I had missed this story when the NY Daily News broke it in September, but the front page of today’s NY Times made it impossible to ignore: Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s administration is conducting unethical experimentation on human beings.
The News describes the experiment very simply:
[New York City’s] Department of Homeless Services split 400 struggling families into haves and have-nots.
The “haves” get rental assistance, job training and other services through a program called Homebase.
The other half … were dubbed the “control group” and shut out of Homebase for two years. Instead, they were handed a list of 11 agencies and told to hunt for help on their own.
The aim of the experiment, allegedly, is to find out whether Homebase, a $23 million program, is effective. The city’s Commissioner of Homeless Services told the Times that
When you’re making decisions about millions of dollars and thousands of people’s lives, you have to do this on data, and that is what this is about.
(If you thought that what it’s about, for a commissioner meant to deal with homelessness, is making sure that people have homes — you were so wrong. Silly you.)
To make matters worse: what’s being tested is a program whose effectiveness the city has already asserted. As Mike, who blogs brilliantly on this and many related topics at SLO Homeless, notes: the 2010 Mayor’s Management Report, issued in September, claimed that Homebase helped “ninety percent of clients in all populations receiving prevention services to stay in their communities and avoid shelter entry.”
So, to make sure this is clear: New York City is deliberately denying a couple of hundred families access to an existing homelessness-prevention program that it has already declared to be highly effective.
The scenario is identical to one that kicked up storms of controversy in the medical-research world in the 1990s (neatly contextualized and summarized here): experiments were conducted in Africa and southeast Asia supposedly to test the effectiveness of an already-proven preventive regimen, AZT. Administered during pregnancy, it reduced the likelihood of mother-to-fetus or mother-to-infant transmission of HIV. In the poor-country experiments, half of the women enrolled got the effective regimen; the other half got placebo.
In other words, if you were pregnant and infected with HIV and you had had the wisdom to live in the U.S., you got a treatment that protected your infant from infection. If you lived in a poor country you got: studied.
There’s something about poor people, and especially about poor women with kids, that seems to make them smell like catnip to the always evidence-hungry technocrat cats.
Want to run a placebo-controlled trial? Find something that already works (antiretrovirals, homelessness prevention, or, in other circumstances, syphilis treatment, TB prevention, etc.), then find a few women with kids who need it — then tell them you’ll flip a coin. Heads, they get what they need; tails… well, too bad.
I’m a scientist. I believe that evidence can be helpful. Sometimes, it’s crucial. When you’re truly unsure whether to pick prevention A or prevention B, data can help you to choose right and avoid harm. That’s the great promise of science.
But sometimes the appeal to evidence is baleful — like here in Bloomberg’s New York, where evidence on homelessness is just a way of furthering the aims of the technocracy. Which always means that some people will avoid harm. Others will pay the price.
And the others are, so often, poor women with children.
This entry was posted on Thursday, December 9th, 2010 at 3:35 pm and is filed under Ethics, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.