Basing Policies on Evidence

Those of us who teach policy classes tend to harp on the importance of basing our public policies on evidence—by beginning with the question, not the answer. For example: What sorts of environmental policies does the relevant literature on climate change suggest? What does criminal justice research teach us about what sorts of drug policies are likely to be effective?

Or perhaps: What does the scientific literature tell us about the efficacy of torture?

We are just beginning to learn the dimensions of the Bush Administration’s policies for dealing with detainees. Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has vigorously defended that Administration’s “enhanced interrogation’ techniques as necessary to ensure our safety.

What does the evidence suggest?

A recent paper by Shane O’Mara in Trends in Cognitive Sciences consults the neuroscience literature to see what it tells us about using techniques like stress positions and abuse to get accurate information out of detainees. O’Mara says the belief that abuse and torture are effective simply does not conform to what we know about how the brain works.

According to O’Mara, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex—the areas where the brain processes, stores and retrieves memories—“are profoundly altered by stress hormones.” Stress them enough and they produce false memories. The suspects being tortured incorporate allegations made by their captors into their own versions of reality. In other words, even they don’t know they are lying.

I admit to being a shameless fan of Star Trek, the Next Generation. The series took pride in its fidelity to available science. It was at its best when it tackled human rights issues, and one example that I’ve always remembered was a two-part story about Captain Picard’s capture–and torture–by a lizard-like race called the Cardassians. At first, Picard resisted the pain and humiliation. Each time the interrogator began a “session,” he would show four lights and ask Picard how many he saw. The ”correct” answer was five, but a defiant Picard insisted there were only four. 

At the very end, when his interrogator was once again demanding that Picard tell him how many lights there were, he was rescued. Later, however, as he recounted the experience to the ship’s counselor, he told her that he was about to tell his tormentor he saw five—not simply to escape the pain, but because by that time he actually did see five!

The adoption of harsh interrogation policies cost America dearly: we lost moral capital abroad and the trust of citizens at home. It will take time and effort to rebuild both. It’s hard to see how the trade-off would have been worth it even if torture worked.  But it doesn’t.

Had the Administration consulted the relevant science—as the writers of this TV episode did—perhaps those costs could have been avoided.

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