Trump on torture: more bad thinking

27 Jan

Another post dedicated to bad thinking, it being a year and a day since my last one. Yesterday’s Independent ran this piece. Having approved in ways active and passive Obama’s bombing the middle east every day for eight years, promoted right-wing coups in Ukraine and Honduras and locked up more whistle-blowers than any previous administration, the Independent now looks askance at Trump’s latest slice of the nastiness he goes in for. What did he say this time? That alongside other methods not spelled out, he wants waterboarding, outlawed in 2015, back in the toolbox.

On some topics, like Syria, below-the-line comments can be of higher merit than the flyweight above-the-line pieces they’re responding to. This wasn’t one of those days. With a few worthy exceptions, commentariat thinking was equally confused. Comment after comment assured us, on God knows what evidential basis, that contrary to what Trump believes, torture never works. (Mark that ‘never’.)  In this they were as one with the piece’s author, who’d told us:

There is no credible scientific evidence to suggest torture works in extracting reliable information from a victim. A book on the issue by Trinity College Dublin’s professor of experimental brain research, Shane O’Mara, found that – morality aside – “proponents of torture are left with an indefensible case”. 

Yes, I realise I’ll have the Apostrophe Soc on my back for my own penultimate paragraph. But the thread as a whole offered clues that most commentators weren’t seeing straight, and for the oldest reason of all: wishful thinking. Another clue is related but distinct. The few who challenged the view that torture never works invariably made clear their abhorrence of it. That, however, did not stop them being answered in ways that took them to be advocating its use.

There’s a whole branch of interpersonal psychology known as ‘attribution theory’. One of its concerns is the way we process messages. It posits a margin of tolerance, a kind of no man’s land at the borders of our core opinions and beliefs. When an incoming message lands within these borderlands, we distort it to exaggerate its fit with – and so pull it toward – those core beliefs. Conversely, when an incoming message lands outside the borders, we distort it in ways that push it even further away.

Here’s an example from the same very large set of comments. I stress the ‘very large’ because other pieces in the same issue – on Theresa May’s intent to urge the Donald not to be ‘soft’ on Iran and not to be ‘soft’ on Russia; i.e. keep the very lucrative hate industry on the front burner – drew far fewer comments. But I digress. This exchange exemplifies what those attribution psychologists are on about:

8 thoughts on “Trump on torture: more bad thinking

  1. I’d suggest this is more complex than what we have so far. At present it seems we are at a similar level of argument akin to the Political (and it is political rather than, from a security perspective, technical) argument used by various Governments and Government apologists which goes something along the lines of what if (the famous what if) there was a bomb (like for example there were WMD’s in Iraq) and you had a limited amount of time to locate it and torture was the only way. Point being is this is a hypothetical situation which never seems to have ever occurred – if it had those using that argument would be forever using real examples to substantiate that argument. The fact that this never seems to happen suggest a high liklihood that it is a hypothetical and theoretical scenario for which no substantive evidence exists of it ever happening.

    Similarly, with the notion that anyone, outside of a psychotic mugger, would ever take the trouble to torture someone for their PIN number. The point here is context. Everyone knows that on the subject of torture we are talking either Government directly or via indirect contracting and sub contracting. Consequently the information required is not only of a different order of magnitude from something as mundane as your personal PIN number (and who outside of an extremely narrow group of people possesses sufficient funds to make that worth the effort?), it is also more often than not more complex and less easily verifiable.

    In that practical context ( I’m sorry, I was engineer, I don’t know how to think any other way) even though it was a single source involved I suspect you would have a better chance of discovering rocking horse droppings than finding anyone in that line of work who could put their hand on their head (we are talking brain/evidence here rather than heart/emotion) and come up with solid evidence that this form of information retrieval has a single iota of useful efficacy.

    • Thanks Dave. The PIN example was merely to show, logically and rapidly, that there are indeed situations where torture will work. Perhaps a more apposite example is the fact that during its war with Britain, the Provisional IRA (the OfficiaL IRA having faded into irrelevance through its failure to protect the Catholic populations of Belfast and Derry from sectarian violence) moved from Brigade to Cell structure. Under torture its volunteers had been ceding information useful to the British. We can take it those volunteers hadn’t simply been too polite to refuse a courteously framed question or two. Especially when we take into account this 1978 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.

      The Provos were hardly alone in limiting the knowledge of clandestine operatives. I’ve never been a spy but there’s a mass of anecdotal evidence of agents in deadly environments being given cyanide capsules should the worst befall, and in any case being given information on a strictly need to know basis.

  2. Even as an ex squaddie (72-75 which covered some of the early years of the NI conflict, though I never got posted there) I have no specific first hand knowledge to bring to the table on that period. However, what is, and has been for some time, available in the public domain is information to the effect of high level infiltration of the Provos through a variety of means. It would would seem reasonable to surmise that the bulk of quality information came via these sources, from informants through to direct organisational penetration by the British Security Services rather than through other methods.

    Granted it can perhaps be viewed as a different era where these matters were not so overt, and I’m not saying it never went on – as I’m sure the Kenyans, Malaysians, and the people of Aden would attest – but the context is whether as a methodology it’s main usefulness lies in obtaining good quality Intel. which can be acted upon and which lead to useful outcomes? I’d suggest it’s key usefulness lies as one tool in a toolbox designed specifically to terrify and terrorise populations into compliance and crying ‘uncle.’ Which is why certain politicians seem drawn to it and are more gung ho enthusiastic towards it than the real professionals who are more aware of the limitations in certain areas, like providing quality Intel.

    Former UK diplomat Craig Murray could no doubt add some useful insights in this regard.

    • Wow – an ex squaddie, eh, and at so critical a time! I’ve no doubt you’re right about torture being used to terrorise but don’t see this as an either/or. My beef was with those who confidently assert that torture never works as a means of securing useful information. That is almost certainly false and I see this post as about clear thinking rather than about torture. Arguments advanced in most of the hundreds of comments the article elicited were flawed – in the main, I think, due to an all too understandable unwillingness to accept that something so degrading and vile might actually work.

      I’m interested in critical thinking for its own sake. I part company with academics – and I was one – who teach it as a skill. In my experience uncritical thinking, my own included, is usually driven by emotional factors and/or laziness, not lack of reasoning skills.

      I’m also interested in critical thinking because I’ve time and again encountered poor reasoning – often the textbook errors a critical thinking tutor would flag up – in exchanges on social media and in BTL comment over issues that could not matter more: with Syria and the US election heading the list.

      Yes, I too find Craig Murray a reliable resource. I liked the way he recently flagged up the way we’ve been sold a dummy on Evil Assad and his Barrel Bombs.

      PS point taken about that infiltration of the Provos. I’m guilty of a logical error of my own: reductionism in attributing a fact (shift from Brigade to Cell) to a single cause: Britain’s established use of torture.

  3. I’ve no intention of re-enlisting if that is what’s being suggested and Dad’s Army certainly has no appeal. Besides which a shilling does not go very far these days.

  4. Well I’ll go to’t foot of our stairs! Within the last five minutes of starting this post Channel Four’s Last Leg have just demolished the what if theoretical example that never ever happens in practice that I was on about earlier.

    The basic argument applied by the team being that of course it works in theory with daft examples like your baby is tied to a bomb, a staple favourite of politicians as well as, in this case some half witted comedian. What we need is practical examples rather than theoretical scenarios and the problem at present is a distinct lack of practical examples/evidence beyond the level of if my auntie had a scrotum she’d be my uncle which too many politicians I and use to argue that this is some sort of panacea.

    • Well I still can’t quite believe the Gestapo, NKVD, CIA etc were complete duffers, wasting so much time and energy when they could simply have asked politely …

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