Steven Pinker’s latest book — which I have no interest in ever reading, despite the fact that it’s getting reviewed all over the place — contains some interesting exercises in glossing over ugly truths.
— Adia Benton (@Ethnography911) February 28, 2018
You know, in everything I’ve ever read on the Tuskegee syphilis study — and there are lots of books and papers on the subject — no one ever suggested that the doctors infected the patients with syphilis. They didn’t need to. The truth was damned horrifying. The doctors in that study intentionally neglected to treat a treatable disease, allowing it to run its terrible course, just to see what would happen. They also failed to give the patients the information that would allow them to elect to go to a different doctor for treatment, because that would have defeated their purpose of watching spirochetes eat the brains of black people.
There is nothing forgivable in the facts of the story. Scientists watched human beings suffer and die to sate their sick curiosity and to get a few publications. It did not generate new knowledge, because we already had lots of information on the course of the disease. The information did not prevent harm to anyone, because we had an effective treatment already.
But hey, let’s put a happy spin on it! At least they didn’t intentionally infect anyone with the disease. There, it doesn’t sound as awful now, does it? It could have been so much worse! We can take this approach to everything. Sure, the US bombed villages in Viet Nam with napalm and Agent Orange and high explosives, but at least we didn’t nuke them. See how good and progressive we are? Oh, yeah, we may have prisoners held without due process in Gitmo, and we may have tortured them a little bit, but at least we didn’t infect them with syphilis or shoot them out of cannons or throw them into vats of acid. We could have, but because we didn’t, you need to respect our restraint and our growing humanity.