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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

who approved the "kids from hell"?

I was at the gym this morning, and on the large and annoyingly loud HD TV that I usually try to ignore was a news story, I believe it was on ABC, and badly behaved kids in a restaurant. I know, urgent breaking news, right? apparently, the station had hired two child actors to be obnoxiously loud and annoying children in a restaurant, as well as hiring an actor to play the father who ignored them and talked on his cell phone the whole time. they showed clips from hidden cameras in the restaurant in which the kids were banging on the plates and silverware, singing loudly, chasing around, diving under tables, etc. I think the purpose was to see how far they could go before someone would do something. a number of people tried to talk to the father, who just acted confused. "what do you mean my kids are out of control?" others tried to stop the kids, who either ignored them or got more annoying. when the restaurant manager came out, the kids hid under a table. why this is news is beyond me, but there's something even more troubling here.

through what process did this station have to go to get this segment approved? clearly, there are specific legal processes through which one must go to show a recording of some random person on TV. did they do a "gotcha" thing where they came out and had everyone sign forms? even beyond the legal questions, these people's dinners were almost completely ruined. and for what? for our entertainment on the morning news? if I wanted to do a similar social-behavior experiment, I would have to get it approved by my university's Institutional Review Board (IRB). the IRB would want to know what to see written informed consent from all participants (or an explanation of why written informed consent was neither necessary nor practical), would want assurances that all possible lengths were gone to in order to minimize risk and discomfort to participants, why it was important to gather personally identifiable information (people's faces that link them to the recordings about them), how the recordings would be used, and a justification of why this was an important experiment to carry out. did the news station do any of these things? is there any knowledge to be gained from this? or did they ruin dozens of people's evenings out for the sake of entertaining some early morning viewers?

it sort of reminds me of another discussion I had of why the IRB seems like a slightly flawed enterprise. I need IRB approval any time that I want to collect data about human subjects and disseminate or publish those data or findings derived from them. however, it was suggested, what if I am a theatre critic and I go to a play. I am collecting and disseminating "data" about the performance, which is put on by humans, and the audience, which is composed of humans. if I write something like "the audience seemed to appreciate the director's handling of act 3, scene 2," do I need IRB approval because I have collected and disseminated data about human beings? I really don't understand why this would not fall under the IRBs purview, but something like observing people at the mall (pdf) would.

clearly, IRBs are an important aspect of research, c.f. Stanford prison experiment and Milgram's studies in obedience and authority. however, where do we draw the line, how do we determine what needs IRB oversight and what does not, and when does regulation by an authority like the IRB change from protecting subjects to inhibiting the progress of important research and contributions to knowledge?

2 Comments:

  • Jystar:

    The case of the theatre critic does not meet the regulatory definition of human subjects research (it is not a systematic, hypotesis driven process that utilizes personally identifiable information of the audience members). On the other hand, your identification of the potentially flawed nature of IRBs has a great deal of merit, and discussion in the scholaraly literature. This is particularly true for research that occurs outside of the biomedical disciplines where the lines are much clearer.

    --a Human Research Protection Professional --

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thursday, December 07, 2006 10:50:00 AM  

  • cool, thanks for the clarification.

    I totally feel the design of IRB toward biomedical research everytime I fill out an IRB application for a social-behavioral study and don't have to check off boxes about drawing blood or sticking people w/ needles. the IRB at my university is actually pretty good about social-behavior studies getting different types of review than biomedical.

    however, there's the personally identifiable information aspect that can make things tricky. I'm going to be doing a study that involves kids (a "vulnerable population") but doesn't collect personally identifiable info. usually, no PII and it's "exempt," i.e., you still have to file with the IRB, but they just sort of rubber stamp you. however, since I'm interviewing a vulnerable population, it gets a more thorough review.

    as you say, there seems to be a lot of discussion on how to improve this for soc-beh studies, and I'm glad to see that some of it has led to action.

    By Blogger Jystar, at Thursday, December 07, 2006 11:03:00 PM  

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