Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What? Science Can Be Misused?

I'm almost having to stifle my irony-detector on this one:
German and French researchers whose work has been cited by the CIA and the Justice Department to help justify the legality of harsh interrogation techniques, including prolonged sleep deprivation, condemned the Bush Administration on Tuesday for misusing their scientific findings.

"It is total nonsense to cite our study in this context," said Dr. Bernd Kundermann, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the University of Marburg.

"I'm disappointed, upset, consternated and even hurt at seeing this," said Dr. S. Hakki Onen, a sleep specialist and geriatrician with the Hôpital Gériatrique A. Charial, part of the Hospices Civils de Lyon in France. "To see [the research] used in this manner is upsetting because [the CIA's] goals run counter to the therapeutic intent of our effort ... In publishing clinical findings like this, you're aware you lose control of them, because they can be read and even abused by people who may have other objectives in mind."

Kundermann and Onen are the second and third European sleep scientists to speak out this week against the CIA's use of published academic literature on sleep deprivation. On Monday, James Horne, a British researcher who was also cited by CIA medical experts in recently declassified memos, called the agency's medical reasoning "nonsense." mean that it's possible for politics to pervert science? It's possible for politics to use science to further its own ends, regardless of ethics? Oh, my. And here I thought that Obama's brand new brave new world pro-science declaration in favor of slicing and dicing embryos to get at all those tasty and lucrative stem-cells proved once and for all that science is always above politics or ethics!


If anything ought to drive the lesson home to our liberal opponents that science is quite capable of being used politically to drive things one group likes (abortion, ESCR) and also to drive things another group likes (torture) it ought to be this. But I'm sure they won't make the connection; they'll read this Time article as proof that science is strictly neutral, except when right-wing extremists use it to tweak their torture techniques. Because to be "strictly neutral" means to agree with the Left; it means to see the ripping apart of unborn children as moral, but the use of sleep-deprivation studies to foster torture in interrogation as immoral.

Both are immoral, and science has nothing to say about that, because science is not capable of any sort of internal morality or ethics. That the scientists objecting to the CIA's use of their work have ethical objections is laudable and honorable; but they don't get those objections from science itself, because science itself has none.

I found the remarks of one scientist quoted by Time to be particularly insightful:

Speaking from Germany, Kundermann said he was powerless to stop others from misusing his scientific work. "There's nothing we can do to defend ourselves against this kind of thing. There have always been people that were nonexperts and would take results out of context and use them for their political objectives," he said. "Information has always been misused."

Indeed it has. And ESCR is a misuse of scientific information, too, even if some scientists, and even the federal government, are perfectly fine with it. Ethics isn't a matter of consensus, and declaring that science is free from politics when it happens to fit your political goals is the height of hubris.

No comments: