Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Science, Human Rights and the Military

• January 22, 2010 • 5:37 PM

The military commonly enlists science in its efforts. But when science is humanity, the relationship gets a little stickier.

Neuroscience and national security go together somewhat uneasily. Stick the two in a single sentence, and University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Moreno starts getting e-mails from all kinds of people who are sure they’ve been brainwashed by the CIA. (It might not help his inbox that he wrote a book called Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense.)

“It’s hard to talk about these issues in part because we have kind of a paranoid popular-culture background,” Moreno said. Maybe you’ve seen The Manchurian Candidate, or, more recently, The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Neuroscience and national security, though, sit at the forefront of the complex relationship between science and the military, bedfellows that have produced not just compelling fiction, but also real dilemmas for the researchers who bridge them.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science hosted a conference today of its year-old Science and Human Rights Coalition, a group whose joint concerns are embodied most starkly in the application of science to war.

“The human rights frame is almost completely missing from this discussion,” said Len Rubenstein, the former executive director of Physicians for Human Rights and now a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins. He spoke at the conference’s opening session. “The question of research for military purposes and scientific activity for military purposes is usually viewed either through the frame of professional ethics or scientific integrity. If human rights is introduced at all, it comes through the question of human subjects research with the Nuremberg Code.”

Scientists ought to consider, he argues, the broader question of human rights in work that ranges from weapons development to anthropology. As the science and potential military applications have grown more sophisticated, it follows that the ethics are now more complex, too.

Researchers, for instance, are already mulling whether beta-blockers could be used to reduce feelings of guilt in soldiers who do the unpleasant work of interrogation. Conversely, scientists wonder if oxytocin could induce trust in the interrogated. And what if neuro-imaging could help indicate what combatants are thinking? Or if brain monitoring could track how soldiers handle stress in training?

“We’re moving clearly more and more in the direction of being able to manage neural activity, manage behavior, attitudes and perception at a distance,” Moreno said.

Rubenstein, in response, pointed to the little-recognized Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It entitles a person to social security indispensable for both dignity and “the free development of his personality.”

“When we have weapons that are deliberately designed to change people’s personalities, to manipulate people’s personalities, we have a problem,” Rubenstein said. “Not only an ethical problem, not only a national security problem, we have a human rights problem.”

It’s not that human rights are opposed to national security, Rubenstein argues; this is why the Geneva Conventions attempt to regulate conduct in war, not oppose war all together. From there, the distinctions are important. Weapons incapable of discriminating between combatants and civilians — like land mines or cluster bombs — violate human rights, he said, suggesting scientists who contribute to developing them must bear this in mind.

The most public example of murky scientific involvement in warfare has come from the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System, a controversial program to embed anthropologists with soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Department of Defense billed the program, which was unveiled in 2007, as a path toward greater cultural understanding and, ultimately, less violence.

But the American Anthropological Association roundly denounced the program. The participating anthropologists typically wear military uniforms and sometimes carry firearms. The military has insisted the program isn’t designed to gather intelligence for combat, but the AAA questioned how the one can ever be separated from the other in the context of war.

The Human Terrain System, the AAA concluded, violates many of the association’s main ethical tenets, including the obligation to do no harm and to obtain “informed consent” from subjects — something it may be impossible to give when facing a scientist in uniform.

In the new worlds of asymmetrical warfare, counterterrorism and neuroscience, however, all of the ethical guidelines may not yet be written.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


December 15 • 4:00 PM

When Charter Schools Are Non-Profit in Name Only

Some charters pass along nearly all their money to for-profit companies hired to manage the schools. It’s an arrangement that’s raising eyebrows.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.