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Guinea Pig Children

Guinea Pig Children

Forgive me for my pop culture mining: On an episode of the long running television show The Simpsons, the character of Dr. Marvin Monroe, in an attempt to seek funding for a misguided psychological experiment entitled “The Monroe Box,” pitches his idea as “a special isolation chamber wherein the subject pulls levers to receive food and water; the floor can become electrified, and showers of icy water randomly fall on the subject. All that is missing is an infant to raise in the box until the age of 30.” Obviously, this idea is a preposterous punch line used to illustrate the ethical lapses of human psychological testing, and thankfully it is not a reality.

I was reminded of this particular television moment when I came upon a recent New York Times article, “Test Subjects Who Call the Scientist Mom or Dad” by Pam Belluck. In the article, the writer talks to a number of scientists who are opting to utilize their children as research subjects, sometimes without the children’s consent. In addition, Belluck talks to ethicists who “raised questions about the effect on the child, on the relationship with the parent, and on the objectivity of the researcher or the data.” Needless to say, the prospect of using your children as scientific or psychological subjects exists in a distinct gray moral and ethical terrain.

But at a time when funding for these studies has all but dried up (at least if you are an independent researcher and not attached to some pharmacological behemoth) and interest in the sciences has fallen to dismal levels, is it ill-advised to pick up the slack and take a DIY approach to the sciences with your kids in tow?

Believe it or not, this practice is nothing new. Celebrated American biologist and developer of the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk admittedly injected his own children with his polio vaccine to test its effectiveness, and the noted child development theorist Jean Piaget routinely used his own children in many of his own studies.

But sometimes, what is good for science may not be so beneficial for human relations, and in this case, parent-child relations. When a child’s room is rigged with 16 cameras and every belch or outburst is being monitored and evaluated by the scientific method, how does it impact the parent-child dynamic? At what point does the child cease to be a child and become a subject? At what point does the parent loose objectivity or loose parental connection?

I would love to hear from concerned parents and/or those from the scientific community that hold opinions on this issue.

Read more: Babies, Children, News & Issues, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

28 comments

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3:08AM PST on Feb 27, 2009

I have to admit, Susan W. Teasing has become a power struggle and cruelty already.

1:20PM PST on Feb 12, 2009

they did something like described in the simpsons to our children during the cold war called MK Ultra. let us not have that atrocity again and learn something

5:43AM PST on Jan 29, 2009

Kathy Sweigart -- Good observation about block moving and frustration. That brings up another issue: teasing. When does teasing stop being fun and become a power struggle or cruelty?

4:40PM PST on Jan 28, 2009

To Cathy McAllister:

You would rely on such institutions' own in-house, ethical self-policing policies to protect YOUR children with other academics' studies? I think not...!

5:06PM PST on Jan 27, 2009

If you view "Psychiatry an Industry of Death" you can see actual photos of Pavlov and some dismal "experiments" on children as well as adults. It is one thing to be curious about your child and let him reach for a block resting just out of his reach and actually obtain it -- than it is to constantly move a block just out of a child's reach as he is about to touch it and keep doing this over and over. The second would be inhumane and frustrating. I think each of us need to ask ourselves, "Would I want someone to do this to me?" and be honest with themselves. Experiment with recipies not children. Give children hugs, praise and the ability to accomplish actions that are accomplishable.

8:07AM PST on Jan 27, 2009

Research (at least that which is conducted through universities) is subjected to very rigorous ethical testing before it is allowed to proceed. Even performing simple interviews with school children requires at least 7 levels of permission (police checks, committees, ethics boards, school boards, principal approval, parental approval, child approval).

It is my view that if you are conducting research on children that you would NOT be willing to conduct on your own, there is definitely a problem with your research.

However, if the child is old enough to grant consent, they must be permitted to do so without possible consequence.

I do not see a problem with including your own children in your research, granted that the study has been completely approved, and if the child is old enough, they give consent.

However, in research, random sampling is often an important factor. This could definitely affect the sample bias.





8:03PM PST on Jan 26, 2009

Meredith -- Thanks. I am glad as well because there were times when a happy ending seemed impossible.

3:41PM PST on Jan 26, 2009

Susan I am so glad that story had a happy ending. I think we have to believe not in magic bullets but in strenghts of our own. Think about what our ancestors were capable of withut drugs and tap the inner strength. SOunds like you son found that strength.

1:22PM PST on Jan 26, 2009

Lynette - My son was prescribed anti-depressants over my objections. The teachers and his therapist thought he was bipolar, which people are now recognizing is an over used diagnosis. My son also believed in magic bullets that would end his problems.

After several years on an endless stream of psychotropic drugs, one hospitalization and regular visits to both a psychiatrist and a social worker, he ended up, at 19,over weight, lethargic and undernourished with his mood permanently a foot off the floor. He felt sick but could not define the symptoms, so he went to his internist who discovered my son was "dangerously anemic." My son decided he needed to live at home for the next 18 months while, with the help of both the internist and the psychiatrist, he reduced his intake of drugs and eventually quit them.

He told me when he made the decision to go off drugs, that he needed me because I would not let anything happen to him and I would intervene if his health or mental state diminished.

Now, 24, he graduated from mechanics school and is working and living in another state.

His problem was dealing with his parents' divorce and being manipulated by his father. His crisis was extended, in part, by his teachers and his psychiatrist.

Psychiatrists are trained to believe in magic bullets. As a society, we need to examine the role of psychiatry and psychotropic drugs with a critical eye.

12:40PM PST on Jan 26, 2009

Well that was weird.

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