Why are ethical standards higher in science than in business and media?

Facebook manipulates user content in the name of science? Scandalous! It manipulates user content in the name of profit? No worries! Want to run a Milgram study these days? Get bashed by your local ethics committee! Want to show it on TV? No worries. Why do projects which seek knowledge have higher ethical standards than projects which seek profit?

Over half a million people were this mouse.

Just as we were preparing to leave for our well-deserved summer holidays this year, research was shaken by the fall-out to a psychological study (Kramer et al., 2014) which manipulated Facebook content. Many scientists objected to the study’s lack of asking for ‘informed consent’, and I think they are right. However, many ordinary people objected to something else. Here’s how Alex Hern put it over at the guardian:

At least when a multinational company, which knows everything about us and controls the very means of communication with our loved ones, acts to try and maximise its profit, it’s predictable. There’s something altogether unsettling about the possibility that Facebook experiments on its users out of little more than curiosity.

Notice the opposition between ‘maximise profit’ which is somehow thought to be okay and ‘experimenting on users’ which is not. I genuinely do not understand this distinction. Suppose the study had never been published in PNAS but instead in the company’s report to share holders (as a new means of emotionally enhancing advertisements), would there have been the same outcry? I doubt it. Why not?

Having issues with TV experimentation versus scientific experimentation?

Was the double standard around the Facebook study the exception? I do not think so.  In the following youtube clip you see the classic Milgram experiment re-created for British TV. The participants’ task is to follow the experimentor’s instructions to electrocute another participant (who is actually an actor) for bad task performance. Electro shocks increase in strength until they are allegedly lethal. People are obviously distressed in this task.

Yesterday, the New Scientist called the classic Milgram experiment one of ‘the most unethical [experiments] ever carried out’. Why is this okay for TV? Now, imagine a hybrid case. Would it be okay if the behaviour shown on TV was scientifically analysed and published in a respectable journal? I guess that would somehow be fine. Why is it okay to run the study with a TV camera involved, not when the TV camera is switched off? This is not a rhetorical question. I actually do not grasp the underlying principle.

Why is ‘experimenting on people’ bad?

In my experience, ethical guidelines are a real burden on researchers. And this is a good thing because society holds researchers to a high ethical standard. Practically all modern research on humans involves strong ethical safe guards. Compare this to business and media. I do not understand why projects seeking private gains (profit for share holders) have a lower ethical standard than research. Surely, the generation of public knowledge is in the greater public interest than private profit making or TV entertainment.

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Kramer AD, Guillory JE, & Hancock JT (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (24), 8788-90 PMID: 24889601

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371-378 : doi: 10.1037/h0040525

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picture: from http://www.geripal.org/2014/07/informed-consent-in-social-media.html


  1. I think this point raises some excellent points. The media hysteria against scientists experimenting on people threatens useful and valuable research.

    However, the of the Milgram experiment on British TV may not be what it seems. It looks like an example of TV execs getting away with an experiment that would be “unethical” for scientists. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Note that:
    – The show is presented by Derren Brown, a stage magician turned mentalist
    – Like other stage magicians, he doesn’t claim to tell the truth. He openly admits to misdirection and deception
    – He has been caught telling blatant lies many times
    – There are a number of instances of people on his shows having been shown to be professional actors
    – Telling lies and decieving viewers on such TV shows is not illegal, and often acceptable by the ethical codes of stage magicians (although where the boundaries lie between acceptable and unacceptable trickery is murky)
    What this means is: It cannot be assumed that the reenactment of the “Milgram experiment” in the video is actually any kind of “experiment” at all. It may be partially or totally stage managed and acted out. And what the viewer sees in TV is very heavily influenced by how it is edited.

    You say that you don’t grasp why this experiment was allowed on TV. The explanation could well be that the experiment was never carried out in the way it appears to have been, and it’s just an act. (There was a similar controversy a few years ago on the same show, when Derren Brown claimed to be playing Russian Roulette with live ammo. When the police investigated, it was revealed the bullets were blanks and it was just a show).

    1. Hi Richard

      Thanks for your reply. The French TV example looks like a much more credible reenactment of the Milgram experiment – indeed it appears to have had some well-qualified psychologists directly involved. I agree there is no obvious reason why the TV station in cases like this should be subject to less rigorous ethical standards than scientists, in order to protect the participants.

      By contrast Derren Brown is operating according to a completely different set of rules – he is openly doing an act involving deception and misdirection. He often uses bogus explanations that appear to be based on science and psychology when the show is really, at root, a conjuring act.

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