Finally, we have the definitive word on torture: It has a deleterious effect on the hippocampus, the frontal cortex, and memory. The phony idea that torture elicits good information is based on "folk psychology and folk neurobiology."
Folk neurobiology? What's that? Neurobiology discussed around a campfire? What neurobiological changes afflicted the magic dragon Puff, I wonder, when the kid grew up and didn't come back?
Maybe this isn't the definitive word after all.
The news stories on this were sparked by an article in Trends in Cognitive Science entitled "Torturing the Brain: On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating 'enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques.'" The journal posted a press release on Eurekalert, and reporters jumped on it.
USA Today's Dan Vergano picked up the release in a short item for the paper's "Science Fair" section online. That's an odd call. This story potentially has major implications for U.S. foreign and military policy. Seems as though it should be done right, or not at all.
Stuart Fox at Popular Science picked up the release and added some context, but his story was another quick-and-dirty piece. And woe to the headline writer (we won't blame Fox) for calling this a "study." It ain't.
Ryan Sager of trueslant.com gives us a far more skeptical view of this report. He begins by saying the article "claims" to show that torture is bad science--a suggestion that the evidence is not necessarily convincing. In the second graf, he quickly says that O'Mara "did not examine the brains of victims of American torture." Sager describes what the article is: Not a study, but speculation on what likely happened to the brains of people tortured, based on an understanding of the neurobiology of memory and a close reading of U.S. government memos describing the techniques that were used. Sager ends by raising some important questions about whether O'Mara has made his case. (Sager describes O'Mara as "she," although O'Mara's online biographical info says he's a he.)
You might think that the first thing you'd do with a study like this--especially if you haven't heard of the author, and I hadn't--is call a few other experts to see whether the article sounds legit. I found that in the BBC story, near the bottom.The comments backed up O'Mara and made for a stronger story.
I'm having trouble finding somebody who interviewed O'Mara. Did he drop this thing out there and then maintain radio silence? Is the CIA hiding him in one of Cheney's old underground bunkers?
The most comprehensive and intelligent story was Sharon Begley's in Newsweek. She walks carefully through O'Mara's arguments, separating what's known from what's not.
Begley does a far better job of explaining the issues involved than O'Mara did. But that shouldn't be a surprise. That's our job, isn't it?
- Paul Raeburn