Is the Use of Deception in Social Science Research on Human Participants Justified? Essay

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Title: Is the Use of deception in social science research on human participants justified? By Noel Matea, University of Waikato, New Zealand, 2011. Introduction The ethical issue in human subjects’ research continues to receive greater attention within the research ethics literature and the wider academia. A particular ethical issue that continues to draw controversy is the use of deception in social science research involving human subjects. The question of whether deception can be ethically justified is always at the forefront of the deception debate.

While some argue that the use of deception, whether intentional or not, carries a considerable potential risk and harm for research subjects, others however, stresses that some measure of deception is sometimes necessary and may be the only effective means to obtain essential knowledge (Elms, 1982). This essay will briefly discuss and critique a number of literature that contribute to the debate on the issue of deception in social science research. To bring my discussion into perspective I will first attempt a definition on the word deception. This will frame the context of my discussion.

The essay will then highlight some of the arguments surrounding the issue of contention. I will conclude with a brief summary and a thought on whether deception is always wrong in social science research. To begin with, deception in research involves a variety of practices where the researcher intentionally provides limited information to research subjects on the true purpose of research. Reynolds (1979) defined deception as research where the researcher conceals the real purpose of the study and the true nature of what is to be expected by research participants.

Baumrind (1985) enlarges on Reynolds (1979) definition and classified deception in two categories: intentional and non-intentional where the former carries the meaning of “withholding of information in order to obtain participation, concealment in natural settings, and manipulation in held experimentation and deceptive instructions in laboratory research”. Bulmer (1982) used the term covert and specifically focuses on the methodology and defines covert research as a research method using participant observation, where the researcher misrepresent his/her identity and the true purpose of his/her research in a particular research environment.

By deceiving his/her research subjects the researcher can observe and record activities of his/her subjects. Generally, the definition above identifies different kinds of deception in research. That is, researcher may misrepresent himself/herself; sometimes he may deceive people about the true aspect of the research; or sometimes may conceal information on who funds the research. But whatever the type there is, the fact is that the method of deceiving raises ethical issues as far as the conduct of social science research is concern.

There are two areas of interest that will be discussed in this essay; first, I will highlight the argument surrounding deception as being incompatible with informed consent; second, the argument as to whether deception poses potential harm than benefit. Informed consent The use of deceptive methods in social science research is incompatible with informed consent. Informed consent is the approval given by potential research participants to the researcher in agreement to take part in the research having full knowledge of the purpose and the consequences of the research.

One of the aspects of the principle of informed consent is that potential participants should be given an opportunity to be informed of the purpose of the research and make their own decision whether or not to participate in the research (Homan, 1991). In light to this aspect, one argument against deception is that its use violates the principle of informed consent. For instance, conducting research on people without their consent and general knowledge on the purpose of the research is unethical (Bulmer, 1982; Baumrind, 1985; Clarke, 1999).

One reason for this is that research subjects are deprived of their rights to make their own decisions whether or not to take part in the research. Not only that but concealing the true purpose of research from research subjects limit their knowledge needed to make effective judgements to make a decision to consent (Bulmer, 1982; Baumrind, 1985; Clarke, 1999). In the mid 1960s Laud Humphreys carried out a study of male homosexuals in “tearooms” in the United States (Humphreys, 1970). The tearoom is a name given to a public restroom where male homosexuals reputedly use for various deviant encounters.

Humphreys carry out the study through various means. He first assumes a participant observation method where he misrepresents his identity and knowledge of his research. He establishes himself within the cycle of his subjects and took up the role of a voyeur or “watchqueen” to lookout for strangers and policemen while his subjects carry out their activities (Humphreys, 1970). He concealed a tape recorder in his car and from time to time make recordings of his observations. He recorded his subjects’ car registration numbers and uses it to track them down to their home addresses.

While conducting his study Humphreys was also responsible to carry out a social health survey on a random sample of males in the community where he lives. He interviews some of his subjects by posing as a social health survey officer. To ensure his identity is not recognized he waited for a year before changing his dress code, hairstyle and car and went undercover as a survey officer and conduct interview with his subjects he was able to track down (Humphreys, 1970). He publishes his study under the title ‘Tearoom trade: impersonal sex in public places’.

The Humphreys study characterizes a fine example of deception research without informed consent. Arguably the use of deception is unethical because Humphrey’s subjects first of all are not informed of the research. Some were misinformed of his research under the disguise of a social health survey. Also, Humphrey’s deceptive method deprived of his subject’s rights and opportunity to make their own judgement regarding their inclusion in the study. Research subjects may feel embarrassed and distress when they learn that they have been deceived.

If the deception revealed an undesired character of the subject it will have a negative effect on the subjects’ self-esteem and welfare which he/she will continue to live with. Humphrey’s subjects will no doubt have those feelings once they find out they have been under observation. Not only that but deceiving subjects intentionally without their informed consent, places them at a higher risk of potential permanent harm (Bulmer, 1982; Baumrind, 1985; Clarke; 1999). For instance, the work done by Humphreys may be used by the police against the subjects.

If so, there possibly can have long term negative consequences on the welfare of his subjects. Even if the personal details of his subjects are anonymous, the implication of the published information when accessed by authorities including the police can be of significance to curb activities of that of his subjects. Then again, there is another argument that informed consent can be overridden provided there is justification if the potential harm to research subjects is not sufficiently severe (Elms, 1982; Benharm, 2008).

Clarke (1999) finds this argument not convincing because it fails to address the issue of a person’s autonomy which is what he refers to as the heart of the doctrine of informed consent. Although this may be true the question of whether subjects need to give full informed consent is a minor intervention in social science research compared to medical experimentation as argued by Elms (1982). A compelling argument in support is that usually the consequence to research subjects’ appears to be temporary or reversible in the process of debriefing (Elms, 1982).

But where there is justification for deception what should happen according to Elms (1982) is that a researcher carrying out deceptive measures must still value informed consent. One way to do it is for an on-going informed consent to be made possible. He made the point that subjects must be asked to give consent to participation even if incomplete information or deception is used (Elms, 1982). Another important thing is for subjects to be guaranteed the right to withdraw at any point where they decide that the costs are becoming greater than they wish to bear (Elms, 1982).

In essence, there can be flexibility to waive informed consent as long as there is sufficient justification that the cost of deception and the welfare of research participants have been given appropriate consideration. Harm versus benefits The issue of costs and benefits arising from deceptive research practices is also one area being examined in the deception debate. On the one hand, it is argued that the costs of deception can be far greater than the scientific benefits obtained from the research (Bulmer, 1982; Baumrind, 1985; Clarke, 1999).

The costs associated with deception may harm research subjects in ways that cannot be anticipated. In other ways harm can have negative consequence to the researcher as well as the researcher’s profession and the society at large (Bulmer, 1982; Baumrind, 1985). Consider the case of the Tuskegee experiment. Between 1932 and 1972 the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) carry out an experiment on 399 black males from Tuskegee, one of the poorest counties in Alabama, on the late stages of syphilis, a disease that was not fully curable at that time (“Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment”, 2011).

The USPHS intends to find out how syphilis affects black Americans as opposed to whites. These men, many being poor sharecroppers and illiterate were never informed of the true nature of the experiment but were only told they are treated for “bad blood” (“Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment”, 2011). The Doctors have no intention to cure them from the syphilis, so even though penicillin, the first real cure for syphilis was discovered in the 1940s, these men were denied the medication.

This was deliberately done so that the experiment may study the development of the disease and its consequences. Generally speaking the syphilis at its tertiary stage can cause severe complications that may lead to heart disease, tumors, paralysis, blindness, insanity and death. In order to maintain their cooperation they were given free medical examination, free meals and free burial insurance, something that a person who is struggling financially will never refuse.

By the end of the study, 28 of the original 399 had died directly of syphilis, another 100 would be dead from related complications and over 40 of the wives had been infected with the disease, while 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis (“Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment”, 2011). The Tuskegee experiment appears to demonstrate a very strong case of severe costs on research subjects, a position held by Bulmer (1982), Baumrind (1985) and Clarke (1999). Excessive harm came to the participants for a number of ethical issues.

First, the subjects were not provided adequate information they needed to willingly consent to participating in the experiment. Neither were they consulted on the research and its consequences or other alternative means that may be available to them. Besides not being informed of the true nature of research, they were not told of the true disease they were infected with. Worst still, they were continuously denied proper medication with intent which resulted in severe permanent harm and death.

The death of 28 males directly from syphilis and the other 100 from related complications no doubt speaks volume of the severity of the costs of deception as compared to its scientific benefits. Also, the Tuskegee case has substantive evidence that prove beyond doubt the widespread implication of deception. For instance, 40 of the wives of the research subjects and 19 of the children are subsequently infected with the syphilis. Some of the Doctors who are involved in the experiment may carry with them guilty conscience for inflicting pain and death to other human beings.

Perhaps their public image may be harmed when the experiment was made public. When the experiment was made known in 1972 there is widespread mistrust and a lack of trust from African Americans on the United States Public Health Service and the United States government. This harm may likely jeopardize African-Americans support for research initiatives from the USPHS in the future for that matter. By the same token, a consequentialist view argued that the ethical distress associated with deception will somehow be offset by some kind of social benefit that will be derived from the research in the long run (Elms, 1982; Benharm, 1999).

Taking the Milgram experiment as an example, Elms (1982) argued that the consequences of deception in social science research are temporary and reversible. Elms (1982) pointed out that careful debriefing and the individual’s standard coping mechanisms lessen the degree of harm. If there is harm than it may be in the form of temporary discomfort, anxiety and as long as the subject cease participation in the research (Elms, 1982). While he acknowledges the potential risk to research subjects he is adamant that what is more important is to minimize the risk and potential harm it may pose.

He argued that if deception is to be used as a method in social science research it must be ‘carefully justified’ through certain conditions (Elms, 1982). Conclusion In conclusion, the debate on the use of deception as a method in social science research has received considerable arguments presented from both critics and proponents. On the one hand, there is the utilitarian argument that the use of deception as a method of research is neither ethically justified, nor practically necessary, a position held by Bulmer (1982), Baumrind (1985) and Clarke (1999).

Arguably the use of deception is unethical partly because it violates the principle of informed consent. Also, that the potential costs of deception far outweigh the potential benefits but these costs are greatly underestimated. Critics strongly oppose to the use of deception in research and are of the opinion that such method is not in the best interest of the social science research fraternity. It was suggested that researchers should do away with the use of deception but develop other alternative means to conduct research.

On the contrary, there is the argument that some form of deception is sometimes necessary in certain situations. I held that similar perception. The question of whether deception is always wrong in social science research remains an open question. But sometimes it may be the only effective means to obtain valuable knowledge. There is no doubt that the use of deception carries with it potential harm to the research participants, the researcher, the researcher’s profession and the society at large. But certain bits of knowledge cannot for logical reasons alone be obtained without the use of deception.

Researchers therefore need only to ensure that harm is minimized to a lesser degree so as not to inflict permanent pain to research subjects. It is also important in this context that mechanisms to lessen the effect of potential harm be seriously considered such as debriefing. In this case it is the obligation of the researcher to conduct carefully constructed debriefing. The researcher is responsible to ensure that research subjects are given the accurate information and understanding of the deception. This should provide an occasion for the research subject to be properly informed of the true purpose of the research.

Not only that but it should also give the research subject some sense of true value for his/her participation in the research. BIBLIOGAPHY Benharm, B. (2008). The Ubiquity of deception and the ethics of deceptive research. Bioethics, 22(3), 147-156. Retrieved from http://web. ebscohost. com. ezproxy. waikato. ac. nz/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer? vid=9&hid=107&sid=dce33472-bc8d-4868-8f20-d07fb0aa8112%40sessionmgr115 Baumrind, D. (1985). Research using intentional deception: Ethical issues revisited. American Psychologist, 40(2), 165-174. Retrieved from http://teacherweb. om/OK/CasciaHall/JenniferPace/Is-Deception-of-Human-Participants-Ethical. pdf Bulmer Martin. (1982). The merits and demerits of covert participant observation. In M. Bulmer (Eds. ), Social Research Ethics: an examination of the merits of covert participant observation. (pp. 217-251). London, England: Macmillan. Clarke, S. (1999). Justifying Deception in Social Science Research. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 16(2). Retrieved from http://web. ebscohost. com. ezproxy. waikato. ac. nz/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer? vid=12&hid=107&sid=dce33472-bc8d-4868-8f20-d07fb0aa8112%40sessionmgr115

Elms, A. (1982). Keeping deception honest: Justifying conditions for social scientific research stratagems. Retrieved from http://teacherweb. com/OK/CasciaHall/JenniferPace/Is-Deception-of-Human-Participants-Ethical. pdf Homan, R. (1991). The Ethics of Social Research. London, England: Longman. Humpheys, L. (1975). Tearoom trade: impersonal sex in public places. New York, USA: Aldine de Gruyter. Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. (n. d. ). In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 4, 2011 from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Tuskegee_syphilis_experiment

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