The BBC features a headline today 'Torture' to uncover brain secret. It's not really about torture at all - some psychologists are going to study pain using brain imaging, to see if religious faith relieves pain. In fact, the pain is quite mild and subjects have volunteered for it: "Volunteers will have a gel containing chilli powder or heat-pad applied to the back of their hand to simulate pain." I also heard the story on Radio 4, and the head of the brain science institute called it "a mild discomforting stimulus." It's got to be mild if people are volunteering for it! (And the study had to pass the Institutional Review Board research ethics review, of course.)
It's not just the headline - the 'torture' motif continues throughout the article:
Some volunteers will be shown religious symbols such as crucifixes and images of the Virgin Mary during the torture. ...Now let's review what torture actually is:
The team from the newly-formed Centre for Science of the Mind also want to include people with survival techniques in the torture experiments.
torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacityThe misleading motif of torture in the BBC article makes me a bit uncomfortable. On the one hand, it trivializes real torture, something that is actually a big deal, by cheaply capitalizing on the world's horror at Abu Ghraib to grab the reader's attention with an eye-catching headline (especially since torture is generally used to uncover secrets, so the shocking reading of the headline has a certain plausibility). And on the other hand, it contributes to a misperception of scientists as cruel monsters. There is a danger of science falling prey to evil -- witness Josef Mengele and to a lesser extent, American military doctors in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib -- but blurring the distinction between real torture experiments and "a gel containing chili powder or heat-pad applied to the back of their hand" is unfair, both to good scientists and to the victims of the real torture experimenters.
I'm not sure if it was a reporter or one of the investigators who used the phrase 'torture experiments' - either way it's irresponsible and disturbing.
Update, 13 Jan: As reader Sylvain notes in Comments (and as you would see if you click on the BBC story), the BBC has now changed the text of the story so that 'torture' is replaced by 'pain' or 'burnt.' Except for the captions to the picture and the inset. ("Torture is being used to help scientists understand how the brain works" and "How scientists plan to torture volunteers.") Since it's not in the text or headline anymore, the usage is less disturbing (though still not entirely neutral), so... good for the BBC. I hope they remember to change the captions. Thanks to Sylvain for pointing that out.