What Government-Run Experiments Reveal About Our Society's Values

Hello, thank you for listening to my episode of inQuery. My name is Maddy Lisinski. Featured in this episode are my friends Grace Smith, who is also in the Professional Writing program, and Meghan Ward, who is actually going to school overseas right now, but agreed to lend her voice to read out the quotes. Without further ado, let me get started.

Maddy: So one night this past summer a few friends and I were laying under the stars, talking about aliens and religion and all that kind of deep stuff, and we got around to talking about a conspiracy theory about a game called Polybius. Now, no one’s 100% sure if it’s real or not, but I can tell you this story came from somewhere. Word of mouth says Polybius was a 1980’s arcade game in Portland, Oregon, that gave players weird side effects like memory loss, nightmares, and insomnia. It has been conspired to be part of the CIA’s project, MK Ultra, which consisted of a series of harmful experiments researching mind control on unwitting test subjects (Patrick).

You can learn more about Polybius in this entertaining video by The Game Theorists: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDXSr8jjpVk)

Grace: But didn’t the MK Ultra experiments end years before that?

Maddy: See, they supposedly did, but hold on. Evidence backing up this theory is the suspicion that the MK Ultra experiments had actually continued under a different name after it was publicly ended (Patrick).

Grace: It’s creepy to think about how the government can deceive us and we’ll never know. That theory makes sense too because the Cold War was still happening at the time. I guess we’ll never be able know for sure.

Maddy: Pretty scary, eh? That story really got me wondering what secret projects the government could be doing right now without us knowing. Especially since they have so much access to our minds through technology now.

Grace: I feel like we might be freaking out the listeners a little too much.

Maddy: I wouldn’t be surprised! I think that’s a reason why everyone is so against it, because it’s scary to think about. But you know what an interesting question is?

Grace: What?

Maddy: The ethics behind all this. Because I’ve also thought to myself, what if the government needs to run an experiment like this to benefit humanity? I wanted to remove the black and white mindset and break this down, which is why I conducted a questionnaire that measured answers on a scale rather than restricting voters to a binary “yes” or “no” option.

Grace: Those sound like interesting questions. What did people say?

Maddy: I kicked off with the question “Do you believe that all unconsented governmental experiments conducted through ICTs, regardless of all circumstances, are unethical?“ Eleven out of sixteen people who voted said “yes,” making about two thirds of the group. They all stuck with that answer throughout the survey, despite the various circumstances I proposed to them.

Grace: Did they say why? That’s the question that you’re asking, right?

Maddy: I had them write a short justification and a lot of them talked about the merit of privacy. What I found interesting is that out of the few who answered “no” to this question, they all exhibited very low levels of anxiety in regards to their privacy.


Most people expressed some concern for their privacy. The number of those who expressed none make up almost all of those who answered “no” to question 1.

Grace: Why did they say no?

Maddy: Most of them expressed support for the importance of the experiment. If this said experiment has a valuable purpose and can conjure useful results, then it is ethical.

Grace: It sounds like they aren’t all against these experiments; it seems like they believe that there could be a valid reason behind them. They trust that the government has a purpose, and wouldn’t do such an experiment otherwise. Because of that trust, they aren’t afraid, and that explains the connection between those who condone these experiments, and those who have low levels of anxiety regarding their privacy.

Maddy: I must say though that despite making sense, there is some doubt while looking at the bigger picture. I don’t see why the government would waste resources if they didn’t deem the experiment to be worthy of some cause. The issue here is that the worthiness of these causes can be pretty subjective. While one would say curing a disease benefits humanity, another would claim the same thing about finding effective mind control methods to get secrets from enemies of war. Don’t you think the government would have said MK Ultra was an important cause?

Grace: So are you saying these experiments are inherently unethical?

Maddy: I’m saying that that can’t be the sole determining factor as to whether or not they are. Let’s look at a real life example. I found a 2014 article from the New York Times that talks about an undisclosed experiment Facebook had conducted on users in January of 2012. The article says that Facebook chose about 690,000 users by random and altered their timelines to filter out either positive or negative posts, then see how the statuses of the users corresponded with those emotions (Goel). And instead of being concerned, the first thing I did was try to remember if my feed had seemed unusual at the time! As if I could remember. Anyways, Facebook received a lot of backlash when this was revealed.

Grace: Did they get in trouble?

Maddy: Not exactly, at least not with the law. However, the public was outraged. Facebook didn’t consider it to be technically illegal because every Facebook user had agreed to their terms and conditions, which apparently contained the information about this experiment (Goel). That raises another question about privacy and information communications technology. Because we are allowing ourselves to be exposed to media, and in turn exposing our lives to everyone including the people behind the running of it, are we giving the government and corporations permission to use it to their advantage like Facebook did?

Grace: I think what they’re doing seems wrong.

Maddy: Me too. And it is, according to the Nuremberg Code.

Grace: What’s that?

Maddy: The Nuremberg Code is a document created after World War II that outlines what circumstances are deemed ethical when it comes to using humans as test subjects (“History of Ethics”). The Oxford Textbook of Clinical Research Ethics describes it as,

Meghan: “...the most authoritative legal and human rights code on the subject of human experimentation” (Annas and Grodin 136).

Maddy: Back during the Holocaust, a lot of inhumane scientific experiments were run on those who were imprisoned in the concentration camps. Obviously they were unconsented, and very harmful. Several people died as a result of them. The Nuremberg Code was made in order to prevent anything like that from happening again (“History of Ethics”). Now it’s strange that while it was created by U.S. judges, the U.S. itself isn’t following it. I found it on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website and read over its rules. A condition it lists includes “the voluntary consent of the human subject,” which Facebook argued they had obtained through its terms and conditions. But under that heading is this quote:

Meghan: “[The person] should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved, as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision… The duty and responsibility for ascertaining the quality of the consent rests upon each individual who initiates, directs or engages in the experiment” ("The Nuremberg Code”).

Grace: It doesn’t sound like this was done for the Facebook experiment.

Maddy: No, I say it wasn’t. If everyone had been explicitly notified of what they were partaking in, why would there have been such a huge outcry about it?

Grace: That’s a really good point. But it didn’t harm anyone, did it?

Maddy: No, not that I have seen documented.

Grace: This experiment doesn’t sound that bad though. If it had a good purpose, it couldn’t be that unethical.

Maddy: I think lots of people would believe it was unethical because of where it could have gone, and where things can go in the future if stuff like this continues to be condoned.

Grace: I can understand that.

Maddy: And that’s just an example with a corporation. It’s even more interesting to think that the government itself isn’t always following the rules. Another condition listed in the Nuremberg Code that was ignored by the MK Ultra experiments were:

Meghan: “Proper preparations… and adequate facilities... to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death” ("The Nuremberg Code”).

Maddy: It also states the following quote:

Meghan: “No experiment should be conducted, where there is an apriori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects” ("The Nuremberg Code”).

Grace: Wow. So many people were hurt in the experiments and weren’t offered any protection.

Maddy: Exactly! There are ten standards in total listed in the Nuremberg Code, all of which must be met in order for an experiment to be ethical. The MK Ultra experiments arguably meet four of these requirements at most. They were unethical without a doubt, especially when taking Polybius into account. Think about the vulnerability of the subjects. They were just innocent neighbourhood kids wanting to play an arcade game.

All the rules of the Nuremberg Code can be found here: (http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/archive/nurcode.html)

What’s really frightening is the fact that there have been a number of experiments ran in more recent years that also completely disregarded the consent of their subjects. I found an interesting article about this written by medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington. I was disturbed, but not surprised, by this quote:

Meghan: “Since the 1980s, around 20 U.S. research projects have won legal waivers allowing them to bypass any form of consent” (Washington).

Maddy: So many people are getting away with it. It seems that the government isn’t only doing it itself, but is giving others permission! I feel like it’s just going to become more common as technology allows a greater amount of access to people’s minds.

Grace: So what does all of this mean?

Maddy: I think the reason this is being allowed to get so out of hand is because the people who are running the experiments aren’t understanding the extent to which it is unethical. They don’t understand why it is. They think it’s okay to make exceptions because they value say, purpose over dignity. So if people are being exploited for a good cause, it’s considered ethical. But it isn’t. Let me point out something. I think the worst part of everything I read was something Washington talks about in her article: the fact that oppressed members of society, such as disabled people and people of colour, are especially targeted for unconsented research. Right now there are a number of experiments being run on trauma victims who are unable to give their consent.

Grace: That is indicative of a huge problem. Not only is it discriminatory, but if it is being reserved for the less privileged members of society, then the government itself is admitting there’s something wrong with those actions.

Maddy: Exactly. And now I think we have an answer. If we glance back at the survey I took, so many people believed unconsented research through ICTs would be unethical under any circumstance because it breaches privacy. One person went so in depth as to say,

Meghan: “I think it is unethical because if we wish to call ourselves a democratic society, inclusion of the citizens is extremely important.”

Maddy: It’s true. If a government is violating a human right, it is mistreating its people, and that shows a deep problem at the core of the society. Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor of many subjects including medical ethics and philosophy, said, “Government secrecy is corrosive to democracy,” and that, “No decent society can tolerate the exploitation of its most vulnerable members” (Moreno 16). I don’t think I could have said it better myself.

If you made it to this point, I would like to thank you for listening to my complete episode of inQuery. My name is Maddy Lisinski. Speaking with me throughout this episode is my friend Grace Smith, and the quotes were read out by Meghan Ward. If you’re now questioning everything that you’ve believed up to this point, I did my job. I really hope this episode got you thinking and questioning your opinion. If you enjoyed my episode, I recommend checking out my classmates’ episodes as well. If you’re interested in any topic related to information communications technology, then you will definitely enjoy theirs, too. And with that, I’ll be signing off.

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