Torture: does it actually work?


5:17 pm - April 26th 2009

by Martin Robbins    


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In the current debate over the Bush administration’s use of torture, most of the discussion has been around the moral and ethical dilemmas involved, with the strongest argument in favour being the infamous ‘ticking bomb’ scenario.

But in fact these arguments and make-believe situations are irrelevent if torture doesn’t work in the first place. On my own blog I argue for evidence-based policy, and in my first piece for Liberal Conspiracy I want to explore the evidence for torture, because if those who advocate it can’t prove that it works, then they have already lost the debate.

The strongest argument in favour of torture is the so called ‘ticking bomb’ scenaro. Alan Dershowitz gave a good summary of it in the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2001:

“Everybody says they’re opposed to torture. But everyone would do it personally if they knew it could save the life of a kidnapped child who had only two hours of oxygen left before death. And it would be the right thing to do.”

It’s a compelling argument, until you start to look at the assumptions that you have to make to accept it. This argument assumes that you have the right person in custody, it assumes that this person actually has the information you need, it assumes that there isn’t a better way of getting hold of the evidence, and above all it assumes that torture is an effective way of getting that information.

One of the interesting features of this debate is that many in the military and intelligence communities seem decidedly unconviced about the effectiveness of torture. Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent with considerable experience interrogating al-Qaeda operatives, pointed out in Time that:

“When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them,” he says. “That means the information you’re getting is useless.”

He isn’t alone in this assessment – a number of former intelligence people have expressed similar views, and his words are echoed by the US Army Training Manual’s section on interrogation, which suggests that:

“…the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

The situation is further clouded by the fact that members of the Bush administration have made claims for the effectiveness of torture that have later been proven to be untrue. One such claim was that the water-boarding (simulated drowning) of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed produced vital information that allowed them to break up a plot to attack the Liberty Tower in Los Angeles in 2002.

It’s a claim that falls apart when you realise that during 2002 Shaikh Mohammed was living in Pakistan, evading capture until he was eventually found by the ISI in the Spring of 2003.

But enough anecdotes, let’s look at the science. Why wouldn’t torture be effective? Actually there are many reasons. Let’s assume that we have the right guy, and that he does in fact know the information that we need. All we need to do is beat it out of him, right?

Well, no. Suppose I start beating you around the head, demanding that you tell me that Britney Spears is in fact a supremely talented artist. Eventually, although it may take days of torture to get there, you’ll tell me what I want to hear, but that doesn’t make it true.

The second major problem is that human memory just isn’t reliable. Take a bunch of witnesses from any major news event: a bombing, 9/11, a car crash, wherever. The more people you interview, the more different stories you’ll get, because our recall of past events isn’t always very accurate. On top of that, there is a vast body of scientific literature telling us that one way to make a person’s memory even less reliable is to deprive them of sleep, or put them under great stress, or otherwise confuse them. You know, like you do with torture.

The Intelligence Science Board are entrusted with the task of providing scientific advice to the United States intelligence community. In 2006 they produced their study on ‘Educing Information‘, a collection of 11 papers studying various aspects of the science and art of interrogation. The authors of this document make the same point that I opened this article with:

Listening to the post-9/11 debate over guidelines for the interrogation of terrorist suspects, one could easily conclude that coercive methods are not only effective, but also substantially more effective than non-coercive methods in obtaining actionable intelligence from resistant sources. Even those opposed to the use of coercive methods fail to challenge this premise, exclusively focusing their arguments instead on the legal and moral issues at stake. (p130)

And this is surprising, because it’s such a weak premise. For the sake of completeness and balance it would be nice at this point to be able to show and discuss some evidence that favours the use of torture. I can’t, because in reality, as the report notes, and as I found myself as I trawled the archives searching for material for this piece:

The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information.(p130)

There just isn’t any scientific evidence, beyond a few dubious anecdotes, to show that torture works. Obviously more research is needed on the subject to know for sure, but here’s the killer point. Torture is an extreme method, and before we even reach the ethical and moral debate over its use, the effectiveness of it must be demonstrated to some reasonable degree. The burden of proof lies with the people who seek to torture. And it’s not like they don’t have plenty of past experience to draw data from.

If future governments seeking to use torture cannot meet the most basic requirement of showing that it works, then they have lost the debate.

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About the author
This is a guest post. Martin Robbins works in R&D, solving scientific problems for a small software company while finishing off his Ph.D., which covers immune system simulation and complexity. He blogs at Lay Science
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Crime ,Terrorism

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Reader comments


On my own blog I argue for evidence-based policy” … which would entail doing scientific trials which is not feasible from an ethical point of view. It is curious that the Nazis and the Japanese who were quite keen on experimenting on human subjects during the WW II era haven’t validated torture as a means of extracting information.

One thing that seems to come to mind when I read about the ticking bomb scenario is the Clever Hans effect. The idea that the torturers unwittingly know the answers to the questions that they’re asking and they force the victim to give them the answers they want. Or the victim gives the torturers the correct answer by chance.

Martin, I think it’s dangerous to approach it in this way, particularly as there are some who say it does work, and apparently believe it works. I guess you question the authority of Cheney & the DoJ.

I suggest torture should be absolutely prohibited because it is abhorrent, to say the least, whether or not it works.

And anyone in a position of interrogating someone in a real ticking bomb scenario (i.e. your victim wasn’t involved in something that happened years ago, such as 9/11), should rely on their conscience and face the consequences of their actions.

Gyges, you may be interested in this Washington Post article.

ukliberty – your washington post link didn’t work; please re-send.

@gyges “would entail doing scientific trials which is not feasible from an ethical point of view.”

Well not necessarily. As you point out, and as I alluded to, people have been using torture for a very long time, and there should be plenty of evidence available in the archives. Also, while an ethics committee would probably be a bit annoyed at the suggestion of torturing undergrad volunteers for a study, there are many things about torture than can be looked at (and indeed have been) such as the effects of sleep deprivation.

@ukliberty “Martin, I think it’s dangerous to approach it in this way, particularly as there are some who say it does work, and apparently believe it works. I guess you question the authority of Cheney & the DoJ.”

I actually think it’s safer. In the ethics debate, about half of Americans support torture in some cases (see e.g. http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/04/24/Poll-US-split-on-torture/UPI-55341240631033/ and I’m not sure what the figure is in the UK). Pointing out that there simply isn’t any sound evidence that torture works undermines that strong support, since much of it relies on the assumption that torture works.

During world war two the British operated a specialist interrogation centre for high value prisoners. These men included captured submariners and pilots who often had information of short term tactical value that would become useless if not extracted quickly. However, no physical torture was involved. There were, however, numerous psychological tricks and a degree of discomfort and sleep deprivation. Apparently it worked very well indeed, with good results and very few instances of resistant German prisoners. This did go past what would be permissible under civil law, but was within the Geneva Convention, which really should have been applied at the beginning of the campaign against Al-Qaeda.

In answer to the basic question, does torture work? There is actually plenty of evidence that it does, but also that it presents many pitfalls it the getting good quality information. To be effective as a torturer you seem to need to be pretty good at it, which means a lot of practice. That is probably the main reason why such a programme is a non-starter. An interrogation procedure based on psychological pressure can be honed and refined to a high degree without the necessity to break bodies in the process. If British of World War 2 can win a fight against national extinction without extracting German fingernails then I think we can probably do at least as well today.

Martin @0:

While the point is well made, and in general I agree with you, the ‘poor memory’ element is precisely why sleep deprivation, in particular, became part of the technique for interrogating professionals. Tradecraft used to dictate the weaving of a careful, two-layer lie, so as to convince the interrogator that you had feinted, then broken, without touching the ‘true’ layer of your legend. If you impaired someone’s memory and clarity, they’d trip over their own tongue.

If you have time for long-term work, of course, it’s a whole different story which has to do with totally altering a person’s sense of identity and reality; sleep dep, manipulating their sense of time and hunger are very powerful tools for that kind of head-game. Shakespeare illustrates the technique neatly in Act III of Taming of the Shrew That does, of course, intrinsically remove the ‘urgency’ argument.

@Steve Horgan – There are plenty of anecdotes, but precious little actual data, and this is the problem. For example, there are plenty of people who will swear blind that homeopathy works, even though it’s just water. Anecdotes are meaningless.

@John Q Publican – Thanks for an interesting point about confusion and sleep deprivation. I believe you’re right on that point, but what I would say is that showing that somebody’s story doesn’t add up is a different problem from trying to gain a specific piece of information from them.

Gyges, second try for the Washington Post link.

Martin, you seem to be assuming the public make evidence-based decisions. There is strong demand for homeopathy as part of NHS healthcare.

It is a dangerous road to go down when torture can become part of a situational ethic. If torture is wrong, then it is wrong for both moral and humanitarian reasons, and because it assumes the State’s right over the person they are holding.

If torture could be shown to work, then would it be okay? Does the end justify the means?

The people who support physical torture think it works because it would work on them. Trouble is, it would work on them because most of them are weak, pain hating cowards. Which is why most of the people in charge who put it into practice managed to avoid serving in the military when they had the chance to do so.

Steve Horgan is right that more expert psychology is much more effective, but much more expensive.

@ukliberty hell no, if I thought that I wouldn’t have a blog 😉 The point is, about half the public have no major ethical problem with torture in certain circumstances. If you want to take the debate to them, you need to challenge their assumptions, and this is a big one.

Can I just say, this is my first weekly post here, and I’m really pleased with all the interesting comments – keep them coming 🙂

It’s obvious to me that Cheney et al are withholding secret information about the whereabouts of WMD still hidden in Iraq. Could we not ship them off to Morocco and invite their secret services to see what they could extract?

Wouldn’t it be worth compromising our ethics for such a limited scientific trial?

The Army Field Manual is a good place to start…

“Experience indicates that the use of force is not necessary to gain the cooperation of sources for interrogation. Therefore, the use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

Then there’s the FBI

“Our formal guidance has always been that all personnel conduct themselves in interviews in the manner that they would in the field. along with the FBI advised that the LEA [Law Enforcement Agencies] at GTMO were not in the practice of the using and were of the opinion results obtained from these interrogations were suspect at best. BAU explained to DoD, FBI has been successful for many years obtaining confessions via non-confrontational interviewing techniques.”

And numerous intelligence officers, united in arguing that whatever torture does bring out, it certainly isn’t the truth.

“There just isn’t any scientific evidence, beyond a few dubious anecdotes, to show that torture works. Obviously more research is needed on the subject to know for sure…”

I don’t think so. We could concede that in some instances torture may provide accurate and useful information, but note that the bulk of historical, medical, legal, and military evidence undermines the efficacy of torture as an information gathering device. Furthermore, we could point out the large scale threat the practice poses to society, it devastating affects on democracy, the corrosive effect it would have on courts, the police, the military, the politicians, the effect of state sanctioned brutality on society at large.

The problem with the torture debate is that there is a torture debate. Torture and all forms of inhumane and degrading treatment are absolutely prohibited under international law, its a customary norm – in times of peace and in times war. Torture – just say no.

@ukliberty

I was very much interested in your washington post link, thanks for posting it a second time.

According to Craig Murray, waterboarding was approved to justify the Iraq war.

My thoughts on the matter are that they did it simply because they could; like the characters in Pasolini’s Salo.

It’s always the fantasy scenario that defenders of torture talk about. You have this guy. He knows where the nuke is that will blow up London. Would you torture?

You can counter-argue, you’ve chased this person that knows about the nuke. He or she’s mingled in with a crowd of 50 people in a tube, half of whom are holding babies. Do you torture the lot of them including the babies to get at this ticking nuke?

One story seems about as likely as the next.

17. Shatterface

There are two seperate issues here (a) does torture work and (b) is it ever morally justified.

(a) People will confess to anything under torture, as anyone who ever gave another kid a Chinese burn until he said yes, he sucked big dicks. In such a case evidence is useless. However if you twist his arm until he coughs up where he’s hidden his pocket money you’ll eventually be able to check if he’s telling the truth. This is more analogous to the ticking bomb scenario: if there’s a bomb and he tells you were it is the bomb itself will be proof he was telling the truth. Uncorroborated evidence is useless but corroborated evidence is not.

This is entirely a seperate issue from (b): the moral justification. This is based on a form of ‘utilitarian’ accountancy: the end ‘justifies’ the means because it saves more life in the long run. This is not a tenable arguement even in utilitarian terms since an acceptance of torture might very well lead to more lifeloss in the long run. More than that, the extension of utilitarian reasoning to other human interactions leads logically to ‘justifying’ killing an innocent person to harvest his organs to save two others.

In contrast to utilitarianism is the ‘deontology’ of Kant and others. Deontology judges acts based on their intrinsic qualities, not their consequences. Torture is inherantly wrong, whatever the end. There’s a fascinating chapter in Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought which explores the language we use when debating the so-called ‘trolly problem’ to show that we are genetically predisposed towards deontology.

The reason most of the liberal Left respond with horror to the notion of torture is that we are not, at heart, utilitarian. This is entirely natural.

The authoritarian Left, however, is as utilitarian as the authoritarian Right: this is why it is so easy for ex-Trots to swing to the Right with age: the end still justifies the means for them, it’s just that they’ve changed the end which they wish to achieve.

Maybe if the Bush administration had listened to the CIA before 9/11 lives could have been saved.

CIA officials have testified to Congress that when they went to Cheney in early 2001 and warned about Bin Laden and attacks on America they were told….. ‘just bring me things on Iraq.’ Or maybe when Rice had a memo on her desk saying “Bin Laden determined to strike .” Or when people in the FBI started reporting that there were foreign guys learning to fly planes in Florida who did not want to know how to land the aeroplane.

Who needs torture when the facts are staring you right in the face.

Shatterface – Naw, bullshit. Utilitarianism is a far sturdier construct than that. For one thing it is centred in reality and for as long as humans operate within a world where effect follows cause it is outcome we are going to have to focus upon, rather than some bizarre imaginary “intrinsic” we tear from the ether. Deontology works fine if there is a God to work towards, without one it makes no sense at all.

Which is why you can’t hypothetic away the validity of utilitarianism. Which is exactly what the “Ticking Timebomb” scenario does. It has literally never arisen and there is no indication that it ever shall. Accordingly it is a matter of immensely small importance. What does matter is the impact which torture has in real security investigations. & the results are in: we torture a bunch of garbled nonsense from largely innocent people who fantasise what they (correctly) imagine their torturers want to hear. The consequence is intelligence agents and police forces running around wasting massive amounts of time and public money pursuing phantoms.

That’s reality. Suffering for nothing. Utilitarianism can’t justify this, any more than the claptrap genetic determinism you cite can be falsified.

20. Shatterface

The ‘trolly problem’, by the way, is this: a bunch of railworkers are working on a track and a trolly is rolling downhill towards them. They have their backs to the trolly and cannot hear your shouts because they are using power tools. You have just one chance to save them: to pull a lever and divert the train onto another track. Unfortunately this will divert it onto another track where it will crush another railworker. For a utilitarian this is a no-brainer: killing one person to save a few lives is justified. It would also be morally justified to derail the train by tossing a fat person on the line (in this example, we are assuming that you are too light to derail the train by an act of self-sacrifice).

To the deontologist, deliberately committing an act which leads to the death of another – even where more lives would otherwise be lost – is a greater evil because of the active role you are playing.

Utilitarianism is ‘agent-neutral’: events are justified by their outcome, not the means or motivation. Deontology is ‘agent-specific’: it is about the actions taken, not their consequences.

For a utilitarian torture could be justified by the outcome: preventing a bomb going off. For the deontologist it is the actions of the interrogator which are at issue, not the outcome. The victims of the bomb, like the victims of the trolly, are are the victims of other agents or circumstances, not the person who refuses to violate their deontological ethics even in extreme circumstances.

The bomb is a fantasy. Only fantasy utilitarians need concern themselves with it.

Same goes for the trolly.

23. Shatterface

Okay, James. You’re Dirty Harry and the Scorpio Killer has a teenage girl buried alive. He’s admitted this and he’s laughing in your face. There’s no question he did it. A more realistic scenario than the ticking bomb.

What does utilitarianism have to say which prevents you from stamping on his bullet wound until he tells you where she’s buried?

24. Shatterface

That’s a hypothetical situation by the way. They’re not exactly unknown in philosophy. Simply saying that something has never happened isn’t an argument for burying your head in the ground.

I really don’t see why an ethical theory should concern itself with preposterous fantasy, instead of the real world in which we act. Dirty Harry is a far right fantasy Clint Eastwood spent the latter part of his career in penitence for rather than a scathing piece of acute and accurate social commentary for a reason, you know.

& no, it is very important that we emphasise the impossibility of and reject the usage of the “Ticking Timebomb”. That absurd instance of right wing myth was used extensively by torture apologists & led to America becoming both a blood stained & a less safe place, as well as damaging the lives of hundreds of CIA victims forever. That is a reality we should consider: the stuff of fantasy supporting a horrific actuality. I have no time for let’s pretend politics.

27. Shatterface

I wasn’t advocating Dirty Harry’s stance, I was stating that you can’t argue against his actions from a utilitarian viewpoint. It should be clear from what I’ve written that I am more sympathetic to deontology.

Dismissing arguements as hypothetical is a cop-out. Will you be absenting yourself from all future arguments involving hypotheticals?

We need a deeper ethical objection than ‘it probably won’t happen’ and utilitarianism – the philosophy of accountants – isn’t it.

28. Shatterface

I should probably point out that asking you if you’ll absent yourself from hypothetical arguments is actually a hypothetical question.

But no deontological theory (especially not Kant’s, with his bizarre assumption that everyone wants to live in the same sort of world) pays proper heed to reality. And reality is where your actions have their impact. Trying to invalidate an ethical theory using fantasy is absurd. This is why I do indeed exempt myself from hypotheticals wherever possible (and it’s a lot more often than you’d think!), especially when it’s pretended that there is some impact for ethical theory based upon reality rather than empty imaginings. Being fantasy-proof isn’t what they’re for, providing a framework for navigating your existing surroundings and guiding your actions is.

& utilitarianism proves far superior at that to any deontological approach. Unless of course you imagine that there’s some god or equivalent that your behaviour is keeping happy.

(& accountants distort utilitarianism risibly. They assume that wealth = happiness, so far as I can tell. An absurdity which merits its own article to tear apart at length.)

@James and @Shatterface: This is exactly the sort of debate that I think can be sidestepped given the current state of the evidence. At the moment, there is no utilitarian argument because the body of evidence we have on torture doesn’t suggest that it’s reliable.

To put it another way, the Ticking Bomb example only works to persuade people because of the assumptions hidden within it. If you challenge those assumptions, it falls apart.

Well yes Martin, precisely. I do believe that that was my initial argument.

I shall repeat, the impact of torture in reality is that:

“we torture a bunch of garbled nonsense from largely innocent people who fantasise what they (correctly) imagine their torturers want to hear. The consequence is intelligence agents and police forces running around wasting massive amounts of time and public money pursuing phantoms.”

@James: “we torture a bunch of garbled nonsense from largely innocent people who fantasise what they (correctly) imagine their torturers want to hear. The consequence is intelligence agents and police forces running around wasting massive amounts of time and public money pursuing phantoms.”

Perfect summary.

33. Shatterface

Martin, are you suggesting for instance, that none of the Resistance members tortured by the Nazis gave them information which lead to other Resistance members or that nobody tortured by the Soviets gave up valuable information?

I’m not talking about forced ‘confessions’, which are obviously unreliable, I’m talking about information that lead to the uncovering of arms caches, hidden radios, etc. which provide material proof that the torture victim was telling the truth, truth he would not have given up otherwise?

It takes only one such case to demolish the utilitarian argument that torture ‘does not work’, which is why we need a stronger argument than you are offering.

The Army Field Manual is an irrelevant source in this debate. Those who make such decisions made the sensible distinction between basic interrogation as carried out by soldiers — i.e. people whose job is not interrogation — and highly skilled interrogation carried out by people whose speciality is intelligence-gathering. The Army Field Manual was written for the former. The current debate around torture involves what the latter should be alllowed to do.

http://current.com/items/76347282_getting-waterboarded.htm

@shatterface “Martin, are you suggesting for instance, that none of the Resistance members tortured by the Nazis gave them information which lead to other Resistance members or that nobody tortured by the Soviets gave up valuable information?”

You’re talking about anecdotes, not data. I’ve no doubt there are cases of people giving up useful information under torture, but that doesn’t mean that torture reliably works or is effective.

Let me put it another way. If for every 1 case of torture working, there are 9 cases where it led to false testimony wasting the time of investigators, then it just doesn’t work in any practical sense. It’s not enough to say “it worked once”, by “works” what I mean is it has to be a reliably effective treatment, as demonstrated by statistical analysis of a sufficiently large group of cases. Like we would for a drug, for example.

It is also false to assume that getting incorrect information out of an interrogation is useless. Military intelligence has well established techniques for analysing the information that is given to them in order to divine the information that is being hidden from them. When an espionage agent lies, they don’t just do it randomly; they give a rehearsed lie that has been designed to give their enemy carefully calibrated misinformation. The nature of that misinformation can be used to reveal information about what the people who designed it want their interrogators to think, and therefore what they might be up to. This started in the Second World War, and they got good at it then, and they’ve had a lot more practice now.

I’m with ukliberty: this is a moral argument, not a practical one. If your reason for rejecting torture is that there’s no evidence it works, what sort of a position are you in if someone produces the evidence? Me, I’d rather be rejecting it for moral reasons than practical ones.

Martin, are you suggesting for instance, that none of the Resistance members tortured by the Nazis gave them information which lead to other Resistance members or that nobody tortured by the Soviets gave up valuable information?

Largely torture was used by those regimes, and all draconic ones, to intimidate (generate a mood of terror & to let all who would rise up know that they would not cleanly become martys but would experience the outer reaches of agony before being allowed, finally, to expire) and to exact false confessions. Torture was used to make people lie, not to tell the truth. To confess, as did the senior Trotskyites, that they were engaged in truly superhuman crimes such as sabotaging factories and sprinkling crushed class in worker’s food while under full party supervision without attracting any attention. People will come out with anything while they’re being tortured.

Now what does this tell you?

I’m not talking about forced ‘confessions’, which are obviously unreliable, I’m talking about information that lead to the uncovering of arms caches, hidden radios, etc. which provide material proof that the torture victim was telling the truth, truth he would not have given up otherwise?

Ah right! So you want us to ignore the actual usages of torture entirely. You want us to fantasise.

You also want to pretend that there is some magical division placed down between imagined events and imagined crimes. A plot executed is somehow distinct from a plot planned. I’m afraid not: when you are subjected to torture and told it will only end when you spill, you spill. The veracity is secondary to the act.

It takes only one such case to demolish the utilitarian argument that torture ‘does not work’, which is why we need a stronger argument than you are offering.

Are we crafting policy here or artifice?

It is also false to assume that getting incorrect information out of an interrogation is useless. Military intelligence has well established techniques for analysing the information that is given to them in order to divine the information that is being hidden from them. When an espionage agent lies, they don’t just do it randomly; they give a rehearsed lie that has been designed to give their enemy carefully calibrated misinformation. The nature of that misinformation can be used to reveal information about what the people who designed it want their interrogators to think, and therefore what they might be up to.

Or: we torture innocents dragged in off the street for looking at their next door neighbours goat funny, or by a mercenary out for cash, and they blurt out all sorts of nonsense in their stunned terror. I suspect that the instances where an insurgent actually ended up getting tortured were a rarity, certainly no majority. And insurgency is the sort of war we’re going to have to deal with, if we are stupid enough to wage any wars at all, that is.

Or are we talking about domestic terrorists? In which case how are we to know they have had any training at all?

This started in the Second World War, and they got good at it then, and they’ve had a lot more practice now.

Who is this “they”?

I’m with ukliberty: this is a moral argument, not a practical one. If your reason for rejecting torture is that there’s no evidence it works, what sort of a position are you in if someone produces the evidence? Me, I’d rather be rejecting it for moral reasons than practical ones.

Both are sound.

> If for every 1 case of torture working, there are 9 cases where it led to false testimony wasting the time of investigators, then it just doesn’t work in any practical sense.

No, this is not true. Any police officer could tell you that this simply isn’t how investigations work. Most murder investigations involve chasing down loads of leads that go nowhere. Most of the suspects interviewed by the police are innocent. Most of the forensic evidence collected turns out to be insignificant. When they decide to go onto Crimewatch, they get a few thousand calls with maybe ten useful ones. That doesn’t make their techniques a waste of time; it simply demonstrates that police work involves sorting through a massive amount of chaff to get at the wheat. Military intelligence work is the same, only more so.

> Like we would for a drug, for example.

You’re not comparing like for like. With investigation work, you work on the assumption that a lot of the information is bad and you have teams of people whose job is to deal with that fact and you have extra investigators to allow for the increased workload. For example, if you’re looking for a kidnap victim, you have enough staff to search all thirty likely locations, even though the victim is only in one of them. As long as you do search that one, the team as a whole have succeeded, and therefore there is no real distinction to be drawn between the usefulness of the work done by those who searched location A and those who searched location B.

The only analogy I can think of with a drug is that you’ve got a disease that kills people in ten days and you have a drug which only cures 1% of sufferers, and you have no other effective treatment. Do you give the drug to all sufferers? Hell, yeah.

Are you taking into account how many more enemies you make yourself by torturing a largely innocent section of the local population, ST? Seems like a prime approach for anyone who wants to empower an insurgency and none other, to me…

> Who is this “they”?

What is your trouble with pronouns? Military intelligence organisations, as I stated.

I believe a lot of important work was done in the development of the field by the logicians working at GCHQ during the War.

> I suspect that the instances where an insurgent actually ended up getting tortured were a rarity, certainly no majority.

Since what Martin’s actually asked for here is a scientific debate based on evidence, I’m not sure how much weight anyone should be giving your suspicions.

> we torture innocents dragged in off the street for looking at their next door neighbours goat funny

Are there two people called James posting here? Cause the other one said

> I really don’t see why an ethical theory should concern itself with preposterous fantasy

To that other James, I would like to point out that Zacarias Moussaoui was in FBI custody after he knew about his attack but before it happened. Furthermore, the FBI were pretty sure he was up to something, but weren’t quite sure what, as evinced by their wanting a warrant. They knew it had something to do with flying planes, as it was his flight instructor who tipped them off in the first place. The Ticking Bomb Scenario is not fantasy: it happened.

42. Shatterface

‘So you want us to ignore the actual uses of torture entirely. You want is to fantasise.’

No, I’d like you to answer the question posed. Do you or do you not think that torture has ever lead to evidence which has corroborated the victims statement?

Don’t try to fob us off with arguments about other uses of torture, such as to terrorize – I’m not denying that terrorism played a huge part in it – just answer that one question.

And we are talking about past events here so you don’t have to worry your head with hypotheticals about the future.

(And quite where you get that bollocks about ‘imagined events and planned crimes’ from is beyond me as it bares no relationship to anything I’ve written.)

> Are you taking into account how many more enemies you make yourself by torturing a largely innocent section of the local population, ST?

No, because that’s not what Martin asked. As far as I can see, his entire article here is based on the premise that you’ve got a guilty party in custody, and his question regards whether torture is an effective way of getting useful information out of them.

What is your trouble with pronouns? Military intelligence organisations, as I stated.

And who was America torturing?

Since what Martin’s actually asked for here is a scientific debate based on evidence, I’m not sure how much weight anyone should be giving your suspicions.

I’ve not seen any evidence for them being.

To that other James, I would like to point out that Zacarias Moussaoui was in FBI custody after he knew about his attack but before it happened. Furthermore, the FBI were pretty sure he was up to something, but weren’t quite sure what, as evinced by their wanting a warrant. They knew it had something to do with flying planes, as it was his flight instructor who tipped them off in the first place. The Ticking Bomb Scenario is not fantasy: it happened.

So you know torturing him would have extracted the neccessaries rather than believable lies?

No, I’d like you to answer the question posed. Do you or do you not think that torture has ever lead to evidence which has corroborated the victims statement?

Don’t try to fob us off with arguments about other uses of torture, such as to terrorize – I’m not denying that terrorism played a huge part in it – just answer that one question.

And we are talking about past events here so you don’t have to worry your head with hypotheticals about the future.

I don’t think that it’s ever prevented more suffering than it’s caused. We’re still talking utilitarianism, right?

(And quite where you get that bollocks about ‘imagined events and planned crimes’ from is beyond me as it bares no relationship to anything I’ve written.)

Uh…You tried to get me to imagine I was Dirty Harry…

No, because that’s not what Martin asked. As far as I can see, his entire article here is based on the premise that you’ve got a guilty party in custody, and his question regards whether torture is an effective way of getting useful information out of them.

Point is: if the army tortured a huge number of innocent people, they’d cause a lot more bombs to go off than they would prevent. That’s resentment for you.

(And quite where you get that bollocks about ‘imagined events and planned crimes’ from is beyond me as it bares no relationship to anything I’ve written.)

But to clarify: if you can get people into a state where they’re confessing to stuff like Zinoviev ended up doing, it’s probably a similar sort of state to the one where they’d just invent plots. There’s really no distinction: Zinoviev wanted them to stop so he could get on with getting shot, so he embraced any old tosh. Tortured “terrorists” came up with plenty of fake attacks that kept the FBI busy engaging in the massive waste of time and cash phantom chasing, like I said earlier. This is reality. That’s the impact of torture, as it happened.

I’d like to add that that’s actually about as far from the utilitarian ideal as it is possible to get.

> if the army tortured a huge number of innocent people, they’d cause a lot more bombs to go off than they would prevent.

You know, if we’re talking about evidence, we can actually look at societies where the state tortured a huge number of innocent people. All of Soviet-era Eastern Europe, for a start. I’m not convinced that you’ve analysed that evidence.

> So you know torturing him would have extracted the neccessaries rather than believable lies?

No, I don’t. Quite the contrary: I do know that Al Qaeda give their agents training in resisting torture (as do we), so he might well have resisted. None of which is the point. The point is that you said this:

> Which is why you can’t hypothetic away the validity of utilitarianism. Which is exactly what the “Ticking Timebomb” scenario does. It has literally never arisen and there is no indication that it ever shall. Accordingly it is a matter of immensely small importance. … The bomb is a fantasy.

It literally has happened, quite recently and famously.

That’s not the only example, but it is a very famous one. In any war, it is not unusual for men to be captured who know about impending military actions.

You appear to be arguing with me as if you think I’m arguing in favour of torture. For someone who professes to detest hypothetical fantasies so much, you don’t half construct a lot of them.

I shan’t be back, as debating with people who insist on arguing with what they’re imagining you think instead of what you’ve actually said is too much of a waste of time even for me.

http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/faq/#commentspolicy

You know, if we’re talking about evidence, we can actually look at societies where the state tortured a huge number of innocent people. All of Soviet-era Eastern Europe, for a start. I’m not convinced that you’ve analysed that evidence.

Hence the Soviet Union still existing, of course.

No, I don’t. Quite the contrary: I do know that Al Qaeda give their agents training in resisting torture (as do we), so he might well have resisted.

If we are talking about military situations, the majority of the tortured won’t be Al-Q. Aren’t the majority in Taliban, aren’t the majority in Iraq, aren’t anywhere.

None of which is the point. The point is that you said this:

> Which is why you can’t hypothetic away the validity of utilitarianism. Which is exactly what the “Ticking Timebomb” scenario does. It has literally never arisen and there is no indication that it ever shall. Accordingly it is a matter of immensely small importance. … The bomb is a fantasy.

It literally has happened, quite recently and famously.

That’s not the only example, but it is a very famous one. In any war, it is not unusual for men to be captured who know about impending military actions.

You appear to be arguing with me as if you think I’m arguing in favour of torture. For someone who professes to detest hypothetical fantasies so much, you don’t half construct a lot of them.

I shan’t be back, as debating with people who insist on arguing with what they’re imagining you think instead of what you’ve actually said is too much of a waste of time even for me.

http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/faq/#commentspolicy

I know you aren’t in favour of torture.

50. Shatterface

I’ve already stipulated to the fact that uncorroborated ‘confessions’ are worthless, do I really have to go through that again?

A confession which leads to corroborative evidence is a different matter, however: no matter how many finger-nails you pull nobody can spontaniously generate an arms cache by a declarative act alone.

I take it that ‘I don’t think it has ever prevented more suffering than it caused’ is a tacit confession that there are incidences where it has succesfully lead to useful information?

The reason that information extracted this way is that ethical people do not commit acts of torture, tyranical states do. Information extracted by the Nazis, the Soviet Union or the Inquisition for that matter was hardly going to have a benificial effect. If a torturer extracts information to his advantage of course that will lead to more suffering.

Honestly, it’s like pulling teeth.

51. Shatterface

Sorry, should read ‘the reason that the information extracted this way has increased suffering is that ethical people do not…’ etc.

I’ve already stipulated to the fact that uncorroborated ‘confessions’ are worthless, do I really have to go through that again?

No, since I didn’t claim otherwise.

A confession which leads to corroborative evidence is a different matter, however: no matter how many finger-nails you pull nobody can spontaniously generate an arms cache by a declarative act alone.

People can come up with all sorts of things given the right motivation. That’s what US intelligence found. They get told what they want to hear. Which is often worse than worthless.

I take it that ‘I don’t think it has ever prevented more suffering than it caused’ is a tacit confession that there are incidences where it has succesfully lead to useful information?

I think a lot of problems comes from somehow mistaking whether utilitarianism is associated with the precise notion of ‘pleasure’ or the far more abstract one of ‘function’.

The reason that information extracted this way is that ethical people do not commit acts of torture, tyranical states do. Information extracted by the Nazis, the Soviet Union or the Inquisition for that matter was hardly going to have a benificial effect. If a torturer extracts information to his advantage of course that will lead to more suffering.

Additionally, there’s the entire innocent:guilty ratio. Or to put it in more neutral terms: useful:useless.

Honestly, it’s like pulling teeth.

lol

53. Shatterface

‘People can come up with all sorts of things given the right kind of motivation’

Hence my emphasis on corroborative evidence. No matter how much you torture a subject you cannot get him to divilge the wereabouts of an arms cache (for instance) that neither you nor he know about.

And I think arguments about innocence: guilty ratio is playing into the hands of the pro-torture lobby because it poses the question of what innocence: guilty ratio would be acceptable. It’s like arguing about the death penalty from a position which says it is wrong because it might lead to the execution of an innocent person rather than because the execution of prisoners is wrong in all circumstances, no matter what outrages they have committed and no matter how strong the case against them: that is why I opposed the death penalty against Saddam Hussein despite an absolute conviction about his guilt.

Forgive me a few historical notes:

1. Most of the medieval ‘torture’ implements and practices did not, as people today seem to believe, have any investigative function. They were punitive; that is, they were things you did to someone who you already knew was guilty. [1] The value of ‘knew’ varied a bit from place to place and time to time. The rack and ‘pressing’ were the only two I can think of that were systematically used for interrogative purposes, and usually it was an attempt (as noted by several above) to get officially witnessed confessions to things the interrogators already thought they knew about.

2. The Inquisition was originally created as an attempt to leash the Hounds of God [2] and bring them back under control. In that it was very much like the RIPA: by which I mean it was an attempt to regulate and control an over-zealous and irresponsible group of enforcers which back-fired hideously. The attempt to muzzle the friars created instead an official industry of locally appointed, quasi-educated idiotszealots who seized on any breakdown of centralised authority as a opportunity for a heretic-hunt. There’s a damn good reason that the vast majority of witch-finding mania in the period happened, firstly, in the German states where central authority was always weak, and secondly (as far as Britain is concerned) during the Puritan’s civil war, when central authority was almost entirely suspended for a decade or two.

3. The British debate over the utility of interrogative torture dates back at the very least to the era of Henry VII. There was a distinct problem with amateur torturers killing people by accident. The professionals in the tower were the only ones with any proven track record, and the head of their profession at the time of the Boleyn Crisis once wrote that given a week he could break any man, and given a month he might learn their secret heart. This is part of why our view is slightly more advanced, on average, than the US view: we’ve been arguing about it for very considerably longer.

4. Serious intelligencers of the era always relied on human intelligence for investigation. Their use of torture (see point 1) was almost entirely restricted to the following exchange: “See these things we’re doing to this guy? Yes, that guy over there, the one screaming. These are the things we won’t do to you if you tell us everything you know, right now. Here’s the Bishop’s secretary, he’ll write it all down.” [3] The same Master at the tower was also recorded as saying that any man strong enough to withstand the showing of the implements was unlikely to say anything of note once they were used, for his mind would break before his will.

So, on with the motley:

Martin @7:

Thanks for an interesting point about confusion and sleep deprivation. I believe you’re right on that point, but what I would say is that showing that somebody’s story doesn’t add up is a different problem from trying to gain a specific piece of information from them.

My point wasn’t so much about showing someone’s story didn’t add up; it’s about tripping a professional on their own lies, and using those lies to unwrap their psyche until you can convince them that the sun is the moon (hence my Shakspearean reference).

The essence of interrogation is not physical but psychological. Anyone who has ever played a power game during sex (and done it well!) needs an instinctive understanding of this principle. It’s the applied version of the Stockholm Syndrome and we as a species have been refining it for a very long time. The way you get reliable information is to modify someone’s psychology. That takes time. A very, very good psychologist with 48 hours and access to a controlled environment can do things that would have amazed the sadists who staffed Abu Ghraib.

Use of smell cues (sulpher from a burning match, for example), use of conditioned reactions (such as those trained into soldiers: Sir! Yes, Sir!), manipulation of time sense, manipulation of apparent memory, these are all effective tools when it comes to identity compromise. Unfortunately, so are physical pain, physical pleasure, food deprivation and sleep deprivation. In fact, the most successful strategies make use of all of these in a carefully designed web. What none of them are is fast, in the way that advocates of physical torture like to think. You don’t waterboard someone 183 times if he told you anything you wanted to know during the first 182. You can’t waterboard someone very often per day without killing them. Interrogative torture does not work fast, even to the extent that it works at all.

One of the most coherent entries in the US pop-culture debate about torture and the War on Terror was made by the TV show Criminal Minds, which has variable utility as a psychological profiling primer but does do some episodes very well. A direct contrast is drawn between the efficacy of physical techniques used by Gitmo interrogators versus psychological ones used by a BAU agent. Also, a remarkably sensitive and educated portrayal of Islam vs. radical Islam, the reasons behind Islamism, the reasons behind revenge terrorism, and the underlying arrogance of the views of religious extremists. The fictional scenario is precisely the one being argued above. A bomb will go off on the first day of the new moon: we have the cell leader, we need the location. A basic element of the successful interrogation strategy is using controlled environment to manipulate the prisoner’s time sense so that they believe the event has already happened; and using psychological engagement to trick them into saying too much once they think it’s too late.

It’s not fast, but it works. Torture isn’t fast either, and it largely doesn’t work. We’ve known both these things for a very long time. Why are people even still having this argument on utilitarian grounds?

In the context of the US War on Terror: my interpretation is that physical techniques are not being used as interrogations, they’re being used as punishments. The US got very angry and hired a bunch of sadists to take out their anger on brown people. That’s really all there is to it. It’s a medieval viewpoint but then, the neo-con movement is dominated by a medieval interpretation of an ancient-world religion; why are we all so surprised they’ve disclaimed the Enlightenment?

[1] Michael Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is a very good text for understanding the scale of, and reasons for, the shift in social and legal thinking which takes place during the Enlightenment. The obsession with the punishment (or ‘cleansing’) of the body so that the immortal soul could be redeemed gives way to a more pragmatic and utilitarian model in which the primary purpose of state sanction is to protect society at large rather than to punish the individual. It’s worth noting that current evidence suggests a majority in our modern society has recanted the Enlightenment altogether, and sees punishment as the primary purpose of policing and judicial powers. LfaT would be typical of this view: viz. comments on Ian Tomlinson’s culpability for wearing plain clothes and slouching at the police.

[2] Domini Canis: Dominican friars. Humour got pretty basic for medieval monks.

[3] This version of the script is considerably less facetious than I might wish.

#23

I don’t believe the state should use torture. However, I would definitely stamp on the Scorpio Killer’s bullet wound until he told me where the person he’d buried alive was, and I’d regard anyone who wouldn’t as either weak or a moral freak. If they just couldn’t do it, fair enough. But how bizarre is it to take a principled stand that stamping on a bullet wound is wrong, when you’re in the moment and a life is at stake?

(I don’t think of myself as a utilitarian or a deontologist, by the way.)

Hence my emphasis on corroborative evidence. No matter how much you torture a subject you cannot get him to divilge the wereabouts of an arms cache (for instance) that neither you nor he know about.

But that’s assuming that an imaginary arms cache wouldn’t waste time that could be spent looking for a real o-oh fuck it. John Q annihilated all opposition two posts ago, if you’re still up for arguing why my ethical theory that says pleasure is the centre of everything makes me an objective apologist for causing agony for no purpose now then there’s no hope for you.

And I think arguments about innocence: guilty ratio is playing into the hands of the pro-torture lobby because it poses the question of what innocence: guilty ratio would be acceptable.

Until people have had trials they should be assumed innocent. Obviously.

It’s like arguing about the death penalty from a position which says it is wrong because it might lead to the execution of an innocent person rather than because the execution of prisoners is wrong in all circumstances, no matter what outrages they have committed and no matter how strong the case against them: that is why I opposed the death penalty against Saddam Hussein despite an absolute conviction about his guilt.

Like Q (I think? Fantastic attack on LfaT, btw) I believe that the justice system should have a rehabilitative or, at worst, containment function, as opposed to a punitive one. That’s the inexorable conclusion for any determinist, but let’s not even begin arguing about that one.

& yes, I’m aware that barely anyone agrees with me. That’s a pity.

(Oh, and would it be impolite to point out that a friend of Penny Red earnestly using power exchange sex games as an example to back up their point didn’t at all surprise me? 😉

#55
[1]”how bizarre is it to take a principled stand”
[2]”I don’t believe the state should use torture”

I find these two statements somewhat contradictory. Of course, the first is connected to the rider of “a life is at stake”, but when someone is about to be tortured, it is pathetically easy to imagine a ‘ticking bomb’ scenario to justify the ensuing actions. The point is, “when you’re in the moment” is [i]exactly[/i] when you have to take a principled stand. If you only obey your principles when there are no countervailing forces, you have no principles.

Interesting piece Martin, shame your point had been lost amongst the respondees with their anecdotes, hypothetical scenarios and appeals to Foucault.

Your next piece should be on why anecdotes don’t count, why hypothetical scenarios are only useful if they can be recreated in the real world and why post-modernism is a crock of shit. Oh and on the importance of arguing with evidence.

appeals to Foucault.

Your next piece should be on… why post-modernism is a crock of shit.

Now now, Foucault isn’t that bad, as pomos go. His history of madness is a sound piece of historical writing and far less radical than it is made out to be. Certainly it isn’t superb enough to merit the seemingly endless barrage of references it received at the slightest provocation (and often without any at all) in academic works of all description, seemingly as much of a reliable piece of filler as the word “essentially” & at least half as irritating, but the smearing of the absurdest excesses of the pomos all over poor Foucault’s face is hardly fair. His personal life was pretty damn weird (a pro-Iranian Islamic Revolutioner who died of AIDS? wtf?) but his actual academic work is pretty tight, if over-hyped.

That said, an “appeal to Foucault” is unquestionably a phrase I shall be stealing, at some point.

#58

I contracted my thoughts somewhat, so it’s easy to find those statements contradictory.

However, Dirty Harry knew (unless I’m remembering wrong; I’ve only seen it once) that the Scorpio Killer had the information and was culpable. What’s more, hurting him was definitely the only way that a life could be saved, and there was no other way of getting the information in time. In this circumstance taking a principled stand against torture means ignoring the suffering of the victim in order to make yourself feel better about not engaging in violence.

A state agent committing acts of torture may be relying on information given to her/him by others, who may have other interests at heart. There’s also an additional question of legality – whilst I may approve of Dirty Harry’s actions in this one instance, that doesn’t mean they should be legal. I’m not sure you can define the ticking bomb scenario in law, and any attempt to do so might encourage the use of torture in different situations. And of course there’s the possibility in many instances of torture of gaining the information through other means.

So I guess I’m suggesting the difference is one of proximity, but also I’m arguing for a division between the law and morality, and indeed against fixed moral rules (whether utilitarian or deontological) – which is one reason why I consider myself a left-communitarian rather than a liberal.

James,

Now now, Foucault isn’t that bad, as pomos go.

Hmm, I once attempted to read Discipline and Punish on the shitter whilst undergoing a prolonged constipation, I don’t know what was more painful, the excretion or the absorption.

Frankly it’s nothing more than badly written/poorly translated rhetoric based on anecdote and hearsay and thus worthless as an analytical tool.

Which leads me on to the problems with the level of debate here, it is all about political positions, personal feelings and ideological commitments. Fine. But this has nothing to do with the efficacy of torture, like Martin says, if you can’t prove it works then it is pointless even debating whether to use it or not. You might as well try and craft coathangers out of farts for all the good it will do.

@Gimpy: Glad you like the piece, and yes – my thoughts exactly.

I think over the next few weeks here I will try and cover a bit more about the role of anecdotes versus evidence. Since this is my first time writing here I’m still writing for my own audience rather than the LibCon readers, and there are things that I’d make clearer in the article if I were to do it again, but I’ll learn. I think it’s very important to explain thoroughly why anecdotes can’t form the basis for evidence-based policy.

Shatterface:

The trolley problem, in practice, is far more complex than you suggest.

For one thing, when we talk about the problem in terms of taking a deontological or utilitarian view of the problem, what we’re talking about are post hoc rationalisations of the scenario.

Hauser, in ‘Moral Minds’, provides an expanded version of the trolley problem which illustrates its complexity.

All the scenario’s start the same way – a trolley car head down a track towards five hikers who will be killed if it continues on course.

In scenario one, a passenger on the trolley has the option to flip a switch, directing it onto a sidetrack, which will save the five hikers but kill another person on that side track.

In scenario two, a bystander over bridge over the track has the option of stopping the trolley and saving the hikers, but only by pushing a fat man off the bridge into the path of the trolley to slow it down, allowing the hikers time to get away before it hits them.

In scenario three, we have a bystander who can flip a switch directing the trolley temporarily onto a sidetrack which rejoins the main track just before it reaches the hikers, so switching track alone will not save them – but, there’s a fatman on the sidetrack that will slow the trolley down if its redirected, giving the hikers time to get away.

And, in scenario four, you have same situation as in three, except that there’s a buffer on the sidetrack that will stop the trolley, but the fat man is standing in front of the buffer and will be killed if you flip the switch.

How people actually respond to those four scenarios is as follows.

One – 90% say flip the switch.

Why? Because you save five lives for the cost of one but the death of the one person is incidental to the action of flipping the switch – it the act of redirecting the trolley that saves the lives, not the death of the one person who is unfortunate enough to be in the way of the redirected trolley.

Two – 90% say don’t flip the switch.

Why? Because the fat man is being intentionally used to slow the trolley.

Three – actually breaks about 50-50 between flipping and not flipping the switch.

Again, although the fat man is intentionally being used to slow the trolley, the act which put him in harms way is an indirect one (flipping a switch) rather than a direct one (throwing him off a bridge).

Four – 75% say flip the switch.

Even though you can see that the fat man will be killed, its the buffer that actually saves the hikers’ lives, hence the death of the fat man is even more incidental to the action which causes his death, and saves the lives of the hikers.

In studies, about half the people presented with those scenarios are unable to provide a coherent reason for their choice, they simply go with what ‘feels’ right.

Of the rest, the majority rationalise their choice in terms of perceptions of intent – does the person acting in the scenario intend that fat man to die? – and differentiations between personal and impersonal harm. Flipping a switch is impersonal, throwing a man off a bridge is personal.

What’s most interesting, however, is the difference is response to scenarios two and three. if the Kantian imperative holds then both scenarios should equally be seen as morally impermissible as, in both cases, the fat man is used as a mean to an end, but that’s not how it pans out in practice – what comes out is that while a majority of people see it as wrong to deliberately cause harm as a means to a greater good, if causing harm is only a foreseen consequence of intending to cause a greater good then they’re much more likely to see the act as being morally permissible.

This is particularly relevant when it comes to attitudes to different types of torture.

Practices which intentionally cause physical harm are, for the vast majority, wholly unacceptable – at most, only about 10% of people are inclined to take a fully utilitarian view even if presented with the ticking bomb scenario.

However, practices such as sleep deprivation and even waterboarding, where there is not the same kind of direct intent to inflict harm, even if it can and does result from the practice, will garner much more ‘wiggle room’ in public perceptions.

Oops, I should add that the moral perceptions revealed by the expanded version of the trolley problem have no bearing on the question of the efficacy of torture – or rather the lack thereof.

However, they do bear out the value in addressing the question of whether or not it works (and it doesn’t) because these do show where and how its possible to mount spurious arguments in favour of certain practices by exploiting people’s moral uncertainties.

@Unity: Thanks for a fascinating comment, and I completely agree – your line of reasoning is exactly why the efficacy question is worth asking.

The only thing I will nit-pick is where you said “at most, only about 10% of people are inclined to take a fully utilitarian view even if presented with the ticking bomb scenario.” Polls (e.g. this one http://www.upi.com/Top_News/2009/04/24/Poll-US-split-on-torture/UPI-55341240631033/) have suggested that a substantial number of people can be persuaded by this sort of scenario. Of course this just strengthens your point.

Actually, on a tangent relating to your discussion of the trolley scenarios, it would be interesting to look at the results of various opinion polls on torture, and see if the way the question was posed had a significant effect on the outcome of the poll.

James @57:

What? The psychology of dominance and submission is not exactly a women-only issue. The ways one can bend a person’s sense of identity are a pretty thoroughly established academic field. I’m also over a decade older than Penny, male, and have a radically different political philosophy; for a start, she’s a lefty and I’m not… What precisely was your comment meant to add to the discussion other than an ad hominem aimed at two people, one of whom wasn’t even commenting?

Gimpy @several:

Sod post-modernism. Foucault’s philosophies are neither here nor there; the book is sound history, thoroughly substantiated. If you would like to question that, feel free to explain the shift from legal emphasis on punishment and on specifically hideous physical torture towards remedial and custodial justice through the course of the Enlightenment as effectively and coherently; and feel free to include the same quantity of primary and secondary source data, referenced and indexed.

It’s worth pointing out here as well that my email sigfile is ‘Data is not the plural of anecdote’. On that much we agree. Equally, informed comment is not the plural of ‘toilet humour’.

68. Shatterface

Martin, it only takes one ‘anecdotal’ account of the utility of torture for the utilitarian case against it to crumble.

And hypotheticals form the basis of most of our objections to New Labour’s attacks on our civil liberties. Can I take it that if anyone raises objections about the use such attacks will eventually be put you’ll be dismissing their worries out of hand?

If we’d had more people looking into the hypothetical uses anti-terrorist legislation could be put maybe we wouldn’t have to have waited until AFTER they’d been used by local authorities to use them against parents suspected of living outside catchment areas.

69. Shatterface

By the way, John Q: a good episode of Criminal Minds but Gideon’s use of the altered clock doesn’t just confuse the suspect’s sense of time where the ticking bomb is concerned, it exploirs his religious beliefs and disrupts his prayer patterns, which is a no-no.

And while there are effective non-violent ways of extracting ‘confessions’, many of them – such as offering a plee bargain to a lesser charge, or immunity, or simply offering a sympathetic shoulder to a bereaved spouse of a murder victim – are no more reliable.

Shatterface: you’re right, of course. That’s why it works; it relies on a particularly heavily conditioned response to the ‘absolute’ nature of the prayer times within any given sunlight zone. But the most significant single action of the entire interrogation was when he walked into a room and gave a badly beaten, semi-naked man some clothes and a little respect. Reciprocity works, and that’s the core of successful interrogations.

While the religious manipulation is distasteful to someone who takes religion seriously, it’s still psychology. The main reason the trick works isn’t just about time; the reason the trick works is that Gideon (I just loved seeing Mandy Patinkin again!) has spent the intervening 20 hours engaging with the suspect, talking to him, and very very cleverly playing his own assumptions and sense of identity off against his desires and anxieties. It’s all about the psychology, and that was really the only reason I used the example.

The problem is, I can’t point the general public to any of the other reasons I understand this stuff because none of them made the evening news. I grew up on a continent which still does civil wars and I have personally experienced some of what I talk about.

Martin, the point about homeopathy is that people believe in it despite the evidence. Indeed people believe in the Daily Wail when one day it says brown bread causes cancer and the next day it says brown bread prevents cancer. Some people will believe torture works no matter they perceive there is no evidence it does work – jebus, they even believe one way or the other without having any evidence at all, as can be seen in this thread.

If for every 1 case of torture working, there are 9 cases where it led to false testimony wasting the time of investigators, then it just doesn’t work in any practical sense.

Huh? If I’m in politics and don’t mind torturing, I would be satisfied to achieve a 1 in 10 hit rate, because my public won’t hear about the timewasting, but they will hear that “waterboarding stopped another 9/11”.

Try to pretend you are not a person who wants to be rational and objective, who is capable of making informed decisions, and wants to make them, a person whose interest in a topic leads him to research it, rather than a person who merely scans one article in a newspaper that tends to agree with his prejudices.

gyges,

My thoughts on the matter are that they did it simply because they could;

I think some of them thought it was necessary, too.

BenSix, it is all very well quoting Army Manuals, FBI agents and other intelligence officers that say torture does not work, but what about Cheney, the DoD, and other intelligence officers that say torture does work? Take John Smith, who hates brown people and already believes torture works – who is he going to believe?

I’m not saying don’t try to prove it doesn’t work, I’m just saying don’t get your hopes up.

If people say torture is acceptable I suggest they read “White Rabbit ” by Bruce Marshall. This is the biography of Wing Commander Yeo Thomas GC, MC and bar, a SOE officer who was tortured by the Gestapo and survived the concentration camps. In “The Devils Guard ” written by a former Waffen SS officer who served in the French Foreign Legion said the British were the only country which did not use torture in WW2.

The problem is that none of the politicians fought in WW 2 and therefore appreciate that maintaining a level of decency provides strength of purpose. If we descend to the level of savages what are we defending ?

73. Shatterface

I don’t see anyone defending torture, we’re arguing over the grounds on which to object to it: a purely practical objection that ‘it does not work’ or a moral case that torture is intrinsically evil.

The former is an empirical matter which is potentially refutable while the latter is not.

74. Shatterface

John Q: unfortunately the psychological methods you outline can just as easily produce false confessions and, since these methods do not legally constitute torture, such confessions are less likely to be thrown out of court.

Any such ‘evidence’ would also have to be corroborated, potentially diverting investigations down blind allys, etc. just as with information extracted by torture. Purely as a matter of utility, psychological methods offer no advantage.

75. the a&e charge nurse

I must admit I had not really given much consideration to questions concerning the ‘evidence base’ for torture.
It seems most of the data (regarding efficacy) arises from the archives and is thus subject to manipulation or revisionism depending on where you sit on the political spectrum.

What we can say about torture is:
*it has a long and dark history.
*it is common place (whenever certain conditions arise).
*it transcends most cultures (correct me if I’m wrong).

The act of torture cannot be separated from the power infra-structure in which takes place. In other words there will often be tacit approval from those in a position of power. I believe this was the case when a number of IRA suspects were apprehended, for example.

As long as these adverserial international and domestic conditions persist I simply do not see how the general public can affect what goes on behind closed doors, or in distant countries – I suppose if we really want to stop torture then we need enough like minded people at the sharp end who are either unwilling to participate in torture themselves, or prevent those who are.

But in times of war especially, the pendulum often swings the other way.

John Q.

Sod post-modernism. Foucault’s philosophies are neither here nor there; the book is sound history, thoroughly substantiated. If you would like to question that, feel free to explain the shift from legal emphasis on punishment and on specifically hideous physical torture towards remedial and custodial justice through the course of the Enlightenment as effectively and coherently; and feel free to include the same quantity of primary and secondary source data, referenced and indexed.

History is not science though, it is simply subjectivity applied to anecdote and hearsay, therefore it has nothing to say on the efficacy of torture, the lack of such was the premise under debate. Therefore Foucault’s opinions have nothing to say on whether torture works so they are irrelevant to the debate.

John Q.

PS you just committed the logical fallacy of the appeal to authority.

John Q. Publican – mere jest. I’d not read to much into it. 🙂

79. Shatterface

I read Foucault and it was a cure for sleep deprivation. Maybe it was the lousy translation.

He had some great ideas though, and ‘discourse’ in an invaluable concept.

The problem was that postmodernists took the idea that all is discourse literally and unshackled themselves from reality.

Still, that’s for another thread.

As to the notion that history is just anecdote and hearsay, I’ve overheard gossip about a Holocaust and unsubstantiated rumour about the slave trade but now I know it’s all just subjective.

Gimpy @77:

History is not science though, it is simply subjectivity applied to anecdote and hearsay, therefore it has nothing to say on the efficacy of torture, the lack of such was the premise under debate. Therefore Foucault’s opinions have nothing to say on whether torture works so they are irrelevant to the debate.

History is, indeed, not science. Neither is ethics, philosophy, nor politics (although the poli-sci geeks managed to get it tacked onto their name; great advertising coup, shit academic description). Music is not science, nor is film-making. Not all good things are science; science is not the only viable analytical model.

History is, however, a systematic process of gathering, assessing, collating and analysing data to provide understanding; rather like a police->court case process, in fact. Archaeologists are our SOCOs, the forensic techs are our, well, forensics techs, the historians are our investigators and the historiographers are our legal beagles.

Beyond which; your logic is flawed (any survey of collected data from the 20th century on the efficacy of torture is ‘history’, therefore any attempt to understand the efficacy of torture is ‘history’, therefore ‘history’ is in fact the only way it is possible to analyse the subject matter). In addition to that, I specifically did not reference Foucault’s opinions, I referred the interested to his book which includes a huge quantity of verifiable survey data, clearly collated and presented. So you are, in fact, talking out your ear.

@78:

PS you just committed the logical fallacy of the appeal to authority.

Appeal to Authority: An appeal to authority is an argument from the fact that a person judged to be an authority affirms a proposition to the claim that the proposition is true.

So in this instance that would have been: Foucault says (in Discipline and Punish) that torture doesn’t work for interrogative purposes, therefore torture must not work for those purposes. I made no such claim or statement: what I said was that most medieval torture implements were punitive, not investigative, in purpose. The data underlying that statement is a large and diverse body of primary and secondary sources (I have, for example, personally surveyed the Prague museum of torture implements and examined both the artifacts and the scholarship surrounding them). I referenced Foucault’s book because it happens to contain a great deal of that data in a clearly laid out format. He never even asks the question of whether medieval torture was primarily investigative because he has no need to: anyone who knows the field knows it wasn’t.

I clearly stated that my first four comments were historical notes. I provided a source where the interested scholar could find some of the data. I did not attempt to make any logical deductions; I left them to the reader. My later comments were then a chain of reasoning which you have yet to address.

If you’re going to try and reference logical fallacies to disarm an experienced debater, be damned sure you’re right before you eat your own foot.

Shatterface, the Nazi’s famously meticulously recorded the Holocaust, this is why nobody seriously entertains the deniers. There is ample evidence it existed.

John Q.

History is, indeed, not science. Neither is ethics, philosophy, nor politics (although the poli-sci geeks managed to get it tacked onto their name; great advertising coup, shit academic description). Music is not science, nor is film-making. Not all good things are science; science is not the only viable analytical model.

I’m not denying the use of these other systems as means of understanding and explaining human phenomena. But the issue Martin was raising was that to discuss the ethics of torture in meaningful way, which accounts for reality, you have to understand its efficacy. Without this any philosophical, ethical or political discussion regarding its use is meaningless. Martin is calling for evidence to inform public policy prior to ethical and philosophical debate.

Your second point on appeals to authority, you did say

Foucault’s philosophies are neither here nor there; the book is sound history, thoroughly substantiated. If you would like to question that, feel free to explain the shift from legal emphasis on punishment and on specifically hideous physical torture towards remedial and custodial justice through the course of the Enlightenment as effectively and coherently; and feel free to include the same quantity of primary and secondary source data, referenced and indexed.

which I interpreted as arguing that Foucault was an authority therefore he should be listened to. As the second part of the quote from your link says

Appeals to authority are always deductively fallacious; even a legitimate authority speaking on his area of expertise may affirm a falsehood, so no testimony of any authority is guaranteed to be true.

My bold.

That you seek to argue based on your own authority

If you’re going to try and reference logical fallacies to disarm an experienced debater

is a further example of this fallacy.

🙂

Fun this. The point is personal opinions without evidence have no value in evidence based reasoning.

Shatterface, the Nazi’s famously meticulously recorded the Holocaust, this is why nobody seriously entertains the deniers. There is ample evidence it existed.

Historical evidence, no? Which I thought was all anecdote and hearsay?

James,

I think evidence of bodies, gas chambers and such can be used to apply Occam’s razor to determine probably cause. Nazi documentation removed any doubt over probably cause. Likewise the slave trade which was well documented.

My point was to point out that history generally relies on weaker forms of evidence than science so you cannot determine scientific realities from historical observations. Also, by its nature, much history is speculative. Science can show how a stone age corpse in a glacier died, it does not say much about what he was doing there when he did die. We might piece together an explanation from cave paintings and social habits of humans but it will be subjective and effectively untestable.

Gimpy @82:

Shatterface, the Nazi’s famously meticulously recorded the Holocaust, this is why nobody seriously entertains the deniers. There is ample evidence it existed.

Yes. Historical evidence. It’s what historians use. It’s what I use. An example of evidence of torture given in Foucault’s book is the Court Recorder’s report of the execution of an attempted regicide in 1762. I know what it says, because I’m an historian. My readers may not. Thus I pointed them towards a repository of evidence. It’s called substantiation.

Secondarily, what you interpret as an appeal to authority is neither here nor there. You were claiming that my argument rested on Foucault’s authority. The passage you quote here is from my rebuttal to your rejection of my entire point merely because I had the temerity to reference an academic text: something you apparently disapprove of, since the only evidenciary reference you’ve made to date is to a logical fallacy that you clearly don’t understand.

I interpreted as arguing that Foucault was an authority therefore he should be listened to.

My bold. By admitting to interpretation, you must also admit that what you’re saying now bears no relationship to the topic under discussion, which is what I actually said.

Most of the medieval ‘torture’ implements and practices did not, as people today seem to believe, have any investigative function. They were punitive; that is, they were things you did to someone who you already knew was guilty. [1]

[1] Michael Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is a very good text for understanding the scale of, and reasons for, the shift in social and legal thinking which takes place during the Enlightenment.

This is called a reference. If people don’t use them, people like you discount their arguments as ‘hearsay’ or ‘anecdote’. Apparently, every time one refers to a source, one is then ‘committing the logical fallacy of appeal to authority’? So, for example, anyone who cites Einstein’s formulation E=mc2 is committing the same logical fallacy? I’ve already debunked that: appeal to authority would be “Foucault says this: therefore it must be true”. At no point do I suggest that my knowledge came from Foucault on this point; nowhere do I suggest that it’s true because Foucault says it. You do not understand the logical fallacy you’re referencing. Please learn the words.

That you seek to argue based on your own authority

If you’re going to try and reference logical fallacies to disarm an experienced debater

is a further example of this fallacy.

🙂

Fun this. The point is personal opinions without evidence have no value in evidence based reasoning.

I couldn’t trim any of that, as it’s quite entertaining.

You have, at no point, adduced any data. Not once. I have; several times. You are attempting to discount or ignore my data by trying to claim I’m committing errors of reasoning when in fact I’m referencing texts which contain precisely the evidence you’re trying to ignore. Forget that Foucault goes on to draw conclusions from his evidence: I was pointing the reader at a large body of evidence, in an easily obtainable form. It’s what people who’re using evidence-based reasoning do. Being an experienced debater provides me with no authority at all; in fact, by mentioning it I’m undermining myself, since debaters tend to ignore evidence in favour of rhetoric. However, it does mean I’ve had to learn the list of logical fallacies and what they actually mean; something it seems you have not.

I have expressed no personal opinions on the efficacy of torture in this thread. Not once. I have only described methods which work (based on evidence), methods which work some of the time (based on evidence), and methods which really don’t work very well at all (based on evidence). Please could you start reading what I write instead of what you wish I’d written?

Gimpy @84:

My point was to point out that history generally relies on weaker forms of evidence than science so you cannot determine scientific realities from historical observations.

And in making a comment about history I was not attempting to establish a scientific reality. I was answering the concern expressed above that scientific testing of the interrogative efficacy of torture is not possible in a modern ethically-governed environment, and thus pointing to evidence which survives from a past which experimented extensively with torture. History relies on, not weaker forms of evidence (evidence is that which is seen: everything seen is evidence) but on multiple levels of source material. The discipline of professional history is very good at identifying the difference between archaeological evidence (which is hard-factual), and interpretative data (which is not): between primary sources (things people who were there wrote down) and secondary sources (things people who weren’t there wrote down).

You seem to believe that Nazi documentation of torture is in some way ‘scientific evidence’ that is of a higher order than ‘historical evidence’; Nazi documentation of torture is simply a primary source. Every instance must be assessed for provenance (where and by whom was it written, how can we be forensically sure?), then the whole must be analysed to provide any information from the data. That’s what historians do. You seem to think that things documented in the 20th century become scientific by denfinition; bear in mind how many discrepancies archaeology has uncovered between what the Abwehr wrote down and what had actually happened.

As far as I can tell, ‘your point’ is that you think history is academically flawed by nature, that you don’t like Foucault and that you don’t like me.

Er, Gimpy, JQP isn’t citing Foucault as an authority, he’s citing his book because it collects “a large and diverse body of primary and secondary sources“.

Ironically, your sneer that “post-modernism is a crock of shit” is both an ad hominem, a bare assertion and, worst of all, an unfunny use of the two.

Squander,

The debate isn’t confined to “people whose speciality is intelligence-gathering“. It covers yer average soldiers – see, for example, the thug turned wannabe-Congressman Allen West.

UKLiberty,

I can’t think anything that would convince this John Smith character. Couldn’t we just hopelessly marginalise him?

John Q. Bit of confusion here.

I wonder if we are talking at cross purposes. The efficacy of torture is a scientific question and can only be answered using scientific evidence. Historical evidence, the writings of Foucault et al, political ideologies and so on have no bearing on investigations of efficacy.

PS Einstein is not cited like Foucault. People don’t refer to Einsteins theories alone, they refer to the evidence that supports them when quoting an equation like e=mc2. His theories are supported (and ultimately disproven) by the rigorous study of the universe using the scientific method, Foucault is mere opinion, his sources anecdote and hearsay, we cannot prove that something written on paper is true or our interpretation correct when it comes to history. We can when it comes to science (well it’s more a failure to prove it wrong)..

“PS Einstein is not cited like Foucault. People don’t refer to Einsteins theories alone, they refer to the evidence that supports them when quoting an equation like e=mc2. His theories are supported (and ultimately disproven) by the rigorous study of the universe using the scientific method, Foucault is mere opinion, his sources anecdote and hearsay, we cannot prove that something written on paper is true or our interpretation correct when it comes to history. We can when it comes to science (well it’s more a failure to prove it wrong)..”

Science too operates within certain conditions of knowledge and is subject to historical change. There is a natural bias in favour of older theories, not ones that a necessarily more explanatorily powerful and there are also entrenched interests that can keep old theories alive after their time and new ones out. Which is not to take much away from the amazing things science can do, but it doesn’t represent a gold standard of truth either.

89. the a&e charge nurse

Torture can also be an end itself, irrespective of the quality of information retrieved.

It can be used simply to induce a state of terror in the minds of the opponents – this type of apparatus is often found in states where thugs like Mugabe, Saddam, Amin, Gaddafi, et al flourish.

Gimpy:

I wonder if we are talking at cross purposes. The efficacy of torture is a scientific question and can only be answered using scientific evidence. Historical evidence, the writings of Foucault et al, political ideologies and so on have no bearing on investigations of efficacy.

We are most certainly talking at cross purposes. You list ‘historical evidence’ as if it belongs in the same category as ‘the writings of Foucault et al.’ (implying that there are other historians you do trust? I’m stunned) and ‘political ideologies’.

If you said ‘historical interpretations’, you might, just might, have had a point. But you didn’t. You said ‘historical evidence’. You are, therefore, wrong. Evidence, from evide; that which is seen. In history as in any other academic disciplilne, that which is seen is that which is seen. What you think of it is up to you: that’s interpretation, or in my analogy from earlier, that’s a verdict (I notice you didn’t respond at all to my Historiography 101; is this because you didn’t understand it, or because you didn’t care to recognise you were wrong?).

You have once again utterly refused to engage with my substantive points and have instead resorted to hyperbole. The efficacy of torture can be approached scientifically; in fact, one could design a Milgram experiment where the electric shocks were real. Do you know of an ethics board which would permit that?

Given that the answer is unlikely to be ‘yes’ unless you are talking about such rogue states as Syria, North Korea or the Bush era USA, if one is to advance the debate at all one must rely on primary and secondary sources that already exist. That means you’re off the scientific turf (I nearly said ‘your turf’ but I’ve seen no evidence to the effect that you have scientific training) and into the historical. You seem to understand no reasoning except empirical deductive; you are aware that other types exist, right? Including hypothetical and inductive reasoning? And that they are useful, and are defined as clearly within formal logic as the rules for deductive reasoning are?

Foucault is mere opinion, his sources anecdote and hearsay

Prove it.

Einstein is not cited like Foucault. People don’t refer to Einsteins theories alone, they refer to the evidence that supports them when quoting an equation like e=mc2.

Which is not only how I referred to Discipline and Punish, it is quite precisely why I referred to the book at all. I don’t care about his theories. I don’t care about his post-modernism (though I understand it quite well, and know what it’s good for and what it’s bad for). I don’t care about his opinions, his politics or his pet bloody lobster [1]. The reason I referred people to the book is that it collates a vast quantity of primary and secondary source data into an easily obtainable repository. I was, specifically and explicitly, referencing “the evidence”, not the theories.

Since you have yet to make any attempt to engage substantively but just keep stringing out the same, wrong, arguments about what you thought I was saying, I’m beginning to wonder if I’m being trolled. Opinions, anyone?

[1] This is actually a reference to someone else, but I couldn’t think of anything suitably risible about Foucault that I could claim not to care about.

I think evidence of bodies, gas chambers and such can be used to apply Occam’s razor to determine probably cause. Nazi documentation removed any doubt over probably cause. Likewise the slave trade which was well documented.

Yes, you do. That’s a subjective analysis of historical data there, is it not?

My point was to point out that history generally relies on weaker forms of evidence than science so you cannot determine scientific realities from historical observations.

Who’s ever tried to? Why did they bother?

Also, by its nature, much history is speculative. Science can show how a stone age corpse in a glacier died, it does not say much about what he was doing there when he did die. We might piece together an explanation from cave paintings and social habits of humans but it will be subjective and effectively untestable.

It is not so much speculative as interpretive.

I can’t think anything that would convince this John Smith character. Couldn’t we just hopelessly marginalise him?

Sadly he always seems to be present and I think we therefore have to take him into account.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Torture: does it actually work? http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/2009/04/26/torture-does-it-actually-work/

  2. Dubito

    @drjon more re torture: http://bit.ly/KgBuz #no2torture

  3. links for 2009-04-27 « Embololalia

    […] Liberal Conspiracy » Torture: does it actually work? | creating a new liberal-left alliance There just isn’t any scientific evidence, beyond a few dubious anecdotes, to show that torture works. Obviously more research is needed on the subject to know for sure, but here’s the killer point. Torture is an extreme method, and before we even reach the ethical and moral debate over its use, the effectiveness of it must be demonstrated to some reasonable degree. The burden of proof lies with the people who seek to torture. And it’s not like they don’t have plenty of past experience to draw data from. (tags: torture psychology) […]

  4. jenkirby

    RT @mjrobbins .@JaneABaker @jackofkent Not to mention the complete lack of evidence that torture works in 1st place. http://bit.ly/avFk6f





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