Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What is Behavioral Research?

An anonymous comment on an earlier post asks, "Could you clarify the difference between behavioral science and social science?"

Robert Veatch stated the basic problem in his 1973 testimony to the House Subcommittee on Public Health and Environment:

If the proposal before us is an act for the protection of human subjects of biomedical and behavioral research, it is crucial to have a clear understanding of what constitutes "behavioral research." I note that in the definitions (sec. 1213) the term is nowhere defined. It may have two meanings. To many social scientists it will have a rather limited meaning--research in behaviorist psychology--while to the layman it may mean more broadly any research to study human behavior including all social scientific investigation. It is my hope that the intent of the bill is to use the latter meaning. If not, the act may be considerably less inclusive in application than the present HEW guidelines, which clearly are meant to apply to all social scientific research (in which subjects are 'at risk). To leave such ambiguity is a tragedy.

[U.S. House of Representatives, Biomedical Research Ethics and the Protection of Human Research Subjects: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Public Health and Environment of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce (93d Cong., 1st sess., 1973), 240]

Veatch was right about the tragic ambiguity of the statute. But I do not think he was right about the laymen's understanding of behavioral research, at least if laymen are to include congressmen and senators. As the secretary of HEW noted in 1976, "The types of risk situations against which the regulations were designed to protect are suggested by the areas of concern which were addressed in the legislative hearings held in conjunction with the enactment of section 474 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 289l-3 (added by Pub. L. No. 93-343) . . ."

Congress took almost no testimony about social science (e.g., it did not invite Laud Humphreys to testify), and nothing resembling testimony about the humanities. It did take testimony about behavioral control, and available evidence suggests that it was to oversee that kind of research that the word "behavioral" was included in the statute.

(Much more on this in Ethical Imperialism.)

If we are to align the regulations to the wording and intent of the statute, we have two choices. 1. Define behavioral by method (e.g., intervention, not interaction.) 2. Define behavioral by subject matter (designed to study mental and physical health, not social conditions.) Either could lead to improvements.

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