Hail The West Point Instructor

An old experiment revealing humans’ ability to hurt each other has been replicated. Its warning is however being heeded by a West Point instructor–Back in 1963 a scientific experiment found that people were wiling to administer an electric shock and cause pain to another because someone in a white coat had told them to. Then it was used to help us understand the behavior of Nazi concentration camp guards and other war criminals who claimed they were following orders. For the first time in the intervening 45 years the experiment has been repeated, by Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University, and whether we like it or not the same results were obtained. More than 80 percent of the participants were willing to continue after administering the first electric shock and 65 percents went all the way up.
Part of the answer professor Burger believes is to make the results of the experiment known so that hopefully in being aware of these tendencies in ourselves and others we can guard against them. Indeed, in today’s context, Abu Ghraib comes to mind and it would be easy to argue that awareness of this finding could play a role in preventing the abuses it speaks of.
All this would make for a rather ordinary ending if not for an instructor at West Point who contacted professor Burger to tell him she was teaching her students about the experiment.
Learning from our mistakes, compensating for our weakness and preventing undue harm are not only wise, they lead to progress. And that seems to be what this instructor is involved in–leaving one with a good feeling about West Point, the military, the future, the role of science and that of anyone disseminating information–perhaps not a bad way to end the year.