Unethical Experiments in a Name of Science


In my previous post I was talking about the Politics of Obedience and human behavior. It took me further and I got completely drowned in materials about psychological experiments.  Intending to learn about the human thought process and behavior, many early psychiatrists went too far with their experimentations, crossing ethics codes and standards. You will see it reading my list of most unethical psychological experiments ever conducted. Some argue that though these are highly unethical experiments, it should be mentioned that they did pave the way to induct our current ethical standards of experiments, and that should be seen as a positive.

13. Milgram Study, 1974

I have already told you about this experiment. you can read it in my previous post.

12. Little Albert, 1920

John Watson, father of behaviorism, was a psychologist who was apt to using orphans in his experiments. Watson wanted to test the idea of whether fear was innate or a conditioned response. Little Albert, the nickname given to the nine month old infant that Watson chose from a hospital, was exposed to a white rabbit, a white rat, a monkey, masks with and without hair, cotton wool, burning newspaper, and a miscellanea of other things for two months without any sort of conditioning. Then experiment began by placing Albert on a mattress in the middle of a room. A white laboratory rat was placed near Albert and he was allowed to play with it. At this point, the child showed no fear of the rat. Then Watson would make a loud sound behind Albert’s back by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer when the baby touched the rat. In these occasions, Little Albert cried and showed fear as he heard the noise. After this was done several times, Albert became very distressed when the rat was displayed. Albert had associated the white rat with the loud noise and was producing the fearful or emotional response of crying. Little Albert started to generalize his fear response to anything fluffy or white (or both). The most unfortunate part of this experiment is that Little Albert was not desensitized to his fear. He left the hospital before Watson could do so.

11. Stanford Prison Experiment, 1971

The Stanford prison experiment was a psychological study of human responses to captivity and its behavioral effects on both authorities and inmates in prison. The experiment was conducted in 1971 by a team of researchers led by psychologist Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University. Undergraduate volunteers played the roles of both guards and prisoners living in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.

Prisoners and guards rapidly adapted to their roles, stepping beyond the boundaries of what had been predicted and leading to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations. One-third of the guards were judged to have exhibited “genuine” sadistic tendencies, while many prisoners were emotionally traumatized and two had to be removed from the experiment early. Finally, Zimbardo, alarmed at the increasingly abusive anti-social behavior from his subjects, terminated the entire experiment early.

10. The Monster Study

The Monster Study was a stuttering experiment on 22 orphan children in Davenport, Iowa, in 1939 conducted by Wendell Johnson at the University of Iowa. Johnson chose one of his graduate students, Mary Tudor, to conduct the experiment and he supervised her research. After placing the children in control and experimental groups, Tudor gave positive speech therapy to half of the children, praising the fluency of their speech, and negative speech therapy to the other half, belittling the children for every speech imperfection and telling them they were stutterers. Many of the normal speaking orphan children who received negative therapy in the experiment suffered negative psychological effects and some retained speech problems during the course of their life.

The University of Iowa publicly apologized for the Monster Study in 2001.

9. Project MKULTRA

Project MKULTRA, or MK-ULTRA, was the code name for a CIA mind-control research program, run by the Office of Scientific Intelligence, that began in the early 1950s and continued at least through the late 1960s. There is much published evidence that the project involved the surreptitious use of many types of drugs, as well as other methodologies, to manipulate individual mental states and to alter brain function. Experiments included administering LSD to CIA employees, military personnel, doctors, other government agents, prostitutes, mentally ill patients, and members of the general public in order to study their reactions. LSD and other drugs were usually administered without the subject’s knowledge and informed consent, a violation of the Nuremberg Code that the U.S. agreed to follow after WWII.

In 1973, CIA Director Richard Helms ordered all MKULTRA files destroyed. Pursuant to this order, most CIA documents regarding the project were destroyed, making a full investigation of MKULTRA virtually impossible.

8. The Marshall Islands Experiment

Marshall Islands residents were forcefully exposed to radioactive substances in 1954. Over the years, several results were seen- women went through miscarriages, stunted growth was noticed in children and some developed thyroid cancer.

7. The Soviet Experiments

This experiment was supervised by the Soviet secret police agencies. They used poisons like ricin digitoxin and mustard gas on Gulag prisoners to find out whether they could find such a gas that could not be discovered by doctors when they carried out autopsies. The victims actually became shorter and died quickly.

6. Landis’ Facial Expressions Experiment, 1924

In 1924, Carney Landis, a psychology graduate at the University of Minnesota developed an experiment to determine whether different emotions create facial expressions specific to that emotion. The aim of this experiment was to see if all people have a common expression when feeling disgust, shock, joy, and so on.

Most of the participants in the experiment were students. They were taken to a lab and their faces were painted with black lines, in order to study the movements of their facial muscles. They were then exposed to a variety of stimuli designed to create a strong reaction. As each person reacted, they were photographed by Landis. The subjects were made to smell ammonia, to look at pornography, and to put their hands into a bucket of frogs. But the controversy around this study was the final part of the test. Participants were shown a live rat and given instructions to behead it. While all the participants were repelled by the idea, fully one third did it. The situation was made worse by the fact that most of the students had no idea how to perform this operation in a humane manner and the animals were forced to experience great suffering. For the one third who refused to perform the decapitation, Landis would pick up the knife and cut the animals head off for them.

The consequences of the study were actually more important for their evidence that people are willing to do almost anything when asked in a situation like this. The study did not prove that humans have a common set of unique facial expressions.

5. The Aversion Project, 1970s and 1980s

South Africa’s apartheid army forced white lesbian and gay soldiers to undergo ’sex-change’ operations in the 1970’s and the 1980’s, and submitted many to chemical castration, electric shock, and other unethical medical experiments. Although the exact number is not known, former apartheid army surgeons estimate that as many as 900 forced ’sexual reassignment’ operations may have been performed between 1971 and 1989 at military hospitals, as part of a top-secret program to root out homosexuality from the service.

Army psychiatrists aided by chaplains aggressively ferreted out suspected homosexuals from the armed forces, sending them discretely to military psychiatric units, chiefly ward 22 of 1 Military Hospital at Voortrekkerhoogte, near Pretoria. Those who could not be ‘cured’ with drugs, aversion shock therapy, hormone treatment, and other radical ‘psychiatric’ means were chemically castrated or given sex-change operations. Although several cases of lesbian soldiers abused have been documented so far—including one botched sex-change operation—most of the victims appear to have been young, 16 to 24-year-old white males drafted into the apartheid army.

Dr. Aubrey Levin (the head of the study) is now Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry (Forensic Division) at the University of Calgary’s Medical School. He is also in private practice, as a member in good standing of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta.

4. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male was a clinical study, conducted between 1932 and 1972 in Tuskegee, Alabama, in which 399 (plus 201 control group without syphilis) poor — and mostly illiterate — African American sharecroppers were denied treatment for Syphilis.

This study became notorious because it was conducted without due care to its subjects, and led to major changes in how patients are protected in clinical studies. Individuals enrolled in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study did not give informed consent and were not informed of their diagnosis; instead they were told they had “bad blood” and could receive free medical treatment, rides to the clinic, meals and burial insurance in case of death in return for participating. In 1932, when the study started, standard treatments for syphilis were toxic, dangerous, and of questionable effectiveness. Part of the original goal of the study was to determine if patients were better off not being treated with these toxic remedies. For many participants, treatment was intentionally denied. Many patients were lied to and given placebo treatments—in order to observe the fatal progression of the disease.

By the end of the study, only 74 of the test subjects were still alive. Twenty-eight of the men had died directly of syphilis, 100 were dead of related complications, 40 of their wives had been infected, and 19 of their children had been born with congenital syphilis.

3. Nazi Experiments

Nazi Experiments were carried out at Auschwitz wherein inmates were the subjects of the research. Josef Mengele focused on twins and tried to change their eye colors by injecting a wide variety of harmful chemicals into their eyes. Prisoners were also made to stand in tubs of freezing cold water to find out the best way to get rid of hypothermia.

2. Aversion Therapy for Curing Homosexuality, 1962

Aversion therapy is a psychiatric treatment where a patient is exposed to a stimulus while simultaneously being subjected to some form of discomfort (the therapy undergone by Stanley Kubrick’s twisted character Alex DeLarge in the 1971 classic, A Clockwork Orange). Used in order to ‘cure’ homosexuality, it was only in 2006 that aversion therapy to treat homosexuality was considered to be a violation of the codes of conduct and professional guidelines of the American Psychological Association and American Psychiatric Association.

In 1962, 29 year old Captain Billy Clegg-Hill of the Royal Tank Regiment, was arrested in a police swoop in Southampton and sentenced to six months of aversion therapy. After three days of therapy, he died. Doctors and authorities covered up his death, claiming he died of “natural causes”. But thirty four years after his death, the doctor who conducted the post-mortem confirmed that he had actually died from a coma and convulsions resulting from injections of apomorphine, a potent vomit-inducing drug. Doctor’s would show Clegg-Hill pin-up pictures of men, then inject him with apomorphine, causing him to become violently ill. The doctor’s believed that he would eventually associate men with nausea and vomiting. The idea of homosexuality would be so repugnant that he would subsequently become straight.

In 1965, 19 year old Peter Price was sent to a psychiatric hospital to treat his homosexuality. Doctors forced him to lie in a bed filled with his own vomit, urine and feces for three days while they would show him images of half-naked men, inject him with drugs and play tapes telling him he was a ‘dirty queer’. He was also administered electric shocks, while being shown erotic pictures of attractive men.

1. David Reimer, (1965 – 2004)

In 1965, a baby boy was born in Canada named David Reimer. At eight months old, he was brought in for a standard procedure: circumcision. Unfortunately, during the process his penis was burned off. This was due to the physicians using an electrocautery needle instead of a standard scalpel. When the parents visited psychologist John Money, he suggested a simple solution to a very complicated problem: a sex change. His parents were distraught about the situation, but they eventually agreed to the procedure. They didn’t know that the doctor’s true intentions were to prove that nurture, not nature, determined gender identity. For his own selfish gain, he decided to use David as his own private case study.

David, now Brenda, had a constructed vagina and was given hormonal supplements. Dr. Money called the experiment a success, neglecting to report the negative effects of Brenda’s surgery. She acted very much like a stereotypical boy and had conflicting and confusing feelings about an array of topics. Worst of all, her parents did not inform her of the horrific accident as an infant. This caused a devastating tremor through the family. Brenda’s mother was suicidal, her father was alcoholic, and her brother was severely depressed.

Finally, Brenda’s parents gave her the news of her true gender when she was fourteen years old. Brenda decided to become David again, stopped taking estrogen, and had a penis reconstructed. Dr. Money reported no further results beyond insisting that the experiment had been a success, leaving out many details of David’s obvious struggle with gender identity. At the age of 38, David committed suicide.

4 thoughts on “Unethical Experiments in a Name of Science

  1. While some of these examples are done in the name of the science, some are surely not. They are hardly done by scientific means but I wouldn’t argue that.

    These experiments I wouldn’t say were done “in the name of science”

    The Soviet Experiments
    The Aversion Project, 1970s and 1980s
    Project MKULTRA
    Aversion Therapy for Curing Homosexuality

    Maybe they have been done by some scientific processes, these are not done in the mane of the science. They were done for political reasons or maybe even some religious (homosexuality is mainly problem in religion), but I wouldn’t blame religion for these, though. But also, science is not to be blamed for all of them too.

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