Autoexperimentation

Autoexperimentation, which refers to the practice of intentionally utilizing oneself as an experimental subject, is not a rare event. Over the past four centuries, more than 135 examples have been documented, and the true incidence is undoubtedly much higher (Altman; Franklin and Sutherland). Although the preponderance of recorded autoexperimentation has been conducted in the name of biomedical research, investigators in the physical and social sciences have also engaged in this practice.

Autoexperimentation has long enjoyed a measure of romantic appeal in the scientific and popular tradition. "The experimenter," wrote Sir George Pickering, "has one golden rule to guide him as to whether the experiment is justifiable. Is he prepared to submit himself to the procedure? If he is, and if the experiment is actually carried out on himself, then it is probably justifiable. If he is not, then the experiment should not be done" (p. 229). Henry K. Beecher suggested that any scientist wishing to engage in human experimentation ought to experiment on himself "as evidence of good faith."

Despite a reputation for nobility of purpose, the practice of autoexperimentation has been the focus of substantial scientific and ethical debate. The scientific controversy concerns the methodological limitations of autoexperimentation and its capacity to yield useful data. The ethical debate is more complicated. Superficially, it concerns the extent to which autoexperimentation ought to be regulated. At its heart, however, lies a fundamental conflict between two opposing views of scientific research. The libertarian view advocates a relatively laissez-faire policy toward all forms of scientific inquiry, including autoexperimentation. The paternalistic view, in contrast, emphasizes the importance of protecting experimental subjects from risk, whether self-imposed or imposed by others. While this entry presents various perspectives on the issue, the author is opposed to autoexperimentation in most cases and will make clear why this view is plausible as the entry unfolds.

Neither the methodological nor the ethical aspects of this debate can be fully understood without examining the historical and cultural context in which autoexperimenta-tion developed.

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