Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

The Sexist Science of Gordon Freeman (continued)

Selma Zimmerman wrote Willis to complain about his latest announcement, “I cannot accept the reasons you gave for [the decision not to publish the special issue] i.e., the Supplement was not ready in time for the Symposium or that law suits and bad press would follow its publication. In my view these reasons seem illogical and inappropriate for a national science agency. In any case, it is almost a certainty that far fewer scientists will access Scholarly Publishing than a Special Supplement issue of CJP. This means a lack of visibility of the NRC response to the Freeman Affair which would be a great disservice to all women and children....[I] urge NRC to finish the job of ‘cleaning up’ the Freeman Affair mess...in a proper fashion.”

The social science critiques of Freeman’s article were published in the March/April 1993 issue of CJP, which appeared in July 1993. The critiques stated the obvious but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes the obvious needs reiterating. Pat Armstrong, then Chair of the Department of Sociology at York University, pointed out that the practice in the social sciences (as in the physical sciences) is to relate new research to existing literature in the field. Not only had Freeman not done so, she said, there “is no indication that he is aware of the relevant social science research....” Margrit Eichler, a sociologist at Mount Saint Vincent University, wrote that not only was Freeman ignorant of the literature, “he seems equally ignorant of...acceptable methods for the collection of data,” to say nothing of the fact that he is talking to students in the context of a power relationship.

Connie Stark-Adamec, then chair of the Canadian Psychological Association, reminded her readers that “Academic freedom and freedom of expression like all freedoms, carry with them certain responsibilities...responsibilities that have not been met in the publication of Freeman’s manuscript.” If Freeman’s aim “was to produce a scholarly study with potentially valid conclusions and helpful recommendations, having eschewed quantitative methods, it was incumbent on him to acquire the necessary skills in qualitative research design and methodology.” If, however, Freeman’s intent was “to parody social science, to illustrate how lack of rigour...can lead to inappropriate inferences...he [has] done an excellent job.”

7

The proceedings of the symposium were published in the July 1993 issue of Scholarly Publishing. Included was the new research publications policy that had been adopted by the NRC following the symposium. It made explicit what it had previously assumed didn’t need to be spelled out. After all, scientists and scholars were men and women of integrity. In part, the new policy stated that: authors of papers must relate their work to that of others and provide complete and accurate citations so readers can objectively evaluate a paper; authors are expected to describe the safeguards used to meet formal and informal standards of ethical conduct; editors are responsible for ensuring that proper review procedures are followed in making the final decision on the acceptance or rejection of a manuscript; referees advise the editor but they do not make decisions on the acceptance or rejection of manuscripts; referees should serve only in their area of expertise; if subsequent to publication, an editor is notified of errors in facts or conclusions in a paper, it is his or her responsibility, after notifying the author, to initiate publication of a report or erratum pointing out the errors; the editor-in-chief has the right of access to all files maintained by the editors of NRC journals.

For me, the most moving and important paper at the symposium (and printed in Scholarly Publishing) was delivered by Mary Guinan of the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She reminded her listeners that the popular notion that science is a “value free discipline” is a myth. She described the now infamous Tuskegee Study of syphilis in the negro male begun by the U.S. Public Health Service in 1932 among Alabama sharecroppers. When the study began, it was assumed that participants would be treated by whatever methods were then available, although none of the existing treatments was particularly effective. But the men involved in the study weren’t treated at all, even after penicillin, the treatment of choice for syphilis, had become available. Organizers of the study had decided that the men would not be treated at all, “that studying the natural history of untreated syphilis...was too important.” The men had become human guinea pigs. The study wasn’t stopped until 1972--forty years after it began. As one critic later put it, “The Tuskegee Study revealed more about the pathology of racism than the pathology of syphilis.”

“In the Freeman affair,” Guinan concluded, “what is important is not so much that the article was published, but the response to it by the author, the editor, the publisher, and the entire scientific community. The Tuskegee Study should be a warning to us all. Twenty years after the whistle was blown on that calamity, the United States government is still dealing with fall-out from the lack of acknowledgement that harm was done. These issues do not go away. Unless they are addressed, they will continue to fester and disrupt the credibility of the scientific community. We will be judged not for the error of the publication of non-science as science, but for our response to this error. Have we tried to right the wrong done, or have we tried to use legal and damage-control [means] to avoid addressing the complex and troublesome problem of what is right?”

One of the most serious charges that can be leveled against a scientist is that of unscientific conduct. It’s the equivalent of a doctor or lawyer being guilty of unprofessional conduct. Many of us believe that doctors and lawyers who are guilty of unprofessional conduct are dealt with too leniently. But the medical and legal professions seem Draconian in their treatment of malfeasance compared with the way in which the Canadian scientific community dealt with Gordon Freeman.

1998

POSTSCRIPT

1. in June 1997, sixty-five years after The Tuskegee Study began, Bill Clinton formally apologized for the wrong the American government had done. A handful of aged black men who survived the study sat in the audience and wept.

2. Gordon Freeman retired from the University of Alberta in June 1995.

3. Ralph Nichols was awarded the Order of Canada in 1998.

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