Newswise — Torture is a poor instrument of intelligence gathering, according to a recent study. "Torture doesn't work under realistic conditions," says the study's author, Roger Koppl, a professor of economics at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "There are situations in which torture works, but they are rare. Twentieth-century experiences with torture show that it is futile in most cases."

Koppl argues that torture is useless for intelligence gathering, because governments cannot get around a basic problem. "They cannot make a believable promise to stop torture once the victim tells the truth. Victims know this perfectly well and therefore say anything and everything except what the torturers want to know." Two problems prevent governments from making a "credible commitment" to stop torture once victims tell the truth. First, "they use torture because they don't know the truth already. But that means that they can't recognize the truth when the victim speaks it." Second, "even if they know they've got the truth, the victim is afraid they will keep torturing him anyway."

The study, entitled "Epistemic Systems," applies game theory to social situations in which people must decide whether to lie or tell the truth. Game theory is the branch of applied mathematics that studies how people in conflict try to get the best outcome for themselves by picking the best available strategy. It has been used to study games such as poker and political conflicts such as war. Koppl is using game theory to understand when people lie. "As we all learn in childhood," Koppl remarks, "deciding whether to tell the truth is not just a moral issue; it can be a strategic choice as well."

Koppl's article appears in Episteme: Journal of Social Epistemology, which publishes research on which social situations tend to produce truthful outcomes and which do not. "Philosophers used to ask what academic philosophers ought to do to get at the truth," explains the journal's editor Alvin Goldman, Board of Governors Professor in Philosophy at Rutgers University, "now we are asking an additional question: Which practices out there in society actually work best?" Sometimes the answer is surprising. "Koppl's study is a good example of that," Goldman remarks. "In the past, critics of torture have pointed to moral issues, while assuming that torture works perfectly well. Koppl has shown it was wrong to just assume torture works."


Torture is not an effective means to gather information.Torturers do not know the truth when they hear it. Torture victims understand this fact and therefore hide the truth.Torturers cannot make a believable promise to stop torture when they hear the truth. Torture victims understand this fact and therefore hide the truth.

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Episteme: Journal of Social Epistemology