Meyer's CommentsHi Zach,
For your readers' convenience, here's what I said “re: latest in #matingmind flap”:
(1) I remain skeptical he intended this as research but intent is (alas) key under regs & he claims it was.
(2) If he did intend to contribute to generalizable knowledge, his tweeps were hum subjects b/c involved interaction (& maybe intervention).
(3) Only real loophole available to him is if his investigation wasn’t “systematic,” but most IRBs have low threshold for that (or ignore).
(4) Lots of reasons to dislike research regs/IRB system, but this isn’t an especially good case for deregulating "just talking" research.
(5) Even if you think a study 2 test reactions 2 provocative tweets shouldn’t be subject to IRB review, until regs change, they apply to all.
(6) Real issue neither free speech nor hum subj rsch but: does his statement reflect bias that affects performance of his academic duties?
(7) Lesson to academics trying to disown controversial statement: claiming “research” will only move you from the frying pan into the fire.
(8) Oh yeah. Even if he thot his rsch was exempt, like most, NYU's IRB gets to decide when research is exempt or not [link omitted]
I stand by this analysis -- which isn't to say that I disagree with you that Miller has "a case." As we know, IRBs come out differently on “studies” like this. If I wanted to argue that he obtained "data through intervention or interaction with" living human beings, I’d focus on interaction. He didn't merely passively post the tweet, sit back, and collect data about reactions, as you suggest; rather, he responded to at least one person who questioned what she understood to be his claim that obesity and IQ are inversely correlated (http://alturl.com/jwrju)
He also "unfollowed" at least one person who disputed his tweet (yours truly). This interaction was, presumably, also part of his study: Why react with sincere anger to someone who was provoked by a tweet which you issued...in order to provoke? (I await his refollow, now that the study is over.)
Alternatively, consider that his research involved "manipulations of the subject's environment." He claims that he issued "provocative" tweets over a few months in order to gauge responses. You might say that Twitter is already rife with trolling, such that this couldn't possibly have altered that environment. There's something to that. We'd need to know more about his hypothesis and methods. But it's certainly plausible that he sought to ratchet up the level of provocativeness in his tweets until they sparked a reaction that was measurable even against Twitter’s baseline of trolling and outrage. Not every asinine tweet goes viral, prompts Tumblrs, and makes national news, but after months of hard work, he managed to create one -- for science! -- that did.
Consider, also, the expectations of those following a tenured academic on Twitter rather than, say, a teenage boy. Arguably, such a "provocative" tweet manipulated the environment of *his* tweeps in a way that it might not have for a teenage boy’s tweeps. Although Miller had been provocatively tweeting for months, note that he claims that all of those tweets were part of his study. So at some point he deliberately altered the environment of his tweeps by shifting from non-provocative to provocative tweets.
Finally, consider the ripple effects in that manipulated environment. I spent an hour going back and forth with one of his followers who insisted that I caused the tweet to go viral, “tattled" to his employer (I did not), and cost Miller his career (for the record, I don't think he should be fired and I fully support his right to make claims that are patently falsifiable with a single counter-example; I'd just like some oversight to ensure that his views about obese academics don't ruin *their* careers). If this was all good (deceptive) research fun, then I wish Miller would debrief his follower-subjects so that they can stop blaming others for reacting in exactly the ways Miller presumably hypothesized that they would react.
Some Responses from Schrag
Thanks for these comments, Michelle.
We agree the most about your point 6: "[The] real issue [is] neither free speech nor [human subjects research] but: does his statement reflect bias that affects performance of his academic duties?"
Assuming it does, what should his department do with a faculty member who may have violated the American Psychological Association's standard against unfair discrimination? (The standard prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, and the EEOC has maintained that "severe obesity" is a disability. Moreover, I doubt that the authors of the ethical principles would be happy about any discrimination based on body weight.) Dare we apply the standard in Dixon v. University of Toledo to a professor?
We also agree about the first part of your point 1. I too am "skeptical he intended this as research," and the University of New Mexico seems skeptical as well, noting, "We are looking into the validity of this assertion." It strikes me as more likely that when Miller claimed to be conducting "research," he was using the term to mean, "I am a troll."
I think you are mistaken to write, "intent is (alas) key under regs." Intent matters under 45 CFR 46.119, but the relevant section here is §46.102, which defines research by design, not intent. Thanks to Robert Levine, we know exactly why this is so. So if Miller intended to conduct research, but failed to design a project "to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge," he's clear.
You ably lay out the grounds for considering Miller's tweet and subsequent actions to constitute intervention or interaction, but I find them unpersuasive. I would be very unhappy were any IRB to find that any speech in a public forum constitutes "manipulations of the subject or the subject's environment"; if so, what speech is not?
And I would like to know if you can distinguish between Miller's provocation and that of Daniel Callahan. Callahan came in for his fair share of outraged attention in the national press and on Tumblr. He, too, has engaged with his critics, albeit more professionally than Miller. Is this, too, sufficient interaction to trigger IRB jurisdiction?