Mad Science and the Appropriate Paperwork

Eric Lis

Sometimes I wonder if the wizard who first created owlbears had ethics approval for the experiment.

If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you probably learned about Little Albert. In the early twentieth century, when the ideas of men like Pavlov were still unproven theory (as opposed to today, when they’re the foundation of modern advertising), a psychologist named John Watson set out to prove that you could create a phobia in an otherwise normal person. He selected a baby, identified in the study as Albert, and set up a simple experiment. First, Albert would be put on a mattress with a fluffy white rat and allowed to play with it, which he happily did. After demonstrating that Albert had no fear of the rat, Watson would then wait until Albert touched the rat and then sneak up behind him and bang two pieces of metal together, making a horrendous noise and frightening the baby. After this had been done a few times, Little Albert was observed to be afraid of the rat, presumably because he associated “white fluffy thing” with “horrible ghastly noise.” The fear generalized to other furry objects, including fur coats, other animals, and famously, Santa Claus’ beard. The Little Albert experiment was one of the seminal experiments of modern science, both because it illustrated an important behavioural principle and because it underlined exactly why we need ethics boards overseeing scientists who might ask what they can do before they ask what they should do.

Ethical review boards are a huge part of modern scientific research. Any study conducted at a reputable institution, or meant to be published in a reputable journal or other academic venue, has to has approval from a research ethics board. This isn’t to say that such boards are flawless or that no unethical research gets conducted, but at least in theory, there’s a system in place at every university and research hospital in the Western world which requires researchers there to have someone check their proposed experiments for evil before the experiments are allowed to be conducted. Research ethics boards primarily exist to protect children – like Little Albert – and other vulnerable populations, but are also charged with, for example, verifying that a trial of a new medication has a system in place for monitoring for dangerous side effects, or keeping investigators from lying to their subjects. It’s still possible to have research where you lie to people, but the ethics boards ensure that there’s enough paperwork involved that it doesn’t happen without good reason.

As the above emphasizes, research ethics aren’t necessarily universal. A researcher affiliated with a university may have all sorts of checks and balances in place to ensure that their work causes as little harm as possible – I’m in the midst of submitting a proposed study to my local research ethics board right now, for example – but not all research happens at universities. Private companies, in the pharmaceutical or genomics industries for example, also have their own ethics boards, but there’s been ample concern over the years that such ethics boards may be in a position to have important conflicts of interest and priorities other than safe science.

It’s the limits which are inherent to ethical controls that can have important implications for our games. It’s all well and good to say that modern research is regulated, but that might easily not be the case when we look at even the relatively recent past – the 50’s and 60’s, for example, saw many of the famous studies that taught us that we need ethics oversight – and in games, the future. ‘Ethical” is one of those funny words whose meaning can change wildly with context. It’s worth bearing in mind that if Josef Mengele had been required to get ethical approval for his experiments at Auschwitz, he probably would have gotten full approval, given that the prevailing doctrine around him was supportive of such work as long as the only people who got hurt were “inferior.” For a more gaming-related example, the Red Wizards of Thay probably do have to get approval for their research from their superiors, but their superiors probably have a unique view of acceptable and unacceptable methods.

Do wizards in medieval fantasy have any sort of oversight? This could be a fun question that players often don’t stop to ask. In most game settings, it seems that wizards are out there performing whatever horrific and nonsensical experiments they feel like without any sort of regulation short of pitchfork-wielding mobs, but does it truly have to be so out of control? Wizards living in major cities might easily be required to have their experiments supervised by some authority, be it a college, a guild, or a city ruler. Wizards who refuse to be “limited” by such authority go underground (figuratively or literally) and probably eventually set up their proverbial isolated towers in the middle of nowhere where they can cackle madly without anyone trying to stop them. A group of characters might even find employment in a setting like this, say, being hired by the temple of the local god of knowledge to track down and stop people from performing unholy or evil research. Naturally, although I’ve been saying “wizards,” because they’re the cliché mad scientists of the fantasy genre, no one says that these questions couldn’t apply to a cleric, or a bard, or any character who wants to push the boundaries of knowledge (or indeed, stop someone else from pushing them).

To stimulate your creativity a little bit more, I leave you with this paper, published about a year ago: modern scholars’ reimagining of what Victor Frankenstein’s application to the research ethics board might have looked like if he had been requesting permission to build his monster. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on July 5, 2015. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system