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ROBIN ABCARIAN

What They Don't Tell You About Research

August 16, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN

The notions of academic freedom and the beauty of pure research are slippery ones, as those who study controversial topics can tell you.

They don't teach this in graduate school. Nor, apparently, do they teach you about having your work translated for the public by a headline-hungry, sound-bite-driven media whose mantra is "simplify, simplify, simplify," often to the point of absurdity.

These things, you learn the hard way.

Diane Halpern, an award-winning professor of psychology at Cal State San Bernardino, discovered the perils of unpopular research in 1991, when she and Stanley Coren, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, published a study suggesting that left-handed people don't live as long as right-handers.

Massive amounts of media coverage followed. The fallout was intense. Some researchers pooh-poohed their results. Newspaper and magazine headlines gave apocalyptic impressions of the research. (Samples: "Have fun leftie, you're gone," "So long southpaw.")

Then came death threats.

"My left hand will hold the knife," said one.

"Hey professor," went another, "we want to find out if a right-hander's house burns faster than a left-hander's house. And we want to use your house in our experiment."

Inspired (and singed) by the heated reaction to that research, Halpern organized a panel for the annual convention of the American Psychological Assn., which met here over the weekend. She called it, "Death Threats and Hate Mail--the Perils and Politics of Researching Unpopular Topics," a title guaranteed to catch the eye of any columnist who has staked a position on abortion or immigration.

*

Besides Halpern and Coren, the panel included psychology professors Douglas Peters of the University of North Dakota, who studied the peer review process used by scientific journals, and J. Philippe Rushton of the University of Western Ontario, who studies race differences.

In 1978, Peters and a colleague theorized that well-known names at prestigious institutions were more likely to get published, so they substituted made-up places such as Northern Plains Research Station for Harvard. They submitted 12 previously published manuscripts to the scientific journals in which they had appeared. Nine of the 12 were not detected by the editors as having already been published, and eight of the nine were rejected, faulted for shortcomings such as poor designs or statistical flaws.

Although the deception of subjects is a convention of behavioral science research, most of the duped editors were furious. One accused Peters of "sociopathic diddling with the peer review process." Another suggested that the study was "juvenalia, and should be consigned to your personal archives."

"We were not prepared for the hostility and personal attacks that came our way," said Peters, who said he was nearly denied tenure over the study. He did note, however, that since his study, "blind reviews"--in which author and institution are not made known to peer reviewers--are not unheard of among the journals.

In 1989, Rushton, who is white, became the object of an intense public controversy, demonstrations and even a legal investigation in Canada after delivering a paper on his race studies at a professional meeting that was well attended by the media.

I cannot begin to explain the nature of the work after viewing one simple transparency about his findings--in which he ranks "Orientals," "Whites" and "Blacks" (his words) across a spectrum of 60 variables such as IQ test scores, cultural achievements, cautiousness, impulsiveness, marital stability and size of genitalia. But it seems, at first glance, revolting, and you can surely imagine how any such work is likely to stir up passion.

A small but perfect irony: Two others had been invited to participate in the panel, Halpern said, but withdrew when they learned they were to share a stage with Rushton.

*

Each of the panelists had paid personally for their professional pursuits. They spoke of broken friendships, wasted time and terror felt by family members.

For everyone but Rushton, though, the controversies have blown over.

Although the Ontario attorney general declined to prosecute him for violating federal "anti-hate" laws (calling his work "loony, but not criminal"), a complaint lodged by 18 students with the Ontario Human Rights Commission is still pending.

It's easy to defend the rights of researchers such as Halpern, Coren and Peters.

But it's the ones like Rushton who present us with our thorniest tests of academic freedom and the value of pure research.

My instinct, however, is that censorship should not be the answer.

Those who engage in unpopular research should not face the darkness of death threats and censorship, but the illuminating sunshine of vigorous public debate.

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