The Kaczynski Dilemma

May 12, 2009

For some reason that I fail now to recall, I recently went on a pre-9/11 domestic terrorism reading kick on Wikipedia. From Timothy McVeigh to Theodore Kaczynski, Wikipedia is a fascinating read when you’re looking for broad brush-stroke outlines. But the footnotes are where the real nuggets lie.

One footnote, linking to “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber,” is cited in support of this passage:

Students in Murray’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-sponsored study were told they would be debating personal philosophy with a fellow student… Instead, they were subjected to the stress test, which was an extremely stressful and prolonged psychological attack by an anonymous attorney. During the test, students were strapped into a chair and connected to electrodes that monitored their physiological reactions, while facing bright lights and a two-way mirror. This was filmed, and students’ expressions of impotent rage were played back to them several times later in the study. According to Chase, Kaczynski’s records from that period suggest he was emotionally stable when the study began. Kaczynski’s lawyers attributed some of his emotional instability and dislike of mind control to his participation in this study.

Needless to say, I had to read that article. Fortunately, the June 2000 Atlantic article is available online here. Alston Chase summarizes his article as follows:

In the fall of 1958 Theodore Kaczynski, a brilliant but vulnerable boy of sixteen, entered Harvard College. There he encountered a prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair. There, also, he was deceived into subjecting himself to a series of purposely brutalizing psychological experiments — experiments that may have confirmed his still-forming belief in the evil of science. Was the Unabomber born at Harvard? A look inside the files…

Murray’s experiments were horrifically unethical by today’s standards – and sadly lacking in any clear redemptive value – on a level only attained by Stanley Milgram and a few others. But Chase’s discussion of Murray’s psychological experiments interest me less than his focus on the “prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair.” This atmosphere smelled slightly familiar to me, as my undergraduate education was in certain ways post-dated to the 1960’s: many of the philosophies and prevailing cultural norms that my devoutly Christian professors warned us against seem to have faded into history. Of course, many of the central ideas are there, but they have evolved and cross-pollinated to the point where the counter-arguments seem a bit stale.

Here’s a bit more about Kaczynski’s philosophy (which Chase sees as an all-too-natural outgrowth of ideas ascendent at Harvard during Kaczynski’s undergraduate tenure):

Driving these events from first bomb to plea bargain was Kaczynski’s strong desire to have his ideas — as described in the manifesto — taken seriously.

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences,” Kaczynski’s manifesto begins, “have been a disaster for the human race.” They have led, it contends, to the growth of a technological system dependent on a social, economic, and political order that suppresses individual freedom and destroys nature. “The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system.”

By forcing people to conform to machines rather than vice versa, the manifesto states, technology creates a sick society hostile to human potential. Because technology demands constant change, it destroys local, human-scale communities. Because it requires a high degree of social and economic organization, it encourages the growth of crowded and unlivable cities and of mega-states indifferent to the needs of citizens.

This perfect storm of philosophy – that science is both all-powerful and soul-crushing – led to a worldview full of despair. “We have no illusions about the feasibility of creating a new, ideal form of society,” Kaczynski wrote. “Our goal is only to destroy the existing form of society.” That brutal, grasping despair – if not Kaczynski’s wanton disregard for human life – once held a huge segment of the educated American public captive in a sad cycle:

From the humanists we learned that science threatens civilization. From the scientists we learned that science cannot be stopped. Taken together, they implied that there was no hope.

At its core, much of this philosophy is still embraced today. We (speaking general of irreligious Western society) venerate nature in ways that were set aside for hundreds of years in the Industrial revolution, if not longer. We stand in collective awe of the power of science to map our DNA and connect us through the Internet, and recoil in horror from its power to split the atom, mass-produce cluster munitions, and engineer biological plagues. And we, whether we like it or not, we cannot roll back the knowledge of nature and reality yield by science.

Kaczynski’s rage was directed at society, and at technology, and thus he targeted individuals closely associated with the scientific-academic-industrial complex. But the Kaczynski dilemma – how to reconcile our love of nature, our belief in the power of science, and the unavoidable conclusion that the greatest damage caused by nature has been a consequence of our science – can be answered in many ways. Kaczynski solved the dilemma through ironic use of simple technology, by sending bombs to targeted individuals to disrupt the flow of society, and, ultimately, to propagate his beliefs.

If the underlying tenets of Kaczynski’s views hold true, why haven’t more people resorted to his methods? Why aren’t his ideas preached far and wide? (Admittedly, a small anarchist core of disciples exists.) I suggest that the underlying despair has been eroded in part by the moden environmental movement in at least two ways.

First, science used to be synonymos with industrialization. Today, industrial production and the pollution it creates is perceived as being decidedly low tech. Science – especially climate science – is about finding smarter solutions to energy and transportation. While “old science” with its domination of nature is vilified, the new science is embraced as the key to our salvation from an earthly hell.

Second, the environmental movement – here less driven by science than by philosophy – has shifted from a massive scale to an individual one. Whether this shift was intentionally driven by leaders in the field is unclear to me, but it has been effective. Consideration of the world system as a whole can lead one to despair, but individual action can provide redemption. Shifting to consuming less or no meat, to burning less fossil fuel, or blindly acquiring more stuff – all these are personal acts lauded (rightly in my view) by the modern environmental movement. And regardless of whether those actions are effective global solutions (again, I think they are a great start) they are indeed an effective salve for the Kaczynski dilemma.

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Breathtaking Inanity

March 31, 2008

jeremiah wrightgeorge w. bush shaking finger

Nicholas Kristof has an excellent op-ed today on conspiracy theories and America’s collective intellect (or lack thereof). Kristof manages to work in Jeremiah Wright, 9/11, AIDS, evolution, and education all in one column. Pretty good.

Ten days ago, I noted the reckless assertion of Barack Obama’s former pastor that the United States government had deliberately engineered AIDS to kill blacks, but I tried to put it in context by citing a poll showing that 30 percent of African-Americans believe such a plot is at least plausible.

My point was that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is not the far-out fringe figure that many whites assume. But I had a deluge of e-mail from incredulous whites saying, in effect: If 30 percent of blacks believe such bunk, then that’s a worse scandal than anything Mr. Wright said.

It’s true that conspiracy theories are a bane of the African-American community. Perhaps partly as a legacy of slavery, Tuskegee and Jim Crow, many blacks are convinced that crack cocaine was a government plot to harm African-Americans and that the levees in New Orleans were deliberately opened to destroy black neighborhoods.

White readers expressed shock (and a hint of smugness) at these delusions, but the sad reality is that conspiracy theories and irrationality aren’t a black problem. They are an American problem.

Jeremiah Wright’s statements that the US government created AIDS and was responsible for 9/11 disturbed me even more than his racist rants. The latter is more understandable in my eyes, whereas the former are such a departure from rational thinking that I can find no excuse for believing them. Of course, 9/11 conspiracy theories are fairly widespread in the general population too. Kristof continues:

These days, whites may not believe in a government plot to spread AIDS, but they do entertain the equally malevolent theory that the United States government had a hand in the 9/11 attacks. A Ohio University poll in 2006 found that 36 percent of Americans believed that federal officials assisted in the attacks on the twin towers or knowingly let them happen so that the U.S. could go to war in the Middle East.

And on to science education:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each… President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men.

One thing I’d like to know here is in regards to how the question about “flying saucers” is asked. Are people asked if they have seen a flying saucer, or if they believe they exist, or if they believe there may possibly be extraterrestrial life somewhere in the universe. If it’s the latter, then I’m crazy too, because the astrobiology grants I’ve done research for NASA under are all aimed at looking for extraterrerstrial microbial life. But I think there’s a big difference between believing reports of so-called flying saucers and having a more Carl Sagan-esque view on life in the universe.

Our breathtaking collective ignorance (and/or paranoia) has an impact on public policy in a democracy as well:

Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops…. How can we decide on embryonic stem cells if we don’t understand biology? How can we judge whether to invade Iraq if we don’t know a Sunni from a Shiite?

And then there’s a disturbing little bit about our political process. This is one reason someone like Mike Huckabee can rise to national prominence, while many of the most education and intelligent Americans are probably disqualified from our highest office because they’re too elitist:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch.

And here’s a good (and true) slam on where the conservative movement as a whole is going:

The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

Really, is there anyone comparable to the late Buckley? Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and the like have certainly expanded conservative media, but they’ve consistently done it by making it ever more xenophobic and ignorant. But let’s not forget the stupidity and misleading tactics of people like Michael Moore either.

bill o'reilly fox newsrush limbaugh oxycontinmichael moore ugly

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Please, oh please.


The Power of Conspiracy Theories

March 30, 2008

They’re. All. True.

9/11 world trade center dust image

Just kidding.

I’ve blogged before about the “9/11 Truth” movement/ conspiracy theories. But I came across a great summation and rebuttal of many of this sub-culture’s beliefs and suspicions that I thought was worth sharing. On eSkeptic, Phile Molé gives an account of a convention hosted by 911truth.org in Chicago, goes through details of their many spurious claims, and then has this fascinating conclusion of the “power of conspiracy theories.”

We need to return to a question posed near the beginning of this discussion: Why do so many intelligent and promising people find these theories so compelling?

There are several possible answers to this question, none of them necessarily exclusive of the others. One of the first and most obvious is distrust of the American government in general, and the Bush administration in particular. This mistrust is not entirely without basis…The revelations of Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, and other nefarious schemes great and small have understandably eroded public confidence in government. Couple that with an administration, that took office after the most controversial presidential election in more than a century, and one that backed out of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, misled citizens about the science of global warming and stem cell research, initiated a war in Iraq based on unsupportable “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction, and failed to respond in adequately to the effects of a hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and you have strong motivations for suspicion…

[However,] the mistakes made by our government in the past are qualitatively different from a conscious decision to kill thousands of its own citizens in order to justify the oppression of others. Most importantly, there is the fact that most of what we know about the bad decisions made by our government is only knowable due to the relative transparency with which our government operates, and the freedom to disseminate and discuss this information.

The full irony of this last point hit me while I was at the conference. Here was a group of about 400 people gathered to openly discuss the evil schemes of the U.S. government, whom they accuse of horrible atrocities in the service of establishing a police state. But if America really was a police state with such terrible secrets to protect, surely government thugs would have stormed the lecture halls and arrested many of those present…

It is notable that conspiracy theorists (and this likely applies not just to 9/11) tend to be clustered at the extreme right and left of the political spectrum–you’ll find few apathetics or moderates dedicating this much time to activities this far out of the mainstream.

Another reason for the appeal of 9/11 conspiracies is that they are easy to understand. As previously mentioned, most Americans did not know or care to know much about the Middle East until the events of 9/11 forced them to take notice…The great advantage of the 9/11 Truth Movement’s theories is that they don’t require you to know anything about the Middle East, or for that matter, to know anything significant about world history or politics. This points to another benefit of conspiracy theories — they are oddly comforting. Chaotic, threatening events are difficult to comprehend, and the steps we might take to protect ourselves are unclear. With conspiracy theory that focuses on a single human cause, the terrible randomness of life assumes an understandable order.

This may be the major thread connecting conspiracy theories to Creationism. And actually, for some believers Creationism really does function as a conspiracy theory, where they see a nefarious band of scientists denying evidence and making up fossils and such. Or just kicking the intelligent-design proponents out of academia, as the upcoming “documentary” Expelled asserts. Here Molé makes the conspiracy theory / creationism connection even more clear:

The great writer Thomas Pynchon memorably expressed this point in his novel Gravity’s Rainbow: “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” The promiscuity of conspiracy theories toward evidence thus becomes part of their appeal — they can link virtually any ideas of interest to the theorist into a meaningful whole…

With the standards of evidence used by conspiracy theorists, there is no reason why the Freemasons, the Bavarian Illuminati, or the Elders of Zion cannot also be involved in the 9/11 plot — it just depends on what you find the most solace in believing. As it turns out, some conspiracy theorists do throw one or more of these other parties into the mix, as a popular and bogus rumor that 4,000 Jews mysteriously failed to come to work on 9/11 shows.

Solace is something all of us needed after the horrible events of 9/11, and each of us is entitled to a certain degree of freedom in its pursuit. However, there is no moral right to seek solace at the expense of truth, especially if the truth is precisely what we most need to avoid the mistakes of the past. Truth matters for its own sake, but it also matters because it is our only defense against the evils of those who cynically exploit truth claims to serve their own agendas. It is concern for the truth that leads us to criticize our own government when necessary, and to insist that others who claim to do so follow the same rigorous standards of evidence and argument.


Good News, Bad News

March 29, 2008

The World Health Organization has announced that polio has been eradicated from Somalia. This was an incredibly difficult task, given Somalia’s endemic violence and instability. And it took a huge effort:

More than 10,000 Somali volunteers and health workers vaccinated more than 1.8 million children under the age of five by visiting every household in every settlement multiple times.

However, this has happened before. Polio was eradicated from Somalia back in 2002, only to be reintroduced from Nigeria. The fact that polio was reintroduced from a country on the other side of the continent calls attention to the interrelatedness of disease control efforts in different countries (diseases know no borders) and the tragedies that occur when vaccination efforts clash with local cultures or religions.

But despite its tenuous progress in terms of total eradication, the WHO’s $4 billion polio campaign has made great steps forward:

When WHO and partners began their anti-polio campaign in 1988, the worldwide case count was more than 350,000 annually. The disease’s incidence has since been slashed by more than 99 percent and remains endemic in four countries: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. Polio cases were also detected last year in Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Myanmar, Nepal, Niger and Sudan.

So that’s the good (albeit cautiously so) news. The bad news for Somalia:

Somalia’s Government Teeters on Collapse

If you read that and asked “wait, Somalia has a government?” you’re not alone. But it does have a government of sorts:

By its own admission, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia is on life support. When it took power here in the capital 15 months ago, backed by thousands of Ethiopian troops, it was widely hailed as the best chance in years to end Somalia’s ceaseless cycles of war and suffering.

But now its leaders say that unless they get more help — international peacekeepers, weapons, training and money to pay their soldiers, among other things — this transitional government will fall just like the 13 governments that came before it.

Less than a third of the promised African Union soldiers have arrived, the United Nations has shied away from sending peacekeepers and even the Ethiopians are taking a back seat, often leaving the government’s defense to teenage Somalis with clackety guns who are overwhelmed.


A Straight-Shooting Questionnaire

March 27, 2008

This questionnaire is for “self-avowed heterosexuals” only.

1. What do you think caused your heterosexuality?
I’m pretty sure I was born this way, but how would I know?

2. When and how did you first decide you were a heterosexual?
Well, I guess I’ve just always been attracted to girls.

3. Is it possible your heterosexuality is just a phase you may grow out of?

Possible, but how can you ever know at the time? I’m just living my experience as I know it now.

4. Could it be that your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?
Quite likely. Look at where I go to school!

5. If you’ve never slept with a person of the same sex, how can you be sure you wouldn’t prefer that?

Um.. body hair?

6. To whom have you disclosed your heterosexual tendencies? How did they react?
My friends and parents know, and they’re mostly understanding.

7. Why do heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into their lifestyle?

Why don’t you stop beating your wife?

8. Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality? Can’t you just be what you are and keep it quiet?

I was thinking of starting an annual parade actually.

9. Would you want your children to be heterosexual, knowing the problems they’d face?

Probably not. The dilemmas of rejection from the gay community and ethical questions concerning having children are just too great a burden to bear.

10. A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual men. Do you consider it safe to expose children to heterosexual male teachers, pediatricians, priests, or scoutmasters?
Probably not. We really shouldn’t let children be around men at all given these stats. That’s why I advocate schools, hospitals, churches, and scout troops with all female leaders.

11. With all the societal support for marriage, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?
It’s hard being an oppressed majority.

12. Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex?
Because we can make babies. Deal with it.

13. Considering the menace of overpopulation, how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual?
Birth control?

14. Could you trust a heterosexual therapist to be objective? Don’t you fear s/he might be inclined to influence you in the direction of her/his own leanings?
I just don’t trust therapists in general.

15. Heterosexuals are notorious for assigning themselves and one another rigid, stereotyped sex roles. Why must you cling to such unhealthy role-playing?
Patriarchy.

16. With the sexually segregated living conditions of military life, isn’t heterosexuality incompatible with military service?
Probably so. I prefer the Sacred Band model.

17. How can you enjoy an emotionally fulfilling experience with a person of the other sex when there are such vast differences between you? How can a man know what pleases a woman sexually or vice-versa?
It’s probably not possible. We’re all doomed to live lives of disconnected, ambivalent oblivion.

18. Shouldn’t you ask your far-out straight cohorts, like skinheads and born-agains, to keep quiet? Wouldn’t that improve your image?

I ask them all the time, but I can’t control how they live their lives. If they want to get married to just one woman, and try and raise children who are only straight, who am I to stop them?

19. Why are heterosexuals so promiscuous?
See #12.

And then there are some more…

h/t Ian.


The Draw of Dermatology?

March 20, 2008

This piece in the New York Times focuses on a married couple, both Harvard Medical School students, who are in their fourth year and waiting to find out about their residency placements. Like many medical students around the nation, they’re competing for competitive placements in specialty fields instead of going into less lucrative (and possibly less intellectually stimulating?) fields such as family practice and internal medicine.

And the competition is expensive:

Already saddled with about $330,000 in education loans, they borrowed $20,000 more so they could fly around the country this winter for about two dozen residency interviews each. All told, each applied to 90 such training programs.

The article makes me a little sad in general. I had a conversation at CGI U with a med school student who warned me about the “vortex” of med school. Paraphrased: “Everyone’s the same. You get to med school all idealistic, wanting to help people and stuff. Then you spend years and years studying and working, and you see the people ahead of you getting money. You see the doctors with the nice cars and comfortable lives, and you start to wonder when you’re getting yours? And you get into so much debt that you realize you have to practice, and practice well if you want to get out of that hole.”

I’m certainly idealistic about why I want to go to medical school. In fact, the struggle for me is deciding between larger scale health policy work–doing research, designing disease control programs, advocacy, etc.–and traditional clinical work, or how to balance both. I’ve never seen myself as one to get into private practice, or really even treating patients full-time as a traditional clinician. But the vortex sucks many people in.

The problem is ultimately not with the medical students who are drawn to dermatology and plastic surgery for the better pay. Medical students will inevitably be drawn toward the specialties that combine interesting work with the highest pay. From the NYTimes again:

“It is an unfortunate circumstance that you can spend an hour with a patient treating them for diabetes and hypertension and make $100, or you can do Botox and make $2,000 in the same time,” said Dr. Eric C. Parlette, 35, a dermatologist in Chestnut Hill, Mass., who chose his field because he wanted to perform procedures, like skin-cancer surgery and cosmetic treatments, while keeping regular hours and earning a rewarding salary.

The market simply isn’t working here. We need more (many more!) primary care physicians. There’s a lot more demand for services there. But people who have the money to pay more for cosmetic treatments and surgery skew the demand away from those who don’t have the money to get adequate treatment for more life-threatening conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

I’m not sure what the solution is either. I know it would need to be a large-scale systemic change; merely getting pre-med students to read about Paul Farmer isn’t going to change everyone. Maybe having a single-payer system where doctors are compensated as much or more for basic services as they are for cosmetic services? Or maybe a loan-repayment situation where medical school is even more expensive, but all loans are automatically repaid by the government for those not going into specialties. Who knows. Suggestions?


Focus.

March 11, 2008

Many Doctors, Many Tests, No Rhyme or Reason

All of our investments in high-tech medicine and tons of tests, as well as the drive toward further specialization, aren’t really having an impact on public health indicators like life expectancy and child mortality. But for those who want to go into medicine (like me) the sexy, intellectually-stimulating, cutting-edge, fiscally-rewarding work is in those specialties.

We need to have a different focus.

“In an age of explosive development in the realm of medical technology, it is unnerving to find that the discoveries of Salk, Sabin, and even Pasteur remain irrelevant to much of humanity.” – Paul Farmer

“The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.” – Rudolf Virchow