Nazi Research – to use or not to use?

May 2, 2014 by

Human experimentation by Germans during the Nazi regime has become notorious owing to their barbarity. Unethical behaviour is just the first charge that could be levelled against these acts. Most people turn away from these experiments and want nothing to do with them. However it struck me that there is the possibility that not all the human experimentation was bad science per se. There may have been some human experimentation where the methodology was good, the end results reliable and possibly useful. If this was the case, I wondered how researchers have viewed this data, and what values, if any, are invested in the data. 

Thus started my quest on how researchers, historians, and philosophers have approached the question of ethics around the question of reusing or publishing the Nazi research. I presumed that the results of the different experiments were seized by the Allies; however I did not give much thought to what happened to the data since then. Was all the data sealed in boxes, and then warehoused to be forgotten, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

I had a sense that much of the experimentation was junk science, unreliable and therefore of no use to anyone. The brutal activities of Josef Mengele  in Auschwitz are well known, especially his “work” with twins, such as attempting to change eye colour. It is through these assumptions and mental images that most people view the Nazi experiments. Looking at the photographs of the concentration camps, and reading the writings of those who endured, such as Primo Levi, I thought “how could any good come from abusing human beings.” This was a superficial thought, and probably the one we are culturally programmed to have. Nazis were bad, all they did is bad, even their ”science.” 

Was this the full story? I thought that surely there was some reliable science out of all the research conducted during the twelve years of the Nazi regime. All the research could not have resulted in unreliable science. What value do we assign to the Nazi research data? When crouched in ethical terms, how have researchers approached the question of whether it is ethical to use the Nazi data? I decided that it would be an interesting exercise to research the philosophy and history of the question “should we use Nazi research data”. I want to explore and understand what arguments were used during these debates. Were the ethical values of the data determined by the methodology of their creation, or were the data stemming from a value-free environment and therefore the  resulting data is also value-free? With these, and an open mind, I open the door to research this topic.