Josef Korbel School of International Studies - Ethics of Engagement

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Thomas Schelling testifies before Congress in October, 1969

Date Submitted: 3/30/2020

Question summary:

Misuse of research by violent actors

Full question:

A portion of my professional research involves questions of political violence and authoritarianism. However, I often study them through the lens of the perpetrators, seeking to better understand why they engage in these acts and what affects the outcomes of their actions. I've often had concerns that this type of research, while important for understanding these political systems, has the potential to be misused by the actors being studied. There is evidence that coup leaders in the past have utilized certain academic works to aid in their plots. What practices could help me write and present these topics in an ethical manner while not omitting findings that (while perhaps troubling) are still important to the field?

Response 1

I think your instinct against self-censoring is the right one. And I applaud your concern about the potential ill-use of your scholarship. In confronting a similar issue in my own research, I tried to think down the game tree. I suggest thinking about what policy implications of your work might be for actors whose normative commitments align more with your own. In other words, if your research suggests that unscrupulous political actors do X, what might others (e.g., NGOs) do to combat X? Additionally, while I appreciate that there is evidence that bad actors have sometimes misused academic works, this type of outcome strikes me as quite unusual, although it is perhaps made more likely if one were to highlight findings that could be used in that way in public-facing work.

Response 2

This is an important and difficult question to answer. I would note at the outset that governments and other violent actors often have greater access to information (and intelligence) than scholars, and so are not necessarily dependent on us to inform their policy choices. But there are a series of practices that scholars can use to offset, though probably not eliminate, such misuse. These include: (1) restricting inquiry to past patterns, either in a large-N context or within-case study, thus preventing direct application to an ongoing conflict; (2) avoiding writing public-facing blog posts (Monkey Cage, etc.) that call attention to your work’s application in a current conflict or that distills the topic down into easily digestible chunks by policymakers in the country-of-concern; (3) restrict or avoid entirely briefings to actors likely to misuse or with a past record of abuse; (4) you could also research countermeasures to state-directed political violence and disseminate those lessons to targeted actors as a counterbalance. This last option depends on your relationship with the violent actors, the need to stay in their good graces to conduct field research, etc. I could also imagine a scenario arising where you have evidence that governments/violent actors are indeed using your research to shape their (violent) policies. In that case, ethical concerns may force you to abandon your research or your field site (or both). That is, if you can no longer maintain sufficient distance from the policy process, and that policy is violent or coercive in nature, then you may need to shift your research.


Response 3

This is a very important question, and it’s one that I’ve also grappled with on many occasions. In grad school, a good friend (who isn’t an academic) listened to me explain my research and then asked, “So, basically, someone could use your work to learn how to implement more successful mass killing campaigns?” I had never considered people using my research that way, and the comment caught me off guard.

Since then, I’ve thought a lot about whether and how people may use academic findings for nefarious purposes. This issue is a possibility with any type of research—and one that we cannot control or, unfortunately, stop. In theory, every finding that identifies and explains pain, suffering, and injustice of any kind could theoretically be weaponized by people seeking to do harm. Given that, my own personal conclusion is to continue to write about/present on findings 1) in a way that doesn’t omit anything important and 2) in the way that is the most honest, coupled with 3) doing my part to bring my findings to people who can use them for good.

Though I admittedly view this solution as imperfect at best, I have yet to find a way to obscure findings from certain actors (though I’ll pay attention to my colleagues’ answers to see if anyone has!). I consequently think the importance of your research and its potential for good outweighs the possible negative impacts of it falling in certain peoples’ hands. As such, numbers 1 and 2 in the list above stem from the sheer importance of reporting results honestly and to their fullest degree, as we have an ethical responsibly to do so. For number 3, we as a scientific community must always ensure that the good outweighs any potential harm of our research. All research can have some harm, and sometimes a small amount of harm is unavoidable. But, if the research has the potential to contribute to good in the world, bringing that research to relevant communities (e.g., policy makers) in the form of policy briefs or related formats can help tip the scales of that delicate balance between good and harm. So, my suggestion would be to report your findings to their fullest and focus on translating these findings for the actors who can use them for good.