Back on the campaign trail, Donald Trump said that he’d bring back “waterboarding” and a “hell of a lot worse” if he were to become president. This method of so-called “enhanced interrogation” is widely seen as torture, and although it rose to prominence during the Bush administration, it was outlawed during the Obama years.
Trump won the presidency, though, and sure enough, during his first televised interview as America’s commander-in-chief, he claimed that torture “absolutely” works – according to conversations he has had with intelligence officials – and that in order to combat the barbarity of so-called ISIS, the US should “fight fire with fire.”
Now we’re not going to debate the moral and ethical quandaries that enhanced interrogation brings to the fore. We will point out that it is against international law, but we’ll leave this particular debate for others to engage in.
We’re here to remind you all that there is plenty of scientific evidence that torture does not achieve the results it’s after – namely, the release of accurate information useful to the intelligence services.
Fear and Loathing
Trump revealing that he feels torture "absolutely works." CNN via YouTube
First off, information given out under duress is likely to be inaccurate in many cases, simply because of the victim’s fear of such bodily harm. Those being tortured are known to say almost anything to make it stop.
“The captor wants the captive to speak and reveal key information from their long-term memory. The captive wants to escape the extreme stress while not revealing key information,” it reads. “As long as the captive is talking, the captor can avoid using torture,” and thus they will tend to say anything to achieve this goal.
Nevertheless, torture has been used to elicit the “truth” for millennia.
“The Ancient Greeks and Romans relied on torture,” Russell Moul, a doctoral researcher at the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent, told IFLScience. “In fact, they did not think some judicial testimony to be true unless it was extracted through torture,” particularly when it came to slaves, who were thought to lack the capacity to reason.
Just because it’s been done for centuries, however, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Moul points out that by the time of the Age of Enlightenment, attitudes had changed dramatically for most.
Cesare Beccaria, widely seen as the father of classic criminal theory, analyzed the evidence obtained from torture and concluded it was rarely trustworthy – people were just saying anything to make the pain stop.
However, fear isn’t the only driving factor here. Damaging someone’s brain or central nervous system using these methods will clearly distort information, render it inaccessible, or bury it in a fit of delirious nonsense.