Analyzing interrogational torture dynamics: Schiemann and Douglas-Bowers dig in

By Kenna Caprio

This article is one in a series delving into faculty/student research across a variety of disciplines at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan Campus and College at Florham.

Associate professor John Schiemann is into torture. Luckily, for Fairleigh Dickinson University students, it’s as a research topic and not as a teaching strategy.

“I was chatting with a colleague about torture and got the idea to model the strategic dynamic or ‘game’ between an interrogator and a detainee, formally, using game theory (a branch of applied mathematics),” says Schiemann, who teaches political science at the College at Florham. “Initially, I was just curious to explore the implications of modeling interrogational torture. But as I worked on the project, I became more and more convinced just how ineffective torture is and become more interested in trying to convince people of this.”

Students — including 21-year-old senior and political science major Devon Douglas-Bowers of Maplewood, N.J. — helped Schiemann search for literature, both online and in print, on torture and its effectiveness. Douglas-Bowers found information on everything from the Khmer Rogue regime in Cambodia to water boarding techniques. “It’s important because in this ‘war on terror’ we are trying to get information from terrorists and we need a way to get reliable information,” says Douglas-Bowers. Research assistants also take notes on these texts, sometimes offering their own interpretations. 

“Faculty seem very open to different interpretations of the information. Talking about findings allows the faculty to get different perspectives on the research they are doing,” says Douglas-Bowers.

Douglas-Bowers opted to assist with research after Schiemann addressed it during his “Dictators and Democrats” class. “I decided to volunteer because I really loved the class and thought that the research might be interesting,” Douglas-Bowers says. He ultimately found it so interesting that he contributed research to the project for several months. 

Using the sources and anecdotes his student assistants found as a baseline, Schiemann’s model “captures the ‘game’ played by an interrogator and a detainee as they try to outwit each other. There are five components: the players (three types of detainee and two types of interrogator), the actions they can take (‘torture’ vs. ‘not torture’ and ‘reveal information’ vs. ‘not reveal information’), the information available when they choose an action (e.g. the probability the detainee has valuable information), the payoffs for each player from each outcome (e.g. what happens to them), all under two conditions, objective and leading questioning.”

Following up on his March 2012 article, “Interrogational Torture: Or How Good Guys Get Bad Information with Ugly Methods,” which appeared in “Political Research Quarterly,” Schiemann is at work on a “nonacademic” book version of the argument presented. 

“The upshot is that torture does not reliably generate good information, but that the frequency and severity of torture is nevertheless very high once you admit it as an interrogation technique,” says Schiemann. 

Douglas-Bowers sees this research, and his professor’s book, as a chance to change minds too.  

“With ‘24’ or ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, people might assume torture works. But it doesn’t and it hurts us,” says Douglas-Bowers. “Professor Schiemann’s research is a first step. Hopefully, from here, it’ll be picked up by the mainstream media and be more talked about, not just among academic and political elites, but also by ordinary people. Then we can start to present evidence to build a campaign to stop torture, working with politicians that hold those same views.”

Schiemann also recently conducted research on Serb mobilization as it relates to “fearful memories” of ethnic cleansing with student Nikola Radovic. The research, which Schiemann developed following visits to Yugoslavia in the early 1990s during the Croatian War of Independence, explores the relationship between political symbols and paraphernalia and behavior in the presence of those symbols. “Fear memories are powerful, difficult to erase and easy to revive,” says Schiemann. “We should be more aware of how important political symbols are and how they can affect us.”

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

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