Friday, January 04, 2008

Historians of the World Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains

By Richard Vedder

I read that federal bureaucrats are trying to extend the power of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) over oral history research. The historians are furious, and I am with them all the way.

IRBs are an abomination. They were mandated by federal legislation a generation or so ago and I fought their creation at my university on the grounds that they are an infringement of academic freedom, a violation of the First Amendment, an increase in the cost of doing research, and a general pain in the butt. I have not wavered in my views.

The idea is that sometimes researchers violate the rights of subjects they are investigating, so prior to the research being done an objective group of peers should pass judgment over the research design. Granted, abuses have occurred, but I have thought we have plenty of sanctions in place already to deal with unprofessional behavior. Aside from being hurt in terms of promotion, tenure, and salary increases, the professor who abuses the rights of individuals through research is subject to being sued, as is the university.

No one participates in an oral history project involuntarily, to my knowledge. No militant historians hold guns to famous people and say " I am going to make you an offer you cannot refuse: talk to me or die." The notion that some biologist or physicist on an IRB would try to establish rules to govern how the historians do oral history is repulsive, is bureaucratic, stifles inquiry, and assumes that professional historians are unethical or incompetent. The case against IRBs may be a tad weaker when the feds are funding the research, but even here, I think you have to trust the faculty.

Proposals to put bureaucratic rules restricting who historians can talk to (with their tape recorders going), or what they can ask, etc., violate not only the spirit if not the letter of the First Amendment, but materially threaten to reduce our knowledge about our past, our heritage, and some of the personages important in the advancement of western civilization.

No comments: