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Who Bloody Well Cares Whether Torture is Effective?


Lots of people are still wasting their breath arguing about how effective torture may be. Now, Joshua Tucker of the Monkey Cage is ruminating about the ethical responsibility of social scientists to weigh in on the debate:

“Which leads to another question: should social scientists be 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?

At Foreign Policy, Dan Drezner takes a clear-cut position.

I, too, would welcome good empirical findings showing that torture does not work, but my answer to Josh’s questions are “no.” You have to publish your findings regardless of what you discover. That’s the only way this business can work.

I’m with Dan on the importance of not hiding research findings. But this whole discussion misses the mark. Torture probably does work occasionally. But so what? The whole point of the anti-torture regime is to stay the Inquisitor’s hand even when it’s in our interest to torture. If we only refused to torture when/if there was no conflict with our self-interest, the rule would be unnecessary. Torture is wrong because it’s wrong, not because it’s never effective.

So the ethical problem for social scientists begins not when the numbers have been crunched (actually, they already have been), but when we frame the question in the first place. The more we get into the study of torture’s effectiveness, the more we legitimate the idea that effectiveness matters. It shouldn’t.

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