Government of the People, by the People, for the People

Here’s a story which rivals the Tuskeegee Experiments in terms of sheer “hunting poor people for sport” contempt by the state for the vulnerable. I see no moral difference between this and prisoner experiments at Dachau.

And I’m landing there in a couple of hours. Fun!

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  • Dave G.

    And the point of the post is…what? Find a case where something horrible was done, say it’s the same as other horrible things, and what? What comes next? I certainly feel horrible for her and anyone hurt by such deplorable acts, but again, the point is what?

    • Mark Shea

      Offhand, I’d say the point is that the state should not have the power to experiment on poor people and not be held accountable for it.

      • Nate Winchester

        that the state should not have the power

        I agree with you there. 😉

        Keep it small, keep it limited.

      • K. J.

        I agree with your main point, Mark, but I’m not certain this is the case to hang your hat on. The “experiment” was dispersal of a fluorescent powder as “part of a biological weapons program.” The material in question is basically the stuff that the yellow color in TV sets were produced by. It was believed to be inert, but easily detectable and distinguishable from naturally found dust in the area by the methods of the day. So it wasn’t an experiment to look for health effects of the material, but rather the dispersal/distribution in a urban setting.

        The linked article plays up the “conspiracy” aspect- the sociology professor cited claims that her research “has raised the possibility that the Army performed radiation testing by mixing radioactive particles with the zinc cadmium sulfide, though she concedes there is no direct proof.” Even after 50 years, there should be detectable decay products that would not only tell that such testing was performed, but what agent was used. All that is presented is anecdotal evidence of cases of cancer- even several distinct forms of cancer- with no real evidence of their being epidemiologically significant. The National Research Council said it wasn’t (15 years ago), and nothing here talks about the cancers found in a population who worked with the material for coating screens, for instance (which would be much more likely to show a significant link if one existed).

        It is disturbing to me that we had a major chemical weapons program. On the other hand, the data obtained from these experiments would be equally applicable in a defensive situation: in the event the bad guys launched such an attack (or a nuclear attack, which would result in radioactive dust being distributed in exactly the same way), knowledge of how that material would distribute itself in an urban environment could be used to help residents stay as secure as possible. In fact, to the extent that a risk of such an attack being carried out by terrorists is possible, the information may still contribute something useful to emergency planners.

        So I do see a significant moral difference between this experiment and those done at Dachau. In this case, experiments which had value beyond the offensive (in both senses of the word) purpose were performed in a way which was believed (and quite probably rightly so) to minimize the health risks to the general population. The experiments done at Dachau were of marginal utility at best and were embellished to suit prurient interests of those doing the experiments.

        • Christian Ohnimus

          First, since when is morality dependent on utility? I believe we call that utilitarianism and it is a heresy.

          Second, even though the substance is inert they’re still willfully dispersing it over people’s private property without their consent or their knowledge.

          Yes, its different than experiments meant to directly harm the human guinea pigs but this is still wrong.

          • Richard Johnson

            “All that is presented is anecdotal evidence of cases of cancer- even several distinct forms of cancer- with no real evidence of their being epidemiologically significant. The National Research Council said it wasn’t (15 years ago), and nothing here talks about the cancers found in a population who worked with the material for coating screens, for instance (which would be much more likely to show a significant link if one existed).”

            Interesting. Might I offer a few words in rebuttal.

            Agent Orange
            Tuskegee Experiments
            Times Beach
            9/11 Cancers

            And one other

            Situational Ethics

          • K. J.

            I suspect you are either oversimplifying utilitarianism, or reading too much into my use of the word “utility,” or both. I find it hard to believe that it is heretical to consider tossing a person into a tank of icewater to give him hypothermia, and then, upon pulling him out, having a woman have sex with him to see if it affects how his core temperature recovers to be on a different moral plane than throwing colored chalk out of an airplane to see how air currents distribute small particulates in an urban setting.

            The people expected to be in the center of the test should have been notified. Given the actual findings (some material was carried as far as 1200 miles from the test center), it would literally have been impossible to notify everyone. In the modern world, I believe we can use passive agents (i.e. particulates which are already present in the environment) to perform such studies- but use of such agents depends on instrumentation which was not available in 1955.

            What would you have done differently to accomplish the same objective: to understand how particulates from nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons would distribute in an urban area? Since I think we agree that the use of such agents is already problematic, let’s imagine that only the defensive (whether to evacuate or shelter-in-place, where to expect the highest concentrations of casualties and how to get survivors to appropriate medical attention) aspects are being studied, and not that we are trying to maximize damage to the other guy. What notification scheme would you use? What results, if any, would you make public?

            Inert substances are willfully dispersed over my private property nearly every day, in much the same manner as the substance in this case. If one of my neighbors builds a fire, if one of the local farmers harvests his corn or soybeans, if someone sprays manure over a field, when a truck drives down the road outside shortly after the city has applied salt or sand- anytime I smell something I recognize as being generated by people, I know that a substance has been willfully dispersed over my private property without my knowledge or consent. If I got myself into high dudgeon over every such event, the resulting cardiac stress would ensure that I never got poisoned.

        • Richard Johnson

          “In this case, experiments which had value beyond the offensive (in both senses of the word) purpose were performed in a way which was believed (and quite probably rightly so) to minimize the health risks to the general population.”

          Lots of folks would say the same thing about embryonic stem-cell research. After all, the goal is to minimize health risks in the general population. And our government and scientists believe sincerely that the embryos are not really human beings, since most of them are coming from abortions or artificial insemination freezers.

          Utilitarianism. Gotta love it. As long as the motive is pure, you can do pretty much anything, including forcing a few million Catholics to violate their religious teachings so everyone can get health insurance.

          • Zippy

            Lots of folks would say the same thing about embryonic stem-cell research.

            A rather key difference is that killing embryos for research is intrinsically immoral. Dispersing chalk dust in the air isn’t. I don’t really know what I think of the experiment in question and I probably won’t do the due diligence required to find out; but I don’t think K. J.’s posts are being given a charitable – or even slightly fair – reading.

          • K. J.

            I think you misinterpreted the term “general population.” I meant to distinguish those involved in performing the experiment- the guys who actually handled hundreds of pounds of the material on the airplanes, who are at markedly higher risk than those downstream. By “minimize the risk,” I meant that they chose a simulant which is essentially nontoxic, so that those people who are exposed were not placed at significant risk. I didn’t mean “let’s test on these poor people, so we can protect the rest of the people.” Essentially, I meant the risks were minimized by experimental design, not by population selection.

            I don’t quite follow the leap of logic to embryonic stem-cell research from throwing colored dust out of an airplane to see where it lands so we can learn what to expect in the event of an attack. But rest assured, not all scientists believe that embryos are not really human beings. There are also a significant number of scientists (I’ve met quite a few of them) who reject the notion that “they’d just be thrown away, anyway.”

  • ivan_the_mad

    “The material being sprayed was zinc cadmium sulfide, a fine fluorescent powder.” But don’t worry, a government entity said that it was just fine, no health effects! Really!

  • Zippy

    Everyone knows that in the Tuskegee Experiment nasty racists declined to treat negroes who had a dangerous disease, as a medical experiment. Kind of like everyone knows that Christmas and Easter are really pagan holidays.

    • Mark Shea

      Huh! This is total news to me. Thanks for the tip! Now I have to edit Mary, Mother of the Son!

      • Zippy


        [The rest of this comment intentionally blank to please the blog software]

  • Blog Goliard

    This is not surprising to those of us who grew up in the same part of the country as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

  • Bob

    Actually, this is worse than Tuskegee., because as the attached link to the zippy’s comment above argues, it did not involve direct infection.

    For all that (and with apologies for distraction), Tuskegee (and a couple of similar studies in third-world countries) involved deliberately (and deceptively) not doing what you thought was good for someone. It also involved a deliberate misleading. Now, in hindsight, perhaps the therapies available at the time might or might not have been effective (The article above argues that in the case of Tuskegee, it wasn’t. In the case of the AIDS-infected African mothers, if those people had been given the drugs, the spread of AIDS would have been reduced). The point is not that though, but as to whether it was ever right not to do what you believe to be the best for the person(s) involved, particularly when you have led them to believe that you are going to do everything possible for them, and I think the answer is no. In all fairness, it is a tricky business (placebo trials have some positive value), and I don’t think Nazi equivalences help, but I don’t think you can get away from the fact of the misinformation (deception?) and the failure of duty involved. I think a key question here would be whether something similar would ever have been approved in the US or a western country, and whether the people in question were being treated as valuable in themselves, or as means to an end. Every single justification I have seen for these trials was utilitarian, and that is a disturbing fact in itself.

  • TMLutas

    Chances are, if you or your ancestors were in the US at the time, you got some exposure to the stuff. They were tossing it out of airplanes to measure drift rates in 1957 and 1958 which adequately explains the “radiological components” of the test. They wanted to know how stuff in the air would spread, a question that’s still important in defending against WMD. It detectably crossed international boundaries twice due to unforeseen weather. That doesn’t make public exposure any more of a good/bad idea but it does probably mean (at least in my mind) that they weren’t poor hunting.
    From what I understand, this is a press release regarding an undefended dissertation that did not actually demonstrate that there was some sort of radiological release. It probably does need looking in to, but I’m relatively confident that when Gephardt blew up about this in 1994, it was adequately investigated. What she found that wasn’t already in the 1997 report is a little unclear at this point. If there’s new material, by all means add it to the record and re-evaluate if warranted.

  • Confederate Papist

    The DC government has been lying for 150 years…why is anyone surprised by any of this?

  • Hezekiah Garrett


    You misunderstand everyone (and not the either way around) because of the notions you’ve wedded yourself to. You ask people what other means they would use to acheive the same objective, since they object to those means.

    You obviously havn’t considered dropping the objective itself, limiting the process to finding other, less objectionable means.

    You are using an end to justify the means here, nd are unwilling to abandon the end

  • Hezekiah Garrett

    Publish is way too close to this tiny screen! To finish…

    And abandoning the end, regardless of consequence, is what non-utilitarians do when there are no unobjectionable means.

    I know I take my proverbial life into my hands saying this when you have such a formidable champion, but somebody ought to step up, try, and face the dribbing zippy can easily deliver with his right hemisphere tied behind his back.

    • K. J.


      You seem to believe that some part of what was done was an intrinsic evil. Which part do you consider to be such? Certainly, the idea behind learning how weaponized particulates used by an enemy will be distributed is nonproblematic- it is designed to serve the limited, legitimate goal of defending self and others (a “grave duty”). For that objective, yes, I absolutely would like to find non-objectionable means of attainment. I freely admit that I would be very happy indeed to find a nonobjectionable means of protecting the people of Minneapolis and St. Louis from the effects of a terrorist’s use of a biological warfare agent. In fact, the idea of defending those people from such an attack strikes me as a good enough idea to explore every objection to see if we can find a nonobjectionable means of doing so, by modifying the basic plan in response to those objections. So I am certainly guilty of your accusation that I “havn’t(sic) considered dropping the objective itself, limiting the process to finding other, less objectionable means.” “Dropping the objective,” in this case, means leaving thousands of people- primarily the poor- vulnerable to a vicious attack; it seems an obligation to see if we can find a nonobjectionable means of doing so. And that means running down all of the objections to see if we can avoid them, not simply giving up via lack of imagination. In short, we don’t know that there are no unobjectionable means until we’ve explored every objection and whether there is a way to achieve the end that isn’t subject to that objection. Unless the end itself is objectionable- which I’m sure we can agree is not the case here.

      To the extent that the tests were performed to learn how to better attack with biological or chemical agents of our own, and not to learn how to protect our own population, then they are part of a greater evil- the very existence of an offensive biological/chemical weapons program. In that case, the end itself is objectionable. So let’s put that aspect aside, for the moment, since we likely agree on that, and since it is not a new revelation that such a program existed- that is what the incinerators at Tooele and Anniston were used to destroy.

      Had the material used been an active agent- an active chemical weapon, for instance, or a radioactive tracer which posed real risk to those exposed- we would certainly not disagree that that would be clearly wrong. To the best of their knowledge- and ours- that was not the case (and maybe our disagreement reduces to whether we believe that the material was, in fact, inert. But then we have a factual disagreement, and you don’t seem to be arguing that). I don’t see the general idea of dispersing an inert agent as problematic- private individuals and governments do it all the time via agriculture, transportation, and industrial processes. We even spray active agents in many areas to suppress the mosquito population as a disease control measure. Are all of those activities illegitimate? If not, how do you distinguish them from this one?

      There are two possible issues I see remaining: the lack of notification/consent, and whether some regions were specifically used for testing for illegitimate reasons, e.g. poor neighborhoods were targeted over rich. As to the latter, there is really nothing to suggest that in the published record. On the contrary, since poorer neighborhoods tend to be more densely populated and thus more susceptible to biological and chemical weapons, learning how to best protect the most vulnerable people seems wholly legitimate. Further, since the landscape- building size, density, distance to roads, existence of alleys, etc.- is different, and that landscape affects how the particles travel, it would not be possible to use tests on a poor neighborhood to determine how an agent would disperse in a wealthy one. So it seems implausible, to me, that poor neighborhoods were unfairly used. Do you know of any specific evidence that poor neighborhoods were unfairly used?

      Notification should have been given, but under the circumstances of the test it is not easy to say who should have been notified (apparently, among the findings is that use of a very small amount of agent properly dispersed could affect an area of 500,000 square miles; the details of that- exact amount, packaging, height- are still treated as classified by the Army). Is there a degree of notification that, in your mind, would have made it all okay? Who needed to be notified, and by what mechanism? If we want to look at consent, is there a minimum number of people who must consent? Or would the existence of one objector be sufficient to stop the test altogether? What mechanism should have been used to obtain consent? Does this standard apply to public-health-based operations, such as mosquito spraying, fluoridation of drinking water, or the use of chemical agents to treat drinking water supplies? If not, what makes this case special?

      In truth, there was an offensive aspect to the study as well. St. Louis was chosen because it was similar, by some list of criteria, to a possible target city in the Soviet Union. That, we certainly agree, is evil; it is simply learning how to best kill innocent civilians. To me, the specifics of the test then pale in comparison to the program behind the test. It seems a bit like getting worked up because a serial killer/rapist gained entry to his victims’ homes by breaking windows.