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The Post I Didn’t Write

I’ve been mulling this over for days: What does "shock the conscience" mean? (How would you demonstrate it?)

When I was in grad school, I learned that if you’re going to do research, the first thing is to ask a good question. Without a good question, you’re never going to do valuable research. Sometimes it takes a long time to get the right question.

This is a post about finding the right question
. And about all the wrong questions – and what "wrong" might mean.

One thing they never "taught" me, I learned on my own. I’m passing it along – in the interest of science and for your edification. I sincerely recommend a question that is not only "good" but one you feel OK about answering when you’re out to dinner and someone says: "Oh, what are you doing your thesis on?" I know from experience, it’s not good to have to say: "Bulimia." Trust me. Been there. Done that. So for my dissertation I picked a topic I could safely answer over dinner. So should you. So should the nation.

Ok. Once you have your question, there’s something else. It has to be a question you can get past the ethics committee. Because that committee is going to look at what you propose to research as if it were going to be published on the FRONT PAGE of the New York Times. (They never tell you that – but I’m telling you: That’s what ethics means.) They are going to consider: How will this look if we have to do your research IN PUBLIC – so everyone can see exactly what’s happening?

Why is that? Because, research has to have repeatable results. Fancy word is "replicable." You have to do your research in such a way that if someone else does it, following exactly your same experimental conditions (that’s why you write them down carefully, submit them to the ethics committee, and follow them exactly), they will get the same results as you did.

That’s basically what science does. Your work has to be open to scrutiny. It has to be done in such a way that Public Scrutiny consistently finds the same result.

Even though we don’t conduct most research on the White House lawn, your question, your methods, your means of analysis should always be ones you could feel proud to do on the White House lawn – in full view of the Nation.

So this is the Post I didn’t write.

And here are some questions researchers really can’t ask.


* Does Crucifixion work?
* Would it help the nation if we revive public crucifixions?
* Would it save lives if we all turn out to watch someone die on a cross?
* Would they reveal secrets to us during the ordeal?
* Could we get MDs to agree to revive them if they tell us enough secrets to save many lives?
* How would we measure our results? Would we count the secrets told? Or the lives saved?
* Could the nation bear to watch?

Or how about this one?


* Does cannibalism save lives?
* If a bunch of people are in a cage and they have no food – would they resort to cannibalism to save the lives of some?
* Or would they just waste away and die?
* How many lives would be sufficient to answer the question?
* Could the nation bear to watch?

What about this one?

Torture versus Murder

* Which is worse: Torture or Murder?
* Do we torture some and murder some? Or do both to the same person?
* How many times should each be done to find the answer?
* Who’s going to watch?
* How do we measure what’s worse? Do we ask the ones we murder and torture? Or the ones who watch?
* Could the nation bear to watch?

Now this one:

Cheney Likes Torture

* Would torturing Cheney get us the info on who influenced energy policy?
* Would we count the last 8 years as the control group?
* What kind of torture would work?
* How many times must we do it to answer the question?
* How do we find out if his answers are true if he’s a known liar?
* Even if Cheney likes torture: Could the nation bear to watch?

Could the nation bear to watch? That question is very important.

THAT is the question we need to be asking.

When considering torture, too many people have been asking the wrong questions. They’ve been asking: Does torture work? Does torture save lives? But those are the wrong questions: They would never get past the ethics committee. It’s not something you could answer over dinner if someone asks: " So, what are you doing your thesis on?" It’s not good to have to say: "Torture." Not if you’re doing experimental research. Even though the ethics committee would never put it this way: It’s not something you would feel proud to have published on the front page of the New York Times. It’s not something you could do in public. And it’s not something we would broadcast to the nation from the White House lawn.

That’s what "shocks the conscience" means.

I hope that settles the question.

[Cross-posted at TPM Cafe]

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