Experiments on human "subjects"

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In the mid-70s, I started a grants officer job with the Humanities and Social Sciences Division of the Canada Council, later to become the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. One day I happened to come across a request for a grant from a micro-economist, whose project was to examine consumer buying preferences.

How would he gather his data? He had selected a small hamlet in Labrador, where everyone was on social assistance and where there was only one store. Those variables taken care of, he planned to play with the store prices to see how buying patterns might change.

This sailed through an ethics review from the researcher’s university, and through a couple of levels of evaluation, until it was (wisely) stopped by the Canada Council board itself. If the project was, ethical, they said, it wouldn’t be scientific—and vice-versa.

That took place at about the same time that Ms. Magazine related the story of another researcher, in the US, who provided placebos instead of birth control pills to a sample of desperate Mexican-American women visiting a clinic to avoid further pregnancies. He wanted to see if reported side-effects of The Pill were psychosomatic.

So it didn’t come as a surprise—although feeling the horror was unavoidable—that Canadian scholar Ian Mosby has uncovered a series of experiments carried out on hungry First Nations populations during the 1940s. Unethical experiments on human beings wasn’t solely a Nazi or wartime Japanese thing—the US had a history of it, that extended well after WWII. The infamous Tuskagee syphilis experiment, for example, went on until 1972.

Clearly the experiments with First Nations children in Canada was a further, particularly foul, example of racist/colonial oppression. Inuit were allowed to starve to death, in fact, as late as the mid-1950s, not for science, in this case, merely from criminal neglect.* Our record with respect to the original inhabitants of what we now call Canada, as is well-known by now, is (and continues to be) disgraceful.

But there is not merely racism at work here. Rather, we see in the examples I have referenced a power differential that not only permits, but likely encourages, the treatment of human beings as objects. (Japanese doctors during the war referred to the captives upon whom they visited unspeakable atrocities as “logs.”)

Whether it’s the incarcerated, the impoverished, women, indigenous people, other minorities or whatever subaltern group is available—or even unwitting ordinary citizens—the tendency to dehumanize, to render into mere objects, is inevitably present when power is not equally distributed. Members of the subject population become, for the purposes of science, knowledge or merely the exercise of power in its sado-political raw form, what Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life,” inhabiting zones of exception where sovereign violence may be exercised upon them at will.

So I am going to argue that the ethnicity of the human subjects whom Mosby describes is incidental. What is really at stake here is any system of hierarchy, of rulers and ruled, and the form of the radical social critique that is required to both expose and destroy it. Only a popular (meaning both accessible and useable) critique, revolutionary by definition, will offer the subaltern the opportunity, not only to speak, but to act.

* Laugrand, F., J. Oosten and D. Serkoak “‘The saddest time of my life’: relocating the Ahiarmiut from Ennadai Lake (1950-1958).” Polar Record. 46:237 (2010) 113-135.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr.Dawg published on July 17, 2013 8:16 PM.

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