Research on torture: Should we put limits on what topics researchers can study?

Recently, in a blog entry on The Monkey Cage, Joshua Tucker (a professor of politics at NYU) posed a difficult question: Should social scientists be conducting research on torture? I’ve simplified the question somewhat here for the purpose of being as clear as possible while also recognizing that this is a complex and sensitive issue.

Here is a link to the original blog entry: <a href="
” target=”_blank”>Torture, Social Science, and Ethical Responsibility

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?

Tucker discusses whether social scientists who study torture should only publish results if they provide support for the argument against the use of torture in any context. He notes that he would support the publication of good empirical findings that would “come out in one particular direction”, i.e. against torture, but that publishing results in the other direction might be problematic.

Tucker’s question about the notion of having a “social science code of ethics” which would set certain research topics off limits is a thorny one. First, it would be more than challenging to find an agreed-upon list of what kinds of topics should — and shouldn’t — be studied. If you look back to a previous blog entry entitled “Oral Sex (Yes, Oral Sex) and Academic Freedom”,we talked about how certain politicians in Georgia wanted to stop academic research into sexual behaviours (such as oral sex and male prostitution). Depending on your beliefs about any of a number of controversial societal issues as well as your views on the importance of furthering scientific knowledge, you might be for or against certain kinds and topics of research. But in a diverse society, could we all agree on what topics should be off limits for researchers? Obviously not. Tucker notes that banning research on particular problematic topics might well be “an affront to intellectual freedom” and I agree with that statement. But the concern about banning research on particular problematic topics isn’t just about intellectual freedom. It’s also, arguably, about what we might miss out on learning if we disallow research on topics that are considered to be controversial or even unethical.

When we’re talking about unethical research, we’re usually talking about classic teaching cases in research ethics such as <a href="
” target=”_blank”>Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Study. Both these projects, in different ways, involved the deceptive and blatantly unethical treatment of human subjects. However, even the harshest critic of both these studies has to acknowledge — perhaps begrudgingly — that we learned more from these two studies than simply how to better treat human participants. From Milgram’s work, we have learned more not only about the social phenomenon of extreme obedience to authority but also about compliance and conformity more generally. Zimbardo’s work has informed inquests into the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and has provided valuable insight into the reasons why cults are so effective. Both studies have helped psychologists and other behavioural scientists as they work to answer the question of “why good people do bad things”.

There’s a difference between unethical research and research on topics we consider to be “unethical” — like torture or discrimination or violent crime, to cite some examples. These topics have much to teach us about human nature — even the negative aspects. Both Milgram and Zimbardo’s projects were considered to be “unethical”, not because of the topics the researchers explored, but because of the way in which they were conducted. Reflection on these and other cases of unethical research has resulted in a focus on the way in which research is conducted: guidelines for the ethical conduct of research, the review, approval and oversight of research by ethics review boards and discipline-specific codes of conduct for ethically sound research, e.g. the requirement for debriefing in most psychology human-subject research. So, we can — and should — address issues of process in research in an attempt to ensure that research is conducted in an ethical manner. However, should we put limits on the kinds of topics social science researchers should be exploring? I think not.

~ by Nancy Walton on May 15, 2009.

6 Responses to “Research on torture: Should we put limits on what topics researchers can study?”

  1. “However, should we put limits on the kinds of topics social science researchers should be exploring? I think not.” is problematic. Do you mean should we actively stop others?

    When we make choices, we exclude others. One path of inquiry closes others. Ethical decision making blocks ‘unethical’ choices. And a culturally influenced decision what is important blocks what is deemed unimportant. So to ask whether we should put limits is a problem because it doesn’t acknowledge that we already DO put limits on what topics researchers can study, but we ignore those limits, and leave them as unproblematized. And I think that that is the worst error.

  2. The above is a good point: every time we choose to research Topic A, we are thereby choosing NOT to research Topics B, C, D, etc.

    But the question posed by Tucker (and I think by Nancy) is really whether we ought to put <>further<> limits on research. Should we impose either social sanctions (e.g., not sitting next to torture researchers at lunch) or harder sanctions (e.g., excluding torture researchers from research funding, or from counting such research toward tenure & promotion, etc.)?

  3. I think the confusion arises from the mistaken notion that research into a subject somehow legitmates that subject. It is in this way that the Georgia oral sex/male prostitution case and the torture case overlap. Whatever the results would have been, the very fact of the research being done called into question the ‘facts’ which the Georgia legislators already professed to know about oral sex etc. The same is true, in a way, of torture research, although here we have two competing beliefs being challenged by the possibility of research: 1) To those who believe torture works and is thus OK, the notion of research threatens to expose the likelihood that they are wrong. 2) To those who believe that torture is wrong – and these are the people most likely to be condemning social science research into the subject – the idea of research on torture serves to question their deply-held conviction that torture is, as a matter of moral fact, wrong. In short, calls to ban social science research into certain subjects tend to be driven by moral claims about the subject itself. It’s rather like arguing that Agatha Christie shouldn’t have written about murder because it makes murder seem OK.

    (I realize the above may be construed as equating oral sex with torture, but really, it depends how you do it)

  4. I’d be worried about a general prohibition on research on torture by social scientists. Nobody is served by a failure to understand torture – neither those prepared to defend its use, nor those like myself who support an unconditional prohibition of torture. As it is, the last 8 years of debate on the ethics of torture is dominated by enormous empirical ignorance – which in my view makes it much easier for torture apologists to make a case.

    Clearing up the empirical details puts opponents of torture on extremely strong ground. In any event, torture is ill-understood and to oppose it we need to understand what it is, how it works, what it does to its victims, to the torturers, and its impacts on torturing societies. A general ban on research would, if effective, simply prevent us from understanding such a violent phenomenon.

    Extremely important work, for example Darius Rejali’s seminal book Torture and Democracy, is in some sense research into torture. so is the psychiatric work of Mary Fabri, the forensic anthropological work of Eric Stener Carlson, Ervin Staub’s work on the roots of genocide, Kelman’s work on institutional violence. All of these contribute importantly to our understanding of torture and are either directly or indirectly forms of research into torture.

    That having been said, in principle social scientists might face similar dilemmas as that experienced by psychologists, doctors and nurses – of actually participating directly and/or indirectly in torture, and of conducting research designed to enhance the torturing capacities of a given state. Surely a general prohibition on that, and on all research projects that piggyback off the actual torture of victims, would be valuable.


  5. Only an educated fool would assert that it is worthwhiel to pursue knowledege from unethical and criminal science experimentation. The petty little knowledge learned form your cited experiments was obvious. It is obnoxious that you would suggest that the petty and obvious knowledge gleaned from the death and destruction of 6 million jews, now dead or with destroyed lives was worth it. In addition, there are other obvious alternative ethical means with which to garner information which include stem cell research and computer modeling. In additoin, some experimentation should not be conducted until it is safe for all. The world is better of with moral courage from its leaders than a new wave of justified Nazi prison camps for educated fools and sociopaths.

  6. Lynn,

    I’m not sure if you are referring to the actual posting or to one of the comments. None of the experiments that I cited as examples of “unethical research” has any connection to the Holocaust, to my knowledge.


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