Are Australian Economists Unethical?

Philip Clarke, a friend of mine who’s a health economist, just suggested to me that most Australian empirical economists might be in breach of our ethical codes. His argument goes like this: the Australian census compels a response. As the ABS website states:

On Census Night, 8th August, 2006, you are being asked to answer the questions on the Census form. If you do not answer the questions, the Australian Statistician has the power to direct you to provide the information. If he does this, you have a legal obligation to comply. The Census and Statistics Act (1905) provides for penalties of up to $110 per day for people convicted of failing to complete and return a form when directed to do so.

If I went to the ANU human research ethics committee and said that I was planning to run a survey in which I would fine people for not responding, they’d be certain to reject my application. And in general, it isn’t a defence to say that someone else collected the data (the debate over the Nazi human experiments is often cited here – though it’s complicated by the fact that the methodology of those experiments was pretty bodgy). The typical rule is that if the survey doesn’t meet ethical requirements, you can’t write the paper.

I think the best solution is for me to keep this discussion very very quiet.

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4 Responses to Are Australian Economists Unethical?

  1. Joshua Gans says:

    The same can be said for anyone using tax office data on income and wealth. We don’t know anyone like that do we, Andrew?

  2. Geoff R says:

    As a former Human research ethics committee secretary I have doubts about the entire process. It would rule out as deceptive all those great ethnographic workplace books for example.

  3. bryan says:

    It is situational ethics. States and public servants are by definition ethical. It is only academics you need worry about.

  4. Sinclair Davidson says:

    It just goes to show that ‘ethics’ is a form of censorship. I once saw a paper that argued that any research that needed ‘ethical’ approval was biased and not generalisable. The argument being that there is an additional self-selection bias when respondents read and agree to the ‘plain langauge statement’. The size of this bias is unknown and its impact on the results unknown.

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