Frame my ethical dilemma.
March 29, 2010 6:40 PM   Subscribe

Responsible science filter: Social sciences + military = bad?

--Aware that you can't actually frame my ethical dilemma for me, need help thinking outside of the box--
The Minerva Initiative. There's a lot of information about the whole issue of social science research and the military in links below the article.

The Minerva Initiative was exposed to a significant amount of negative press and funding was discontinued after 2008 (as far as I can tell). Is there a significant conflict of interest in social scientists who do research for military purposes? What sort of responsibility do scientists have for how their research is applied?

Personal interest: I have a background in both of these areas and have a hard time seeing the problem with funding social scientists to work on social issues with the military. On the other hand, I'm seriously considering pursuing research that sort of combines both of these areas and am wondering if my frame for the ethical issues may be a too biased from personal experience. My interests in research mostly have to deal organizational responses to crime and criminality in the U.S., and without getting into the details, the question that I'm interested in answering is pretty much a matter of resource allocation. I'm not designing the newest method of waterboarding.

What sort of perspectives might help me frame the ethical dilemma, if there is one?
posted by _cave to Education (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Of course there's an ethical dilemma. John Horgan and George Johnson just talked about it on Bloggingheads. They're focusing on neuroscience, but you can easily apply the discussion to other sciences.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:09 PM on March 29, 2010

From my perspective, the people who have the biggest issue with it are those who entered the social sciences to be activists for social change first and foremost. Viewing the military as perverting their principles, they feel duty-bound to agitate against its seeming encroachment. (At least, that's what I gathered from talking to some concerned sociology students.)
posted by StrikeTheViol at 7:10 PM on March 29, 2010

Here's some info. for you.
posted by gudrun at 7:15 PM on March 29, 2010

Is there a significant conflict of interest in social scientists who do research for military purposes? What sort of responsibility do scientists have for how their research is applied?

Your question intrinsically assumes that the military is a bad thing. Do you really think that's the case? If so, then if you live in a free country you're in the position of the guy who loves a good steak but condemns the butcher who provided it.

Our nations are free and independent because our militaries have fought to make them so. If you want your country to remain free, then supporting the military is not necessarily wrong.

Obviously I'm not arguing that everything the military does is good. Like any other human institution it does at least some bad things. The question is whether you think that the military has never done anything good.

If you do believe that the military is totally and irretrievably evil, then your question is answered: you cannot help it. If you don't believe that, and if you think that overall it is more often a force for good than for evil (which is my own personal opinion) then I think your choice is equally clear: cooperate and support. Do the research, unless it is obvious that it will be used to a bad end.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:28 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a military historian, I have an (in the academy) contrarian perspective on this question. I think that, as an integral part of human society, the academy cannot divorce itself from the moral compromises of the use of force, any more than it could defund oncology and then disclaim moral responsibility for people dying of cancer. In other words, if societies are going to war, we have a responsibility to reduce the harm those wars cause, and simply having nothing to do with them is about the least effective possible way of doing this.

Case in point: during the early stages of the Iraq War, the US government was able to get away with tons of stupid stuff simply because there was no credible voice that was able to stand up and tell them they were doing it wrong. Not that they shouldn't be nasty and violent, mind -- there were plenty of people to shout that from the roof-tops, for all the good it did -- but to tell them that they should implement sensible policies that wouldn't get hundreds of thousands of civilians slaughtered. As it was, the academy had all the right information sitting, dormant, in its libraries, but virtually nobody trained to dig it out and present it to the news organisations and political leaders. The result was that 'expert' commentary was presented by financially interested and non-expert former military officers and senior political and strategic officials were allowed to produce whatever strategies their overheated imaginations and faulty 'common sense' could provide.

War is terrible. War is also inevitable. Without loosing sight of these fundamentals, the academy has a moral duty, in society, to understand and expound upon the lessons of past wars in order to reduce human misery and waste in current and future ones.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:36 PM on March 29, 2010 [8 favorites]

IANAA, but anthropologists as a field seem to have taken a blanket categorical ban on social science research within military settings. If your research is used to reduce casualties (civilian or military), that's an effect of your actions; and a possible consequence that should guide your decision to participate. OTOH if it leads to increased casualties, then that also is a consequence.

The Culture Matters blog has alot about this stuff on it. I remember reading about a case where an anthropologist shot an afghan male in the head after he set fire to and killed his co-researcher, who approached him with questions.
posted by stratastar at 7:37 PM on March 29, 2010

Savage Minds has also had a number of discussions of this stuff with respect to anthropology.

The basic point is that social scientists have a responsibility to the well-being of their research subjects--at the very least to not harming those subjects through the research in question--and research for military or intelligence organizations is particularly susceptible to misuse that might put those subjects in danger.

There is another practical point, which is that enough anthropologists and other social scientists have trouble with foreign governments thinking that they're spies that anyone actually doing work for intelligence work could be putting other social scientists at risk. This is why the Peace Corps doesn't allow any former intelligence workers to join up. It's also a bit like how some aid workers and journalists get upset when their colleagues start carrying weapons, making them all potential targets.
posted by col_pogo at 7:38 PM on March 29, 2010

From the post you linked, the "Union of concerned anthropologists included this objection:

The University becomes an instrument rather than a critic of war-making, and spaces for critical discussion of militarism within the university shrink.

This reeks of 1960's nostalgia. There is an a priori assumption that the proper role of the university is to be a critic of war-making. These people are exactly what I said: they enjoy the benefits of liberty while sanctimoniously condemning the very people who made that liberty possible.

Even if you condemn the Viet Nam War, you have to keep in mind that it wasn't the fault of the US military. They fought it, but it was civilian politicians (Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, plus those who voted for the Gulf of Tonkin measure) who decided that it should be fought.

Our military doesn't start wars, and it is ethically faulty to blame the existence of war on them.

If, by refusing to do research, you cripple our military, you don't prevent war. You just increase the chance that our nation will lose the next one. Is that a good thing?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:38 PM on March 29, 2010

There is another practical point, which is that enough anthropologists and other social scientists have trouble with foreign governments thinking that they're spies that anyone actually doing work for intelligence work could be putting other social scientists at risk.

This point troubles me a great deal, and leads me to think that researchers operating in the field, on behalf of military or intelligence organisations, should be put in uniform. This might sound a little crazy, but the Americans have been doing this since 1807 with the people they use to make maritime charts (now called the NOAA Comissioned Corps). The idea is that, under the laws of war, chart-makers might be mistaken for spies and put to death. If they wear a uniform they would need to be treated as prisoners of war. A similar solution could be used for social scientists working on or near the front lines.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:56 PM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

While Chocolate Pickle's sanctimony about the military being the source of our liberty makes my eyes want to roll out of my head, he or she is right that there's no reason you should have an a priori assumption that anything involved with the military is unethical. You should go into it with your eyes wide open and realize the potential for harm inherent in any research you do for the military, but you can work for them and be doing good. For example, if you were doing medical research for the military, you might want to make sure that it's not something they'll weaponize or turn into a form of torture, but if you can save soldiers' lives while contributing to medical research, you've got to be pretty damn anti-military to find that unethical.

I have a lot of friends who do science that is ultimately funded by the military, because our society is much more willing to fund the military than it is science, and the way a lot of them look at it is, hey if we can take money away from guns and bombs and use it to further human knowledge and understanding, great!

In conclusion, I'd say you have to think about it on a case-by-case basis rather than saying it's always wrong or it's always right.
posted by callmejay at 8:31 PM on March 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

The military will do what it pleases regardless of a lone social scientist. I don't think that clears you of ethical responsibility, but it's not as if the head honchos will decide not to attack a country due to an inadequate understanding of the culture.

If your research helps military officials better understand a culture, I think that is generally a good thing that prevents deaths - like if you could explain how locals could be brought in to help the military, or ways in which to prevent young men from joining insurgent training camps.

On the other hand, if your research is "find the best place in this city where we could drop a bomb for most psychological impact" then you've still got issues.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:47 PM on March 29, 2010

Speaking as an anthropologist, I'm glad we preserve a trace of "1960s radicalism." Universities exist to solve problems through discourse and research and opposition to militarism is an organic dimension of that focus. War marks the failure of civilized discourse to solve problems. Yes, it's part of the human condition and yes it can be justified in some instances as necessary or right. But we have a code of ethics in anthropology that says, in effect, "first do no harm." Working with an occupation military force in an undeclared, unjust war -- Iraq comes right to mind -- is participating in their oppression.

I like the idea of requiring military-affiliated social scientists to be in uniform. That solves a lot of issues for me. Because the side point -- that the long history of social scientific complicity in military aggression and espionage on behalf of the state poisons the standing of social science conducted outside of that context -- is absolutely true.

Torture is also an integral part of the human experience. That doesn't mean doctors might as well supervise torture sessions, and when they do it's an appalling breach of ethics. Or should be.

American anthropology was unfortunately born -- and largely funded in its early years of the late 19th c. -- out of the genocidal project of the US government to contain, reduce, eliminate, and humiliate Native Americans. Some of the best early ethnographies were conducted by military officers in between massacres, making them poisonously complex texts that still hinder positive relationships between the field and indigenous peoples around the world today. The US government has long funded social science in the interests of its militaristic goals and adventures, not just in the direct service of such adventures. During the Cold War, there was a lot of funding for "research" in Soviet-sphere countries. Some of it was good work, but a lot of it was tainted by its ulterior purpose. The same is happening today with anthropology in the broader Islamic world.

These aren't easy issues at the margins. But doing social science on behalf of the military and focused on populations subjected to military control or domination is, ultimately, and usually, ethically problematic. Doing social science OF the military is another thing entirely; so is acting as an independent scholar in a militarized society, and following your research where it leads, even if it leads to truths which challenge the military version of events on the ground, or for that matter even if leads to, say, a case that occupation has been a net positive force in a society.

None of this yields to easy black and white choices. There is a great deal of discourse about this in anthropology these days, some cited above. But it is an area requiring plenty of consciousness and consideration by anyone who would be a professional social scientist.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:16 AM on March 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you're just on the tip of the iceberg here. The truth of the matter is that until about 1980, most of the science being conducted in the United States was funded, directly or indirectly, by the military. I discussed the history in some detail here, and don't feel like reproducing that work, so give it a look.

But the upshot is that the entire academy has basically been funded by the military. Money is fungible, so when an university gets a metric assload of military money to fund their physics/engineering/chemistry departments, that frees up resources for other departments. There's no way the humanities would have receved even what funds that have if universities had been forced to come up with basic funding for their science departments on their own. So your ethical question is a little more fraught than you seem to think. English, history, philosophy, all of these have been basically funded by military research budgets for decades.

Either we decide that the whole academy is unethical--and it might be--or we decide that at some point, where the money comes from doesn't matter and that economic transactions do not necessarily have symbolic ethical importance. But even then, neither of thsoe options has an obvious solution. Either way, limiting your analysis to programs with direct military applications is too limited.

Which leaves you with a case-by-case analysis. If a given project is worth doing, it would seem to me that it's worth doing whether or not the military has any interest in it, yes?
posted by valkyryn at 5:57 AM on March 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Our military doesn't start wars,......

This trite and one-dimensional analysis of MILLITARY vs GOVERNMENT is amazing for someone of your analytical mindset, CP.

The term millitary-industrial-govt complex is ubiquitous for a reason. People with deep ties and/or current/recently 'elapsed' membership of the 'millitary' gain money, power and validation of their worldview from wars and the resultant funneling of resources to them.

Qui bono? as they say.
posted by lalochezia at 2:59 PM on March 30, 2010

The term military-industrial-govt complex is ubiquitous for a reason. People with deep ties and/or current/recently 'elapsed' membership of the 'military' gain money, power and validation of their worldview from wars and the resultant funneling of resources to them.

Yeah, that's kind of getting at the heart of what I've been thinking about lately. I was in the military for four years, deployed twice, and I certainly don't think that the military is evil or that the U.S. should lose wars (although I think they'll scrape by somehow without my help, regardless of what type of research I pursue). Academy has certainly opened my eyes to a diversity of values that are pretty different from my experience, however, and although I'm not sure that I accept the totality of such values, the comments have been awesome in helping me to examine them. Thank you.
posted by _cave at 4:53 PM on March 30, 2010

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