The Nuremburg Code

The second idea that led to the creation of this class (after discussing Milgram’s study of obedience at a concentration camp) was visiting the birthplace of the Nuremburg Code, which features in any research methods course as the foundation of the practices all researchers must follow.

The Nuremburg Code is not from the main “Nuremburg Trials“, although some of the reasons it was created were first introduced there. At the Palace of Justice exhibit on the Nuremburg Trials, we saw some firsthand testimony of witnesses for the defense, learned of the “crimes against humanity”, and saw news reel footage of the concentration camp victims that were first made fully known at this trial. We also learned a little of the “Doctor’s Trial“, when 23 were put on trial for the experiments they conducted on inmates at those concentration camps: submerging them in ice-cold water to test hypothermia, testing vaccines and treatments for wounds they were deliberately inflicted with, and far worse.

The “Nuremburg Code” was part of the decision handed down by the judges, a set of 10 principles necessary for any experiment to be ethical. Some of the most critical points: participants must be volunteers who have been given as much information as possible about what they are getting into, and who will be allowed to quit at any time; the research’s potential benefits must outweigh the risks, and only be achievable through this study, which must be stopped if the researcher becomes aware of more risks than initially suspected. These principles have shaped every research project I have conducted in my entire career, and if I have railed sometimes at over-stringent Institutional Review Board requirements, I have always known in theory what these IRBs were trying to safeguard. Now I know with a few more photographs and personal accounts than is truly comfortable.

The Nuremburg Code did not result in immediate implementation of ethical principles. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, for example, studied the “natural” course of syphilis in African-American men long after a cure was available; it had started before the war and the Nuremburg Code, in 1932, but the experimenters apparently failed to realize the similarities between what they were doing and what had been done in the concentration camps, and continued withholding proper treatment until the project was exposed in 1972. But as generations of scientists have been trained in these principles, we like to hope that such coerced, fatal experimentation could never happen again.

I do not know of any who argue against the IRB system and these ethical principles, although I can imagine the complaints that were made when they were first enacted: These rules limit our ability to answer important questions, particularly of psychology. Getting informed consent requires informing volunteers of what they are about to do, and what psychologists are interested in looking at, which might very well change their behavior. Just one day ago, after all, we were discussing Milgram’s study of obedience – in which people were told they were delivering electrical shocks, up to 450 volts, to a “learner” who was giving incorrect answers, and did it just because an experimenter told them to – which would be unlikely to give true results if people knew that their tendency to obey was under the microscope.

Understanding obedience is key to understanding the Holocaust and preventing anything like it in the future, so some might argue that the IRB system prevents us from answering vital questions. After years of upholding this study as entirely unethical, though, one researcher did take up the task of replicating Milgram – and was able to arrange the study in such as way that it did get IRB approval. There are restrictions to who is allowed to participate – no one who might have a negative reaction – that do limit our ability to generalize these findings to the entire human population…but it’s enough to develop a far better understanding of obedience, and it has the advantage of being officially ethical. It’s entirely possible that there would be nothing more an unethical experiment could tell us, that would be worth knowing.

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