Friday, May 25, 2012

Military research and ethics

/. has a post about the bioethicist Jonathan Moreno who co-wrote an essay about the intersection of military ethics and neuroscience. Moreno is also interviewed here. Though the interview is pretty interesting, I find the essay itself rather thin on content. It is largely a list of research DARPA has tried out like brain-computer interfaces, performance enhancing drugs, and lie detection technologies.

One point that the article makes that is ethically interesting is one I am somewhat skeptical of:
The military establishment's interest in understanding, developing, and exploiting neuroscience generates a tension in its relationship with science: the goals of national security and the goals of science may conflict. The latter employs rigorous standards of validation in the expansion of knowledge, while the former depends on the most promising deployable solutions for the defense of the nation. As a result, the exciting potential of high-tech developments on the horizon may be overhyped, misunderstood, or worse: they could be deployed before sufficiently validated." 
I am a bit puzzled why this should be so. If a solution is deployable, i.e. works, how does that conflict with our getting knowledge? (There may be ethical issues in deploying a technology as part of the testing process, but that issue is not raised.) The economics of the military might get them to try some science before it is mature, but academia seems beset with the same problems, with researchers publishing findings before they are mature (see here, for example, for a list of science papers that were retracted for lots of reasons). There may be a conflict between the goals of science and the goals of quick science, but that is not particular to the military. It seems to me to be creating an ethics problem where there is none. 

There is certainly a lot of military research that should be generating ethical questions, and the essay even mentioned some of them. But if there is a more fundamental tension between the goals of science and the goals of military research, the essay did not demonstrate it. 

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