Discussion: Automatic Inclusion/Exclusion of Participants

Zachary Schrag at the InstitutionalReviewBlog has some discussion of a sentence in a recent New York Times article. Here is an excerpt from the study description:

Carl Foster, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, was amused by ads for a popular piece of exercise equipment. Before-and-after photos showed pudgy men and women turned into athletes with ripped bodies of steel . . .
“We said: ‘Wait a minute. You can’t change yourself that much,’ ” Dr. Foster said. So he and his colleagues decided to experiment. Suppose they recruited sedentary people for a six-week exercise program. Would objective observers notice any changes in their bodies?
The plan was to photograph volunteers wearing skimpy bathing suits and then randomly assign them to one of three groups: cardiovascular exercise, weight lifting or control. Six weeks later, they would be photographed again.
Their heads would be blocked out of the photos, which would be shuffled. Then the subjects and judges would rate the body in each photo on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being spectacular.
The volunteers were men, age 18 to 40 (the university’s human-subjects review board looked askance at having women photographed and rated like that).

Schrag describes the IRB action as sexist, on the grounds that “it’s disappointing that that IRB thinks adult women incapable deciding for themselves whether to participate in a study open to men.”

This is certainly one consideration, but there are others as well. One is that the raters might have felt uncomfortable rating women’s bodies. Another is that having more than one gender in the study introduces more complex variables (although that is a study design question, and not one for the IRB). A third is that even voluntary participation in practices which are ethically shaky doesn’t make the practice less shaky (for example, voluntary recruitment to study the psychological effects of discrimination doesn’t lessen the IRB’s worries about subjecting participants to potential psychological harm).

What do you think?

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