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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Science, Old White Guys and Inhumane Experiments – Telling History

History and science include stories of too many inhumane "experiments" undertaken by old white guys perhaps convinced the ends would justify the means. Here’s a new example uncovered through detailed research on a rather macabre – but very famous – experiment said to prove infants are blank slates. It turns out the infant was seriously ill, and so not a proper subject. It also appears likely the researcher made a knowingly false claim the infant was healthy and normal. Perhaps not surprisingly, the infant was a child of a woman of little means and employee of the hospital.

Real science is wonderful, but there are dark corners. Hat Tip to Marginal Revolution for flagging the story from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Part of the story is set out below:

In the famous Little Albert experiment, a nearly 9-month-old baby is shown a white rat. The rat crawls up to the baby, on him, and around him. The baby seems interested in the rat and unafraid. Later, researchers again produce the rat and place it next to the baby, but this time the rat’s presence is accompanied by a loud, startling clang — a sound the baby clearly doesn’t like. This is repeated multiple times until the baby starts to cry at the mere appearance of the rat, loud clang or no. The fear extends to other furry things like a dog and a monkey, animals that previously provoked only mild interest. The researchers have taught Little Albert to be afraid.

The experiment was conducted by John Watson in 1920 and was part of the psychologist’s attempt to prove that infants are blank slates and therefore infinitely malleable. It has been recounted in countless papers and textbooks. One of the longstanding mysteries about the experiment, the identity of Little Albert, wasapparently solved in 2010 by Hall P. Beck, a psychologist at Appalachian State University. He and his co-authors argued that Little Albert was Douglas Merritte, the son of a wet-nurse who worked at the Johns Hopkins University, where the experiment was carried out. Merritte died in 1925 at age six from convulsions brought on by hydrocephalus (also known as “water on the brain”).

Now comes another twist–one that, if accurate, would change how the Little Albert experiment is viewed and would cast a darker shadow over the career of the researcher who carried it out.

A paper published this month in the journal History of Psychology makes the case that Little Albert was not, as Watson insisted, “healthy” and “normal.” He was probably neurologically impaired. If the baby indeed had a severe cognitive deficit, then his reactions to the white rat or the dog or the monkey may not have been typical–certainly reaching universal conclusions about human nature based on his reactions wouldn’t make sense. The entire experiment, then, would be a case of a researcher terrifying a sick baby for no valid scientific reason (not that using a healthy baby would have been ethically hunkydory).

But what makes it worse, the authors of the paper argue, is that Watson must have known that Little Albert was impaired. This would turn a cruel experiment of questionable value into a case of blatant academic fraud.

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