Experimenting on the Lambs

News from Alabama is that researchers obscured risks of blindness, brain damage, and death in order to convince parents of 1,300 premature infants to participate in a medical study. In my last essay I argued the seemingly esoteric point that disciplines like philosophy are essential to good science. Here is a practical example: science run amok, facilitated by well-meaning people who have been steeped in an inhumane and unscientific mode of thinking that masquerades as “how science is done.”

Drastically premature babies need oxygen, and this is inherently dangerous. Too little oxygen can cause brain damage or death. Too much can damage the eyes, sometimes to the point of blindness. Medical practitioners exercise judgment about how much oxygen to give any particular infant. But some scientists have asked—quite reasonably—whether they might sometimes be giving too much oxygen, inducing unnecessary eye damage. Researchers attempted to study this in the 1950s, but there were problems, not the least of which—in their view—were nurses surreptitiously increasing oxygen levels whenever they thought babies slated to receive lower amounts were suffering as a consequence.

A research team centered at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, however, came up with a clever way to elide this complication. They manipulated oxygen meters in the pediatric intensive care units where they were running their experiments, so that nurses were misled about the actual oxygen babies were receiving. Now, you see, we can get a clean test. Clean tests are essential when you do science.

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