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Experimenting on Human Beings

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Since the Renaissance, scientific experiments were the domain of Science. And Science had its own way of doing things. Science derived questions from first principles, proposed hypotheses that may answer those questions, and designed the methodologies that would prove or disprove those hypotheses.

That’s how Science worked, and nothing else worked quite like it. Business was art; Business was Don Draper doodling his visions on a cocktail napkin. Politics was even further afield, an art buried in the fog of war. Science and Science alone ran real experiments.

But then some Bad Things were done in the name of Science. Things that shook the foundations of Science and threatened to bring down the whole operation. To prevent those Bad Things from happening again, Science began regulating itself, introducing concepts like Informed Consent and requiring experiments to be approved by Institutional Review Boards. Most people agree that those changes were for the better.

But then other people started figuring out what Science had been doing all this time. Finance was probably the first to find it, bringing experimental methodologies to trading in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Advertising soon followed suit and has become overwhelmingly sophisticated in the past ten years. Obama’s 2008 campaign was a watershed moment for Politics, with rigorous message testing and voter data methodologies at work for the first time.

One by one, domains of Business and Politics adopted the Scientific Method. Their subjects, naturally, were human beings. But since Science only regulated itself – not everyone who used its methods – these new domains don’t have the same procedures and oversights. Any organization with an audience could run experiments on them to see what message, user flow, landing page, ad campaign or button color worked the best. Some of these experiments could have a meaningful and lasting impact on their subjects – when an OkCupid test works, more people hook up, resulting in marriage, kids, STDs, emotional trauma and all kinds of chronic effects that would put any IRB into a tizzy.

And now Facebook is getting FTC attention for doing something every savvy web-based company has done in the past fifteen years. And OkCupid and others are defending them, claiming (correctly) that everyone does it.

Now everyone doing it doesn’t make it okay, per se. But it does raise questions of what “informed consent” means. One could argue that signing up for Facebook and accepting friend requests is consenting to seeing whatever those friends may post, even if Facebook is presenting them in a way that is likely to evoke certain emotions. And the informed consent argument is even stronger with OkCupid; they’re not trying to hide the purpose of their site from prospective users.

Of course, the specific methodologies of informed consent aren’t anywhere in play. There’s no paperwork or review, just a ToS that no one ever reads.

Perhaps the problem here is not that these companies are running experiments without informed consent, but that the implementation of informed consent needs to be totally re-thought when applied to Business and Politics. Signed forms and IRBs aren’t going to work – we need a methodology that fits companies that run thousands of experiments every day and test hundreds of variables, the vast majority of which have little to no lasting impact on their users.

Perhaps rather than going after Facebook, informed consent advocates would be better off tackling the issues with ToS and getting companies (and users) to care about the documentation that already exists rather than adapting new business practices to an old scheme that was created to solve different problems.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

July 28th, 2014 at 9:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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