The power of persuasion

Written by Science Knowledge on 1:43 AM

Coercive interrogation is ineffective and damaging, We need a more effective and humane approach

HOWLS of outrage greeted US Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - who claims to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington - in a civilian court rather than before a military tribunal. The protesters' wish to see Mohammed treated as an enemy combatant is perhaps understandable, but in fact dealing with suspected terrorists in this way has a poor track record.

Since 2001, US military commissions have convicted just three detainees of perpetrating terrorist acts. Civilian courts have secured around 150 convictions. Why the difference?

The "enhanced interrogation" techniques sanctioned by the Bush administration after 9/n have surely not helped: as we report this week, they are both inhumane and ineffective. Practices such as sleep deprivation, isolation and forcing prisoners to maintain stress positions may fall outside the legal definition of torture but their impact can be just as damaging. And as with "proper" torture, they often fail to yield any information at all, or elicit worthless statements by causing detainees to lose touch with reality.

President Barack Obama has tried to draw a line under all this with the establishment ofa team of elite interrogators, the H ighValue Detainee Interrogation Group, that will only use "scientifically proven", humane techniques. But where these will come from is hard to know, as the research has simply not been done.

There is, however, a promising alternative to coercion, and though it may seem at first sight like a feeble strategy for dealing with people thought to be bent on mass murder, it has much to recommend it. It is simple persuasion, something that has been the subject of intense academic interest for decades, and that modern consumer societies have become very good at.

Here is a field in which science really can point to effective techniques for extracting useful information. We know, for example, that successful persuasion rests on the reputation of the person doing the persuading. This may help explain the civilian justice system's greater success at bringing terrorists to book: they have a much better reputation for fair dealing than the military tribunals system.

Commenting on the announcement that the alleged Christmas day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab - who is to be tried by the civilian courts – is cooperating with the FBI, Holder said: "You are much more likely to get people to cooperate with us if their belief is that we are acting in a way that is consistent with American values."

If the security services want to improve their reputation there is a proven way: reputation requires trust, and trust rests on openness. For that reason, the workings of Obama's new interrogation group must be more transparent than the shadowy world of
Guantanamo Bay. That would begin to repair the damage done to America's reputation. It might also deliver the result that is surely to be desired: better intelligence, more terrorists behind bars, and less torture .

Source of Information : New Scientist March 6 2010

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In its broadest sense, science (from the Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") refers to any systematic knowledge or practice. In its more usual restricted sense, science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge based on scientific method, as well as to the organized body of knowledge gained through such research.

Fields of science are commonly classified along two major lines: natural sciences, which study natural phenomena (including biological life), and social sciences, which study human behavior and societies. These groupings are empirical sciences, which means the knowledge must be based on observable phenomena and capable of being experimented for its validity by other researchers working under the same conditions.


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