Toward a Science of Torture?

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  • May 16, 2017

Does torture “work?” Proponents, including President Trump and the architects of CIA “Enhanced Interrogation” say it does, by breaking terrorists’ resistance to revealing information that saves lives. Torture’s foes typically dismiss this claim as false to the point of fraud – fortuitous coincidence with torture’s unlawfulness. Neither view, I argue herein, rests firmly on evidence. Rival anecdotes, not data, have, so far, driven this debate. And a scientific answer is beyond our reach, since: (1) rigorous comparison between interrogation methods that do and don’t involve torture isn’t possible, and (2) studies of this sort would be transparently unethical. This hasn’t stopped the CIA from pursuing a research-based answer. Recently-released documents, reviewed here for the first time, reveal that the Agency looked to science for a resolution and raise the explosive possibility that the CIA conducted a clandestine program of human-subjects research on the risks and efficacy of torture. What can be said, based on the available science, is that there’s no evidence that torture is more effective than lawful interrogation, and some reason to suspect that interviewing strategies grounded in state-of-the-art understandings of persuasion and cognition work best of all. What can also be said is that: (1) America’s post-9/11 torture program wrecked lives, and (2) torture has wide appeal, as symbolic riposte to the powerlessness many feel in the face of vertiginous economic and cultural change.

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