trying to say: The idea that someone is offended that others might discuss sex, sexuality, how they feel about it, outside of a conversation guided by a moral authority…shouldn’t even be a consideration. Frankly, to a large degree I agree with what the priest had to say regarding relationships…for myself, anyway, the notion of multiple partners, swinging, some other forms of sexual experimentation have much less to do with “discovering oneself” or “coming to understand who you really are,” and more to do with either simple hedonism, or a bad search for greater meaning. For myself, there are some things that would simply be psychologically damaging and I’d rather not pursue those avenues of sexuality. But, that doesn’t mean I should close them to others, or suggest that because I think that a loving, growing monogamous relationship is the way to go, that others must be forced or shamed down that path. Mistakes can be made on the way to that goal and having a religious leader or the spiritually converted engaging in a community wide act of shaming….suffice to say the attitudes, outlooks and actions are more hurtful than any word you could imagine, as well as having a hugely negative effect on the relationship between myself and my son. If certain acts are taboo, if certain questions can’t be asked, because someone’s religion is threatened…we all stay in the dark ages awhile longer.

  7. #7 domsooch
    November 7, 2009

    So what you are really saying is that a Priest or the Church for that matter has no business commenting or influencing anything outside of the confines of their altars. One of you also says that having the authority of a pastor on a college campus means that you should never be allowed to use it. This whole thread is not about the appropriateness of a study of sex toys at a college where tuition is roughly 30,000$ a year, which you seem to have accepted, its about the appropriateness of a class of people having anything to say about anything in the public space.

    What if I were to say that I don’t like Guatamalan Allegheney Yak Songwriters. Every time any Guatamalan Allegheney Yak Songwriter who is in a leadership position says anything in the public sphere I would say that this Guatamalan Allegheney Yak Songwriter leader is abusing his authority as a member of a group whose precepts I disagree with. He should shut up, and his organization’s influence should be clipped. I even don’t need to attack his actual ideas. The real outrage is that he dared to presume to say something in the first place.

  8. #8 domsooch
    November 7, 2009

    Correction Correction!
    I went from this:
    “[to a lesser extent] attempts to use one’s authority (conferred, in this case, through Vetter’s religious position) to affect the outcome of a legitimate research program”
    To This:
    “One of you also says that having the authority of a pastor on a college campus means that you should never be allowed to use it.”
    Maybe that’s too big a hop.

  9. #9 Catharine
    November 7, 2009

    Perhaps the Rev feels threatened by the fact that sex toys empower women to explore their sexuality independently. Heck, I’ll *encourage* my daughter to use sex toys — they are safer than sex, eliminate the impulse to use other people as a *means* and are a fine way to explore/express sexual pleasure. I want my daughter to enjoy her body –RESPONSIBLY!

  10. #10 Jim Thomerson
    November 7, 2009

    Some years ago (maybe even 30) there was a proposed study of the effect of cannabis on sexual interest at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. As I recall, male study stubjects were to be given cannabis or a placebo and what went on with their penises when showed porn was to be recorded. I think the study was funded and had university approval. Once the word got out, there was so much objection in the local community that the study was canceled. As said, I am fuzzy on details, as I only read about in in the newspaper and it was a long time ago.

    At the time there were two lines of thought; that cannabis would turn a male into a satyr, or would effectively emasculate him.

  11. #11 Christina Pikas
    November 8, 2009

    I disagree with what I think is the primary point of your post: that other members of the university community shouldn’t weigh in on (express concern about, ask for more details on, request review of) research efforts after an IRB has passed them. Certainly, IRBs are fallible. Some large institutions have professional IRB managers who decide the exemptions on their own. Even when it’s a whole board (3 or the whole, whole thing), they might make a mistake or not grasp the full implications. Also, the researchers may not do what they said they were going to do. Now, once these concerns are raised and addressed, I don’t think the research should be stopped or interrupted or anything. This particular complaint does not seem justified but I would support any member of the community asking questions about the research.

  12. #12 Janet D. Stemwedel
    November 8, 2009

    Let me quote myself from the post:

    [W]e don’t give individual members of the community a veto over what kind of research ought to be conducted.

    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. … 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).

    Here, I was trying to acknowledge that raising concerns is appropriate even after the IRB has approved the research and the research is underway.

    The problem would be if one person’s or organization’s concerns were taken as trumping the ruling of the IRB — if, say, Father Vetter had called the provost or university president to complain about the study recruitment ads and, on the basis of that complaint the administration decided to override the IRB and pull the ads (or someone complains about the research itself and the powers that be, on the basis of that complaint, stop the research).

    Now, as the story unfolded, that’s not what happened. But if it had, we’d have a situation that would be deeply problematic, not just for the researchers trying to do their research, but for the members of a university community with diverse interests that an IRB provides some reasonable mechanism for protecting.

    My main point is not that people shouldn’t weigh in with their views, but that they should not expect that their views will be given more weight than anyone else’s in determining what is permitted.

  13. #13 Nomen Nescio
    November 8, 2009

    So what you are really saying is that a Priest or the Church for that matter has no business commenting or influencing anything outside of the confines of their altars.

    i don’t know if dr. Stemwedel is saying that, but i would be happy to, even if she perhaps won’t. that’s exactly how the churches and their various priests ought to confine their influences, as institutions and as representatives of those institutions.

    Joe Vetter the private citizen is (and should be) perfectly free to voice his opinions just as any other private citizen would be. Joe Vetter the leader of a church should keep his preaching — and all other exercise of his religious authority — in the pulpit. quite so.

  14. #14 Abel Pharmboy
    November 8, 2009

    Beyond your superb (as usual) ethical discussion and accurate representation of IRBs, this is a fabulously poignant statement:

    [M]aking 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.

    True, professor. All too true.

    On the topic of voicing concerns, I’m still trying to figure exactly what was actually filed but it does appear from some reports that Father Joe submitted some sort of formal complaint with the university or IRB. This appears to be more than a simple case of voicing concerns.

  15. #15 David Lyons
    November 10, 2009

    Academia is supposed to be open, so Rev Joe can voice his opinion but ought not throw his weight around unfairly – just like anyone else.

    Nonetheless, it’s just plain frustrating to see an uninformed opinion be apparently so influential. It’s disconcerting to have a celibate, non-scientist change the course of research on sexuality. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but we are also obligated to work within our limits.

    I could more graciously receive his concerns, if he started out with something like, “I know precious little about sex or science, but…”