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Tony Hartin | DESY | Germany

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Bad Science

Its a lovely sunny Friday afternoon in Hamburg, and the weekend looks equally good weather wise. I should be in a great mood and have a jolly physics tale to tell. I find, however, I’ve been disturbed all week about the release of the CIA torture memos and the subsequent pronouncement that the torturers had no need to fear as there was no intention to prosecute them – “it was a time for reflection”, not justice. This reassurance had to be quickly followed up by a visit to CIA headquarters with the message that they had done a great job.

Now I’m not an ethicist or a lawyer. I will not attempt to understand the apparent contradiction between something which is morally repugnant and illegal (as well as ineffective) on one hand, and a “good job, well done” on the other. Likewise I’m sure I dont understand the legal subtleties in the position that torture under direction from the previous administration was legal, and, say, the Nuremberg defence of the Nazis – that they were only following orders.

No what my concern properly should be is the “science of torture”. For make no mistake, a lot of research time and effort has been spent in trying to understand how to break a person. A lot of the modern research was based on CIA funded studies from the 1950s and “experimented” on in places like Vietnam and Central America. One conclusion was that medieval type tortures (of which waterboarding is one) fail consistently to produce reliable information. As a case in point, we learn from the recent memos that one victim was water tortured 288 times. Presumably there were still one or two items he forgot to mention after the first couple of dozen sessions. Or perhaps he successfully managed to endure 287 successive boardings and then suddenly gave in on the 288th out of sheer boredom.

What was discovered, in the ever refining art of torture, was that other methods may be preferable

“Guantanamo Bay turned into a de-facto behavioral science laboratory,” McCoy told LiveScience, where sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain—allowing a detainee who had stood for hours to sit if he would only “cooperate”—regularly took place. […] Though captives are less resentful when tortured psychologically, it doesn’t make their statements any more trustworthy

Now that sounds like my sort of torture. Anyone who has stood in a bank queue in the UK knows that they could put up with that almost indefinitely if pressed. A point complained upon by one Washington bureaucrat privy to the memos, who himself “had to stand for 8 hours behind his desk all day” (why?) – couldn’t they find something tougher? Its not all fun and games however

You simply make somebody stand for a day or two. And as they stand – okay, you’re not beating them, they have no resentment – you tell them, “You’re doing this to yourself. Cooperate with us, and you can sit down.” And so, as they stand, what happens is the fluids flow down to the legs, the legs swell, lesions form, they erupt, they separate, hallucinations start, the kidneys shutdown.”

I dont want to go on at length about how torture – psychological as well as physical – hasn’t helped. How almost all released prisoners from Guantanamo have had no charges filed against them or have been found not guilty. How after 8 years of war we are further away from an end to terrorism than ever.

Presumably if a whole swathe of people have a grievance against you because they perceive that they have been mistreated in the past, then torturing some of their innocent number wont help soothe them. You can’t torture or kill everyone with a grievance. Even the most hardened hawk must get sick of infinite war sooner or later.

What my real concern, as a scientist, is what sort of people carry our ‘research’ like this? I like to think of myself as a person engaged in science because I see the value in knowledge for its own sake. What can we say of ‘scientists’ with stop watches and notebooks who try to find out the quickest method for dehumanising a person? Could we excuse Josef Mengele as being primarily concerned with advancing medical science?

Of course not. The conclusion I come to is that you can’t separate Science from Society, or indeed Politics, Law or Morality. This must be because, as a human endeavour Science is related to all other fields of human activity. As a physicist I know who went for an interview at a well known multinational arms manufacturer and who was asked whether he minded doing research on things that killed people, I can state that there is such a thing as Bad Science.


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