Torture, Social Science, and Ethical Responsibility

by Joshua Tucker on May 8, 2009 · 30 comments

in Uncategorized

John’s post yesterday and the recent CNN Poll on public support for a “torture investigation” of policies carried out by the Bush administration returned my thoughts to a question that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Clearly, an argument can be made against the use of torture on ethical grounds. Similarly, we can make an argument against torture on the grounds that our troops will be more at risk in the field if it is known that the US tortures its enemies. We can also make arguments against torture on national security grounds based on the assumption that being known as a country that is willing to torture its enemies will hurt us in our battle for “hearts and minds” wherever we may face adversaries, even up to the point of encouraging people to join organizations like Al Qeada. We can even make more indirect arguments about how torture harms US national security by providing cover for quasi-authoritarian regimes to back track from from respect for civil rights generally, thus leaving the world with fewer consolidated democracies, which tend to pose less of a threat to the US.

Nevertheless, it does seem that a significant number of Americans always want to come back to “24” style scenarios, where a ticking bomb is about to blow up an American stadium somewhere and some terrorist holds the code to defusing it but won’t talk. Even absent this kind of extreme scenario, there is a belief – not exactly discouraged by Dick Cheney – that torture could help save American lives by revealing information about terrorist plots. There are a lot of arguments floating around in the blogosphere and media now about whether torture does in fact yield valuable intelligence information, and as I read them I thought, wow, here’s a place where good social research with modern methodological tools could really make an important contribution to a policy debate (which, not coincidentally, is one of the goals of this blog).

But here’s where things get complicated. My original thought was that good social science research that shows that torture does not extract useful intelligence information would be the final nail in the coffin in any public argument in support of torture. But what happens if one of us gets access to the relevant data, does the empirical analysis, and then discovers the opposite: that torture does lead to useful intelligence information. What do you do then? Sit on the results? Would any political science journal publish such a paper? How would that look in a tenure review? (“Right, she’s the one who said torture was valuable…”).

Which leads to another question: should social scientists by engaging in research where we only want to share the results if they come out in one particular direction? I personally believe US national security is harmed by the use of torture in any form by our government, so I would welcome good empirical findings that provide added weight to arguments against the use of torture. But despite that goal, should I actually engage in research if I’m not willing to accept (or publish) findings to the contrary? Do we need some sort of social science code of ethics that sets certain research topics off limits? (e.g., something equivalent to doctors refusing to work on projects about devising more effective/painful instruments of torture.) Or is that an automatic affront to intellectual freedom?

I am looking forward to seeing what others think about this topic.

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