Friday, February 6, 2009

Week 5: Internet Research/Ethics

One obvious issue with internet research and its impact upon human subjects is that there is little anonymity. Once information is entered on a computer, it is a permanent feature of the memory banks and only needs a skilled computer hacker to find it, and the same can be said of internet storage and the myth of anonymity for research subjects. The memory banks are endless and long-lasting. Curtis might like to know, for example, that when I researched CITI, his blog entry was listed 4th on the Google list. It is uncomfortable when one realizes that the internet helps us retrieve information but also takes away our privacy.

I have to laugh at the notion that CITI has created a site to train us in the ethics of working with human subjects. Really? A computer training site that teaches ethics? If Aristotle had known computers were coming, he could have taken a vacation instead of writing the Nic Ethics. I understand that its objective is to guide researchers in what is and isn't permissible, but we all know that the ones willing to listen are the ones that probably aren't going to be the problem. I'm worried about the guys out there who took the CITI training and are secretly attempting to clone humans, or the ones who are out in the open and checking on how genetic mutations of seeds affects humans, or the ones who are cloning animal parts to be used in humans. There is no way that CITI can train scientists to stop hurting mankind, as science has never acknowledged an existence of the soul (indeed, couldn't find it or measure it or statistically calibrate it). I'm not anti-science, but we sure do spend a great deal of time cleaning up the mess of the crazy ones, and I'm not sure that we can turn ourselves around from the worst bits (nuclear weapons, manipulating crops and animals without long-term investigation of the consequences, pollution from plastics, coal refineries, and the list is endless). So I'll take the training, but at the end of the day, if this is all we've got, why bother?

1 comment:

  1. Wendy, I think you're right--a tedious training module isn't going to stop rogue geneticists from experimenting with human engineering. But, when we raise that debate, what really will? A sit-down discussion, lecture, or even reprimand may not do much either. People who are in a position--of financial means and authority--to conduct research will, as I mentioned in my post, find almost any conceivable means to justify their research.

    So, why have training? Why even make us trudge through the monotony (and ambiguity) of those training modules? One, it is a formality. Perhaps formalities can be stupid, but they play a critical role in a sue-happy society. They give the university something to lean on if one of their professors does something crazy. But also, and probably on a more practical level, they serve as a reminder to those of us who try to be ethical but don't necessarily think about the technological infrastructure of a computer database that holds personal raw data. It would be quite easy, and tempting, to assume that the information is safe without thoroughly checking it out. CITI reminds us that we are, in fact, human. And that it is, in fact humans we are dealing with. Unfortunately, and as awful as I would argue the training sometimes is, we humans probably need that reminder.