Psychologists quit professional association over member involvement in gov't torture

The American Psychological Association's refusal to condemn psychologists who participate in illegal government torture of suspected terrorists has driven a deep rift into the organization, with many prominent members quitting in protest. Metafilter has a good roundup of links to various positions from within the APA.
Since 2004 there have been numerous reports in the press and from official sources of psychologists playing central roles in the design, implementation, and translation of abusive interrogation techniques into standard operating procedures 2. The same sources have implicated psychologists in the misuse of detainee medical information to make interrogation techniques more effective in individual cases. The issue at hand is not whether the APA condemns torture and prohibits participation in torture. The issue is whether the APA endorses psychologists’ participation in the types of detainee abuses that have been sanctioned by the US government and practiced by psychologists in the Department of defense (DoD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Although APA leadership has issued statements against torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (not unlike the Bush Administration), it has never straightforwardly condemned psychologists' participation in these government-sanctioned, but abusive interrogation techniques and detention conditions. When the APA leadership has commented on psychologists known to have violated torture statutes, it has merely denied that those implicated were APA members. In cases where those implicated were, in fact, APA members, the organization has remained silent.
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  1. “Since 2004 there have been numerous reports in the press and from official sources of psychologists playing central roles…”

    One of the central themes in Greg Bear’s Slant is the role of invasive psychological therapy which is made possible with nanotechnolgoy. It get’s misused in the form of “hell crowns.”

    In Bank’s novel, Look to Windward, torture is used to obtain information that saves the lives of billions of people. Both of these authors seem to be of the opinion that torture is bad, but required once in a while.

  2. Since 2004 there have been numerous reports in the press and from official sources of psychologists playing central roles in the design, implementation, and translation of abusive interrogation techniques into standard operating procedures

    Ewen Cameron

    One of the central themes in Greg Bear’s Slant is the role of invasive psychological therapy which is made possible with nanotechnolgoy. It get’s misused in the form of “hell crowns.”

    Cognitive Liberty / Neurolaw

  3. Jeff – I’m not sure you’re correct in saying that Iain Banks is of the opinion that torture is a legitimate course of action in certain (special) circumstances. The Culture (the author’s galaxy-spanning human/AI civilisation for the uninitiated) isn’t always painted as the hero.
    It frequently commits unspeakable acts (as in Look to Windward) in the name of ‘the greater good’. I would suggest that what Banks is saying is that evil is still evil, regardless of it’s justification or the sorrow and regret felt afterwards. The Culture has always been an ambiguous entity – a bunch of nice, intelligent, liberal folk with immense and terrible power.

  4. I wouldn’t necessarily take the imaginary creation of fiction writers (however brilliant they may be) as convincing evidence over the rigorous research of psychological experts. Having just read “Look to Windward” I vaguely remember that passage about torture – but I recall a character explaining that it was something that happened in the past and was not a matter of course – especially for Culture agents. If you are seeking anecdotal fiction torture resources to use as fodder for either side of the debate, you need look no further than Orwell’s “1984.” Room 101. I think the case could be made that torture not only was an effective method of exercising power, it arguably made everyone happier in the end.

  5. Regarding Bank’s use of torture: it’s clear to me that he thinks it’s bad. I also think he asks the question if it is useful at times. How can you get away from Yes? Everyone knows it works, at least some of the time. Desperat measures for desperate times, I guess. Humans suffer, it’s what we do best.

  6. Do psychologists take a version of the “Hippocratic oath” to do no harm? Perhaps they should, it might help avoid problems like shock treatment and orbital lobotomies. Of course it’s hard to say what is harmful in some cases, but clearly TORTURE is not something that is GOOD for the human psyche. It’s like creating problems some other shrink is going to have to fix later (assuming the , errr. . . “patient” survives.)

  7. @7 No, we do not take any kind of Do No Harm oath. However, we do have to follow very stringent ethical rules when doing research, and get everything with human or animal subjects approved by an (often very strict) ethics committee. Many of these rules are overboard, in my opinion. It can take a few days of paperwork and meetings if I want to ask a child what is their favourite colour. These rules were born of legitimate ethical failures in decades past, but now the procedure is heavily entrenched, and not always sensical.

    This is why a lot of people find the APA’s quite frankly cowardly stance on torture to be so bizarre. Although we have an overdeveloped bureaucracy for “ethics”, we also don’t seem to have a problem in obfuscating whether we allow our members to guide torture or not. At the least, have an open discussion amongst the membership about this. Instead, questions have been ducked, responsibility side-stepped. I have not joined the APA for this very reason.

  8. When I was in the military I worked with a psychologist. Part of my training included being tortured–to a degree. I was tested to see how much I could take before breaking–and I volinteered for this. The psychologist was required to observe, to make sure I wasn’t pushed “too” far. I know torture works because I failed my tests. I talked…gushed everything I knew. And I thought I was tough. But one of the other guys REALLY failed and jumped in front of a train when we finally got a day off. The screening process can be a little harsh I guess. As I recall, when talking to the psychologist (who worked at Bethesda Navel hospitol), he said everyone fails. Some worse than others.

  9. Takuan, is that your personal philosophical idea? Torture, like any activity, has a beginning and an end. To argue otherwise is not logical.

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