Archive for November, 2015

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The Lebedev Syndrome

November 18, 2015
"Leucocephalus" Phil Hansten

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, one of the least appealing characters is a fellow named Lebedev, a man who could pontificate on any topic. I was reminded of Lebedev following a recent discussion I had with a friend on the topic of climate change. My friend pointed out that, although he didn’t claim to understand the science of climatology, he did think Michael Crichton’s novels expressing skepticism about human-caused global warming made sense.

Now, to say Michael Crichton had remarkable talent and intelligence is a bit of an understatement. He graduated from Harvard summa cum laude, sold 200 million books, had colossal successes in television (ER) and film (Jurassic Park), and he won an Emmy, a Peabody, and an Academy Award. And this is only a partial list of his awards and accomplishments.

Unfortunately, however, therein lies the problem. People with that kind of success tend to have great difficulty in recognizing their limitations, and often have Lebedevian proclivities. Nobel Prize winners are notorious for this human foible. William Shockley (transistor) and James Watson (DNA), for example, both claimed there was strong evidence that some races were inherently less intelligent, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Linus Pauling thought vitamin C could prevent many human ills. Other Nobel laureates have similarly ventured far afield to weigh in on topics about which they know very little.

Crichton apparently suffered from this same delusion… assuming that his astonishing success somehow allowed him to understand an exceedingly complex topic that was outside of his expertise. He was trained as a physician, not a climate scientist, and his skeptical views on climate change were thoroughly debunked by qualified climatologists. Crichton weighing in on the science of climate change makes about as much sense as me weighing in on quantum mechanics; I simply do not have the requisite training or understanding.

It would appear that people who pontificate on issues outside their field suffer from a humility deficiency. They would have no doubt profited from reading sixteenth century French thinker, Michel de Montaigne. Notoriously humble despite his obvious wisdom, Montaigne talked about how he eschewed topics about which he knew little: “…sounding the ford from a good distance; and then, finding it too deep for my height, I stick to the bank.” Would that Shockley, Watson, Pauling, and Crichton had the wisdom to stick to the bank as well.

Crichton was also vindictive; when a columnist criticized him on the climate change issue, Crichton put the columnist in a new novel as a pervert with a small penis who raped a 2-year-old boy. Not cool. It takes a pretty small person to do something like that rather than to debate the person who disagreed with him in an open forum. (I assume my criticism will not result in a similar fate for me since Crichton is no longer with us.)

Crichton had every right to question the findings of climatologists, of course. The problem is that—although he did not have a deep and nuanced understanding of climatology—his fame gave him a voice in the world that was orders of magnitude louder than that of those who are truly qualified: climatologists. And that is problematic for one simple reason… probability. It is overwhelmingly more probable that the climatologists are correct than that Crichton was correct.

Look at any scientific discipline during the past century; it is not unusual for people outside the discipline to snipe at the scientists within the discipline. On exceedingly rare occasions, the outsiders turn out to be more right than the scientists. But the question for the climate change issue is whether we are willing to bet the farm on the very slim chance that the climate change deniers are right. Basing public policy on the pronouncements of climate change deniers is like society putting all its money on a single number in roulette; we might win, but it is much more likely that we will lose big.

Mark Twain once said, “Supposing is good, but finding out is better.” Michael Crichton “supposed” that climate change does not represent an existential threat to humanity. But he did not “find out” if his position was scientifically valid. It wasn’t.

Blaise Pascal’s observation is again apropos: “So let us work on thinking well; that is the principle of morality.” The list of “not thinking well” on climate change is long: Michael Crichton, Fox News, most of the Republican candidates for president, fossil fuel corporations, a billionaire brother team (who shall remain nameless, lest I have to buy one of those mirrors to check under my car every morning), and countless “regular folks” who believe the propaganda spewed by the aforementioned voices. According to Pascal’s calculus these people are not thinking well and are taking an immoral position on a vital public policy question. In my opinion, Pascal is absolutely right.

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Addiction and Rescue: The Pledge Goes Viral

November 7, 2015
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

If you’d like to be rescued from death, vote for me.

That’s the gist of a video clip Huffington Post put on Facebook. In it a presidential contender promises prospective voters in a New Hampshire tavern that he favors treatment for addiction. Within a day or two, more than two million people called attention to the clip. Whew.

Pundits at opposite ends of the spectrum praised the candidate’s pledge to favor treatment over punishment for addiction. Although treatment would cost money and conservatives loathe Medicare and Obamacare, a conservative blog  called the candidate’s plea “riveting stuff,” and promised that “You won’t be able to take your eyes off of it.”

What makes the video spellbinding? For one thing, at a time when marketing strategists have reduced politics to bumper sticker slogans, the candidate ruefully describes his mother’s addiction to cigarettes and her eventual lung cancer in her 70s. Then he issues a challenge: nobody said, “Well, she deserved it, let’s not give her chemotherapy.” So why do so many people object to giving treatment to drug and alcohol addicts?

He values his mother’s life, he vows, as he values the lives of all addicts— and also babies saved from abortion. No doubt the candidate brought in abortion because it’s a hot button issue for conservatives. But there’s more to it than that.

Everyday prejudice assumes addiction to be mostly a problem of minorities and the shiftless poor. For decades, money that could have paid for treatment instead built prisons to punish drug offenders, especially black males. The moral aggression was deliciously logical. They got what they deserved. Likewise, when gays succumbed to AIDS, some conservatives eased their fear by scolding that They deserved it.

It’s almost a reflex: when frightened, turn flight into fight.  Attack and punish the threat. If you assume free will is always more powerful than physiology, you can blame the victim for irresponsible risk-taking.

In the video the candidate urges us to think of Mum and be more sympathetic. Not to seem sentimental, he then recounts how a fabulously successful lawyer he knew became addicted to Percoset, lost his ideal wife, family, and house, and died in a motel room with a bottle of vodka and an empty bottle of Percoset. It’s death: total failure. At the funeral the candidate saw the man’s three daughters sobbing. Again he pledges to support treatment for addiction. The lawyer wasn’t weak or irresponsible, he’s a victim.

To be fair, the candidate sounds sincere.  Yet these sob stories are moves in a political campaign. They have a mythic quality. The heroic leader pledges “treatment” to save victims of a runaway appetite from death. In the process he absolves them of guilt. In the real world of course, treatment is helpful but no panacea. What matters in the video is that the hero wants to help.

Who wouldn’t want to be rescued?  The wish goes back to childhood and the dream of omnipotent parents. It implies a fear of failure, chaos, and social death. And it puts the supplicant in the role of a guilty child grateful to a big-hearted parental patron.

The candidate was taking a risk, because the conservative base doesn’t approve of government solutions to problems. Yet here’s the screaming irony: the money the candidate pledges for treatment would be public money. It already belongs to the listeners. They’ve paid for it in taxes and fees. In effect, they’ve pooled their money in an insurance fund that could treat addiction and other illnesses. The problem is that propaganda diverts public money to the corporate military or tax breaks for the grateful rich.

Rather than ask who would oppose treatment for addiction, the candidate spins a yarn about Mum and his tragic lawyer friend. This also masks the public reality. After all, an affluent lawyer leading a conservative life doesn’t need public money: he can pay for his own treatment.  And if treatment didn’t work in his case, was something wrong or missing in his ideal inner life?

As it happens, as the governor was offering to rescue voters, two economists released a study that finds “Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans.” In fact, “Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.” Who’s affected? Primarily whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education. The cause?  Not “the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”

In a word, stress is up, incomes are down, and your job has gone to China. In the period covered by the study, “the inflation-adjusted income for households headed by a high school graduate fell by 19 percent.” As belts tighten, you have less control over your life. Reach for the painkillers.

Whether out of dumb luck or shrewd intuition, the candidate offers to rescue troubled whites just as prisons and wars against drugs are finally revealing their cruelty and futility. Even more serendipitous: pundits praised the video because the candidate was dying in the polls, and his “emotional plea” seemed to revive his prospects. Everybody likes a story about an underdog beating the reaper and rewarded for his humanity.

Why did the video catch so much attention? It’s likely that in an era of predatory money, people are excited to see someone on top showing compassion. While the workaday world touts survival of the fittest, the video suggests we can pull together. We’re social animals. We want to believe.

How real is the candidate’s compassion? Hard to say. He sounds sincere. Maybe his near death in the polls made him sympathetic to others in trouble. At least he’s proposing help rather than another enemy to bomb. Tome his empathy would be most convincing if he openly disagreed with opponents who want to divert the public’s money to the rich and hungry. With living standards under pressure, he could even pledge to relieve stress on working folks, addicted or not.

Let me know when that video turns up.

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used with permission
Source: Helena Farrell for Tacit Muse:used with permission

In slang we talk about flipping out, running amok, losing it, etc., Berserk abandon is terrifying yet also alluring, since it promises access to extraordinary resources by overthrowing inhibitions. Berserk style has shaped many areas of contemporary American culture, from warfare and business to politics, sports, and intimate life. Focusing on post-Vietnam America and using perspectives from psychology, anthropology, and physiology, Farrell demonstrates the need to unpack the confusions in language and cultural fantasy that drive the nation’s fascination with berserk style.

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<<This book amazes me with its audacity, its clarity, and its scope. We usually think of ‘berserk’ behaviors—from apocalyptic rampage killings to ecstatic revels like Burning Man—as extremes of experience, outside ordinary lives. in fascinating detail, Farrell shows how contemporary culture has reframed many varieties of abandon into self-conscious strategies of sense-making and control.

Abandon has become a common lens for organizing modern experience and an often troubling resource for mobilizing and rationalizing cultural and political action.This landmark analysis both enlightens and empowers us.>>

—Les Gasser, Professor of Information and Computer Science, U. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne.