Saturday, January 06, 2007

Richard Dawkins eats small children   posted by p-ter @ 1/06/2007 02:07:00 PM

So the internets are abuzz about Richard Dawkins's op-ed lamenting Saddam Hussein's death from a scientific standpoint. There's a lot of outrage out there, for myriad reasons. Some seem to think Dawkins is advocating experimental manipulation of Saddam's brain or some crazy shit like that, but I think anyone calmly reading the article would come to the conclusion that he's talking about doing interviews and maybe drawing some blood. "Psychological research" might have negative connotations for some, but observation is also research.

John Hawks and Chris at Mixing Memory have more reasonable objections related to the potential scientific utility of having Saddam around and/or the issue of informed consent. There are presumably ethical guidelines in place for research on prisoners, so I'm going to simply skip over that (Dawkins isn't writing this for an IRB, but rather the LA Times, so give him a break). It is true, however, that it's not immediately obvious what Hussein's actual scientific worth would be, at least to me, a geneticist. But I imagine historians would love to ask him about his regime (sure, he might not be entirely truthful, but when is any primary source perfect?) and psychologists would love to add another well researched test case of crazy-ass dictator syndrome to the literature. And in any case, whenever there's data available, someone will be clever enough to ask an interesting question of it-- it's not likely to be John, Chris, or I, but people are constantly researching things I'd never thought of, and I'm not bold enough to ever argue against collecting data because I can't think of any use for it.

John Hawks's final point is perhaps the most relevant:
I guess the reason why I am so revulsed is that Dawkins explicitly sets his interest in scientific inquiry above the cause of justice...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
That's a valid objection, but I'm not sure I entirely agree. The problem is that justice can be served in a number of ways. Imgaine a less incendiary example: there are 1000 people convicted of drug related crimes who, according to the law, must be punished. Now there are a couple ways the punishment can be meted out-- a certain amount of time in prison, for example, or treatment for drug abuse in some clinic. There's a scientfic question to be asked there: which punishment has the best outcome, i.e. which reduces the future probability of being arrested the most. The experiment is obvious-- assign 500 people to each punishment and follow them for X number of years, but it implies that scientific questions are considered in the selection of the punishment.

Now, this is not exactly analogous to Saddam's case, but still, I'm not so quick to discard scientific value in the calculation of a punishment. If you've of the opinion that death was the only just punishment for Saddam's crimes, then this argument isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you think there are multiple ways justice could have been served, then I think scientific value could have been one criteria for making that choice.