How Big A Deal Was That Montana Poli Sci Research Fail … Really?

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A couple of readers chime in with differing views on the political science research fiasco in Montana:

TPM Reader PT:

I am not a political scientist (for which I daily sacrifice a goat in gratitude). I am, however, a statistician, ethicist, and frequent IRB user.

The issue here, from the ethics standpoint, is the inclusion of persons into research who have not consented. Consent is the great issue in research, in our modern age. You must agree to participate. In many cases, you have to agree to be asked to participate (when patients arrive at hospitals now, they are routinely given a “consent to participate in future research” or something of that sort.

Montana residents were not consented.

In many projects, you cannot consent. How do you consent someone who is comatose at the time of research enrollment? For instance, what about comparing two treatments for persons who have had heart attacks? They are very ill, cannot consent. In such cases, the IRB reluctantly allows the project, since something is going to be done.

I think that the outrage and concern is due to lack of consent, and lack of the emergency nature of the project. Academics have the notion that our meager efforts at understanding stuff is not important. This is wrong, of course. Like in the Hawthorne Electric Plant, every time to do something, it has an effect. By attempting to measure the election, the election was affected. Heisenberg is in agreement with me.

The issue here, from the ethics standpoint, is the inclusion of persons into research who have not consented. Consent is the great issue in research, in our modern age. You must agree to participate. In many cases, you have to agree to be asked to participate (when patients arrive at hospitals now, they are routinely given a “consent to participate in future research” or something of that sort.

Montana residents were not consented.

In many projects, you cannot consent. How do you consent someone who is comatose at the time of research enrollment? For instance, what about comparing two treatments for persons who have had heart attacks? They are very ill, cannot consent. In such cases, the IRB reluctantly allows the project, since something is going to be done.

I think that the outrage and concern is due to lack of consent, and lack of the emergency nature of the project. Academics have the notion that our meager efforts at understanding stuff is not important. This is wrong, of course. Like in the Hawthorne Electric Plant, every time to do something, it has an effect. By attempting to measure the election, the election was affected. Heisenberg is in agreement with me.

Another TPM reader who asked to remain anonymous:

I’m not a political scientist, but I am a practitioner. I find most of the kerfuffle here to be utter nonsense. In particular, I strongly disagree with Jeremy Johnson’s concept that these studies are essentially inherently unethical. The straight reality is this:

1. This research served a valuable purpose. Finding new ways to efficiently communicating information about a low salience race like the Supreme Court is important for enhancing the democratic [process]. It’s clear that many voters choose not to participate in these races due to a perceived low level of knowledge. Without the partisanship cue, they simply have no idea who is who, and the actual campaigns rarely tend to illuminate. A simple card that reflects the ideological leanings of the candidates in a fair manner might be useful. The study might have given us insight into how and why voters participate in down ballot races.

2. This kind of research has been going on for decades. Since Gerber and Green did their first field experiments in the 90s, going door to door and talking to people about an upcoming election, academics have been changing the composition of the electorate (and therefore the election results) for research purposes. That research has yielded valuable information on GOTV techniques that have demonstrably improved turnout – a great boon for the health of a democratic system. If we endeavor to end experiments that might modify vote totals, as Jeremy Johnson would have us do, it would essentially be the end of political field experiments. Under his definition, studies that have proven the value of voter registration and voter turnout operations, including those that specifically studied the effects of GOTV among politically vulnerable low-participation Spanish-speaking communities, would have never happened. And we’d be poorer for it.

3. This kind of research is being done routinely by academics working on behalf of private political entities. Hundreds of studies have been performed for SuperPACs, labor unions, etc, but they are kept private for competitive electoral advantage. I think no one would truly argue that it is somehow unethical for a labor union to send out partisan mailers and see which ones perform better. But if an academic doing research that will be publicly available sends out a mailer, it suddenly is an issue? Why? If the mailer is fair and informative, then we shouldn’t have a problem. The idea that an experiment must impact all sides of a competitive race evenly is absurd and without merit. That is a higher standard than we hold any other social science experiment. Let’s not pretend that academic institutions do not have considerable impact on the political fabric of our country as it is – they should strive to avoid partisan entanglements, of course, but there is no need to claim it is unethical for a researcher to simply have an impact on the number of people who vote. Is it unethical to encourage your students to vote, knowing they will be biased toward the Democrats? Is it unethical to answer questions from the media about upcoming elections? These all have impacts, and they implicitly involve their academic institution. Why should one be ethical, but the experiment is not?

The only issue with this experiment is that the researchers unintentionally broke Montana law when they used the state seal. The use of a state seal, by the way, was not their invention – it has been done before in past studies to no ill effect or outcry. The card, however, was still labeled with their institution’s name. That makes it a minor issue. Let’s not blow it out of proportion.

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David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.

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