Monday, October 20, 2008


I wrote about a colleague who was so strangely mistaken about the world that he was too far to reach. That committee met again and the strangeness continues.

The committee decides if the research that is being done at the University is safe. That is, if the researcher exposes someone to physical or psychological risk, do the potential results of the research justify the risks? Are the participants informed of the risks? Stuff like that. The University would not want test subjects to die while taking physical stress tests, after all, unless the results of the research could potentially cut the risk of heart attacks significantly.

This time we had one proposal. I will change some details to preserve anonymity. The student researcher intended to discover which qualities of female hairstyles most strongly attract men. The funniest thing about the study was that the (female) researcher's email address was

The researcher would show pictures of women who have various hairstyles to male students and ask the students to rate the women by a few criteria, like "I would want to meet this woman," "I would want to date this woman," "This woman is cute," etc.

The men surveyed would be anonymous, so there is little exposure to psychological or physical harm. For me, this was a no-brainer. This research will not hurt anybody. I do not think it is valuable research, but, as an economist, I do not always understand what is important in other fields, and the feeling is mutual, I am sure. But that is fine because it is not my job to determine if the research is "good," unless it is risky.

The strangeness started at once. One committee member forcefully said she voted "no" because the study is sexist. The study would treat women as sex objects.

There are psychology courses at the University in sexual development. There are courses in evolutionary biology, which explain attraction in terms of biological advantage. Plenty of research at Universities treat women and men as sex objects. My colleague was, essentially, objecting to Freud and Darwin.

In any case, even if somebody objects to Freud and Darwin, that does not mean that research should be barred in sexual psychology and biology. Our duty was to assess risks and procedure, not to evaluate the overall worth of the research.

Perhaps this faculty member would object to economists' studies of efficiency in the Third Reich. Economists have shown theoretically and empirically that bureaucracies are inefficient--except for the Third Reich. Examination of the Third Reich has yielded a whole new theory regarding bureaucracy. These results might be applied to bureaucracies which have benevolent aims, as opposed to the maevolent aims of the Third Reich.

Will Smith was excoriated for saying that the Third Reich was efficient--are people so illiterate that they cannot understand the difference between saying, "The Third Reich was efficient," and in saying, "The Third Reich had admirable aims?"

I expect more literacy from people with advanced degrees. Alas.

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