Ithiel DeSola Pool

Government and the Scientist’s Freedom

VTR Date: July 24, 1980

Guest: DeSola Pool, Ithiel


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ithiel De Sola Pool
Title: “Government and the Scientist’s Freedom”
VTR: 7/24/80

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Many people among academics, pure scientists, social and political scientists, journalists, and so on, are concerned and quite angry at certain efforts our government is making to establish guidelines and require review of and permission for research that involved human being. They consider this to be censorship, intervention in the life of the mind that defines America’s tradition of free scholarship and inquiry. And it does make a great break with the past, as modern science itself does. Other people, on the other hand, the responsible government officials and their advisors, who are attempting to deal with the power of science. Thus, a lot of the rest of us who just read newspapers and do grow daily more concerned about that power over our destiny. Well, any of us embrace the concept of freedom, but we’re also afraid of what irresponsible and uncontrolled research may do to us and to our planet if peering into the mysteries of the world, learning to control them, satisfies researchers inquiring minds but damages our genetic material or violates our privacy or disrupts our lives in any of many different ways. And so, I’ve invited to THE OPEN MIND today a distinguished American scholar who has been characterized as leading a campaign against such regulations as grossly improper and unconstitutional infringement on free speech. He’s Ithiel De Sola Pool, Ruth and Arthur Sloan Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Pool, thank you for joining me today on this quite interesting subject on which you’ve written so positively. And let me begin by asking whether, in your own opinion, it’s possible to meet both interests, that of those people who are concerned about the – not the mad scientists – but about scientists free of any responsibility in dealing with humans, and those who want to maintain that traditional freedom?

POOL: Well, I think it’s very possible. This isn’t a new problem. It’s a problem that goes back to the writing of the Constitution. We set up a government. We gave the government certain things that are legally called “police powers”, subjects that can be regulated. We also said there’s another domain where we don’t want the government to legislate: the domain of free speech, of free discussion of the press. We were making that sort of distinction then. It’s the same sort of distinction that we’re making now. The whole problem began with some genuine scandals in some medical research. There were experiments, undoubtedly intended to arrive at new discoveries, cures, but in which patients were given treatments that turned out to be dangerous. Now that’s a real problem. You’ve got a hospital, an institution, which is responsible for the care of the patient. Its relationship with the patient going all the way back to the ancient Greeks is one of care, of the patient is the client, and above all, the doctors’ responsibility is to heal. And if the doctor has to do some things in the course of research that involve some risk, it’s perfectly proper that the institution where this is done should say, “Well, we understand. But before this can be done, we want to go through the process of review, the process of examination, to see whether it’s justified, whether there’s any danger”. And that’s how these institutional review boards got established. The government required them, the Institute of Public Health required them for that sort of situation. But then, completely disregarding the distinction that has been so fundamental in this country since its foundation, it began to be applied to any kind of study that dealt with another human being. If you ask me a question, you are treating me as a subject. You are doing something that is totally within your right. Now, you may offend me. You may make me angry. That’s a kind of harm that. Under our constitutional system, we said we have to tolerate. The Supreme Court has talked about a robust, wide-open debate. That’s very different kind of harm than the harm that comes from feeding somebody a drug or cutting them open. That’s a distinction that we have to make. Perfectly legitimate that institutions like hospitals and medical schools, where there is research going on, should insist upon having a review of any kind of risky experiment or any kind of risky study. Perfectly improper that we should tell a student or a faculty member who is going out to talk to a politician or read the newspapers and collect data about what congressmen said, they have to have that investigated by such a review board to see if they’re going to do that person any harm.

HEFFNER: All right. I understand that you have dichotomized the situation in what you’ve jus said so that at the one end of the spectrum you have that medical metaphor that you’ve used, in a hospital, you would not only concede but embrace the notion that there has to be that concern for review of activities involving human beings. At the other end, it is similarly clear, I would guess, that one tries not to interfere…

POOL: Yes.

HEFFNER: …with harmless research. But where is the line drawn? At what point…

POOL: That’s right.

HEFFNER: …can research that isn’t essentially medical become harmful to the human beings who are its subject?

POOL: That’s the important question. Whenever you draw the borderline there’s a gray area. There’s got to be. You don’t have a borderline without a gray area. And so the legal question about which this battle is being fought is how to draw that borderline. Well, the – what we used to call the Department of Health, Education and Welfare; it’s just changed its name – it’s the Department of Health and Human Services, drafted a set of regulations that proceeded to say any research dealing with a human subject – which is defined as anybody with whom one interacts – has to be reviewed. And then listed a series of exceptions. The exceptions were proper exceptions, but they were only a small part of all the things that should be free. Now, all professional associations, the American Council of Education, the American Political Science Association, the American Historical Association, American Association of Universities, got together and said, “How should this line be drawn?” And they came up with a formula that seems to me to be sound and sensible. They said that there should not be review except in three situations. One is where there is intrusion on the person of the subject. And that’s the medical situation. Where you’re giving somebody a drug or something like that. And the second is where one is denying the person accustomed or necessary resources. For example, there are experiments in which one person gets paid more, another person gets paid less, in order to see what the effect is on motivation. And that raises fairness question. You’re denying one person the resources that he would ordinarily get. And the third is where there is deceit. Just as we have free speech, but we restrict false and misleading advertising. So if I come to you and say, “Mr. Heffner, I want to do a study of your TV program”, but really what I’m trying to do is collect some information about your personal life, that would be deceit. Now, that also leaves you a gray area. Andy borderline leaves you a gray area. But that’s the right approach: to define the harms, the real evils that one is concerned about restricting. To draft a regulation that says this review shall take place where these thing happen. And not to say it shall take place in any research where you’re dealing with a human being.

HEFFNER: But at some point someone is going to have to make a statement as to whether, indeed, the research falls in to these three areas, or if you would establish six areas, or however many. And presumably it would have to be some review group again that would decide whether it is to review this particular area. Isn’t that true? Once you’ve conceded the whole concept of an end to unfettered free inquiry?

POOL: No. Let’s talk about reporters for a moment. We’ve all been reading the headlines. Reporters, one place after another, being either put in jail or threatened with being put in jail. And there is a reporters’ committee for freedom of the press that’s trying to protect their profession. It’s a very similar situation. The tradition in this country, established by the Supreme Court, affirmed in a case called Near vs. Minnesota, is that, in the case of speech, there should not be what is called “prior restraint”. That means you do not have to go in and get a license before you as a reporter can write a story. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be brought in to court for something you’ve done wrong. If you have libeled somebody, if you have used your story as part of a fraud, you can be sued. You can go to jail. The laws apply. But there is not to be a prior censorship body that looks over every story and says, “This one is alright; and that one isn’t”. And that’s the same problem, yes.

HEFFNER: But Dr. Pool, isn’t that a function of what, in the past, has been the reality of communications? That, in fact, until our own time, there were not the kids of powers concentrated in the hands of journalists, print or electronic, not the kinds of powers that had been concentrated in the hands of scientists, pure, physical or social scientists; and that what the concern is today is with unfettered power that really for practical purpose did not exist before?

POOL: Well, I’m not going to agree with your statement that we have unfettered power that didn’t exist before. We have it in some areas; in others, we have less. But where there is that kind of real danger, that’s when you have to have a prior-licensing procedure. And that’s what we’re talking about. Before you do an experiment on a person in which you feed him a drug, it is proper that you go through a prior-licensing procedure. Before you write an essay about the way the city hall operates, it is not proper that you go through them.

HEFFNER: Yes, but when you came on THE OPEN MIND to find out about my personal life…

POOL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …as you suggested you might, under the guise of a different kind of research…

POOL: Yes.

HEFFNER: …you can do damage to me. You can do damage to a great many people. Yet you don’t want to be responsible for any prior involvement with that notion, I gather; you don‘t want to be restrained. Even though you can do me damage. Even though I can do you damage, you don’t want me to be restrained. Given the power of this medium, let’s say we could do each other a great deal of damage. Aren’t we really talking about power? New power?

POOL: I don’t think there’s this, kind of, immense growth of new power. I live in New England. Not far from the town where I live is the town of Salem. In the early days of this country, the little towns of New England were dominated by very powerful bureaucracies of religious groups in control. And you didn’t dare flaunt…their control, or you paid the penalty. Those witch hunts – that was exactly what it was in Salem; they burned the witches – those witch hunts were exactly the kind of thing that was being resisted when we drafted a Constitution with a series of rights. We now live in a society where the institutions that had a lot of power in the Eighteenth Century in a small town don’t have that kind of power; and some other institutions do. And maybe there are different dangers that need to be guarded against. And the dangers of science, when you’re talking about nuclear energy, when you’re talking about medicine, when you’re talking about chemical substances, these are new dangers. But the activities of most people who set out to study something, there’s no concentration of power there.

HEFFNER: Dr. Pool, would it be unfair to say that the likelihood is that, even leaving the medical model, if one goes into the question of DNA, if one…

POOL: Yes.

HEFFNER: …goes into the question of experimentations in other kinds of chemical, physical reactions, the same argument that you’re offering now in the area of, let’s say, social science research, is offered by a great many very concerned and considerate scientists who say, in the extremes, at that end of the spectrum, find there should be prior review, but don’t fence us in…

POOL: And they’re right.

HEFFNER: Well, they’re right even in the area of, let’s say, DNA research?

POOL: No. I’m not an expert in DNA research. And I’m not going to try to draw the line as to where it should be. But the great bulk of scientists are doing things that have no immediate practical consequence.

HEFFNER: But Dr. Pool, how do we know what protections can society offer itself against the individual who bumps into, in the middle of the night, some device, some means, some mechanism that can do the rest of society a great deal of harm? I know what it is that you’re saying. I respect the concerns for our traditions. But don’t you also have to respect the concern for – you denied this before – the growth of power, the potential for power, for the power that is in our hands today now that we are beginning to unravel the mysteries of the universe?

POOL: I think you’re talking about a fantasy that we enjoy when we go to movies like 2001, whatever it is we’re reading about in science fiction.

HEFFNER: And when Oppenheimer watched that first explosion?

POOL: No. I listed nuclear research as one of the areas where we’re dealing with something where there is real danger.

HEFFNER: Would you list DNA research?

POOL: I would list DNA as having real implications.

HEFFNER: What other things would you list?

POOL: I think that the great bulk of them are ones with medical implications. They may not be medical research. But, for example, Love Canal. Chemicals that have side effects. Asbestos. Whatever it may be. Where ever you’re dealing with those things. That’s a normal police power. But it isn’t new. My goodness, the pollution that was brought by the industrial revolution in a place like London was just fantastically greater than anything we’re dealing with today. And I’m all in favor of our trying to do something to reduce the pollution still further. That’s fine. But the notion that somehow science today has become a great monster. The city of London was a nice, delightful place with a good climate until soft coal started being burned. And thousands of people died from the fogs that set in. And it took a century to get rid of that.

HEFFNER: Well, isn’t that, in a sense, what those who are pushing for review are saying? We may bump, in the middle of the night, into something that will set us off in the direction that we will come, perhaps, to regret, and that life is too complicated? Our fates, our destinies, are too interrelated to leave it to the same chance that worked in a frontier society?

POOL: But this is all right, except that when you look at what is being done under the cloak of that kind of argument, it’s obviously phony. Obviously phony. I mean, if one were to argue as to which kinds of experimental research had real dangers, then you would be doing what all the professional associations have asked be done. And what they did, they sat down, they had a meeting, they discussed kinds of research, where the dangers lay. They drew up a list.

HEFFNER: May I ask this? Do you feel that you could catalog those areas, or some of the areas, in social science and political science and psychological science and journalism where you feel there needs to be prior review?

POOL: Very simply.

HEFFNER: That fit into those?

POOL: Yes. Where the person whom you are dealing with is not simply engaged in a conversation with you, where you’re not simply reading documents; but where you are manipulating him through electric shock, through drugs, through whatever it may be. The situation where you are misleading him and trapping him by something which you are saying which is false. The situation where you are manipulating his income. These are situations that are legitimately under police power control. They’re very rare, incidentally. In the whole discussion of the social sciences, two experiments keep coming up over and over and over again.

HEFFNER: The Milgram…

POOL: Milgram and the so-called Tea Room Experiment.


POOL: And when people ask, “Give me another example like these”, nobody can give you another example.

HEFFNER: Okay. Let’s take the Milgram experiment. If you would just describe it for a moment, and then let me ask whether you think that it would have been better had there been some mechanism of control.

POOL: The Milgram experiment is one that, under any of the currently discussed criteria, would have to have prior review by a group of informed, judicious colleagues who would look at it. And I think they would have approved it. I think they would have said, “This is an important experiment and we’re going to learn something from it. And really, if you do it right, there would be no permanent harm”. I think they would have approved…Or maybe they wouldn’t have. But by any of the current criteria that are being discussed, it would have been subject to review. What was the Milgram experiment? The Milgram experiment was one in which the person was told that when he pushed a button in front of him he would be giving a shock to a person in the other room. And he heard the shouts. He heard the screams of pain. Well, those screams of pain weren’t from another person; they were from a tape recorder. So that, in fact, nobody was being hurt. But the subject was becoming more and more uncomfortable. He was appalled because he thought he was hurting somebody.

HEFFNER: And he was willing to do it under orders?

POOL: And he was under orders to do it. And that was the whole point of the experiment: the conditions under which people obey and disobey orders. And we learned a great deal about that in that experiment.

HEFFNER: Now what about those human beings who were the subjects?

POOL: Well, immediately after the experiment, in all good psychological research, there is what’s called a debriefing. So the person is told, “This is really going on”. Now, you can make a case the Milgram experiment should never have been done, and you can make the case the Milgram experiment should have been done…

HEFFNER: Which would you make?

POOL: I would make the case that the Milgram experiment should have been done, but there may have been some particular precautions that would have very well have solved some of the problems that people have criticized.

HEFFNER: But that wasn’t the case. I mean, it was done.

POOL: It was done in the period before the system of review was applied to social research. Nobody was trying to review these things. Milgram made his own judgments, and they became controversial.

HEFFNER: And you think that today you would say that experiment should have been reviewed?

POOL: That experiment, today, should be, would be, reviewed under any set of rules.

HEFFNER: Do you think that there are many such activities?

POOL: No. A trivial number. As I say, there are two studies…

HEFFNER: That are quoted.

POOL: …that are quoted, referred to, cited. The vast majority of all investigation of social problems is conducted the way you and I are doing it right here. It’s conducted by going to talk to somebody who knows something about the subject, learning what he knows, reading the things he’s written. That kind of thing is what is being brought under the same regulations as experiments like the Milgram experiments.

HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen in this whole area of required pre-concept?

POOL: Well, I think we’re going to win. The social science community is up in arms. Universities as a whole are up in arms. The one point that has to be made is that this transforms the whole nature of a university. A good university is not a bureaucracy where everybody is doing what they are ordered to do. It is a kind of a collection of people. Some students who come and pay to be there, some faculty members who are paid, but who have decided for themselves what they’re going to do. And now a set of regulations comes down from the government that says, “You, the university, are responsible for every action of any one of these students or faculty members if they’re dealing with another person”. Well, that destroys the whole conception of the university. The universities are fighting this. The researchers are fighting this. We have strong support in the administration, with strong support from the House of Representatives where an amendment was adopted in the Interstate Commerce Committee which would change the whole basis of this process, limiting it to government research. We are dealing with the Senate at the moment. I suspect that the government will turn around. But it is extraordinary how, in our political system, once a bureaucracy is set up sand manned with people who are appointed to carry out these jobs, to go ahead like a bull, charging ahead, and it takes an enormous amount of effort to get it turned around.

HEFFNER: I, of course, had wondered, when I read your fascinating article, “In the Public Interest” on this very subject – what I should say might have been dirty pool –

POOL: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …to say, as you did at the end there, that you talked about, you were comparing this whole press for prior consent, really, to, you said, “It is a charge better suited to Iran’s revolutionary council than to an American political commission”.

POOL: Yes.

HEFFNER: And I wonder if, in the long run, it’s not going to be ascertained that you’re fighting a rear-guard action instead of winning the kind of victory that you’re talking about. Do you think we will go long without the kinds of modifications of that tradition that you’re defending?

POOL: I have no doubt, whether we will do the sensible thing and make changes in the proposed rules, or whether it will have to be settled by the Supreme Court, or whether it will be settled by people who simply will refuse, as reporters today are refusing to identify the source of their information, s most social scientists are refusing to ask permission before they go talk to a politician or before they go talk to a fellow citizen. These rules simply cannot survive.

HEFFNER: And your sense of what the future will be was that the present posture will be maintained?

POOL: Well, the present posture, no. The present posture is a state of fluidity where nobody knows that. But we will get some proper regulation, and perhaps some foolish regulation too, but of areas where there are real risks.

HEFFNER: I’m interested, you say, “Some proper regulation”, because I know there are plenty of people who would say that’s starting down a slippery slope to a kind of regulation that you’d end up saying is improper. But I think that’s probably the subject for another program. Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Pool.

POOL: Thank you. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.