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Case One: Putting Social Advocacy Before the Data

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RCR Casebook: Social Responsibility

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Helen is a junior faculty member in the School of Public Health. As part of her faculty responsibilities, she is required to teach epidemiology and mentor students in research methodology.

Two of her doctoral students, Kate and Susan, want to conduct a large survey of women’s experience of domestic violence. Susan is in charge of the survey though Kate will help with the analysis. Kate was, herself, a victim of domestic violence. Part of her zeal to do the research and ultimately design service programs to help women who are victims of violence comes from her strong conviction that society tends to blame the victims and hence fails to provide necessary resources. She also believes that women tend to under-report their experience of domestic violence, and that, until society understands the sense of powerlessness, shame, and humiliation that such victims experience, the problems will not be addressed effectively. Kate finds it rewarding to do the in-depth interviews with those who indicated on the survey some experience with domestic violence.

Helen is pleased when her students ask her to sponsor a panel that they wish to organize at a nationwide professional meeting. Their panel proposal is submitted and accepted. Her two students plan to begin the panel with a general review of the literature, then Susan will present the results of their survey, and finally Kate will describe her interviews.

Helen’s sense of pride swiftly turns to dismay as she listens to her students’ presentations. First, Susan reports finding a far higher incidence of domestic violence than is reported in the general literature. Then, Kate takes center stage and gives a moving, dramatic account of some of the more evocative interviews of women who had given slight indication on their survey of some rough treatment at home. Kate explains that, in the safe environment of the interviews and the respect that she conveyed to participants, many women broke down and revealed that they had endured years of brutal treatment but were too ashamed and afraid to do anything about it, and were convinced that social services would not be there to serve or protect them. Although Kate concludes with a ringing denouncement of policy makers who downplay the crisis of domestic violence in our society, some of the experts in the audience question the strength of her findings.

They aren’t alone. Afterwards, Helen immediately asks to go over the raw data again with both Susan and Kate to make sure their analysis is correct before they publicize it any further. That’s when Kate says, “Well, I modified the data a little for the presentation.” Helen is stunned. She proceeds to press Kate regarding the extent of her altering the data, and Kate says, “I know that domestic violence is under-reported, so I wanted my report to reflect the way I know it really is. It is important to wake people up to the truth about how domestic abuse forces women to keep their mouths shut. I don’t want to be a party to that.”

What should Helen do? 

Discussion Questions for the Facilitator

  • What are the factors that you think motivate some scientists to become advocates?
  • How should Helen address this issue with her students?
  • Is there an ethical difference between falsifying data to support a socially important conclusion and suppressing the publication of data that do not support the same conclusion?
  • Is it ever acceptable to suppress the publication of scientifically valid data for social reasons?
  • Should scientists ever engage in social activism using their data? Or does science require one to remain objective and engage all sides of a debated issue? *