When science replaces religion, it becomes more and more like religion, and in the minds of its worshipers, can justify the same sorts of inhumanities. Witness Richard Dawkins, todays leading worshiper of science, calling for deposed dictators to be used as guinea pigs, rather than executed (via John Hawks). He writes:
But perhaps the most important research in which a living Saddam Hussein could have helped is psychological. Most people can’t even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Hussein, or how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country.
What were the formative influences on these men? Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad? In their genes? In their testosterone levels? Could the danger have been nipped in the bud by an alert psychiatrist? How would Hitler or Hussein have responded to a different style of education? We don’t have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.
Now, I’m all for not executing dictators. In fact, I don’t think we should be in the business of executing anyone. But as Hawks says,
I think irrespective of any other issue, including one’s opinion on capital punishment, psychological experimentation on prisoners is beyond the pale.
That is, unless the goals of science, in its place as the new religion, dictate what you find moral and immoral.
It might be that Dawkins is simply talking about interviews, and maybe taking a few blood samples, but the language in the two paragraphs I quoted above comes very close to sounding much more serious than that. It’s quite clear, at this point, that Dawkins has lost any sense of perspective. I hope his 15 minutes of fame (outside of science communities) ends soon, very soon, before he says anything more frightening.
UPDATE: OK, given that pretty much everyone who’s commented disagrees with me (not surprisingly), I figure I should clarify my position a little. I doubt it will change many of your minds, but it will at least make me feel a little better, and hey, it’s my blog.
To me, there are two intertwined problems with Dawkins’ letter. He invokes science as potential savior (problem 1) to treat Hussein not as a human being, albeit a horrible one, but as “valuable research data” (problem 2). He implies that studying Hussein, and the few other people in history who have achieved his level of infamy, will provide science with what it needs to help us avoid allowing such people to gain power. Now, this is far from obviously true. Forget for a moment that Hussein, Hitler, and the like would probably be horrible research subjects for historians and political scientists, because they probably wouldn’t learn anything new (except, for example, whether Hitler had Parkinson’s or some other degenerative brain disorder, if they were to do a brain scan of Hitler circa 1943), but would in any interview get a megalomaniac’s idiosyncratic perception of his or her own actions. I’m more interested in the psychological research. With one, two, or even five research subjects, it would be damn near impossible to make any conclusions using neuroimaging data. Perhaps genetic tests would reveal something interesting (maybe it turns out all ruthless dictators have some the same mutation, which makes them really big meanies), but I doubt it. At most, we’d get some vague suggestions for hypotheses to be tested in other populations. And that certainly isn’t going to save us from the likes of Hitler and Hussein.
But it’s enough for Dawkins to feel justified in objectifying Hussein and those like him as potential research data. This may, at first, seem harmless, but it’s not clear where Dawkins feels our justification ends with people like Hussein. Do we need to get Hussein’s consent? Dawkins certainly doesn’t mention getting it. What sorts of testing are permissible, and what’s not? And if we can use someone like Hussein as a research subject (or just data), without consent, where does it end? How do we determine who’s not quite bad enough to be subjected to forced study? In other words, the very idea of treating human beings simply as “valuable research data” sets a horrible precedent. And it can only come from the mind of someone who treats science, and its goals (however noble), as the arbiter of morality at least in some domains. That’s what I find frightening about Dawkins’ letter.