Damning Revelations Prompt Social Science to Rethink Its Ties to the Military (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

July 15, 2015

By Paul Voosen

Subject. Patron. Source. Siren.

For social scientists, the state can play many roles. As long as researchers have studied humanity and the systems we create, they have struggled to define their relationship with power. And in the United States, since World War II, that tension has centered especially on the military and its spy agencies.

The dangers of that relationship came into high relief late last week, with the release of a report detailing how the American Psychological Association, a century-old scholarly group, had colluded with the U.S. military to shield practitioners of torture a decade ago. The report painted a small group of leaders as beholden to its military patrons, eager to “curry favor,” whatever the long-term cost.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Joy Rohde, a historian at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who studies government and its relations with social science. Yes, personal coordination happens. Yes, orchestrated decisions happen. “What is so shocking in this case,” she said, “is that you’ve got all of these things combined, and they’re so systemic.”

This should put researchers on notice, added David N. Gibbs, a history professor at the University of Arizona who studies the CIA’s influence on academe. The surge of financing that attended, especially, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might be alluring, but it can come with a cost.

“I’d like to hope that this would be a wake-up call about the dangers of collaboration with intelligence services,” he said.

The APA’s misdeeds join a list of controversial interactions between social scientists and the military since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the wars that followed. Most notably, they include: the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System, recently ended, which saw anthropologists deployed in war zones to study the local population; the Minerva Research Initiative, a grant program for university social scientists to study regions of strategic importance to the United States; and the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, which finances the education of future spies.

But while those programs have provided rallying points for protest, they are only the most visible manifestations of the deep ties between social scientists and the government. It’s a relationship that has been collaborative, confrontational, or often both at the same time. But at its base, it balances on a simple tension: Modern democracy believes that good policy should rest on expert knowledge. But how can that knowledge be conveyed, and employed, without biasing researchers or undermining democracy?

It’s not an easy question, though researchers sometimes attempt easy answers. University professors are a cosmopolitan, polyglot group, often suspicious of the exercise of U.S. military might. Debates turn political and ideological, resorting to metaphors of cancer, rather than remaining on ethics, said Ron Robin, a historian and senior vice provost for global faculty development at New York University.

“I don’t think that ties with government necessarily corrupt,” Mr. Robin said. “They can corrupt.”

Risks attend the fallout from the APA report, added Joseph S. Nye, a former dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

“If you have academics saying, ‘Don’t do anything with the government, keep it at arm’s length,’ you won’t have that kind of scandal,” he said. “You will have something else instead.”

Psychology’s Allure

The Cold War ushered the social sciences into the national-security world. Bolstered by the Popperian view that neither democracy nor science was possible without the other, academics shuttled down from Cambridge or Princeton for two decades, advising the Defense Department or CIA on their operations. In 1956 the U.S. Army opened its Special Operations Research Office on the campus of American University. The patronage helped legitimate social science within the academy, making it less a junior partner to the “hard” sciences: By 1961 a physicist told Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, that World War III, if it came, “might well have to be considered the social scientists’ war.”

Psychology presented a particular allure to the military. Most prominently, given the nature of war, the military has a vast need for the services of the discipline’s practitioners in caring for its troops, a truism that has grown only stronger over time. But beyond that, nearly every aspect of psychologists’ remit could be seen through the lens of war: Motivation. Communication. Belief. By 1964 the Defense Department was investing $31 million in psychological research.

“It’s stunning, the array of research and advice sought from psychologists by the military and intelligence agencies,” said Mark Solovey, an assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto who studies Cold War social science.

This best-and-brightest consensus wouldn’t last. Auguring the conflict was Project Camelot, a military-financed study of why revolutions occur that would have been the most expensive social-science project of its day, including fieldwork from Bolivia to Nigeria. It included more than 30 academic consultants, and its work would not be classified. But in 1965, after American involvement in Vietnam increased, countries began to protest Camelot researchers’ appearing on their shores. The project became a controversial flash point and was ultimately canceled.

“We got a black eye out of that,” said Neil J. Smelser, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley who was one of Camelot’s consultants.

It was the start of academic social scientists’ turn away from the military. In 1969, American University kicked the Army off its campus. By the mid-1970s the Church Committee’s investigation of the intelligence agencies seemed to seal off the idea of collaboration for good.

But as Ms. Rohde’s research has shown, the government was already sold on social science. It hired researchers in droves, and began to rely on a network of independent research centers dependent on their federal patrons. The backlash, in effect, helped push research underground. And those same centers remain primary feeders of social science to this day.

“They’re still there,” Ms. Rohde said. “And with the war on terror, we’ve seen those same group of people orient their research in that direction.”

Hidden Relationships

In many ways the relationship between social scientists and the military and intelligence world remains a hidden affair. An unknown number of academics consult with federal security agencies on the side. Universities and disciplines differ on their policies allowing such classified contract work. Anthropology tends to look askance at such work, while political scientists are more sanguine about it, Ms. Rohde said.

“As far as I can tell, it’s very broad spread,” said Mr. Gibbs, who opposes such work. He knows people on his campus who have done it. “It’s not something that seems to cause significant damage to your career,” he said.

Working with the intelligence services demands that academics hold themselves to strict ethical codes, added Mr. Nye. Under his watch, the Kennedy School saw educating CIA officials as part of its work, but they were treated like any other student, he said. Most important, that meant no classified material could be discussed.

“To keep the ability to speak openly and freely about research or ideas, we can’t deal with classified information,” he said.

There’s no telling if the more visible engagement with the social sciences that the military and intelligence world have pursued will remain. Such efforts tend to wax and wane against the backdrop of the agencies’ own internal needs for expertise. The federal-budget sequester hit defense financing for social science hard, and several champions, including Robert Gates and David Petraeus, are now long out of government.

“More than anything, the Defense Department has moved on,” Ms. Rohde said. “The kind of intellectual systems they were trying to build — let’s say the rhetoric far outstripped the capacity.”

As for the APA? If it continues to exist, it will have a tough road to climb to prove its continued independence from the military, Ms. Rohde added. “This report should lead any expert community with close ties to national-security agencies or powerful state actors to question the extent they can rely on their expert community to make independent decisions.”

Psychology, added Mr. Solovey, has to ask hard questions about its principles, foremost among them: “Have psychologists become hired guns to do whatever agencies want to do for some price?”

There was another way the APA could have gone, perhaps best seen in the American Anthropological Association, whose members, beginning in 2006, spent several years debating military collaboration, with advocates for and against such work included in a commission. It was a grass-roots effort, and while far from perfect, anthropologists found ways to talk, said David H. Price, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Saint Martin’s University who participated in the effort.

The result was guidelines that weren’t about “good agency, bad agency,” Mr. Price said. They were about good practice, bad practice — opposing secrecy, doing no harm. It was that later point that led the association to condemn the Army’s Human Terrain System.

Of course, such a stand carries costs. As last week’s report makes clear, in 2006, the APA was following the anthropology debates while mulling a proposal that it should base its guidelines on international human-rights standards. The head of psychological operations for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command warned against such a move. If they did so, he warned, “we run the risk of becoming as impotent as anthropology.”

Paul Voosen is a senior reporter covering the sciences. Write him at paul.voosen@chronicle.com; follow him on Twitter @voooos; or see past work at voosen.me.

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