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.

Question of the Day

January 19, 2009

Was Noah unemployed or underemployed when he was asked to build the Ark?

You Think?

January 14, 2009

One way to tell that the US tax code is way too complicated: when the nominee for Treasury Secretary can’t get his tax returns right and it’s quite plausible it was an honest mistake.


January 6, 2009

The China Investment Corporation is, well, not investing.

The World is Less Flat

January 5, 2009

Brad Setser includes this graph in his blog post titled The Collapse of Financial Globalization:

I Heart Michael Lewis

January 5, 2009

Check out his op-ed with David Einhorn, The End of the Financial World as We Know It.

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?