Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fatima and the Nazis

My mind tends to meander a lot.  One of the exes said once that, had she not seen me sit and read a book to the exclusion of everything else around me, she would have bet I was ADD.  What I've just described  has both advantages and disadvantages, but perhaps another time.  Point is, about a week ago, a remembrance of something I read or saw popped up.  For no apparent reason.  (I'll go with synchronicity, myself.)  What I had seen was a story about an ethical, if not downright moral conundrum.

During WWII, the Nazis did absolutely horrific medical "experiments".  We would call them "torture".  Thing is, they accumulated quite a bit of data about human performance in what could only be described as extremely hostile conditions.  The one that sticks in my mind had to do with hypothermia, basically tossing people into ice water to see how long they would live. The conundrum arose after the war.  All of this data became available, but many scientists and doctors were hesitant or unwilling to use it, because of how it was obtained.  Those opposed found it repugnant to use data that was "tainted" by the horrific manner in with it was obtained.

As an IT guy, I view data by itself, as neutral, neither good nor bad.  When enough data is collected, it becomes information, and can eventually lead to understanding.  It is true that many medical advances are made as a result of wounded and injured soldiers in battle.  Field medicine propagates to the E. R.  and to other medical specialties.  The circumstances surrounding this data collection is hardly different in the level of horrors from that of the Nazi's manner of developing their data.

There is the obvious difference in circumstance - our wounded have put themselves in harm's way voluntarily for almost the last  40 years.  And they do it with some level of informed consent.  By enlisting in one of our branches of service, they are made aware (or at least have been told) that they could easily find themselves in harm's way.  The Nazis used slaves as their subjects.  The subjects were coerced.  Morally, there is no comparison between the two scenarios.

And the data is still useful.  It can be used to save lives.  So, do we ignore it, because of it's provenance, or do we hold our noses at the stench of it's origin, and go ahead?

"Baruch Cohen,a Californian lawyer and Holocaust researcher, argues that ‘although use of the Nazi data might benefit some lives, a larger bioethical problem arises. By conferring a scientific martyrdom on the victims, it would tend to make them our retrospective guinea pigs, and we, their retrospective torturers.’’[1]

Cohen goes on to say:
"Absolute censorship of the Nazi data does not seem proper, especially when the secrets of saving lives may lie solely in its contents. Society must decide on its use by correctly understanding the exact benefits to be gained. When the value of the Nazi data is of great value to humanity, then the morally appropriate policy would be to utilize the data, while explicitly condemning the atrocities. But the data should not be used just with a single disclaimer. To further justify its use, the scientific validity of the experiment must be clear; there must be no other alternative source from which to gain that information, and the capacity to save lives must be evident.
Once a decision to use the data has been made, experts suggest that it must not be included as ordinary scientific research, just to be cited and placed in a medical journal. I agree with author Robert J. Lifton who suggested that citation of the data must contain a thorough expose' of exactly what tortures and atrocities were committed for that experiment. Citations of the Nazi data must be accompanied with the author's condemnation of the data as a lesson in horror and as a moral aberration in medical science. The author who chooses to use the Nazi data must be prepared to expose the Nazi doctors' immoral experiments as medical evil, never to be repeated." [2]
So, with appropriate care and citation, the data may be used ethically.  Now, what about Fatima?

"The essence of the Fatima message concerns conversion from sin and a return to God, and involves reparation for one’s own sins and the sins of others, as well as the offering up of one’s daily sufferings and trials. There was also a focus on prayer and the Eucharist at Fatima, and particularly the rosary, as well as the Five First Saturdays devotion, which involves Confession, Holy Communion, the rosary and meditation, for five consecutive months with the intention of making reparation to Our Lady (for more details visit" [3]

The key phrase for my purposes is "...reparation for one’s own sins and the sins of others...".  No one but themselves can know the state of soul and mind of the doctors (and others) who performed these tortures.  But, I think that if they are willing and able to accept it, using their data for a good cause could be redemptive for them.

A tool is just a tool, and data is a tool.  They quality of the results of it's use depend entirely upon the intention of the person wielding the tool.  A gun can be used to commit a crime, or stop one.  Data can be used to harm or endanger someone, or it can be used to educate, illuminate, enlighten, or even save a life.

I felt that a couple of citations were in order:

[1]  Bogod, David. "The Nazi Hypothermia Experiments: Forbidden Data?", Anaesthesia,
       Volume 59 Issue 12 Page 1155, December 2004.
[2] (accessed 6-30-2012)
     (accessed 6-30-2012)


Mme Scherzo said...

I don't think that research was the actual intent of these evil doctors. I think it was sadism. There was no real science to be learned. If anything, what we learned is that civilized, educated men can become utterly depraved and evil as any stone age troglodyte from Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. His credentials damn him all the more loudly. The oath to first do no harm is meaningless. And confession, while continuing to do these horrors is no confession at all if it doesn't produce repentance.
The rebbe's idea of salvaging data from this research reminds me somewhat of Paul's admonition to not bruise the tender consciences of new converts in respect to eating meat sacrificed to idols. If it offends them, they shouldn't eat it.

leelu said...

I agree that torture was most likely primary, but given the Russian front, they felt it was useful to know how quickly someone would die from hypothermia.

And a lot of it had no real usefulness. They may have told themselves it was "research", but it was surely an excuse for murder.

I was thinking of confession/repentance after the war. And in the shows I've seen, I don't recall anyone being called Catholic.