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Evidence-Based Policy: The Case for Torture in Interrogation

The classic case comes from the world of pulp fiction: Entombed, a kidnapped child is running out of air; arrested, the prime suspect will not say where. Do you tear his toenails out or calmly interrogate him? The question takes on practical significance with news anchors wondering what we can inflict on the accused Paris mass murderers to make them talk. It’s a tug of war between expedience and morality. Or is it? Looking closer, we see science says that in this tug of war both sides pull in the same direction. It leads to a simple conclusion: Using torture as an interrogation tool is incompetent (as well as illegal and immoral).

The morality of torture is much debated of late.  But many regimes have used it in the past. It was long an torture-600x350integral part of many justice systems, being first abolished in England in 1772. In 1987 torture was made a crime under international law. Today, its purpose is often to instil terror. But sometimes the idea is to get key information. There is (or could be), as American public commentator Charles Krauthammer put it a few years ago, the case of ‘the terrorist with information’ about a nuclear bomb somewhere in New York City. In such case, he says, if one has ‘the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information’ torture is not only permissible, ‘It is a moral duty.’ He is wrong. Though Krauthammer’s article lays claim to be a ‘critical analysis’ he ignores scientific evidence that says any such belief is, to say the least, misguided.

Use of torture has wide effects. For example it provides propaganda for recruiting terrorists. The evidence of these effects seems to me to lead to the conclusion that torture is bad public policy. But let’s focus on the narrow question, the one that Krauthammer neglects. As a source of urgent information, does torture work?

By its nature this is a difficult question. Nobody is doing large-scale, randomized, double-blind experiments to study the effectiveness of torture. Difficulty does not make the question go away. It leaves us with evidence that is thin and less than rigorous. But it is evidence.

Anecdotal evidence from experts, those who have observed how torture works at first hand, tends to say it does not work. This is not a new observation. In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte wrote to his Chief of Staff, ‘It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile.’ This is not hard to understand. Krauthammer’s tortured bomber may give his inquisitors what they demand – a location. Trouble is, as experts explain, he knows a false answer will yield (or not) the same relief as a true one. Thus the US Army Field Manual on intelligence interrogation says that ‘the success of the interrogation hinges, to a large degree, on … the detainee’s willingness to communicate.’

Science provides statistical analysis of results of interrogations. Studying many international interrogations of high-value detainees, Australian psychologist Jane Goodman-Delahunty found that seeking rapport with the subject led to quick disclosure fourteen times more often than torture did. This does not prove causation but it would be folly to ignore it.

New methods give us insight into relevant brain processes. Last year Harvard neuroscientist Shane O’Mara wrote the book on this. He explains the observed results. And it turns out that torture can even obliterate memory of the information that is being sought.

In sum the weight of evidence says that you are more likely to get the information that you need, more accurately and sooner, if you don’t use torture. Against this evidence Krauthammer and his torturers bring their ‘slightest belief’. In the balance (if there is one) his moral justification is worse than empty. He will usually fail to get the vital information. He will choose to let ‘a million people’ die. How can we explain such gross incompetence? Are proponents of torture terrorists in thin disguise? Do they blather without bothering to check for facts? Are they after what the US Army calls ‘sadistic pleasure’? Or are they pandering to public attitudes, inflicting agony (often on innocents who do not know the answer) for personal gain?

The last twenty years have seen catastrophic failures of security. Sound security depends on true and timely information. So security forces should be tasked to incapacitate and capture, not kill, suspects. They need training in effective interrogation. Clearly we need more research on what works and why. And, as always, ultimately action depends on an informed public, so trustworthy journalism has a key role to play.


Charles Krauthammer (2005), “The Truth About Torture”, The Weekly Standard, Dec. 5;

Napoleon Bonaparte (1798), letter to Louis Alexandre Berthier, in Correspondance de Napoléon,  Henri Plon (ed., 1861), v. 5, p. 128;

United States Department of the Army (1992), Field Manual FM 34-52 Intelligence Interrogation, p. 3-10 ;

Jane Goodman-Delahunty et al. (2014), “Interviewing High Value Detainees: Securing Cooperation and Disclosures”, Appl. Cognit. Psychol., v. 28, p. 883;

Other Reading:

Shane O’Mara (2015), Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation, New York: Harvard University Press;

Image credit: Stuff You Should Know,

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