Neuroscience and war


Will neuroscientists join psychiatrists, psychologists and anthropologists in condemning the use of their labour in the service of war?

A pledge statement of non-cooperation with aggressive military uses of neuroscience is being circulated within researchers and workers in the field. In the past few years, groups of psychologists, anthropologists, psychiatrists and archaeologists have made public attempts to actively distance their professions from engagement with the military. Neuroscience is lagging somewhat behind, partly attributable to its less-direct applications to war and interrogations, and partly as it is a compartively new research field.

The pledge opposes "the application of Neuroscience to torture and other forms of coercive interrogation or manipulation that violate human rights and personhood" and "the application of Neuroscience to aggressive war."

An opinion piece in last week's New Scientist discusses the possible military applications of neuroscience, though this is by no means a new issue, what's new is the move within neuroscience to criticise these particular uses of research.

This is particularly relevant given the publication last year, of an army-backed report from the US National Academies of Sciences (NAS) of possible uses of neuroscience in training soldiers for active combat. The discussions circulating then surrounded the creation of 'super soldiers' using whatever means possible, be they drugs, brainwashing, genetic profiling, cybernetic implants, and so on. The report says a "growing understanding of neuroscience offers huge scope for improving soldiers' performance and effectiveness on the battlefield." Potential direct applications include genetic and neurological screening of soliders during recruitment, and the monitoring of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in stressful combat-like situations.

Scientists have long had an uncomfortable relationship with the military. It is precisely the sort of report above that in the 1970s, persuaded marxist biologists Richard Levins and Dick Lewontin to leave the NAS over its cooperation with the military. Both have always remained critical of the use of science for such ends, and recently, growing numbers of scientists and researchers have been distancing themselves from military work:

In 2008, a study, The Ethics of Interrogation — The U.S. Military's Ongoing Use of Psychiatrists, revealed that the US military were training psychiatrists for involvement in torture. International codes already prohibit doctors, including psychiatrists, from partaking in military interrogations. So-called 'softening-up' techniques used in the interrogation of suspected terrorists of the sort used at Guantanamo Bay, are condemned by the World Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychiatric Association. the study said "It undermines the notion of psychiatrists as healers, and undermines trust in the profession".

Also in 2008, 400 psychologists in the United States refused to pay dues to the American Psychological Association over its failure to explicitly condemn all forms of torture. The APA statement being protested against allowed psychologists to be involved in the same 'softening-up' techniques the US military is training psychiatrists to partake in.

A resolution agreed by the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, Ireland, in 2008 refused to co-operate with military requests to draw up a list of heritage sites in Iran should the US decide to launch air strikes at some stage. The resolution stated "Such advice would provide cultural credibility and respectability to the military action."

The Network of Concerned Anthropologists have authored a pledge in relation to the US's "war on terror", declaring that "anthropologists should refrain from directly assisting the US military in combat, be it through torture, interrogation or tactical advice". The American Association of Anthropology's executive board has issued a statement in accord with the pledge. The pledge continues "Furthermore, we believe that anthropologists should refrain from directly assisting military in combat, be it through torture, interrogation, or tactical advice. "

None of these statements, are in anyway radical, they're meant to be in line with existing international conventions on torture and interrogation, but they are interesting insights into the discomfort many researchers have with what they view as unethical uses of the products of their labour, or their direct involvement in such applications.

It's clear that statements are just that, statements, and in the absence of a practical concerted effort on the part of scientists to refuse to engage in such uses of their labour, their impact will be little. The rationale for war and torture goes beyond simple endorsements of good and bad, ethical and unethical, and it's clear that when push comes to shove, such considerations can be bent at will, provided the power structures are their to endorse such wilful deceit.

The refusal of psychologists to pay dues to their professional association in the US until it adopted guidelines that none of its members would engage in torture or aggressive combat assistance has more weight than petitions and internet pledges, but actions like that seem few and far between in the research community. While scientists fail to actively withdraw their labour from such applications, their professions will always be co-opted by the military-industrial complex.

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Feb 13 2010 13:55


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