Ethics, Epistemology … and Poetry

In an interview with Nikola Danaylov from a couple of years ago, Noam Chomsky made an important observation (starting at around the 17:30 mark) that has stuck with me. He pointed out that science learns about how organisms like worms and insects work through some pretty invasive procedures, or through experiments that we wouldn’t easily subject humans too. Our moral sense simply gets in the way, at least most of the time. There are some familiar exceptions, like the sorts of experiments that were carried out in Nazi concentration camps, and even some that hit closer to home, like the Milgram experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment, though I suppose moral censure here is less universal. The point is that we are constrained in our research practices by what we are willing, morally, to do to our research subjects.

Every now and then we find some smaller examples in the social sciences that are worth considering even if they don’t approach the full-scale evil of a concentration camp. Consider the case of a business school professor who sent over two-hundred letters to restaurants in which he claimed to have been food-poisoned after eating there. Not only had he not been poisoned, he hadn’t even visited the restaurants. He just wanted to study how they responded to the complaint. What he had not considered is that the possibility that one’s kitchen is not up to standard is a very distressing one for a self-respecting chef. Such charges are taken very seriously, and cause a great deal of trouble for the accused restaurant (investigations, meetings, suspicions about who’s to blame). While the researcher was not intentionally trying to cause trouble, there was something cruel about the experiment. It was sort of callous.

It may, of course, have given the researcher insight into the problem he wanted to study. A less invasive method would have involved sending questionnaires to the restaurants about how  they would, hypothetically, respond to such a letter. Or setting up interviews or focus groups that probe the issue. From a scientific point of view (and depending on the question) the fake letter may have been the most effective (it was probably also the least costly), but it should have been ruled out by a moral sense, a sense of decency, an ethical consideration.

It’s important to recognize this ethical limit to our knowledge of society, which must be seen as an important part of the epistemology of the social sciences. After all, the radical alternative to a scientific, dispassionate interest in people, which therefore risks cruelty, is that of the romantic poets, who “suffer” personally for whatever knowledge about human beings they acquire. The limit of their knowledge is set not by the cruelties and humiliations they are willing to inflict on others, but on those they expose themselves to. Science is understandably favored by many over this “school of hard knocks” for learning how the world works. We just have to make sure science itself doesn’t become what’s knocking people around.

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