Thursday, February 1, 2018

The unsung hero who exposed the Tuskegee syphilis study (and why there are so few others like him)


In 1972, a young U.S. Public Health Service employee named Peter Buxtun exposed the most notorious medical research scandal in American history. Yet most people -- even most bioethicists -- have no idea who Buxtun is. I've tried to take a small step towards fixing that situation in the most recent issue of The American Scholar. The article is called "Tuskegee Truth Teller." Here's the important paragraph:

Maybe the most unusual thing about Buxtun is how few counterparts he has. The past half century has seen many medical research scandals, but few of them have been exposed by whistleblowers. In many scandals, even those that came well after Tuskegee, doctors and nurses have stayed silent even after seeing research subjects being shamefully mistreated. In cases where medical insiders have worked up the courage to speak out publicly, the result has often been professional vilification. This raises a larger question: In a research enterprise supposedly built on a humanitarian ethos, why are whistleblowers like Buxtun so rare?

If you want to know more about Buxtun, read one (or both) of these terrific books: Bad Blood, by James Jones, and Examining Tuskegee, by Susan Reverby. 

The citation for the social psychology study I discuss in the article is:

P Bocchiaro, PG Zimbardo and P. Van Lange. “To Defy or Not to Defy: An Experimental Study of the Dynamics of Disobedience and Whistle-blowing. Social Influence vol. 7, 2012, pp. 35-50.

The article is paywalled, but you can find an abstract here.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous article! For me remindful of the oft cited dictum:"Civilizations aren't ended by the wicked they're ended by the spineless." And how relevant are the experiments of Zimbardo and Milgram in today's political climate where a Republican congress if not invaded by the body snatchers of that iconic mid '50's movie, seem invaded by the mind snatchers, supine before a despot?

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