'Universal' truths

February 18, 2010

In "Truth trumps full disclosure" (Letters, 11 February), Paul Kiff says that I do not seem "to know that most ethical codes dispense with the need for fully informed consent when it is likely to prejudice the validity of research". But my point wasn't that "most" codes permit this, but that not all do.

Since this is the case - since we are not all agreed - this is the reason for the continuing debate about ethics in the social sciences. Surely Kiff understands the difference between a general statement ("some", "most", "many") and a universal one ("all", "every")?

Incidentally, what does Kiff mean when he says that we can dispense with "fully informed" consent? Does this mean that we will still need partial consent somewhere down the line? The situation I described in my letter was one where no consent of any kind was required or given.

Kiff then adds that "it is widely accepted by all ethical codes that covert surveillance may sometimes be essential if the truth is to be revealed". But what does this mean? If it is only "widely" accepted, this must mean that at least some people, and perhaps many, dispute the claim.

Is it really the case that all ethics codes already permit "covert surveillance", as Kiff claims? There is fierce opposition in the social sciences to any kind of research without consent.

I would be delighted to hear through the pages of Times Higher Education whether social scientists agree with what Kiff says and whether the situation is as he describes. Until then, I will continue to believe that we need different codes for different disciplines.

Ken Smith, Bucks New University.

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