December 14, 2007

A Logical Fallacy

Darius Rejali's otherwise excellent "Five Myths about Torture" lists the following as a myth:

3 People will say anything under torture.

Well, no, although this is a favorite chestnut of torture's foes. Think about it: Sure, someone would lie under torture, but wouldn't they also lie if they were being interrogated without coercion?

So, I'm one of torture's foes, but I don't see how the bit after "Think about it" contradicts my favorite chestnut. The idea isn't that people won't lie if they're interrogated without coercion, it's that they will lie if they're tortured. If they're going to lie either way, you should do the thing that doesn't involve torturing anyone. (You shouldn't torture people anyway, but that's for another day.)

What Rejali goes on to say also fails to contradict the "myth":

In fact, the problem of torture does not stem from the prisoner who has information; it stems from the prisoner who doesn't. Such a person is also likely to lie, to say anything, often convincingly. The torture of the informed may generate no more lies than normal interrogation, but the torture of the ignorant and innocent overwhelms investigators with misleading information. In these cases, nothing is indeed preferable to anything. Anything needs to be verified, and the CIA's own 1963 interrogation manual explains that "a time-consuming delay results" -- hardly useful when every moment matters.

I can only conclude that Rejali felt obliged to include a swipe at torture's opponents in deference to the evenhanded Washington Post editorial style that has destroyed our country.

(via Bruce Moomaw in Yglesias's comments)

Posted by Matt Weiner at December 14, 2007 10:16 PM

I think that you can read "people will say anything under torture" to just be plain true. I recall a Cambodian schoolteacher who described confessing to being the Pope's illegitimate child, among many other things. I don't think you could get quite the same results with ordinary methods.

Posted by: Justin at December 14, 2007 11:26 PM

Yeah, it's really weird. I think what he means to lean on is "The torture of the informed may generate no more lies than normal interrogation," but of course the problems (besides that it's morally hideous to torture) are that it doesn't seem to generate any fewer lies, and also, as he goes on to point out, that torturing uninformed people gets you a lot of garbage, and (I add) that you don't know who's informed about what. Abu Zubaydah was supposed to be a well-informed Al Qaeda higher-up, but they tortured him into "confessing" a lot of ridiculous false plots that wasted time and resources.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at December 15, 2007 07:57 AM
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