My students often ask me why they need to take science. My answer is pretty simple: scientific thought is the most effective method for understanding natural phenomena and making accurate predictions about it. When used correctly, the scientific method can also be useful in understanding some social phenomena. However, the scientific method is sometimes misused and abused, even by scientists themselves.
There are “innocent” examples of this, such as poorly designed experiment with too many uncontrolled variables, or when there are inadvertent biases.
However, there have also been numerous examples of deliberate or malicious attempts to subvert the scientific process for private gain. The tobacco companies, for example, have hired their own scientists to do research that “proved” cigarettes or second hand smoke were safe or, when this was no longer a tenable position to argue, to provide evidence that sowed doubt about the dangers. Oil companies have done likewise to sow doubt about climate change. (See Merchants of Doubt, numerous articles by Robert Procter, The Republican War on Science, among other sources).
Then there are the cases where scientists have done dangerous, terrible and unethical things to specific classes of human beings because they were deemed “undesirable” or “subhuman,” or because they thought they could get away with it. The most infamous examples are the experiments conducted by Josef Mengele on concentration camp prisoners. However, an American researcher, Dr. John Cutler, was doing heinous experiments on Guatemalans in 1946, at the same time that the Nuremberg trials were going on and Mengele’s work was being exposed to the world. The following details of these experiments are from a Democracy Now on 8/31/2011.
Cutler and his colleagues, with the complicity of the Guatemalan and U.S. governments, intentionally infected over 1,300 Guatemalan sex workers, prisoners, soldiers, orphans and mental patients with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)—without their permission—in order to study the effects of penicillin. In some cases, when victims failed to contract an STD through unprotected sex, they were inoculated with STD bacteria through wounds made on the penis or face, or injected into the urethra, rectum or spine. Many of the victims were never provided any treatment. Others were provided inadequate or incomplete treatment and, as a result, infected their family members.
But Those Were Different Times, Not
It has been argued that those were different times, with laxer ethical values and a weaker understanding of the ramifications of such experiments. However, Cutler knew full well that what he was doing was unethical, dangerous and cruel, which is why he went to Guatemala to do it. According a New York Times report, Cutler’s reports made it up the chain of command to the U.S. Surgeon General, Thomas Parran Jr. In a letter to Cutler, one of his colleagues said, "The surgeon general says, 'Well, we couldn't do this in the United States,’" which is not only an acknowledgment of what was going on, but an admission that it was ethically wrong.
Cutler had already attempted similar research on prisoners in Indiana. While he supposedly acquired informed consent from the inmates, he deliberately misled them about the nature and dangers of the research in order to increase the number of participants. The fact that he went to prisoners in the first place was an attempt to circumvent safety and ethical norms, as prisoners were believed to be more willing to consent to dangerous research because they had less education or believed that compliance would help them get released earlier.
|Tuskegee syphilis research victims
|Tuskegee blood draw, 1953
Tuskegee syphilis experiments
Not surprisingly, Cutler went on to be a major player in the Tuskegee experiments (1932-1972) in which more than 600 African American men were deliberately denied treatment for syphilis in order to study its progression. The men were never even told they had syphilis and were denied treatment, even after the advent of penicillin. Over 100 of the participants died of the disease or complications from syphilis, while many of their wives and children contracted the disease from them. Cutler was never apologetic for his role in the research and continued to insist that the work was valuable and appropriate.