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Several years ago, the University of Minnesota hosted a lecture by Alan Milstein, a Philadelphia attorney specializing in clinical trial litigation. Milstein, who does not mince words, insisted on calling research studies “experiments.” “Don’t call it a study,” Milstein said. “Don’t call it a clinical trial. Call it what it is. It’s an experiment.”

Milstein’s comments made me wonder: when was the last time I heard an ongoing research study described as a “human experiment”? The phrase is now almost always associated with abuses. Ask people what they think of when they hear the phrase “human experimentation” and chances are they will reply, “Nazis.” James Jones gave his book Bad Blood the subtitle The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Philip Zimbardo’s controversial study on the psychology of imprisonment is commonly referred to as “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” New Zealand’s most notorious research scandal, on women with cervical carcinoma in situ at  Auckland Women’s Hospital, is known colloquially as “The Unfortunate Experiment.” Asking a prospective subject to sign up for a medical experiment would probably get roughly the same response...