When Does Science Go Too Far?
Project Nim is a documentary film depicting the life of the now-famous chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky who was raised by humans and taught to read sign language. In gathering research data on their subject over several years, scientists put Nim through a variety of hardships such as various transfers, poor living conditions at times, and forcing him into a variety of situations he was unprepared for.
The project revealed a number of insights about human–animal communication and the science of animal learning. At the same time, there is controversy as to whether the experiment should have even been started, in addition to whether the research study went on for too long. In her review of the film, Judith Stillion observes that this is an example where psychology lost its way and learned from it. Stillion goes on to say,
The film tries to show that there were no real villains in Nim's case, just human beings who did not have the vision to understand the consequences of their actions. With the benefit of hindsight, all of the principals in the project who were interviewed in the film were unanimous that this study was a mistake.In considering the risks and benefits of these kinds of projects (also recall the Zimbardo Prison Experiment and the Milgram studies), to what extent do you believe scientific pursuit should compromise the well-being of other beings? How might a researcher best balance consideration of harm and the promise of scientific findings? To what extent do your views change when the subjects are humans, dogs, primates, or rats?
By Judith Stillion
PsycCRITIQUES, 2012 Vol 57(15)