Telescope endorsement embarrasses University

Scott Laderman

Stanley Milgram, a researcher at Yale University, was curious about why people obeyed the Nazis during the Holocaust. Believing he might empirically help to develop an answer, Milgram set out in the early 1960s to measure humans’ levels of obedience and disobedience to authority. In two Connecticut cities, he invited a sample of naive individuals – by which I mean, as Milgram used the term, uninformed – to test what they were led to believe was another naive individual about a list of associated pairs. In essence, they would play a memory game. But in fact the latter individual was not another research subject; he was a knowledgeable accomplice to the experiment pretending to be an anonymous volunteer. It must have been disconcerting to the unwitting participants when, as part of the study, the latter was strapped into an “electric chair” over which they were given control. Wrong answers from the accomplice, which he was instructed to often give, would be followed by the experimenter’s instruction to the naive individual to deliver an electric shock.

Milgram told the research subjects that the experiment was designed to explore the effect of punishment on memory, as each wrong answer invited a more forceful jolt. In reality, Milgram was interested in “the amount of electric shock a subject is willing to administer to another person when ordered by an experimenter to give the ‘victim’ increasingly more severe punishment.” Unbeknownst to the naive subjects, the accomplice was not actually being shocked, but was instead acting, for example, by screaming or banging the walls. In some of the experiments, the “victim” would desperately beg the naive subjects not to administer another shock. The experimenter would then instruct the subject to do precisely that. Milgram wanted to see how far the naive individuals would go in doing what they were told.

His findings were extremely disturbing. As he noted in an article summarizing his research, “(w)ith numbing regularity, good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men, who are in everyday life responsible and decent, were seduced by the trappings of authority by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter’s definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts.” There can be no doubt that Milgram’s study was a landmark contribution to the human rights literature, offering troubling insights into why otherwise humane individuals may be induced to perpetrate terrible atrocities.

But Milgram’s experiment is remembered today for another important reason: It helped to highlight the need for the establishment of professional research norms. No longer, in other words, could individuals be deceived by scientists or others into engaging in potentially harmful practices. Many of Milgram’s subjects – the study totaled approximately 1,000 individuals – were severely affected both emotionally and psychologically by their participation in his work. For all they knew, they had repeatedly tortured another human being simply because they were instructed by an authority figure – a scientific researcher – to do so. The lesson? Scientific “progress” is not a sufficient basis for overriding basic ethical values.

The University Board of Regents would be well advised to remember that principle this week. On Thursday, the regents will consider whether to enter into a contract allowing University astronomers to be given access to the Large Binocular Telescope being constructed at the Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona. Under normal circumstances this would be a no-brainer; I know of no one who would not like to see these scientists make substantial contributions to the literature in their field. But Mount Graham is a special case. Apart from containing a unique ecosystem and being home to an endangered species of red squirrel, it is a sacred site to the Western Apache people, a fact reinforced by the recent National Park Service decision designating the mountain eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as a “traditional cultural property.” By investing in the telescope development, the University would be endorsing Mount Graham’s desecration. It’s that simple.

For this reason and others, there has been a flood of correspondence, resolutions and reports submitted to the University administration in opposition to the project. These include negative recommendations from the University’s American Indian Advisory Board and Social Concerns Committee; members of the latter went so far as to call the destruction of Mount Graham “violence against indigenous culture.” The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council passed a unanimous resolution against the University’s participation. The National Congress of American Indians lent its voice to the opposition. In May, a joint letter was sent to then-President Mark Yudof from the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups urging the University not to tarnish its “good name and respected reputation.” The list goes on.

Yet despite this groundswell of opposition and despite numerous other institutions declining to invest in the observatory, Robert Bruininks, the University’s interim president, in late September followed the trail blazed by Vice President Sandra Gardebring and shamefully recommended that the regents approve the proposal.

Bruininks’ action is an embarrassment to the University and to the state of Minnesota. It seems that our interim president has forgotten that universities, like the researchers who staff them, must abide by certain ethical norms. By endorsing the telescope project, Bruininks is basically declaring the spiritual health and cultural survival of the Western Apaches is of little import when the potential prestige of one of the University’s departments is at stake. It is not difficult to understand the astronomers’ de facto indifference to the project’s implications for Indian people; they have become so enamored of the possibility of Large Binocular Telescope access that they have essentially forgotten their larger responsibilities as members of a scholarly community. But how do we explain Bruininks’ ethical lapse?

To this question there seems to be only one possible answer: Science, his decision suggests, trumps the rights of indigenous people. Have we learned nothing in the last 100 years?

It is fortunate for Bruininks that he need not bring the University’s proposal before an empowered body like a human subjects review board. If the Social Concerns Committee opposed the project on “ethical, material, political and cultural grounds,” one can only imagine what the human subject reviewers might say.

In an effort to appear responsible, Bruininks has insisted that the University will use its influence at the observatory to assist the Western Apaches in gaining access to Mount Graham. But the regents should see this maneuver for what it truly is: A face-saving decision that may help salve the conscience of the interim president but will do little to disguise the insult being leveled at those impacted by the mountain’s desecration.

The Board of Regents can and must right this wrong. The choice they face this week is stark: Will you hold the University to the same ethical standards to which we as individual scholars are justifiably expected to adhere? Or will you ignore your ethical responsibilities and follow the same sort of formulation that brought us the massive pilfering of American Indian grave sites in the name of scientific “progress?”

Scott Laderman’s biweekly column appears on Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]