Pure Pedantry

The NYTimes has a fascinating article about MIT professors — developmental psychologists mostly — who use their own children’s development as data in their research. Though in nearly all cases, they are studying normal child development and not doing any of potentially harmful intervention, this presents difficult ethical issues because of the dual roles as parent and as researcher:

Some research methods are clearly benign; others, while not obviously dangerous, might not have fully understood effects. Ethicists said they would consider participation in some projects acceptable, even valuable, but raised questions about the effect on the child, on the relationship with the parent, and on the objectivity of the researcher or the data.

“The role of the parent is to protect the child,” said Robert M. Nelson, director of the Center for Research Integrity at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Once that parent becomes an investigator, it sets up an immediate potential conflict of interest. And it potentially takes the parent-child relationship and distorts it in ways that are unpredictable.”

Researchers themselves acknowledge the challenge of being simultaneously scientist and parent.

“I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, like I’m invading their
privacy,” said Dr. Linebarger, who ultimately set some boundaries.
“When you mix being a researcher with being a parent, it can put your
kids in an unfair place.”

Children have been subjects for some well-known scientist-parents,
including Jean Piaget, the child-development theorist. But some past
examples would probably not pass ethical muster today.

Jonas Salk injected his children with his polio vaccine. Clarence
Leuba, a psychologist, wondering if laughter in response to tickling
was learned or innate, forbade tickling of his infant son and daughter,
except when he tickled them, wearing a mask to hide his expression.

These days, scientists using human subjects are expected to seek
approval from institutional review boards, which consider federal
regulations on risk, coercion of subjects and researcher bias.

Some scientists said that in studies with multiple subjects they
considered it unnecessary to report their child’s participation,
because they would face no greater risk than others. Some asserted that
involving their children proved risks were minimal.

Read the whole thing.

I think if conscientiously done these types of experiments are ethical.  The researchers have to seek Institutional approval already, and I do think they should disclose when their own children are subjects.

The article even suggests that in some cases it brings the parents and children closer.  I though this part was funny:

And when Karen Dobkins, a U.C.S.D. psychology professor, enlisted
her infant twins, Gabriel and Jacob, she said, “it was kind of painful,
because one of my twin boys basically played the game really well, but
my other son, we couldn’t even use his data.” She said that “made me
worry that he had autism.”

Her worries proved unfounded.
Still, she said, “I took only the good data and copied it and put it in
both of their baby books.”

“Here is where you got all muddy, and here is your EEG from when you were 2.”

What do you think?


  1. #1 Romeo Vitelli
    January 18, 2009

    Some scientist parents can get quite involved with their children though:


    It’s best that they don’t get too carried away.

  2. #2 Let's Not Use My Regular Alias
    January 18, 2009

    Perhaps also of interest: a Psychology professor notes that many of the rules on human subjects experimentation only applies to experiments done for research. In theory, you can do almost anything to students for educational purposes… such as recreating the Milgram experiment as an in-class demonstration.


  3. #3 Romeo Vitelli
    January 19, 2009

    There are limits though. A long time ago, I heard a professor give a lecture on classical conditioning where he fired a starter’s pistol to condition us to flinch whenever he said “CS”. Good luck trying something like that today.

  4. #4 JuliaL
    January 20, 2009

    You find it funny that, while one of Dobkins’ twins lived in a world colored by the emotions and physical responses of a mother feeling approval and pride (as we would hope for all children), the other for a time experienced a world with a mother led by the experiment to be fearful that that there was something wrong with him? And it’s funny that, while the favored twin will grow up to find his own data proudly displayed in his baby book, the other twin will later discover that his natural behavior was so frightening and unacceptable to his mother that his baby book in one section ignores his very existence and instead contains a copy of his brother’s data? I wonder if the child will grow up equally amused by this inequality of feeling and treatment.

  5. #5 william e emba
    January 21, 2009

    Linguists love recording kidspeak. I vaguely recall Pinker citing an instance of a linguist giving up after trying to teach a certain grammatical correction one too many times, after mommy and child both came down on him.

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