Bioethics Blogs

Atran: IRBs Block Understanding of Terrorism

Interviewed by Nature, anthropologist Scott Atran reminds us that human subjects rules have impeded his efforts to understand the origins of violence like the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

[Reardon, Sara. “Looking for the Roots of Terrorism.” Nature, January 15, 2015. doi: 10.1038/nature.2015.16732. h/t Donald Pollock]

Atran explains:

If you really want to do a scientific study with jihadis — I do it — you have to convince them to put down their guns, not talk to one another, and answer your questions. Some people, if you ask them if they would give up their belief in God if offered a certain amount of money, they will shoot you. So you can’t ask that question.

It’s not just because it’s dangerous. It’s because human subjects reviews at universities and especially the [US] defence department won’t let this work be done. It’s not because it puts the researcher in danger, but because human subjects [research ethics] criteria have been set up to defend middle class university students. What are you going do with these kind of protocols when you talk to jihadis? Get them to sign it saying, “I appreciate that the Defense Department has funded this work,” and by the way if you have any complaints, call the human subjects secretary? This sounds ridiculous and nothing gets done, literally.

Have you run into such difficulties with your fieldwork?

As an example, I got permission, before the [three] Bali bombers [who carried out a set of simultaneous attacks in 2002] were executed, to interview them.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.