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Scientific Authority and Contemporary Culture

June 22, 2008

For a long time, I have been fascinated with Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment from the early 1960s on obedience and institutional authority. Milgram’s work is, one could argue, at once the most well-known and unethical experiments in the history of psychological research. Yet I am intrigued by this experiment, not because of what it teaches (or purports to teach) about “human nature,” but instead because of a phenomenon it reveals: an uncritical allegiance to anything cloaked in the mantle of “scientific progress.”

Milgram, a tenure-seeking professor at Yale University, established a hypothetical scientific experiment within his actual “scientific” experiment that claimed to examine the relationship between physical punishment and learning achievement. The real subjects, people who walked in off the street and served as “teachers,” believed they were facilitating the study of “learners,” who were in fact actors, hooked up to a fake electric shock machine, and the foci of what amounted to be Milgram’s elaborate prank.

For a general description of Milgram’s work, I recommend Lauren Slater’s chapter in her popularized account, Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century. Slater’s account probes the ramifications of Milgram’s experiment; however, a nutshell version here of what Milgram did will suffice. As is well-known, Milgram facilitated a question and answer period, in which the “teachers” were to read pairs of words, ask their “students” to commit them to memory, and then quiz them on their comprehension of the word pairs. For each wrong answer, Milgram instructed the “teachers” to administer an electric shock, increasing in intensity with each successive incorrect answer.

The unwitting participants administered the shocks, and when they realized the extent of the pain their doses of electricity caused, they protested and suggested that the testing end. “The experiment requires that you continue,” Milgram replied, always stoically, and always to impart a sense gravity and importance to the work at hand. The overwhelming majority of participants obeyed Milgram’s orders and shocked the “learners” to what would have been the point of death.

One of the most virulent criticisms against Milgram’s experiment is that his work constitutes an ethical failure, and as such his work forever changed the way social psychologists perform research. There’s not much of a difference between the scenario he established and an MTV episode of Punked, except the participants in Milgram’s experiment were not appropriately debriefed.

Milgram’s own analysis of his experiment is that its outcomes demonstrate very clearly the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt profiles in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. In “The Perils of Obedience,” an article that ran in Harper’s some years after the experiment first began, Milgram explains that his experiment is a commentary on human nature: “ordinary people simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.” Both Arendt’s writing and Milgram’s research were motivated to help understand how a human catastrophe like the Holocaust could take place, especially considering the massive bureaucratic structure needed to implement it.

As he postulates reasons why normal people have the inability to stand up and refuse to do what they know is immoral, Milgram stands amazed at the effectiveness of his simple appeal to “the experiment.” He suggests that the experimenter’s authority is “fragile,” and that “we should not expect the experimenter’s authority to be much less than that of someone like a general, since the experimenter has no power to enforce his imperatives.” Of course, on the literal level this is true, yet I think that Milgram discounts the role of “scholarly research” as a license to carry on.

I think that the real phenomenon Milgram’s experiment exposes is the privileged position that scientific authority holds in contemporary culture. Many people have an uncritical attitude toward the desirability of “scientific progress,” and many evils have been and continue to be justified in the name of scientific endeavors. Consider the endless slew of Exxon Mobil commercials during the Master’s television coverage this past April that laud the oil giant’s involvement with Phil Mickelson and the Math and Science Awards. Of course, the real stakes of scientific progress, here and in other instances, is often the economic competitiveness of a nation, and so the sciences are held sacred, the pursuits of those seeking to create knowledge for “the greater good.”

The biologist E.O. Wilson’s thoughts on the sciences and scientific research in general resemble our culture’s general attitude toward science, especially academic pursuits of science. In his view, scholars in the humanities, unlike scientists, don’t produce new knowledge but instead interpret already existing knowledge. It is the scientist alone that ensures the progress of civilization, he argues in Consilience.

This uncritical allegiance to science is rampant in our culture, and it’s dangerous, as Milgram’s post-experiment writings indicate. Our goal should be to constantly interrogate the uses to which “scientific progress” gets assigned.

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