Ben Carson: Fighting Terrorism with Truth Serums

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Sorta transcript:

Dr. Ben Carson recently went on the record to suggest that the US could use a “truth serum” on terror suspects. This is notable for several reasons: 1. Carson is an actual candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States of America, and 2. Carson is an actual neurosurgeon who should know at least enough about the brain to realize that he’s talking absolute bollocks and 3. truth serum doesn’t work that way.

Carson told CNN on Tuesday that we’ve made “advances in that kind of science” and specifically suggested we use sodium amytal to interrogate potential terrorists. That’s like saying we’ve made advances in airplane technology and then jumping off a cliff with feathers glued to your arms.

First of all, yes: researchers are continuing to uncover the mysteries of the human brain, and part of that means identifying what our brains do when we say certain things or react in certain ways. And part of it means identifying what outside forces can do to change the things we say or the ways we react.

Certain drugs may affect us in a way that makes us more likely to tell the truth for one reason or another. At least one study suggests that oxytocin may make us more trusting of other people, and therefore more likely to be honest with them.

But with the drugs that we currently identify as “truth serums,” the mechanism is pretty simple: they slow down your thinking, cause you to identify with your interrogator, and encourage you to say everything, whether it’s true or false. They’re usually barbituates, which behave a lot like alcohol. Do you say truthful stuff when you’re drunk? Sure. But you also talk a lot of shit.

The “truth serum” may make you identify with your interrogator, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to tell them the truth. It may mean that you want to tell them whatever they want to hear, regardless of its veracity.

Because of that, truth serums, specifically sodium amytal, have been prominently featured in cases of false memories. When under the influence of  sodium amytal, people are more easily manipulated into “remembering” things that never happened, leading to since-debunked accusations of child abuse and alien abductions, plus false confessions. That’s why it’s not even legal in the us to use for garnering confessions.

As a neuroscientist, Carson should already be aware of the literature regarding sodium amytal. But that said, as an adult human being in 2016 he should also know that the pyramids weren’t used to store grain. So who knows where he gets his knowledge? Perhaps he studies while under the influence of truth serums.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Rebecca Watson,

    Hopefully he didn’t get any of his medical information where he got his information on truth serums, the pyramids, or evolution. If he did, its safe to say that many of his patients died an agonizing death.

  2. Thankfully, there are controls in place to make sure surgeons don’t just start cutting willy-nily. No such controls exist for the pronouncements of presidential candidates.

  3. Supposedly lying takes more brain power than telling the truth, because I have to invent a lie that’s consistent with what I know you know, not to mention internally consistent. (And even then “what you know” is actually an unknown, so I have to estimate what you know.)

    But then again, as you said, it’s no better than getting someone drunk. And this has been known since the 50s, IIRC.

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