Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dawkins on Hussein

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Categories : Science, Bioethics, Richard Dawkins

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published: mardi 9 janvier 2007 23:45:31

The Dawkins’ essay about researching Saddam Hussein continues to generate discussion on the blogosphere. Orac provides a very thoughtful analysis that focuses on the ethics of such research:

Even while PZ admires Dawkins for "placing sticks of dynamite under people' chairs and blowing them up," because I have actually been involved in human subjects research, I cringed. Dawkins has never been involved with human subjects research (not unexpected, given his area of research and expertise), and it is painfully obvious that he hasn't bothered to take the time to educate himself about the ethics of such research.

While the ethical dimension is surely worthy of discussion, I would also point out that Dawkins’ idea is very poorly thought out from a purely scientific perspective. Dawkins writes, “But perhaps the most important research in which a living Saddam Hussein could have helped is psychological.” Yet, if we are to be charitable, we’ll have to assume that the method Dawkins has in mind is nothing more than interviewing Hussein in his prison cell. Just how much valuable scientific information can be gathered from interviewing one person? Dawkins writes, “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.” But this is silly. Even if we assume that Hussein possessed some great skill of persuasion, someone like Hussein would be “so devastatingly effective at persuading others to join him” in a particular social setting at a particular time. How in the world would one gather this type of information from interviewing him in a prison cell? It would be like trying to figure out why a tiger is such a good predator by observing the tiger in the zoo.

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