Using Nazi-derived test data from torture victims

Stoid’s thread on the banning of some stem-cell research, and an off-hand reference to Nazi test data, made me wonder what the reaction would be here to this… which was, as I recall, the subject of an “L.A. Law” episode about ten years ago.

In the episode, a researcher is awarded a grant from a Jewish family foundation to study ways of improving human survival in hypothermia cases. After she begins her work, the foundation discovers she’s relying in major part on the meticulous records kept by Nazi “experimenters” as they submerged Jews in freezing water and studied how long it took them to die, and what methods of warming worked best.

In the show, the foundation sued to get their money back.

Without going into the red herring aspect of a Jewish foundation being the grantor… in general, what thoughts does this community have on the underlying moral issue of using Nazi-derived data, or any data that results from the torture of humans?

  • Rick

This is a tough one.

I think my answer is that, if it can be conclusively demonstrated that use of the data will not validate or inspire future types of experiments, you can use the data if it will save lives.

My opinion is less than heart-felt, and comes with a high “ick” factor


Facts are either true or false, and the way one learns that fact doesn’t change it’s “trueness”.

Ignoring facts that were learned through horrible circumstances doesn’t unmake the horrible circumstances either.

Suppose some treatment was learned by the nazis that could bring back a victim of hypothermia. If tomorrow someone is stricken by hypothermia, either you use that traatment and the person survises, or you don’t and they die. What the nazis did to learn the treatment shouldn’t matter. You should save the life in front of you.

Suppose some time in the future, the vast majority of humanity sees medical experimentation on animals as barbaric and unacceptable. Should they abandon all the medical knowledge learned in the past from such experimentation?

You’re saying that a moral principle is merely a matter of majority opinion, and that one day majority opinion might hold that animal experimentation is “barbaric and unacceptable” . . . and THIS is conceivably equivalent to saying that taking innocent Jews and torturing them to death is also “barbaric and unacceptable”, but the data’s useful, so what the hey?

In that light, maybe you’ve actually created a pretty good justification for using the data, since in Nazi Germany, majority opinion–which, after all, is the arbiter of moral principle–held that torturing Jews to death is perfectly OK. So Dr. Mengele didn’t actually do anything, you know, wrong, or anything . . .

A tough one indeed.

On the one hand, there is the fear that using such data could somehow encourage future attrocities–that if there is a demand, a supply will follow. On the other hand, there is what Revtim said–maybe the data could save lives, and refusing to use it won’t do a thing to change what happened.

DISCLAIMER: To my knowledge I had no ancestors die in the Holocaust as such, so I can’t know for sure how I’d feel if it had touched my family personally. Having said that, my thoughts are that the subject can be seen as similar to a murder victim whose organs are then transplanted into others–a terrible crime, but a kind of good can come of it that in a sense celebrates the life of the victim. Maybe some kind of good can come out of the mass murder of the Holocaust–a gift to future generations, not from the Nazis, but from the victims themselves.

Majoriity moral opinions change in society all the time. I think it’s naive not to accept this concept. 200 years ago few people in the South thought of African slavery as barbaric, and now most of them do. 50 years ago smoking in a public building was not considered rude; try to do it now.

Morals change.

Very few people today, in fact, very few people during WWII, thought that Nazi experiments on Jews were morally justifiable. The moral justification, however, does not invalidate the fact that data, data from experiments carried out immorally, is available. The use of data does not condone the manner in which it was collected. It is certainly comfortable to not deal with Nazi experimental data; that keeps us from having to deal with the “ick” factor, but it would be a moral injustice to forbid scientific research based on such data, especially scientific research that would advance human knowledge in the area of saving lives. I am a Jew, and if my ancestors had died at the hands of a Nazi experimenter, if the data gained from the experiments could be put to good use, I would want it to be put to good use.

In short, it prevents the victims from being tortured to death in vain.

I would think that the south the majority always thought it was barbaric. Not only because paid workers can’t compete with free ones. They just didn’t have any property.

I’m in the boat of Dopers saying we should use the data gathered. The facts themselves are not an evil, they simply exist - the acts perpetrated against innocent Jews, gays, handicapped people were the evil - but long after the evil act has passed, the facts of the studies remain. No one has mentioned that perhaps if this information is used to save a life or hundreds, then maybe these people didn’t die completely in vain. Yes, their deaths are horrible, but maybe some good, in the end, can come out of it. And no, this is not a justification of genocidal medical experimentation before someone goes flying off the handle.

*Originally posted by friedo *


I don’t think this is a very convincing analogy, neither in nature nor in degree, to the Holocaust. It all comes down to the question of whether there really is such a thing as inalianable human rights, I think; whether there really is any such thing as good and evil. Yeah, a lot of people convinced themselves that slavery was acceptable a century or two ago, but still, slavery was wrong and wrong in an absolute sense. The South was a sick society, sick from its efforts to rationalize as good an institution that was manifestly evil. Look at the famous passage from Huckleberry Finn, where the protagonist is debating whether to send his friend Jim back to slavery:

I think this is the most eloquent exposition ever written regarding society’s “morals” in conflict with the absolute good. Huck has been taught all his life that slavery is good, and helping a slave to escape is a sure ticket to Hell–but deep down he still knows that turning Jim in would be an evil act, and he’s willing to risk eternal damnation rather than do it. There’s an absolute good that’s informing his actions.

On the other hand, you may feel that this attitude is “naive”, that all values are relative, that in some worlds slavery and murder might truly be “moral” because men believe it so. It’s an old debate, and I don’t expect to persuade you otherwise. Belief in moral relativism might indeed help you rationalize the murder of your Jewish grandparents, that murder might be horrible as a means, but it can still serve a good end. All I can do is point out that the Nazis who murdered them probably told themselves more or less the same thing.

Zarathustra, you and I agree that slavery is wrong, and just because it was accepted doesn’t mean it was ever right. I should point out here that I was talking about morals, which I think are different than ethics. (I’ll clarify what I mean if you don’t get me.)

We also agree that everyobody has inalienable rights and the Holocaust was bad. (Personally, I think the atrocities commited under Stalin, Mao, and Imperial Japan were worse, but degree is not really the point.)

Now, everyone agrees that these things are bad. However, a fact is just that, a fact. It is amoral. The manner in which the fact was acquired does not affect its factness.

We have facts available from experiments that were conducted on human beings. Ethics dictates that we can never do these experiments again, because, as we all agree, they’re wrong. So I see two choices:

  1. Use the available data as a basis for discovering new human knowledge. This knowledge has the potential to save lives and ease pain.

  2. Refuse to use the knowledge because of the stigma, and be forced to rediscover the knowledge through other means. Rediscovering the knowledge may be impossible, and if it is possible, would require vast effort and take more time.

I opt for choice number one.

I almost hate to do this, and I mean no offense whatsoever, but I saw a parallel between this and the child pornography thread going on. The means to create the product are terrible, does that mean that the product itself (in this case data, in that case pictures) is terrible in and of itself.

I don’t know what to say about this, because my views on both cases are pretty contradictory, but I thought I’d throw it out as a new way of thinking on the subject.

FWIW I think that the decision should be left up to a council of survivors and their immediate families. I think the most important issue is respect for the dead, and we must do out best to figure out what the dead would think best.

*Originally posted by Zarathustra *

I never tried to imply “what the hey” to torturing Jews (or animals, for that matter).

The point is, facts are facts, regardless of how they were learned. If you can use them to good use, you should. It’s too late to save the Jews tortured by Mengele, but if you CAN save people with data learned, you should.

Your last paragraph that I quoted (“In that light…”) seems to imply you are against using that data. If someone was dying of hypothermia, and the you could save them with nazi-learned data, would you let that person die?

Could someone who knows more about this than I do shed a little light on how much data is out there, and how valid it is? This discussion makes me wonder if the data collected by the Nazis would even be applicable to research being done today.

Obviously the fact that the experimenter was morally wrong in using human subjects does not mean that the data collected is faulty. But considering a group of people who believed that the Jews were subhuman makes me wonder if that idea didn’t affect the research process in some way. To create a specific question, I recall reading that the individuals used in such experiments were generally well fed, or at least, were receiving better food than people in prison camps. But what does that mean exactly? If you are a scientist who views a person as a lab monkey, is your idea of a good diet for your test subject the same as your idea of a good diet for yourself? While these individuals might have been kept superficially healthy for the purpose of the experiment, can we really know the extent of their health? Does this skew the collected data?

I’m ok with preserving data collected under shady conditions, and I don’t think it carries a moral taint. As has been pointed out already in this thread, it might even do great good in the future. But I’m still suspect of Nazi data in particular. The circumstances under which it was collected were so totally bizarre, I’m not certain it’s possible to discern its scientific integrity (ironic term, considering the subject at hand). It wasn’t created in a vacuum.

dephica, right on. Last thread I was i about this asserted that there wasn’t really any usable data from the Nazi experiments.

I’m of the view it shouldn’t be used, for three reasons.

First, and most important, I disagree with the analogy to the use the organs of a murder victim. In that case, the purpose of the killing was unrelated to the subsequent use of the organs. Here, the purpose of the “experiments” was to gather the data to be used for further scientific work. In other words, someone who uses the data today is doing exactly what the Nazis intended the data to be used for. To my mind, that makes the modern researcher complicit with the Nazis, although at a considerable remove.

Second, I agree with aynrandlover and dephica. I really doubt that the so-called experiments would produce any reliable data.

Third, knowledge can usually be gained by a variety of means. In today’s age, where the US is planning on giving up all nuke tests because computer simulations have reached the point that they don’t need the actual tests, surely an imaginative researcher can find other ways to study this issue: from studies of actual hypothermia cases, from comparative treatments, and from computer simulations. One of the great strengths of the scientific method is that it presumes all knowledge can be replicated - there’s no such thing as knowledge that was only found once, by some genius, and we just have to take it on faith that he/she was right. ([hijack] Take that, astrology![/hijack])

So I’d say, find some way to investigate this issue within ethical constraints, and don’t taint either your morals or your data with this stuff, which is questionable on both grounds.

Friedo, just to follow up, I would appreciate it if you could explain your definitions to me, and maybe direct me to where I can find out more on the distinction. I always had the impression that “morals” were kind of inner-directed and addressed a person’s own “values”, whereas “ethics” were more directed toward social behavior. For that reason, I had the impression that “ethics” could change over time but “morals” should not (or at least an “absolutist” would say so).

FTR, I wasn’t really taking a position on the OP, but rather on the morally relativistic argument somebody else used in taking his/her own position on the issue; that’s what I tend to object to.


We had this discussion in GD back in December. At the time, I posted a link that I think considers the “data” acquired, and the ethics of employing it further, quite well.

The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments

As the author describes it, very little of the experimental data was gathered under rigorous experimental conditions, plus some of the “researchers” were under pressure to produce results. Under those circumstances, I don’t think these data should be used in modern medical research; we can surely work our way through hypothermia research, etc. without resorting to data derived from torture.

Assuming the data is useful, we must use the data. To refuse to use it is granting the Nazis too much power. Why should anyone who might be saved be condemned to die? What would you tell someone’s family? “We might have been able to save your son, but we couldn’t because we threw away the data in moral outrage.” What would you tell the shades of those tortured Jews should they appear in front of you? “We must allow people to die in honor of the depth of your suffering. Were we to help people now, it would validate what was done to you.” Does anyone really think that is what they would want? It seems to me they would want their deaths to count for something, to produce some good.

I am frankly astonished at the idea that someone could, out of the hatred they feel towards the Holocaust, refuse to help people today. Tossing out data that might save lives is tantamount to scoring another victory for the Nazi regime. More lives lost because of Nazism does not strike me as the moral path to take.

Early medical experiments used condemned criminals*. They cut them open, saw what did what and learned a hell of a lot.

Keep in mind that it’s only relatively recently that being condemned to death meant that you had done something that we would consider to be worthy of death. Back then you may have worshiped the wrong gods, or taught the wrong thing or stolen some bread or whatever…

I’d say use the info. If your kid/spouse/friend/some guy is in front of you freezing to death and a book is placed in your hands and you are told that the cure is inside but it was written by a Nazi scientist who killed hundreds to find the cure. Would you open it even though it may mean that you indirectly owe the Nazis a favour? Of course you would.

I don’t think the analogy to child porn is quite the same. The person who uses child porn is, directly or indirectly, supporting the creator of the child porn, providing them incentive to create more. Our using data obtained in Nazi experiments provides no benefit to those who did the experiment, nor does it provide incentive for similar experiments to be performed again - nobody is going to say ‘Hey, maybe it would be OK for us to kill all those Croatians if we did experiments on some of them and found some useful information’.