Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Trolling Isn't Human Subjects Research

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that IRBs at both NYU and the University of New Mexico are investigating the conduct of Professor Geoffrey Miller, now notorious for a June 2 tweet warning "obese PhD applicants" that "if you didn't have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won't have the willpower to do a dissertation."

According to the Chronicle, Miller "explained his action to university officials in New Mexico by saying he had sent the Twitter message as part of a research project." (In proper troll-speak, one says "social experiment.") But Miller also maintains that "IRB approval was not necessary under his own understanding of federal law."

[Basken, Paul. “In Reversal, NYU Investigates Professor Who Tweeted on Obese Ph.D. Students.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 11, 2013.]

Michelle Meyer may disagree, but I think Miller has a reasonable case here, were he to assert that he obtained neither "(1) Data through intervention or interaction with [a living] individual, or (2) Identifiable private information."

Certainly, he got a lot of reactions to his posting, but he did not directly solicit responses from any group. This puts his message in the same category as a provocative essay published in a more traditional venue, such as Daniel Callahan's earlier, longer work of fatshaming.

If every written work likely to spark reaction is to count as interaction with living individuals, IRBs would need to vet everything written by university faculty and students, except for those works guaranteed to be obscure and dull.

Whether Miller can be trusted to evaluate applications to UNM's PhD progam in psychology, and whether his statement is comparable to that of a university administrator "who writes publicly against the very policies that her government employer charges her with creating, promoting, and enforcing," is another matter, thankfully beyond the scope of this blog.

Note 1. A correspondent notes that I earlier reported on Miller's critique of IRB assumptions about trauma and sex surveys.

Note 2. I wrote my dissertation on coffee, but my college thesis was mostly Chips Ahoy.


Joshua Gutoff said...

It seems to me that Miller's description of his alleged "study" places it clearly within the purview of an IRB. By his own claim, he's doing something to provoke a response in others so that he can study that response. According to him, the content of the tweet did not represent information or opinions that he wanted to disseminate (as in an article), but was purely meant as a stimulus acting on unaware and unconsenting subjects for the purpose of generating data. How would this not require IRB approval?

Joshua Gutoff
Gratz College

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Thanks for this comment.

I haven't seen anything stating that Miller claimed to be "doing something to provoke a response in others so that he can study that response."

The UNM has said only that Miller stated that "his com­ment on Twit­ter was part of a research project." That's sufficiently vague that he may be able to distinguish his actions from those covered by the Common Rule.

If you have seen a direct statement from Miller, please let me know.

More at " Michelle Meyer: Miller Interacted, Intervened."

Michelle Meyer said...

Hi Zach,

From UNM Psychology Department chairwoman Jane Ellen Smith’s video response to Miller's tweet: “[Miller] claims that he’s been sending out provocative tweets over a number of months now to measure people’s reactions to them . . . .” (

Zachary M. Schrag said...

I had watched the Smith video but missed the passage about "to measure people's reactions." If that's what Miller claims, it's a bad fact that indeed changes my view of this case. I guess I would amend the headline to "Trolling Isn't Human Subjects Research, But Miller Wasn't Just Trolling."

Also, is it just me, or is there something weird about UNM's combining an official, formal, written statement about the case with a video response? Since when do universities respond to charges of unethical behavior with YouTube videos?

Michelle Meyer said...

No, it's not just you. I'm not sure if the video response is necessarily a bad thing, exactly -- like testimony from live witnesses, we get a much better sense of how seriously someone is taking a complaint than if we just read the boilerplate "we're investigating" letter the office of legal council or PR puts out. But I've certainly never seen anything like it before. And it went up so quickly, and with an oddly professional quality to it -- almost like someone wanted to try out their new videography software.