The Dawkins' essay about researching Saddam Hussein continues to generate discussion on the blogosphere. Orac provides a very thoughtful analysis that focuses on the ethics of such research:
Even while PZ admires Dawkins for "placing sticks of dynamite under people' chairs and blowing them up," because I have actually been involved in human subjects research, I cringed. Dawkins has never been involved with human subjects research (not unexpected, given his area of research and expertise), and it is painfully obvious that he hasn't bothered to take the time to educate himself about the ethics of such research.
While the ethical dimension is surely worthy of discussion, I would also point out that Dawkins' idea is very poorly thought out from a purely scientific perspective. Dawkins writes, "But perhaps the most important research in which a living Saddam Hussein could have helped is psychological." Yet, if we are to be charitable, we'll have to assume that the method Dawkins has in mind is nothing more than interviewing Hussein in his prison cell. Just how much valuable scientific information can be gathered from interviewing one person? Dawkins writes, "Psychologists, struggling to understand how an individual human being could be so evil and so devastatingly effective at persuading others to join him, would give their eyeteeth for such a rich research subject." But this is silly. Even if we assume that Hussein possessed some great skill of persuasion, someone like Hussein would be "so devastatingly effective at persuading others to join him" in a particular social setting at a particular time. How in the world would one gather this type of information from interviewing him in a prison cell? It would be like trying to figure out why a tiger is such a good predator by observing the tiger in the zoo.
Let's turn to some of Dawkins' arguments:
Then again, are there lots of Saddams and lots of Hitlers in every society, most of whom end up as football hooligans wrecking trains rather than dictators wrecking countries? If so, what singles out the minority that do come to power?
Are we supposed to believe that Hussein rose to power because of his psychology? Dawkins doesn't seem to understand the basic lessons of history and social science. Yes, as he notes, there are lots of Saddams and lots of Hitlers in every society. What brings such people to power are societal forces. Does Dawkins truly think that a genetic fingerprint and analysis of blood testosterone levels is going to tell us anything useful?
Or were men such as these truly unusual?
Is there even reason to suspect they were truly unusual? Yes, these were bullies that won the lottery and got to be bullies on a much larger scale. But why think their brains have some unique/unusual super-bully quality? Where is the preliminary evidence that would even suggest this? The world is full of dictators as we speak. Are they all "truly unusual" apart from the fact that they are dictators?
What can we do to prevent them gaining power in the future? Are there changes we could make to our democratic and other political institutions that would make it harder for men of Hitler's or Saddam Hussein's psychological types to take them over?
We already have the solution that makes it "harder for men of Hitler's or Saddam Hussein's psychological types to take them over." It's called a robust democratic society that strongly affirms and protects human rights (for example, the right to free speech, freedom of religion, etc.). Did the USA and Britain need such research to keep a Hitler and Hussein from ruling them in the 20th century? If Hussein had moved to England after turning 21, would his pyschology have enabled him to become the Dictator of England that goes to war with France in the 1980s?
These questions are not just academically fascinating but potentially of vital importance for our future.
Is there any evidence that such information is "potentially of vital importance for our future?"
And they cannot be answered by prejudice or preconception or intuitive common sense. The only way to answer them is by research.
Here we have some hypocrisy. Dawkins is the same guy who abandons research, goes against intuitive common sense, and relies solely on his prejudice and preconceptions to accuse religious parents of abusing their children. This scientist needs to practice what he preaches.
It is in the nature of research on ruthless national dictators that the sample size is small.
Which is why it would always be shoddy science. What is a scientist really going to learn from a sample size of one and a method that can only involve interviews (and perhaps the extraction of body fluids)? Maybe Dawkins wants to measure Hussein's cranium size while he is at it?
Wasn't the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had – and a prime specimen at that – an act of vandalism?
Not at all. In fact, it's a rather stupid question. Doubt me? Have Dawkins propose his experimental design for obtaining this "valuable" information. What we have is a very poorly thought out idea. There is no reason to think research on Hussein would give us any useful scientific information. There is no testable hypothesis. There is no proposed experimental design or clearly stated research objectives. And it seems to be research into a non-problem, as we already know how to make it "harder for men of Hitler's or Saddam Hussein's psychological types to take them over."
Summary: Dawkins' research suggestion is very poorly thought out. He ignores the information that we do have in order to portray Hussein as if he was some great, valuable scientific mystery. From there, he then naively assumes that the mystery could be solved by finding some special pyschological trait that could be uncovered through interviews. Then, once we identify this special trait, not only do we solve the mystery, but we can use this information to keep all those dictators from taking power in Britain.
If Dawkins is truly serious about this research idea, "consciousness raising" is not enough. He needs to return to this topic and more explicitly spell out his testable hypotheses and experimental designs. Otherwise, why should anyone take his argument seriously the next time a dictator is captured and sentenced?
Of course, if Krauze's hypothesis is valid, we can predict that Dawkins will not be returning to this topic in the future.
Lastly, we can return to ethics. Let's join in on Dawkins' magical thinking and pretend scientists develop a personality profile that is specific to dictators. So thanks to science, we now know what a would-be dictator looks like. So what is the government of England supposed to do to find the potential dictators among them? What is the government supposed to do when it finds them? Are we talking Clockwork Orange here?