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.


Sad But True

January 13, 2009

Patrick Swayze on “alternative medicine”.


Leave it to the professionals

January 9, 2009

Jonah Lehrer posts on amateur science, quoting Steven Shapin’s piece in Seed:

The transformation of science from a calling to a job happened largely during the course of the past century. Indeed, science is arguably the world’s youngest profession: The routinization of the paid role is less than a hundred years old; the word “scientist,” coined in 1840, was not in standard usage until the early 20th century.


Seeing What They Want to See

January 6, 2009

Sometimes it takes a fresh eye (or a bleary-eyed grad student) to catch what others have missed. Jonah Lehrer, Mind Hacks, and Neurocritic all blog about a paper by Edward Vul and others revealing some troubling exaggerations of correlations in social neuroscience imaging. Hopefully this paper will get some traction and cause the methodology in question to be reexamined–that’s how science progresses, after all.

The paper is available online (PDF) and the abstract is here:

The newly emerging field of Social Neuroscience has drawn much attention in recent years, with high-profile studies frequently reporting extremely high (e.g., >.8)
correlations between behavioral and self-report measures of personality or emotion and
measures of brain activation obtained using fMRI. We show that these correlations often
exceed what is statistically possible assuming the (evidently rather limited) reliability of
both fMRI and personality/emotion measures. The implausibly high correlations are all
the more puzzling because social-neuroscience method sections rarely contain sufficient
detail to ascertain how these correlations were obtained. We surveyed authors of 54
articles that reported findings of this kind to determine the details of their analyses. More
than half acknowledged using a strategy that computes separate correlations for
individual voxels, and reports means of just the subset of voxels exceeding chosen
thresholds. We show how this non-independent analysis grossly inflates correlations,
while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams. This analysis technique was used to
obtain the vast majority of the implausibly high correlations in our survey sample. In
addition, we argue that other analysis problems likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases. We outline how the data from these studies could be
reanalyzed with unbiased methods to provide the field with accurate estimates of the
correlations in question. We urge authors to perform such reanalyses and to correct the
scientific record.


DC Hurts My Brain

January 6, 2009

Jonah Lehrer (of the Frontal Cortex, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist) writes How the City Hurts Your Brain in the Boston Globe:

Related research has demonstrated that increased “cognitive load” — like the mental demands of being in a city — makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad, or indulge in a unhealthy snack. This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.

Don’t worry, there are benefits too.


Is God Scientifically Testable?

January 5, 2009

Lily (of Peaceful Atheist) asks “Is God Scientifically Testable?” Well, it depends on what you mean by “God”. But probably not. Thoughts?


Back to Blogging

January 5, 2009

Throughout my last few years of college, blogging provided an invaluable outlet as I struggled to develop a personal philosophy/worldview in a relatively isolated and non-progressive corner of these United States. Becoming a secular humanist in a small Arkansas town while attending a private, extremely conservative Christian university wasn’t exactly the easiest transition possible. But, the Interwebs were a great blessing, and gave me the chance to engage with a broad range of people both near and far.

Then all of a sudden I graduated (relief!) and moved to Washington, DC (more relief!) where I soon realized that, to most people, religion just isn’t that big of a deal. I think that most secular people are not raised with the intensity of belief and/or clarity of philosophy that comes from being raised in and around a Christian university/community. Really, this applies to most religious people as well. So, since writing about theology, philosophy, and politics and dialoguing with people outside of Arkansas were large reasons for my blogging habit, life in the District alleviated some of those needs. The other factor that led to my blog silence from July to December ’08 was that a good chunk of my work time involved blogging. Since I’ll be starting a new job in a week, and I’ve gotten a little more settled into life in DC, I think it’s time to get back to blogging.

This Spring should be an interesting time. I’m living in a group house with great housemates, enjoying the biweekly meetings for a fellowship program I’m in, training for a the National Half-Marathon, possibly taking evening Chinese classes and working toward a medium-term goal of teaching English and studying Chinese in China, working a new job, and, of course, going to Barack Obama’s Inauguration and following the fascinating political developments ahead! Should be busy, eh?

So, in my spare time, I think my blogging will focus a little on each of the following:

Book Reviews–that is, if I have time to read.
Politics–I’m a blogger in DC. This is obligatory.
Religion–It’s fascinating, no matter where you stand on the details.
Rocketry–I’ll be getting the small mid- and high-power rocketry fleet I brought with me to DC ready for some flights this spring and summer, and watching how the Obama administration shapes its space policy.
Photography–Some from my cross-country road trip in August, some from around DC…
Science–Trying to keep my interest in molecular biology and other fields up to speed (I love ScienceBlogs).
China–Big and getting bigger.

It’s good to be back!


Obama Considers Merging NASA, Pentagon Programs

January 5, 2009

Bloomberg reports that “Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015…”

Good idea.

I’ve had some considerable hesitations about the Constellation program since first reading about it. One huge point in Constellation’s favor is that it’s not the Space Shuttle–a program that has served some useful purposes but largely wasted the best part of the potential of the last 35 years of American space flight by blockading us in low-earth orbit and castrating our imagination while sucking up just as much funding as more ambitious–and thoughtful–projects might have consumed. So at least the Constellation is intended to do more without getting us stuck in lovely, expensive dreams of reusable space-planes. But Constellation’s ambition was never matched by the necessary concordance of national leadership and popular support necessary to really carry the funding through to completion. Part of the problem is that, while using modifications of some existing technology (like the Space Shuttle SRB’s), developing a new system for manned space flight is really expensive, and can unnecessarily drain resources from unmanned missions. This isn’t necessarily bad–if the manned missions are ambitious (and well-funded) enough to achieve something worthwhile.

Space policy is difficult because administrations only last four to eight years, and the development of a single mission from inception through R&D to flight readiness is often several times that span. So when the Bush administration held up Constellation without giving it the funding necessary to make truly solid (ie, irreversible) progress before 2009, it was hard to take seriously.

So, taking some of the nice ideas of Constellation (trying to get past near-earth orbit sometime soon) while cutting a lot of the cost of developing new launch vehicles when the DoD already has nice resources available seems to make a lot of sense. Military space programs have always had massive funding yet little publicity. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) published this overview of military and civilian space programs in 2003. Like most CRS reports, it’s invaluable but dry. On the first page you get this telling note:
“Tracking the DOD space budget is extremely difficult since space is not identified as a separate line item in the budget. DOD sometimes releases only partial information (omitting funding for classified programs) or will suddenly release without explanation new figures for prior years that are quite different from what was previously reported.”

The distinction between American military and civilian space efforts serves a few purposes. One is that the less secretive NASA drives public interest in space through education programs. Another is that NASA has programs that have no immediate national security benefit, like robotic exploration missions (keep an eye on NASA’s Pluto-bound New Horizons craft).

But these benefits of having a civilian space program will not necessarily disappear with greater collaboration between the Pentagon and NASA. The major benefit would be eliminating parallel programs to save millions or billions in development costs. Some of this is likely already done, but agency turf wars likely prevent much more.

I would hazard a guess that, especially abroad, the distinction between US-funded civilian programs and US-funded military programs is not especially strong in the public mind. Why? Partly because NASA has a long history of military collaborations. NASA draws on US military pilots for Space Shuttle pilots and commanders and flying military personnel from other countries, such as Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Air Force pilot who perished aboard Columbia. NASA also flew several classified missions lofting military payloads aboard its Shuttle fleet. So the distinction is already blurry.

And, of course, everyone knows (and most people say) that the only reason the US would be likely to fund renewed exploration efforts (going back to the Moon or possibly to Mars) would be to compete with another nation. Given that the Russia’s Sputnik spurred us through Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, it makes sense that China’s current push to go to the Moon could drive us to go back. Is it a prudent investment or a mindless arms race? Hard to say. But if we’re going to do these things as a show of national might, why not be honest about it and do it as a true military-civilian collaboration, and save some money along the way?


Ode to Science Fairs

April 29, 2008

Today I helped judge a science fair for 4th-9th graders. It was about what you’d expect for those age groups–some presentations showed sciences of thoughtful, work-intensive research projects appropriate to the age, but likely coached along by the parents, especially in the realm of presentation. Other projects were pretty awful, ranging from the funny (spelling fertilizer “fertilize” throughout a project, dozens of times) to the odd and half-finished (completely lacking data and/or conclusions).

And then there was the one that won we judges’ “Most Inappropriate Science Fair Project of the Day Award.” On this project in the 4-6th grade section (presumably about some unique botanical or chemical research affair, I don’t remember which) were taped a number of photos–all related to the project. Except for one little comic, that happened to be taped to the backboard in triplicate. I can only imagine that an innocent 4th grader taped this up, not understanding its significance and needing to fill space, or a deviant parent played a trick on their aspiring naturalist. Either way, I laughed so hard that I came home and Googled the image. Adults only below the fold (no pun intended).
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