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ATPM 9.12
December 2003





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The Candy Apple

by Ellyn Ritterskamp,

Learning Has Changed

In my Research Ethics class we talk about how important it is to protect vulnerable populations, meaning the kind of research subjects that could be more easily taken advantage of than a typical subject. The standard groups of vulnerable populations are children, prisoners, the mentally handicapped, and the elderly.

We talked recently about Japanese relocation camps during WWII, in which 120,000 Japanese-Americans were interned in ten camps, ostensibly for their own protection against anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States. The harm was incalculable, as many of those interned were never able to recover their property later. Our research ethics question was whether anyone tried to take advantage of this vulnerable population to do medical research. I anticipated that a military type would have seized on the opportunity to find out how someone of Japanese ancestry would respond to a particular biological or chemical agent. But I also expressed a hope that the willingness to protect individual liberty would have extended far enough to prevent this sort of abuse.

I spent several hours with Google and found nothing. Zip. Nada.

For that I am glad that apparently nothing happened. I said to a couple of people that the nature of the Internet is such now that if something like this had happened, it would be out there. Even if somebody just wanted to plant a rumor that something had happened, Google would find it if it were out there. Many of the people interned in the camps were children, and are still alive today. Those who have stories to tell have told them, and so far, none of those stories has included research abuse.

There is so much garbage on the Net that we must take care not to believe something just because we have found it there. Many of the hits I got during my search were weblogs and personal observations. I’m not saying these are less reliable than more traditional sources, and at some point, all of history is really a narrative rather than a list of facts. It comforted me to know, though, that neither version of history—the “official” one nor the narrative one—included the sort of research abuse I was searching for.

The nature of learning has changed. I still like books, but it is nice to know how easy the Internet makes finding things to read. I had two projects to check out for class this week: the one about Japanese relocation camps, and the nature of an HIV registry we’d heard about. Both took some time, but after wading through the reliable source Web sites, I learned lots of stuff about both. Only two of the relocation camps were in California, for instance, even though most of those relocated lived there. One was actually as far east as Arkansas. As for the HIV registry, each state has its own, plus there’s a really large one administered by Veterans’ Affairs. They are not accessible to insurance companies, or really much of anyone else, so we don’t need to get all riled up about our privacy being invaded.

Studying for game shows the past few years has reinforced for me just how much the Net makes learning easy. When I decided I wanted a list of Best Picture Oscar winners, I had it in seconds. A map of South America? No problem. Color or black and white? With or without names of geographical features? Canadian provinces and their capitals, the table of chemical elements, 192 world capitals (I trimmed the list to 108 just to be realistic). All this stuff is easily findable and printable, and now I have a notebook full of it.

More important, it is more portable than an encyclopedia but also more up-to-date. Rather than buy a set of reference books each year, I can just check in on a set of current maps anytime I want. Someone said last month’s column was “purile,” which I had to look up, and then I could explain to the reader that while “puerile” is an adjective that may or may not apply to my writing, it is regardless spelled with two e’s.

See, even sass has improved with the accessibility we have on the Net. Onward!

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Reader Comments (5)

anonymous · December 4, 2003 - 16:47 EST #1
Internet is such now that if something like this had happened, it would be out there.

Um, no. It's likely that there would be Googlable info, but that's far from certain.

We must take care not to believe something just because we have found it there.

True. Nor should we doubt something just because we didn't find it there.

[HIV registries] are not accessible to insurance companies, or really much of anyone else, so we don’t need to get all riled up about our privacy being invaded.

That's a remarkable expression of faith in the people who keep the registries. Especially given that there have been many instances of the supposed confidentiality of those lists being breached.
anonymous · December 6, 2003 - 02:13 EST #2
Ellyn, your writing skills are fine, even charming, but let's go back and take Logic 101 again (preferably in a philosophy department of reasonable academic standing--ideally at, say, University of Chicago). You might also work on distinguishing opinion from knowledge.

Learning, like traveling, has never changed, but there are newer vehicles lately. Printing presses still work, I believe.

When you review a software product, however, you do a really fine job.

BTW, no first- or second-rank philosopher has attempted ethics for several centuries now.
Ellyn · December 6, 2003 - 03:54 EST #3
BTW, no first- or second-rank philosopher has attempted ethics for several centuries now.

I found Jean-Paul Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism" to be ground-breaking enough, to explain why atheists should be moral. That was about half a century ago.

The trouble is that Kant made it look like he had the last word. We'll see new ethics soon enough. It's time.

And, by the way, I adore reading regular books. I gobble them up and highly recommend them to everyone. I do not intend to diminish their worth when I say the Internet community has made learning easier.
anonymous · December 18, 2003 - 17:24 EST #4
Don't be so certain that the vulnerable populations are only children, the mentally challenged, prisoners, and the elderly. The old social psychology experiments of Dr. Zimbardo and colleagues used your average college student. Fortunately, he knew when he ought to stop an experiment gone dreadfully wrong.

I work with women who have been abused in every way possible. I have seen a form of "Stokholm Syndrome" that scared me to death. How can bright, well-educated, beautiful women start believing that it is okay to be assaulted and abused; that they actually deserve it and they must defend their abusers--or, as victims of rape, to deny what actually happened so as to be able to continue an education in a male-dominated military school?

And what kind of strange world do we live in where good, strong, capable soldiers go to war and have to worry that there are soldiers with them who were deemed fit for duty who can't carry their own gear, much less run if they are attacked? If the soldier is not fit to go to a war, why is he or she told that she or he is fit? Many are smart enough to see the flaw in the reasoning, and quite a few seem to ignore it. Some commanders have figured it out, too, but if the only way to be successful in a war overseas is to use our least-capable soldiers, something is wrong. So, I have seen the same "shocky" look in some of those soldiers' eyes as I have seen in those abused women's eyes.

I don't know that you would find this kind of stuff in an internet search. Medical research? Do you know who the guinea pigs are? Soldiers! And they are threatened with a court-martial if they refuse. Think about it.
Ellyn Ritterskamp · December 18, 2003 - 20:38 EST #5
I agree there are other vulnerable populations besides the four I mentioned. Anyone who can be coerced is vulnerable.

The distinction with military subjects is that, in many cases, they volunteered. They did not volunteer for specific experiments, but when you sign your name to join, you give up a lot of autonomy. You also can disobey orders, refuse to participate, and take the punishment for doing so. There are always choices.

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