Monday, November 11, 2013

Is Research Euvoluntary?

Via Fabio Rojas, a tale of lies, prostitution, and the IRB. The short version is that Sudhir Venkatesh created a bit of a susurrus when in the pages of Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York's Underground Economy, he revealed a Big Apple secret menu item: for a (median? mean? standard?) 25% surcharge, johns can ride bareback (i.e. sans condom). Advocacy groups believe this secret should have remained secret because they seem to think that the publication of this information will put workers at increased risk of HIV.

Putting aside the validity of these claims for now (I encourage the enthusiastic reader to assign this problem to an undergraduate course in practical game theory), I'd like to consider whether or not the release of this sort of research is euvoluntary, if there's a greater duty to The Truth undergirded by moral and aesthetic principles that insulate the academic against untoward consequences. After all, one of the points I've been laboring to make here at EE is that consideration of consequences is a vital component of mature moral reasoning. And isn't what's good for the state goose be good for the private gander? Is not the constitutional duty of the IRB to impose prior restraint on work that harms subjects? And how broadly would the typical moral agent identify "harm" in this case?

Okay, so for those of you who don't already know, the IRB, or Institutional Review Board is an interdisciplinary board of faculty and staff that reviews research proposals. By "research proposals" I mean laboratory (field too, the key distinction is design) experiments with human subjects. The idea is to prevent another Stanley Milgram from embarrassing the academy. But that's for experimental designs, where the researcher controls the environment, administers the treatment, and records the results. Observational studies only have the last step. Here, it is the institutional setting and the relative prices, human action but not human design, that determines the 25% bareback premium. Venkatesh didn't program that, he observed it. Does that make a difference? If so, in whose eyes?

In the eyes of the advocacy groups, it seems to make no difference. Harm is harm (even if it's speculative and it assumes static pricing and immutable institutions).

In the eyes of the IRB? Well, recall my Second Law of Public Finance: given enough time, all spending is discretionary. IRB charters were drafted from whole cloth when it was discovered that a laboratory researcher was traumatizing subjects, so I cannot reject the possibility that an amendment covering observational studies would forever be outside the realm of consideration.

In the eyes of the judiciary? I'm not an attorney; I don't even play one on TV. But I do know that this isn't a libel case. The closest tort I can think of would be some sort of negligence, but even then it'd be a very gruesome class action case with piles of defendants and more fallout than adjusted IRB rules should the plaintiffs win. Still, a dogpile in the courts strikes me as a better way of defining harm heuristics than the alternatives.

In the eyes of legislature? This is more like the EE we adore so much. Contra the ex post analysis of the judiciary, legislative rules rely on the moral intuitions we like so very much to generate their ex ante rules. And here, I think the heuristic most folks would start with is a default position of freedom of speech. Venkatesh has a moral right to publish truthful research. And that right is dear (to Americans, anyway). But there's always the question of BATNA disparity, and this case helps expose some weird moral alliances. On the one hand, Venkatesh is a professor at an elite institution (Columbia U), which aligns him with licentious liberals (heavens forfend!). On the other hand, he has exposed vicissitudes within the most immoral of all trades: prostitution. When the legislator or the pundit appeals to the constituency, the nature of the coalition matters a great deal. Is he team NPR/Freakonomics or is he team NRA/Limbaugh? That's what will determine the moral intuitions more than anything. The rest of the narrative can be easily drafted by adroit copywriters. Is he a little guy defending traditional American values or is he a supercilious Northern elite threatening the delicate social fabric of the Union?

The truth of course, is that he's neither. Or maybe a little of both. The truth is that there's a lot more to it. But the truth is the first of the fallen in the war of words. As a researcher myself, I selfishly hope that the IRB does not become more cumbersome than it already is. As an empirical economist, I really hope that the institutions and prices among NYC prostitutes are sufficiently flexible as to prevent the calamity of an HIV outbreak. I'm just enough of a Pollyanna to imagine that we might enjoy both, and I gird my optimism with the boring observation that formal institutions like the IRB are stubbornly resistant to change.

Sometimes, the inflexibility of bureaucracy is a feature, not a bug.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?