IRBS: Ethics, Yes-Epistemology, No

April 2002

Christine Hansen's paean to the increased current role of institutional review boards (IRBs) ["Regulatory Changes Affecting IRBs and Researchers," September 2001] contains a number of questionable assertions, but what struck me as particularly unsound was the view that, as long as they were "diverse" enough, IRBs could validly determine what constitutes "poorly designed research." This view may have some plausibility for medical drug-evaluation research on humans, which is not really basic research at all, but rather applied evaluations of treatments that have been discovered through basic scientific research. However, it does not apply to most studies conducted by members of APS, studies that deal with scientific, psychological basic research issues. For such psychological research, IRBs are capable only of evaluating the ethical issues of how the subjects are treated, and not epistemological issues such as how well designed the study is. To take my own MA and PhD research as an example, during the period of 1963-4 at Sydney University, I administered electric shocks to several hundred human subjects. Had an IRB existed at that time and place, it would have been competent to decide whether the strongest shock I used (2.5 mA) met ethical requirements. Indeed, I would go further and say that these sorts of ethical checks are continuously required, because otherwise researchers like me may be tempted to go beyond ethical limits to increase the statistical power of what are usually frustratingly weak experimental manipulations in human experimental psychology.

But I assert with considerable confidence that no IRB would have been competent to assess the adequacy of my experimental design, which was intended to determine the locus of reinforcement in human autonomic classical aversive and appetitive conditioning. The only individuals who had the slightest chance of epistemologically evaluating my experimental design were the referees of my papers on this subject, the titles of which were: "Reinforcement Through UCS Offset in Classical Conditioning," "Aspects of Reinforcement Through UCS Offset in Classical Aversive Conditioning," And "Classical Appetitive Conditioning of the GSR with Cool Air as UCS, and the Roles of UCS Onset and Offset as Reinforcers of the CR" (1965, 1967, and 1967, respectively; see my cv on my web-site, Even some of those knowledgeable and expert referees, in my view, totally misunderstood what I was investigating and hence were wrong about the soundness of my experimental design. For example, a number of them could not understand how I could talk about reinforcement in an experimental preparation that involved classical rather than instrumental or operant conditioning.

At least for the typical psychological basic research studies conducted by members of APS, let us not follow inapplicable analogies based on medical treatment-evaluation research, but rather let us restrict the ethical issues of treatment to IRBs, and leave the epistemological task of evaluating the soundness of a psychological study's design to grant proposal-evaluating committees and to editors of our high-quality journals. They are not infallible, but at least they have in principle the requisite background for what is an epistemological rather than ethical evaluative task.