Dawkins advocates experiments on deposed dictators

3 minute read

It makes me sad that I now feel complete revulsion for Richard Dawkins. I don't often comment on world affairs, but his op-ed in the LA Times is, at least in my opinion, simply wrong:

Saddam should have been studied, not executed
Sparing Hussein and studying his makeup could have provided valuable research.
Imagine that some science-fiction equivalent of Simon Wiesenthal built a time machine, traveled back to 1945 and returned to the present with a manacled Adolf Hitler. What should we do with him? Execute him? No, a thousand times no. Historians squabbling over exactly what happened in the Third Reich and World War II would never forgive us for destroying the central witness to all the inside stories, and one of the pivotal influences on 20th century history. Psychologists, struggling to understand how an individual human being could be so evil and so devastatingly effective at persuading others to join him, would give their eyeteeth for such a rich research subject.
Kill Hitler? You would have to be mad to do so. Yet that is undoubtedly what we would have done if he hadn't killed himself in 1945. Hussein is not in the same league as Hitler, but, nevertheless, in a small way his execution represents a wanton and vandalistic destruction of important research data.

I think irrespective of any other issue, including one's opinion on capital punishment, psychological experimentation on prisoners is beyond the pale.

Am I overreacting? Dawkins doesn't say that Hussein should have been tortured, or that psy-ops methods should have been applied -- he describes "psychological research" in nothing but the most neutral terms. A charitable interpretation is that he just means that psychologists should be kept talking to Hussein, sort of Hannibal Lecter-like?

I say "charitable" because an uncharitable interpretation involves the imagery that foreseeably results from the words "dictator," "prison," and "research" in one paragraph. What Dawkins would envisage in the scope of his "psychological research" is an unanswered and important question.

I guess the reason why I am so revulsed is that Dawkins explicitly sets his interest in scientific inquiry above the cause of justice. Dawkins rationalizes this choice in several ways: the research can value society, prevent more mass-murdering dictators from rising to power, provide evidence to convict his own Prime Minister of war crimes, etc. In these rationalizations, he attempts to align his preference (study, not execute) with a "higher" sense of justice -- he writes, "These questions are not just academically fascinating but potentially of vital importance to our future."

I don't think these rationalizations work. Saddam had minimal, if any, scientific interest -- unless I've been missing all the valuable studies based on Manuel Noriega's prison diaries. It's not like his blood had a serum to cure Ebola.

I'd say that far more important to our future is the value of justice over science. Certainly, many people believe that Saddam's execution did not serve justice. But scientific value should not be part of that calculation. A society where a curious scientist can play "get out of execution free" cards is hopefully a vestige of regimes like Saddam's, not part of an "enlightened" future.

UPDATE (1/6/2007): Chris at Mixing Memory has a similar take, but check out the comments where his dark, dark readers lay into him.

It is very creepy to read these. Apparently for many people, as long as Dawkins isn't advocating vivisection, anything goes!

Gene Expression's p-ter has his own post on the topic. He offers a thought experiment -- should science run randomized trials on punishments? -- and I show up in the comments.