A torturous question about social science [UPDATED]

For those of you not in the know, the Monkey Cage is one of the best blogs around that tries to discuss seemingly abstruse social science research and technuqies and apply them to real world problems.  In this post, Joshua Tucker asks a lulu of a question about social science research into torture:  My original ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

For those of you not in the know, the Monkey Cage is one of the best blogs around that tries to discuss seemingly abstruse social science research and technuqies and apply them to real world problems. 

In this post, Joshua Tucker asks a lulu of a question about social science research into torture: 

My original thought was that good social science research that shows that torture does not extract useful intelligence information would be the final nail in the coffin in any public argument in support of torture. But what happens if one of us gets access to the relevant data, does the empirical analysis, and then discovers the opposite: that torture does lead to useful intelligence information. What do you do then? Sit on the results? Would any political science journal publish such a paper? How would that look in a tenure review? (“Right, she’s the one who said torture was valuable…”).

For those of you not in the know, the Monkey Cage is one of the best blogs around that tries to discuss seemingly abstruse social science research and technuqies and apply them to real world problems. 

In this post, Joshua Tucker asks a lulu of a question about social science research into torture: 

My original thought was that good social science research that shows that torture does not extract useful intelligence information would be the final nail in the coffin in any public argument in support of torture. But what happens if one of us gets access to the relevant data, does the empirical analysis, and then discovers the opposite: that torture does lead to useful intelligence information. What do you do then? Sit on the results? Would any political science journal publish such a paper? How would that look in a tenure review? (“Right, she’s the one who said torture was valuable…”).

Which leads to another question: should social scientists by engaging in research where we only want to share the results if they come out in one particular direction? I personally believe US national security is harmed by the use of torture in any form by our government, so I would welcome good empirical findings that provide added weight to arguments against the use of torture. But despite that goal, should I actually engage in research if I’m not willing to accept (or publish) findings to the contrary?

I, too, would welcome good empirical findings showing that torture does not work, but my answer to Josh’s questions are "no."  You have to publish your findings regardless of what you discover.  That’s the only way this business can work. 

From a practical perspective, it makes little sense.  Uncomfortable findings, if they hold up, will get discovered by someone.  Sitting on them merely magnifies their impact.  One of the few currencies social scientists can use is their research integrity.  A short-term compromise of this integrity simply magnifies the impact of the discovery. 

From an ethical perspective, social science results do not upend ethical arguments for or against a particular issue.  In other words, even if torture works in extracting information, there are strong normative reasons to oppose its use.  Covering up results, however, does compromise the ethical position of the person making the anti-torture argument.  [UPDATE:  Charli Carpenter makes this point more effectively and passionately than I.]

For a non-torture case that echoes this debate, do check out Michael Jonas’ 2007 Boston Globe story of Robert Putnam’s research into the effects of diversity on civic engagement.  

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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