Dartmouth, Stanford apologise for political experiment

A joint letter from the presidents of Stanford University and Dartmouth College will be sent to nearly 100,000 Montana voters to apologise for an experiment by three political science professors at the two institutions.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

The letter comes after voters and state officials objected to a mailer, sent by the professors, that featured the state’s official seal and offered information about the political leanings of candidates for the state’s Supreme Court as part of an attempt to see whether such information would alter how Montanans voted.

The experiment has been condemned by other researchers in the field as unwise and perhaps unethical.

Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, told Talking Points Memo that the research struck her as a “lapse in judgment”.

The apology letter, which will cost the universities around US$50,000 to send out, asks voters to ignore the mailer and states that "no research study should risk disrupting an election”.

Which should go without saying, but in this case apparently had to be said.

The episode is an embarrassment to the two universities, both of which say they are investigating exactly what happened.

A Stanford spokesperson said the experiment had never been approved by an institutional review board there, although reportedly an earlier version of the flier was submitted to a review board at Dartmouth. A spokesman for Dartmouth, Justin Anderson, said officials there were still determining whether the research had undergone a proper review.

The three political scientists – Jonathan Rodden and Adam Bonica at Stanford and Kyle Dropp at Dartmouth – have so far declined to comment.

In an email message to The Chronicle, Rodden wrote that "we are not in a position to talk yet because of the charges being brought against us. Hopefully we can respond soon." (Those charges include allegations by state officials that the researchers may have broken four laws, including using a ‘fraudulent contrivance’ to influence voters.)

Similar mailers were also sent to voters in California and New Hampshire. Like the ones in Montana, they included seals that made it seem as if they had been approved by those states’ governments.

Ethical conundrums

So this particular experiment was, if not ill conceived, pretty clearly flawed in its execution.

But is it an aberration, or a symptom of a deeper problem in the discipline?

Jon Krosnick, a professor of political science, communication and psychology at Stanford who was not involved in the study, believes it’s the latter.

Up-and-coming political scientists are embracing the experimental methods of disciplines like psychology, according to Krosnick, and as they do, they routinely run into some of that field’s ethical conundrums.

“This is researchers manipulating, or at least seeking to manipulate, politics,” Krosnick said, referring to the Dartmouth-Stanford experiment. “As appealing as this might be on scientific grounds, the real question is whether it’s appropriate to interfere in this way.”

Krosnick pointed to a previous study co-authored by Dropp, who is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth, in which more than 1,000 email requests were sent to Texas legislators in 2010.

The emails appeared to come from Texas citizens, but were actually sent by the researchers to measure the legislators’ response rates.

“It crosses an ethical line to create fictitious people and use government resources for people who don’t exist,” Krosnick said. “There’s a habit here of lying to people.”

Those experiments may be extreme examples, but they are part of a general shift toward testing out political science theories in the real world.

For proof, just scroll through the abstracts of the Journal of Experimental Political Science, which came into existence just last year. That may generally be a good thing, but it is naturally more fraught than, say, performing regression analysis alone in your office.

“Under some conditions, it may be acceptable to be deceptive, but when is it unethical?” wonders John T Ishiyama, a professor of political science at the University of North Texas and lead editor of The American Political Science Review.

“That’s something that the discipline is grappling with.”