Respectful Insolence

Was Nazi science good science? (Part II)

My original post that asked the intentionally provocative question Was Nazi science good science? provoked a lot of comments, some of which made me think, which is good. This post was inspired by an article in which historian of the Nazi era Richard Evans was featured in a story about Nazi science and expressed his amazement at how much Nazi science was treated just like any other science, with little or no comment by other scientists of the era about the completely unethical and downright evil nature of the experiments, which reduced human beings to the status of laboratory animals, and badly treated ones at that. This “normalization” of the horrible applied even to the horrific experiments at Auschwitz, including those by Dr. Josef Mengele, and performed in other camps. In this, perhaps such a noted expert on the Nazi era should not be so surprised, because if there was one trait that characterized the Nazi regime as a whole, it was the normalization of the horrific, the banalization of evil, as it has sometimes been referred to.

One of the main refrains in the comments posted in response to my intellectual meanderings and speculations was that Nazi science couldn’t have been good science because the overarching ideology of the Nazi regime perverted it and led Nazi scientists to pursue pseudoscience in the name of the mystical strains in their racial ideology. Such ideological contamination of science led to studies designed to find anatomical differences between Jews and Aryans that could explain Aryan superiority, using methodology based on the previous racial pseudoscience known as racial hygiene; expeditions to Tibet; studies looking for every detail known about Thor’s hammer, and archaeology expeditions in search for the Aryan founders of every civilization. This latter belief of Himmler and other Nazis was based on the idea that there were three types of people: the founders of culture, the bearers of culture and the destroyers of culture. (Guess who the destroyers were and who the founders were.) In any case, this idea led Nazis to believe that, if they looked long and hard enough, their archaeologists would inevitably find Aryans as the founders of every major culture. When they didn’t, they became increasingly desperate and branched out into ever more bizarre hypotheses.

Yes, there were some bizarre strains of pseudoscience in Nazi science. Yes, Nazis were prone to be enamored of naturopathy and homeopathy, which they viewed as more “German” or “volkish.” Yes, Nazis purged Jews ruthlessly from their universities and viewed science that they did not like as “Jewish science” and therefore degenerate and not truly science. Even more bizarre, what Nazis considered “Jewish science” could be science that you might not guess. For instance, German physicists, lead by Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark, didn’t like Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity because Einstein was Jewish. They went so far as to label relativity “Jewish physics.” By 1937, they had turned their sites on Werner Heisenberg and quantum physics, but there thye overreached, as even the most committed Nazi scientists realized that Heisenberg was a preeminent scientists who had done fantastic work that could help their war effort.

However Nazi archaeologists digging in the Middle East and Norway looking for the Aryan forebearers of ancient civilizations or German physicists labeling physics discovered by Jews as “Jewish physics” to the detriment of German physics may be easy to laugh at and point to as evidence that Nazi science was inherently bad, but it was not all so. After all, the prowess of German engineering in producing weapons and laying the groundwork for modern rocketry was unparalleled at the time. Nazi medicine, as I pointed out before, not only did the best case control studies in the world to that date that allowed them to figure out the link between smoking and lung cancer at least a decade before U.S. or other European scientists could. It also championed public health programs that were progressive for the time, as hard as it is to hear the word “progressive” ever attributed to the Nazis.

However it was the medical experiments performed by the Nazis using prisoners as human subjects that cause the most queasiness among current-day researchers, especially when one asks the question of whether any of them represented “good” science. One commenter provided a link to an article that discussed what sorts of experiments demolished bioethics during the Nazi era and asks the questions: Did they produce useful results? When, if ever, is it ethically acceptable to use the results?

Nazi medical experiments fell into a few basic categories. First, there were experiments designed to help the war effort, usually by determining how sailors could survive hypothermia and at how high an altitude that pilots and airmen could parachute from and survive. The former involved immersing prisoners in baths of ice water or placing them outside naked in the winter and then either observing how long it took for them to die or trying various means of rewarming, including sun lamps, internal irrigation, hot water baths, and warming by body heat. Initially, these experiments were thought to be among the most methodologically sound of the Nazi medical experiments, although they have been called into question as a potential scientific fraud perpetrated by Dr. Sigmund Rascher designed to please his boss Heinrich Himmler. However, many of the other experiments, including experiments, such as the high altitude experiments have not been so criticized as fraud, although they remain profundly unethical to the point of being evil.

One such example is the sulfanilamide experiments. Reading the account of these experiments, in which Nazi doctors recreated combat wounds, inoculated them with various bacteria, and then treated them with sulfanilamide. Chillingly, these are not unlike animal experiments sometimes done to test the efficacy of new antibiotics on open complex wounds. While it is true that some of these experiments were sloppy, that there may well have been fraud in the hypothermia experiments; and that attempts at limb transplantation were doomed from the start through a nonexistent understanding of immunology, some of these experiments were not unlike animal experiments going on at the time. In addition the sulfanilamide experiments were not unlike the same sorts of vicious experiments carried out on Chinese prisoners by the Japanese. I would also point out that scientists of today who criticize these experiments for inadequate rigor often forget that in biomedical research and clinical trials, in the 1930s and 1940s experimental standards were not as well codified and rigorous as they are today. There were a fair number of animal experiments looking at the same sorts of things the Nazis were studying, and there were clinical trials that, while not intentionally cruel like those of the Nazis, were methodologically not much better.

Another category of Nazi experiments were designed to test their racial views. These sorts of experiments were virtually always pseudoscientific, because the hypotheses upon which they were based were dubious at best. Examples of these include the genetic experiments looking for differences between “Aryans” and “lesser races,” the infamous twin experiments carried out by Dr. Josef Mengele, and the sterilization experiments carried out by Dr. Carl Clauberg, the last of which involved high doses of radiation to the gonads of men and women with predictably awful complications or the injection of caustic substances into the uterus. The last of these were not necessarily methodologically unsound, for example radiating men’s testes and then castrating them to examine the histological changes induced, but they were done to serve such an evil purpose, truly science yoked to the back of the devil, so to speak.

The final category of Nazi experiments were ad hoc experiments of uncertain purpose other than cruelty. An example of this was a series of experiments designed to determine the best means of how to use injections of phenol, gasoline, or cyanide to kill patients. In the case of phenol, it was determined that injecting it intravenously caused death too slowly and resulted in too much pain from the burning in the vein and that the most efficacious means of killing prisoners with phenol was to inject it directly into their hearts. Yes, they came about this result through observation, but is it really a result that science should have been used to tell us?

Overall, Nazi science was a mix of methodologically sound science (I won’t call it “good” anymore, given the suffering of its victims) and pseudoscience. It is also important to remember that the scientists who took Nazi racial ideas and put them into practice were not by any means “fringe” scientists. They were the mainstream, some very eminent. As Hugh Murray put it in a review of Robert N. Proctor’s Racial Hygiene put it:

Proctor records a view disturbing to liberals, “Nazi racial theory and practice were not the product of a tiny band of marginal and psychotic individuals. Nazi racial hygienists were among the top professionals in their fields. . . . Racial hygienists like Lenz, Fischer, and Verschuer were not men whose scientific or medical credentials could be questioned” (p. 284). “Racial science was ‘normal science’ in the sense that Thomas Kuhn has given the expression. . .” (p. 285). And “Nazi medical philosophers defended their revolution as one in accord with the latest results of science” (p. 293). Hitler himself had declared that National Socialism was “no mystical doctrine, but rather a realistic doctrine of a strictly scientific nature” (p. 294). Proctor summarizes his attack on the liberal consensus, “One could well argue that the Nazis were not, properly speaking, abusing the results of science but rather were merely putting into practice what doctors and scientists had themselves already initiated. Nazi racial science in this sense was not an abuse of eugenics but rather an attempt to bring to practical fruition trends already implicit in the structure of this branch of science” (p. 296). And “It is probably as fair to say that Nazi racial policy emerged from within the scientific community as to say it was imposed upon the scientific community” (p. 297).

The pseudoscience prevalent in Nazi science is pretty easy to dismiss, and in many cases (Thor’s hammer, anyone?) it’s very easy to identify, but what about the science that might actually tell us something, such as the hypothermia experiments or the high altitude experiments. Such results, because of the evil inflicted on the subjects used in them, are considered horribly tainted, but are they so tainted that we should never, ever use them. Baruch C. Cohen presents what he calls in an unfortunate attempt at glibness, a “chilling dilemma“:

Pozos points out that the major rewarming controversy has been between the use of passive external rewarming (which uses the patient’s own body heat) and active external rewarming (which means the direct application of exogenous heat directly to the surface of the body). Hospitals have thus far microwaved frozen people, used warm blankets, induced warm fluids into body cavities (through the pertinium, rectum or urinary bladder), performed coronary bypass surgery, immersed the frozen bodies into hot bath tubs, and used body-to-body rewarming techniques.11 Some victims were saved, some were lost. This might be due to the lack of legitimate information on the effects of cold on humans, since the existing data is limited to the effects of cold on animals. Animals and humans differ widely in their physiological response to cold. Accordingly, hypothermia research is uniquely dependent on human test subjects. Although Pozos has experimented on many volunteers at his hypothermia lab, he refused to allow the subject’s temperature to drop more than 36 degrees. Pozos had to speculate what the effects would be on a human being at lower temperatures. The only ones that put humans through extensive hypothermia research (at lower temperatures) were the Nazis at Dachau.

The Nazis immersed their subjects into vats of ice water at sub-zero temperatures, or left them out to freeze in the winter cold. As the prisoners excreted mucus, fainted and slipped into unconsciousness, the Nazis meticulously recorded the changes in their body temperature, heart rate, muscle response, and urine.

The Nazis attempted rewarming the frozen victims. Doctor Rascher did, in fact, discover an innovative “Rapid Active Rewarming” technique in resuscitating the frozen victims. This technique completely contradicted the popularly accepted method of slow passive rewarming. Rascher found his active rewarming in hot liquids to be the most efficient means of revival.

The Nazi data on hypothermia experiments would apparently fill the gap in Pozos’ research. Perhaps it contained the information necessary to rewarm effectively frozen victims whose body temperatures were below 36 degrees. Pozos obtained the long suppressed Alexander Report on the hypothermia experiments at Dachau. He planned to analyze for publication the Alexander Report, along with his evaluation, to show the possible applications of the Nazi experiments to modern hypothermia research. Of the Dachau data, Pozos said, “It could advance my work in that it takes human subjects farther than we’re willing.”

Another example is Nazi experiments using phosgene gas on humans:

An experimental study on the acute toxicity of phosgene on humans was performed during World War II. Fearful of a phosgene gas attack by the Allies in Africa, Heinreich Himmler ordered Doctor Bickenbach to experiment on humans in an effort to develop a means of protecting the Germans against phosgene poisoning. Fifty-two French prisoners were exposed to the toxic gas. Four of the prisoners died in the experiments conducted at Fort Ney, near Strassburg, France. The remaining weak and emaciated prisoners developed pulmonary edema from the exposure to the gas. Rumor had it, that Bickenbach herded the prisoners into an air tight testing chamber, broke open a vial of phosgene gas, and counted how long it took for the prisoners to die. This sordid report of the experiment was revealed during the War Crimes trial in France.

Serious concerns were raised by EPA scientists that the recorded data was flawed. They based their skepticism on the fact that Bickenbach’s report failed to note how the pulmonary edema was measured, nor what the victim’s sex or weight was.

But Todd Thorslund, a Vice President of ICF-Clement, an environmental consulting firm that used the Nazi data in preparing the draft study under contract with the EPA, staunchly defended the accuracy of the Nazi data. He observed that the poor health of the prisoners was not an important factor for consideration because the EPA was concerned about the health of sensitive populations, and that using the Nazi data would provide a conservative model. Also, the lack of information about the prisoner’s sex and weight was similarly irrelevant because phosgene is so toxic that it is the dose in the air that make the difference.

The Nazi phosgene data could have saved the lives of the residents who live near the manufacturing plant. It had the potential to save the lives of our American Troops stationed in the Persian Gulf, in the event of a chemical attack by Sadam Hussein. People’s lives were severely threatened. Should the EPA have used the Nazi data or ignore it?

This issue touched off a fierce debate among agency scientists concerning the propriety of using data originally acquired by the Nazis. Upon learning of the draft study’s references to the Nazi data, former EPA Chief Administrator Lee Thomas decided that the agency should not use the data. Thomas’ decision came after he received a letter signed by twenty-two EPA scientists protesting the use of the Nazi data.

However, people exposed to the gas felt otherwise:

To date, it is unclear whether the Nazi human data would have predicted a different dose-response effect compared to the animal research. Furthermore, it is equally unclear how EPA Chief Thomas could continue to allow the manufacture of the gas, thereby putting the residents at risk, without a complete and thorough analysis on the effects of the gas on humans. Thomas’ decision seemed unfair to those who are currently being exposed to the gas. They would not appreciate the fact that the applicable data existed, but was not consulted.

Thorny indeed are the ethical issues involved when it comes to whether to use the Nazi research. On the one side, the argument goes, the data is irrevocably tainted, soaked in the blood of Nazi victims, so much so that using it not only dishonors the dead but to some extent elevates the Nazi butcher-”scientists” who performed the experiments by admitting that what they were doing was in fact scientific. On the other side are those who argue that not using the data would render the deaths of the victims who died producing the data as useless and pointless. In this view, we should use this tainted data in order to provide at least some meaning to the deaths of Nazi victims. Advocates of variants of this latter view, such as Robert J. Lifton, a man whom I respect greatly, argue that the data should be published when it is of compelling value to humanity, but that such publications and any citation of such publications must contain an exposé of exactly how the data were obtained, leaving no doubt about the cruelty and evil of the scientists who did the experiments and the suffering of the subjects used to produce the data.

Personally, I think that is a reasonable compromise, except that I think that all Nazi data should be published and made available. I see no reason why not, as it is important history that should be preserved. However, this data should not be published in scientific journals, to be drily cited in the manner of scientific discourse, but rather in history journals, where, again, the methods used for the experiments the brutality and cruelty of the methods should be described in exquisite detail right there in the articles. History needs a record of just how evil the purposes to which evil men can turn science. As I said before, science is in and of itself a method, a tool, a means of asking questions about nature and finding answers, and as such it is amoral. However, the men who use science can be good or evil. When science is used for good, it can produce amazing good indeed. Heart transplants, cancer therapy, television, airplanes, the list is endless. When used for ill, however, it has the potential to produce evil just as powerful as the good it can produce. Either way, it is not science itself that is good or evil but the people who do science.

ADDENDUM: These articles, linked to as part of this post, are very much worth reading:


  1. #1 D. C. Sessions
    December 9, 2008

    The hypothermia example is one rather near to heart, since field treatment of hypothermia is a necessary part of my training (ski patrol, nonurban EMT).

    I’ll point out that a great deal of what we know about hypothermia is now the result of US Army work on volunteers under conditions that would never pass an IRB in civilian life. Is this a matter of degree or of kind? Bear in mind that quite a few lives every year depend on whether these “shady” discoveries are anathema.

  2. #2 Mu
    December 9, 2008

    Very good post, I think you nailed it with the fear of confirming any Nazi KL research had any merit to it. If you can get data from “involuntary subject” that’s useful, someone might be tempted to repeat the experience under similar circumstances. Does anyone know if the Soviets under Stalin (who has similar strange ideas on science) did anything similar in their Gulags?

  3. #3 Glazius
    December 9, 2008

    If anything, there’s more ethical impetus to use Nazi research, assuming legitimate methodology, than there is to use your average journal kind.

    I mean, think about it. These were horrific experiments, performed by people laboring under a rather monstrous ideology. If we ignore the knowledge gained from them for the sake of the ideology, and as a result people die who might have lived, then that ideology is still killing people even after its proponents have faded into obscurity.

  4. #4 frog
    December 9, 2008

    How about the US experiments feeding institutionalized kids radioactive materials in their cereals? Or the soldiers exposed to fallout after nuclear tests? Or Tuskeegee? Or the inability of American medicine to recognize what “hospitalism” was for decades?

    Let’s not pretend that this was just a Nazi disease. It was a disease of modern society. Eugenics was not just a German program — it was developed earlier in the US, and continued until the 70s! Yes, the last forced sterilization laws in the US were eliminated within a generation. Misceganation laws only were part of German law from ’35 to ’45 — here in the US we started them right at our founding and through 1969 (technically, the last such laws were only removed a couple of years ago).

    Bad (as in evil, on top of being useless) science and culture (the driver) has been all around for the 20th century. It’s been the policy of all the hegemons — the Nazis, the Soviets and the US. If we pretend that it’s a “Nazi” thing, we really do run the risk of repeating it.

  5. #5 Thony C.
    December 9, 2008

    By 1937, they had turned their sites on Werner Heisenberg and quantum physics, but there thye overreached, as even the most committed Nazi scientists realized that Heisenberg was a preeminent scientists who had done fantastic work that could help their war effort.

    Actually Heisenberg became a privileged scientist within the Nazi system not because of any intrinsic scientific merit that he might or might not have had but because he had close personal family connections to Himmler to whom he turned for protection when he came under suspicion because of his close association with Sommerfeld.

  6. #6 Mu
    December 9, 2008

    And there I thought it was because he’d gotten the Nobel prize in 1932 …

  7. #7 Martijn
    December 9, 2008

    To me considering knowledge tainted because of the horrible experiments that were used to gain this knowledge reeks of magical thinking. Knowledge itself is neither good or evil.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    December 9, 2008

    Did anybody else here read the Tom Swift books? In the fourth series to chronicle the adventures of a boy genius with that name (which came out in the early 1990s), the main Evil Overlord is a tycoon named Xavier Mace. He bears many of the classic Evil Overlord stigmata, but the reason I mention him here is his back story: he turned eeeevil after being booted from the scientific community. . . for using the results of Nazi experiments in his research.

  9. #9 abb3w
    December 9, 2008

    There are at least two distinct elements to the use of the data: the benefit of what may be learned from the use, and the harm of the precedent set by using the data.

    I would not go to an absolute “no”; there are several extreme “lifeboat” scenarios I can conceive of where the use of the data is clearly the more moral course. The records should certainly not be destroyed, in some sense against such need but more as record of the harm that was done. However, I’m inclined to think that the societal benefits of the continued warning to history are large and obvious enough enough that any attempt to use this data must first show that the benefit of such use outweighs the net benefit of insuring the warning “never again” echos forever down the halls of eternity.

  10. #10 DANO thamano
    December 9, 2008

    look it up people operation paperclip brought thousands of the scientist and their science with them in 1945 that’s also when NASA took off with the help of Warner Von braun and when people don’t know their past the are destine to repeat it ……great info…….

  11. #11 Ramel
    December 9, 2008

    Is using Nazi data to save lives more or less ethical than journalists using detailed discriptions of a serial killers actions to make money by selling a book, and if not, why?

  12. #12 Koray
    December 9, 2008

    Today’s ethical studies may be found unethical tomorrow. We should keep the old studies, by Nazis or whomever as long as it’s sound science, and still call it science, but understand that this doesn’t mean that they define today’s or tomorrow’s practice of scientific research.

  13. #13 Graculus
    December 9, 2008

    My freind’s veterinary handbook for horse care has a chapter on what to expect after a nuclear bomb. The information came from stables near Hiroshima.

    If it’s good enough for horses…..

  14. #14 Don
    December 9, 2008

    You know, this ethically ‘iffy’ selection of experimental subjects wouldn’t be necessary if there were sufficient funding to supply a reasonable number of graduate students.

  15. #15 automandc
    December 9, 2008

    Strange, not one person has actually mentioned what the victims (subjects) might think were they able to weigh in on the debate today. If it was me, and I was to be murdered in some horrific way in the name of “science”, if it ever turned out that “science” really was scientifically useful, I would sure as heck not want my death to have been in vain. We honor the victims by finding some meaning in their deaths and possibly saving others through the knowledge so dearly paid for.

  16. #16 Azkyroth
    December 10, 2008

    Advocates of variants of this latter view, such as Robert J. Lifton, a man whom I respect greatly, argue that the data should be published when it is of compelling value to humanity, but that such publications and any citation of such publications must contain an exposé of exactly how the data were obtained, leaving no doubt about the cruelty and evil of the scientists who did the experiments and the suffering of the subjects used to produce the data.

    Personally, I think that is a reasonable compromise, except that I think that all Nazi data should be published and made available. I see no reason why not, as it is important history that should be preserved. However, this data should not be published in scientific journals, to be drily cited in the manner of scientific discourse, but rather in history journals, where, again, the methods used for the experiments the brutality and cruelty of the methods should be described in exquisite detail right there in the articles.

    Further suggestion, both useful and poetically just: don’t publish the names of the perpetrators of the experiments in question. Instead, make a comprehensive list of Nazi experimenters and assign each of them a number, IE Nazi Experimenter #676, then refer to the number whenever the experimenter’s name would come up in a citation.

  17. #17 Tracy W
    December 11, 2008

    The Nazis’ propaganda techniques were not ethical, but yet they are often used as material in studies of propaganda and of communication. Do the people who do this get protest letters concerned about the use of Nazi data?

  18. #18 LC
    December 11, 2008

    In the end I suspect the arguement to use Nazi science and research is a moot point.

    The Allies didn’t spend large amounts of time, money and effort to grab any equipment, research and scientists they could lay their hands on at the conclusion of the war (Shiro Ishii and von Braun being the most infamous) simply to sit back do nothing with it.

    Any research would have been long since picked over, analyzed and built on by the military even if they never admit it. The psuedoscience would have been gradually discarded and the usefull parts (eg: Hypotherima and altitude research) kept. What is left of it now would have long since been superceeded by better and more modern research.

    I think a better arguement would be “should it be openly acknowledged that some research had part of it’s basis in Nazi research”.

    The other point would be that it is only the medical experiments which appears to raise the ire of people. The use of Nazi rocketry science for example doesn’t seem to have many concerns raised about its past – depite thousands being worked to death at Mittelbau-Dora during testing and development. People watch a documentary of the horrors of Nazi human experiments on their TV – which recieves the signal from a satellite launched on a device with its basis in Nazi science and tech.