The Duck of Minerva

Do You Need a Pro-Cancer Oncologist? Bias and Human Rights Scholarship

28 January 2013

It’s a question faced by scientists daily: if you found that X wasn’t associated with Y, would you report it?  What if you found that treatment X was harmful to Y, would you report your findings? For example, let’s say you are an oncologist and you just concluded, based on years of research, that smoking wasn’t associated with cancer  – would you report your findings?  What if you were employed by the cancer drug’s maker or dealing with cancer personally, would you report your findings about treatment X then? Is it unethical to leave the results unpublished?

Questions of personal biases and valid science permeate all facets of science; of course, we as social scientists face these questions all the time in our research.  Do personal biases get in the way of our science?  Is there any way around our personal biases?

I’m a firm believer that the process of science allows us to eliminate many of the potential biases that we carry around with us.  As Jay Ulfelder just pointed out in a blog post on Dart Throwing Chimp with respect to democracy research in comparative politics,  the scientific process isn’t easy – there are often strong personal and professional reasons that lead people to stray from the scientific process (to me, sequestering results would imply straying from the scientific process).  But, I would contend, the scientific process allows us to overcome many of our personal and professional biases.  This is especially relevant, of course, to human rights research.  As Jake Wobig just wrote,

“a person does not start studying human rights unless they want to identify ways to change the world for the better.  However, wanting something to be so does not make it so, and we scholars do not do anyone any favors by describing the world incorrectly.” 

I couldn’t agree more.  I don’t think you have be neutral when it comes to your personal stance on human rights (you don’t have to be pro-human rights abuse either) to “do” valid human rights research.  We don’t require oncologist researchers to be cancer-neutral or pro-cancer when they carry out their research; in fact, it is often assumed that they are researching in pursuit of eliminating cancer.  What is required, however, is information that allows us (a) to understand how the researcher utilized the scientific process and (b) to replicate the researcher’s results.  The same holds, I would contend, with research on human rights or democracy or any other phenomena that I might advocate for when I’m off the clock as a researcher: I can carry those biases to the door of my office, but I better “put on my science cap” and actually carry out – and report- my research as a scientist.  I’m not saying this is easy, or even 100% achievable, but I do think that it needs to be discussed more.  As part of this discussion, perhaps we need to focus more on outlets where researchers can actually publish null-results or other ways in which we can ensure that null-results do not get relegated to an online appendix.

I’m not alone in my stance on this: Rhiannon Morgan and Bryce Turner have an excellent edited volume on the topic (which both my undergrad and grad classes at Mizzou are reading for this week’s classes) where they outline the “epistemological tensions” in social science research, going as far back as Max Weber’s discussion of value-free versus value-relevant research.  To cut to the chase: Morgan and Turner (2012), along with Carey and Poe (2004), Landman (2006), and others in the discipline argue that valid scientific research can be done, even by researchers who advocate for human rights in their down-time.

However, the onus is on us – the researchers –to ensure that we follow the scientific process and report our results – even if we don’t like them.  And, sometimes, null results – or unexpected negative results – actually do the human rights promotion community a whole hell-of-a-lot-a good.  Without people like Oona Hathway reporting on the lack of overall influence of human rights treaties on human rights performance  we might not know as much about the conditions where they really do make a difference (see here or here).  Similarly, if Dursun Peksen and Reed Wood hadn’t reported on the problems economic sanctions caused for human rights, perhaps more advocates would still be calling for sanctions as a human rights solution.

Without the scientific process, we really do become preachers instead of researchers and our cherry-picked results stand to harm any larger understanding of the processes of human rights abuse and the treatments that could actually help improve the world around us.