Tuesday, 18 May 2010

talking about things people find unacceptable

A long time ago I used be an animal behaviour researcher.

And one of the reasons why we study animals is to find models for the models for the biological bases of human behaviour, which means human sexual behaviour, social behaviour and the rest. Fundamental questions like 'why are humans (fairly) monogamous?' when other primates are not. 'Why do we not live in extended family groups?' is another such question.

And this research can take you to some places that some people find uncomfortable because it touches on aspects of their lives. Other people are of course fascinated and utterly open about it. We really are all different.

If you have any doubt about the range of things people consider acceptable try a search on Flickr for words like nude with safe search turned off. You may be amused, surprised, offended or all three. Don't say I didn't warn you.

The reason I'm writing this is the news (THES, New Scientist) that a lecturer at University College Cork, has been placed on a sexual harrassment charge for showing a female colleague material relating to his research on sexual behaviour in fruit bats.

Now, it may be that sexual harrassment took place - we all know that such things do happen in academia, and that what we'll coyly call coercive assymetric relationships do sometimes occur between researchers and students, certainly that was the case in at least one department I worked in, and also that these turn bad.

And if such behaviour has taken place the college authorities are right to be concerned.

However, what I am worried about is that this case and the fall out from it will inhibit research in these areas which may or may not help us understand the biological bases of human behaviour and why sometimes we do what we do. Researchers will simply shun work in some areas because of the risks of being hauled up on a disciplinary charge, despite the research topic and design being agreed by the departmental ethics committee and (usually) subject to clearance by funding bodies or regulatory agencies. And that would be bad.

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