Sunday scientist lesson: The extra effort required for ethical study of oppressed people

by Carl V Phillips

We are very dependent on the ethics of some groups in society.  Trade contracts exist, and governments exist to enforce them and other regulations, because we assume that many actors would skew transactions to their own benefit, or default on their promises completely.  The failure to impose such regulations on bankers, as if they could be trusted, has caused a bit of trouble.  By contrast, we depend on the assumption that people will act ethically within their family.

We tend to trust scholarly researchers to show the ethical non-self-centeredness we assume in families.  Readers of this blog know how well that works in public health science, and how much worse still it is in for “public health” (the extremist political faction that masquerades as a science).  Anyone who thinks the peer review process solves this problem knows little about how badly peer review works, or is pretending to not know, taking advantage of those who do not know.

Outside of public health, things work rather better.  In sciences where there is a fairly concrete difference between correct and incorrect — physics, statistics, computer science, economic sciences — peer review is a more serious process (largely because it real review by the community, not the simplistic rump “peer review” that comes from a couple of people reading something before it goes into a journal).  But in sciences that are much derided for not being “real” — sociology, cultural anthropology — there are ethics that are absent from public health that go beyond merely being honest, and into how people are treated.  They realize it is necessary to make some extra effort to stay ethical when the subjects of study are not molecules or insects, but human beings.

In the previous post, I explained why the use of the term “ENDS” for e-cigarettes is unethical, and would be avoided in any field of research that showed respect for the human beings it was studying.  Subsequent to that, I had an interesting email conversation with a researcher — a genuine researcher, not one of the activists who pretends to be a researcher.  It started due to a project of Clive Bates to start a conversation among THR supporters, researchers, and even a few opponents by conscripting us into an email list that includes about 60 people.  (Note to those who have started half-imitating Clive on that:  If you want to do it right, and start a conversation, do not use BCC.  If you just BCC your monologues out to an involuntary email list, it is just spam.)

This particular thread was about the recent court judgment in Australia and resulting enforcement actions, that effectively ban e-cigarettes in one province and are predicted to extend to others.  The basis for this ruling is literally that e-cigarettes look like cigarettes (which, of course, are not banned).

I am not going to quote from my correspondent because I do not have permission, and besides that would be a distraction because this is not about one individual (who is welcome to self-identify in the comments if so desired).  The researcher in question agreed that this ruling was a bad thing, and noted that it has been enforced against mods that do not look much like a cigarettes.  What I did not like so much was the associated remark that e-cigarettes are often designed to resemble pens, mascara, or lip gloss, or the closing observation that this ruling would be bad for researchers.

I replied (in full, though the last two paragraphs are not all that relevant to the current analysis — they are included for completeness, and to circle back to one remark):

Um, isn’t the real problem that it will make practicing THR even more difficult (in a place where it is already difficult), and thus more people will keep smoking? A few researchers finding it slightly harder to acquire hardware to play with hardly seems to matter.
It is often useful for those unfamiliar with the devices (stunning how many there are among those who want to regulate them) to tell them that most mods look more like a fancy pen than a cigarette.  But the “it looks like popular ‘innocent’ objects” trope is rather an embarrassment due to its history.  (“These new snus packages are shaped to look like cell phones!!! Think of the children!” — i.e., they are rectangular with rounded corners, and apparently the speaker is unaware that anything else is shaped like that.)  Any device that whose functional nature calls for it being a thin cylinder looks something like a fancy pen (or like…. well, c.f. Freudian).  A high-quality device mimicking most mascara or lip gloss would be an unattainable feat of miniaturization given battery technology and the fact that you cannot miniaturize liquid.
It is pretty clear that Australian policy is dominated by extremists who consciously want to keep smokers from pursuing THR, motivated by reasons I have analyzed extensively.  Canada is substantially like that, as well as some other countries that are functionally controlled by the WHO.  This contrasts with Europe, which is mostly just bumbling.

Circling back, I have to admit that sometimes I think as a researcher, despite the real people who are hurt by anti-THR evils, and from that perspective this is just great.  It is fascinating to watch the plainpacks debacle play out.  A sort-of ban on ecigs would be even more interesting.  Of course Canada already gives us an example of that in practice.  So maybe Australia should consider some experiment other than a simple ban if they want to continue to contribute to research about policies with bad outcomes.

My correspondent took the conversation semi-private (just the two of us, plus Clive) and characterized my reply as offensive and insulting.  Pointing out that his/her goal is to do research that would provide an alternative to bans.  Put another way (my words), it was suggested that we are basically on the same side and that research that involves assigning people to use e-cigarettes is what is needed to fight bans.

My response:

I honestly do not see how that was so insulting and offensive.  It was a bit critical and perhaps snippy, but only a bit.  Presumably you are familiar with what my approach looks like when I am trying to be brutally critical, and thus end up being insulting and offensive.

Allow me to explain why those (the snippy and the genuinely brutal) occur, generically and in the specifics:

As a consumer advocate, and someone immersed in the lives and culture of the people who are affected by matters like this (as an advocate, a friend, an embedded researcher, and to a lesser extent, one of them), I have very little patience for anything that feels, at all, like the on-high attitude of those who think that this is about themselves or their views, and not about the millions of people it intimately affects.  Put another way:  I have very little patience for those who presume to consider themselves stakeholders when they actually have no stake in the matter.  You have perhaps noticed the abuse that vapers, and to a lesser extent other users, heap upon those who presume to tell tobacco users how to live.  Why do you think that happens?  It is because they perceive — not incorrectly, in my opinion — that they are being oppressed by a group of people for whom the oppression is nothing more than a hobby, a way to make money, and/or personal pique, which hardly compares to the lifestyle and life-saving choices of those whose very important and very personal decisions are affected.  The likes of Clive and I are perhaps not so animated as those critics understandably are, but we share the attitude to a large extent. I am not suggesting I have reason to believe that you are personally guilty of those attitudes, but the mention of the minor and relatively unimportant challenge to researchers in this context strays off into that neighborhood.  The real stakeholders that are hurt are consumers (overwhelmingly first and foremost) and merchants, full stop.  Researchers can deal.  Yes, you said “also”, and thus my remark should have focused on the relatively minor importance of that rather than stating the obvious point about the real concern.  But I suspect it would have been no less snippy.

The other comment that you are presumably reacting to is the one about lip gloss and such.  You are presumably aware of the games I referred to, where anti-THR liars campaign for restrictions on consumers (again, motivated by nothing more than salary, pique, or hobby) based on absurd arguments like “they look like…so that means they must be intended to attract kids”.  Scholarly study of tobacco product use is an area — like any other study of an oppressed minority — where straying into the language of the oppressors suggests support for them.  E.g., the use of the term “ENDS”, as I analyzed in my recent blog post, though this reference is rather worse than that.  Even if the reader assumes you do not intend to be openly declaring an alliance with the oppressors, the “they look like…” reference  comes across as either a dog whistle signal to the oppressors or an unacceptable tone deafness about the politics.

I realize that the non-stakeholder oppressors have thoroughly seized control of the discourse about tobacco, and thus it is easy to slip into their language and views.  It is no different than the challenge of trying to be an honest and neutral student of… [I list examples, such as studying American black culture in the Civil Rights Act era].  Being neutral and respectful requires consciously avoiding some of the natural tendency to use common and dominant remarks and suggest self-centeredness.  Those are not such a problem when there is not systematic oppression in the mix, but the rules change in situations like this.

Thus, I intend to keep calling people on it when they slip into that.  You may find it insulting, but compare that to how your remarks and allusions would come across to the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this enterprise.

I will concede that I could have been nicer, and that this particular individual is not one of those who earn actual opprobrium.  On the other hand, it is people in the middle ground who can be warned against trying to split the difference between the oppressors and the oppressed.  (The antis who pretend to be scientists need to attend to it also, of course, but they never leave their echo chamber, so will never hear the message.)  Neutrality — assuming that is what is sought — is not a matter of treating everyone’s views as equally valid.  Ethically researching about people/culture requires intentionally granting respect for the subjects as people, and part of that is making an effort to avoid any hint of slipping into the vocabulary of those who disdain them or placing the research above the people.  Part of the latter is not implying that the researchers — let alone the oppressors — are stakeholders.

Yes, I joke about the research value of bad policy, but unless one is very clearly joking, it is important to be very careful.  Yes, that is kind of unfair:  It is not the honest researchers’ fault that this area is so fraught with abusive politics.  But because it is, they need to meet a higher standard in order to be ethical.

Finally, note that this is radically different from “political correctness”, though they sometimes get wrapped up together.  It is about genuine respect, even when the subjects in question are not on the PC protected list.  Ross Douhat, who I never expected to cite ever in my life, made some similar observations in today’s NYT op-ed page.  Those who are “politically correct”, as is the case with most of the public health crowd, tend to oppose denigration of others, except when it comes from themselves.  It is time they try to live up to their professed standards and demonstrate that their version of respect is not just a dishonest political maneuver.

4 responses to “Sunday scientist lesson: The extra effort required for ethical study of oppressed people

  1. This is even more commendable than I can elaborate on. Thank You Carl Phillips.

  2. Pingback: 4/10-13/14 - BREAKING: WHO Treaty vaping=smoking; 'Cancer' link coverage; Aus., UK, US: CT,MA,NY,NJ,DE,MD,NC,LA,TN,KY,MS,IL,TX,MN,IA,MO,ND ,OK,NE,AZ,CA,AK

  3. Hi Carl! :)

    Several things:

    “We tend to trust scholarly researchers to show the ethical non-self-centeredness we assume in families. Readers of this blog know how well that works in public health science, and how much worse still it is in for “public health” (the extremist political faction that masquerades as a science).” Yes, it sometimes brings to mind the old adage, “There is no honor among thieves.”

    – MJM

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