What You Should Think About Thomas Jefferson

May 31, 2011

“The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred. . .”

–Thomas Jefferson

Before our country was a sovereign nation, it was a series of ideas.  Some among the ancient Greeks wrote about and lived by the belief that specific populations were well-suited to self-government in the form of direct democracy.  Both the ancient Romans and the people of 18th century England had experience with rule by elected representatives.  Yet the Greek concept of popular governance was thought unsuitable for most people born outside specific city-states, and the British Parliament formed as an outgrowth of compromises designed to maintain order in a society where monarchs presided by a claim of divine right.

The notion of intrinsic and universal human rights was not widely accepted in the 1770s.  Even among the most progressive societies today, the struggle continues to recognize and address increasingly subtle ramifications of commitments to liberty and equality.  In the time America struggled for independence, many British loyalists remained skeptical of the idea that life without an official aristocracy would be an improvement over the status quo.  Before soldiers and arms could be rallied to the cause of freedom, voices and printing presses had to make the case that freedom was a cause worth fighting for.

Abusive policies and a fundamental lack of fairness in the dealings between England and its colonies created the unrest needed to drive rebellion.  Yet fear and anger never accomplish anything productive when they are given free reign to shape the course of human events.  It took rational men, acting with benefit of calm reflection, to reshape this unrest into a constructive force.  Most of the Founding Fathers were men of ideas, reasonable and thoughtful by nature.  When it came to declaring their intention to rebel, they turned to the foremost intellect in their midst — Thomas Jefferson.

Like so many other architects of the revolution, Jefferson was an educated lawyer.  However, no single discipline could monopolize his mind.  He took an active interest in farming, both as a landowner and a believer in agricultural productivity as the foundation of any prosperous economy.  He studied architecture, pouring much of his own time and money into neoclassical buildings like his beloved Monticello.  His personal library was among the largest in the New World.  When British troops burned the original Library of Congress, it would rise from the ashes through the acquisition of Jefferson’s personal book collection.  He was also a prolific inventor, perhaps second only to Benjamin Franklin in terms of his contributions to early American technology.

Yet Jefferson’s greatest invention was the argument that the fight for independence was both just and necessary.  He did not fall back on the worldly concerns of rising taxation, unfair trade, or coercive garrisons.  He claimed that rule by unelected authorities, even the most enlightened of despots, was an intolerable abridgement of “certain unalienable Rights.”  He gave voice to the will of the people in his time by insisting that the will of the people in all times and all places must determine under what laws and institutions those people would live.  He could have chosen the path of the incendiary bombast, ridiculing royalty while stoking the fires of hatred.  Instead he embraced the way of the philosopher, invoking reason and principle to shape the world’s grandest experiment in the history of civics.

Thomas Jefferson embodied so many of the best qualities of our nation.  He lived much of his life in debt not for lack of accomplishment, but because he thought his greatest inventions were too important to be constrained by the doctrine of intellectual property.  Enriching the nation and the world were much more important pursuits to him than personal enrichment.  He always hungered for knowledge, yet he was also not shy about thirsting for wine.  Though he lived much of his adult life as a debtor, he was the first U.S. President to push for an end to the federal debt.  His reluctance to tax made that pursuit one of his few great failures, but it was the start of a tradition that has produced balanced budgets as recently as the Clinton administration.

Keenly aware of the importance of land, it was Thomas Jefferson who made the Louisiana Purchase, nearly doubling the size of the United States and paving the way for the modern scope of our nation.  He also dispatched Lewis & Clark to explore the lands west of the Mississippi.  Were it not for his vision, the U.S.A. might still find France in control of the entire western bank of that river and lands beyond.  West Point and the Army Corps of Engineers were also achievements of his Presidency.  Though he did not favor costly standing armed forces, he understood the value of professional officers and other military specialists constantly prepared in ways only possible through a career of service.  His lofty ideals did not blind him to the need for actions of practical advantage to our young nation.

Such were the dividends of rational and brilliant leadership.  Like all nations, America never thrives and grows quite so well as when it embraces thoughtful guidance and elevates those persons most intent on advancing the general welfare.  This makes it all the more unfortunate that we have lost our taste for pursuit of the public good in modern times.  In military matters, the euphemisms of “defense” and “security” disguise belligerent posturing that builds at least once per generation into a misadventure of epic proportions (and epic losses.)  At the same time, “liberalism” and “socialism” have become epithets that malign one of the central purposes of all governments.

The Constitution expressly limits acts of war to those authorized by Congress. It also repeatedly articulates a national duty to provide for the general welfare of the citizenry.  Alas, legislative reflection is long lost as a prerequisite to war, and even the most reasonable efforts to improve the American way of life are attacked as a betrayal of the very traditions and documents that dictate such efforts should be undertaken!  The perversions of this modern “ownership society” make it seem downright un-American for a corporation to balance any other concerns against stockholder gains or for an individual to forfeit a fortune in the name of making new technology available more quickly and cheaply.  In this nation conceived so that people might peacefully enjoy the fruits of worthwhile labors free from the imposition of aristocrats, we instead concentrate rewards on a new aristocracy of do-nothing heirs and downright harmful wheeler-dealer types.

Thomas Jefferson lived in bizarre times fraught with suffering and injustice.  His boldest actions served to make this land a better place for inhabitants both present and future.  The suffering and injustice we see in America today is so much less severe than the hardships faced by colonists in the 18th century.  Yet to some degree it is also more intractable.  Because we are the architects of our own misfortunes, we must look inward for remedy.  Wisely, the Founding Fathers gave us a system capable of supporting perpetual revolution.  Through voting alone, it is possible to replace leaders and even amend our Constitution.

Yet to get those votes — to make those changes and build a better tomorrow — we need great ideas and wonderful language with which to popularize those ideas.  The voices of fear and anger are upraised in ever newer and more powerful ways.  A booming choir of willful ignorance constantly threatens to dominate the process by which we practice self-government.  There is no need for this to continue.  There is no reason for this to continue.

Progress requires turning the greatest minds of our times away from the crafting of ever more arcane financial instruments or ever more trivial enhancements to common medications.  Progress requires turning that brilliance toward the invention of new systems of economic organization and new technologies of real benefit to humanity.  This would improve the quality of life for rich and poor alike in ways we can scarcely begin to imagine.  Once this land was a haven for the greatest of ideas.  We can and should choose to make it so again.

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What You Should Think About Energy Independence

August 18, 2008

“If money is your hope for independence you will never have it.  The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability.”

–Henry Ford

Ten years ago, the few Americans readily able to associate a concept with the phrase “energy independence” tended toward a consensus that its pursuit was a bad idea.  Energy imports were a path of least resistance sure to make the economy more efficient in the short term, and other considerations were quickly discarded.  Today many Americans contemplate issues that were once the province of academic specialists.  Today many Americans are willing to judge choices by an outlook that goes beyond the short term.

This is excellent.  In my opinion, only a great party or a terminal illness justifies failure to incorporate some sort of long term perspective into one’s thinking.  It is never responsible to look at the national economy as a great party, and it is absurdly melodramatic to look at climate change as a terminal illness.  This leaves us with a real need to look at both . . . look at them long and hard.

All the economic trends favor sweeping and swift change.  Oil prices have sustained a multiple of their peak from the 20th century.  Political responses to atmospheric carbon emissions remain undefined and shamefully belated, but they now seem inevitable.  As if those indicators were not clear enough, the American car buyer is increasingly inclined to favor smaller more efficient vehicles over uselessly large SUVs and their accompanying fuel demands.  In a sense, petrochemicals are simply going out of style.

Yet beneath the trends remain many complex problems.  Most obvious is the delay between a national committment to a new energy policy and the saturation of new technologies in the real economy.  More subtle is the role oil plays outside of combustion reactions.  Byproducts of fuel production are a primary source of raw materials for the plastics industry.  A staggering array of household chemicals also have their roots in the fractional distillation processes taking place at oil refineries.  Even if we could do without gasoline, could we also do without sandwich baggies, paint thinner, and dozens of other ubiquitous items?

I believe both major party Presidential candidates have observed aloud that the oil trade causes our nation to send large sums of money to parts of the world where “people don’t like us very much.”  To me, this says that we ought to work on our image.  To many, it seems to say that we ought to stop buying oil outright.  I suspect those views would change as the matter is examined in more detail.  Given a choice between spending $700 billion on fuel imports or spending $750 billion on domestic energy development to get the same result, and I suspect most Americans would endorse energy independence.  Put forth a choice between spending $700 billion on fuel imports or spending $2 trillion on domestic energy development to get the same result, and suddenly the price tag becomes much harder to justify.

The sticky bit here is that no honest individual can claim a high degree of confidence in pinning down the real numbers.  The science is in on climate change as an ongoing and economically devastating phenomenon.  However, the precise nature and extent of that devastation cannot even be confined to a particular order of magnitude.  Perhaps longer growing seasons will soften the impact of regional famines and expanding deserts, while transpolar shipping partially offsets losses in coastal real estate.  Then again, perhaps the Pentagon was right and global warming will be the driving force behind a new age of savagery and desperation in modern warfare.

Even if some omniscient entity were to spell out the real annual costs of climate change if status quo policies continue indefinitely, humanity would remain in the dark about the extent to which change could mitigate these harms.  Some of the damage has already been done.  Some will result from processes too far along to be stopped.  Much could be minimized or averted, but just how much?  Even for the most informed experts, ultimately it is a matter of opinion just how much economic value ought be placed on various levels of industrial emission restraint.

Also, the monetary cost of petrochemical dependence today is clearly an aberration.  Fundamental forces, like the growth of the Chinese economy, create an upward pressure on oil prices.  From a vantage point in the United States, the plunge of the dollar exaggerates import inflation.  Yet the behavior of those prices does not reflect the realities of those forces.  The real rise in the cost of this particular commodity is clearly a function of market manipulation rather than a reflection of an entirely real, but much more gradual, trend upward.  Alternative energy ventures risk having the economic rug yanked out from under them if business models marginally sustainable under present price levels must contend with much cheaper oil in the near future.

“Energy independence” has a nice sound to it.  As a principle, there is no good reason to oppose it.  Elements of any sound energy independence plan are good in practice.  Take conservation — whenever you can consume less to get the same result, scarcity is alleviated and economic conditions improve.  Research is another good example.  Our society could reach a fairly high multiple of present levels of investment in fields like theoretical physics, miniaturization, solar energy, etc. before diminishing returns would make further spending unrewarding over the long term.  Bold actions that effectively promote efficiency or discovery are entirely appropriate responses to present conditions.

On the other hand, a rush to abandon old ways could prove as costly as the inept dithering we have experienced under the sitting President’s guidance.  Imagine a huge national investment in traditional nuclear power plants is only just completed when the latest and greatest supercollider reveals a much safer and less costly method of generating nuclear power.  The United States would be hamstrung by this committment to old technology while other societies remain poised to fully capitalize on scientific achievement.  That scenario is speculative, but it is far from a worst case scenario.

President Jimmy Carter once helped guide this nation onto a course toward efficient renewable energy technology and national energy independence.  His successor promptly undid much of that work.  Many noble projects, including numerous growing businesses, were wrecked by the double whammy of falling energy prices and rescinded federal subsidies.  A long term outlook must not only consider the challenges of unresolved technology gaps, but also the pitfalls of failure to provide any new paradigm with long term support.

In the abstract, I believe trade is a good thing.  Imports and exports brings distant peoples closer together.  When conducted fairly, trade makes life better for everyone involved.  For all its rhetorical appeal, “energy independence” is nothing more than a state of doing without imports in the energy sector.  In some contexts, it offers a way to rally support for genuinely useful initiatives like raising fuel efficiency standards or funding alternative energy research.  Yet it may also distract from important priorities like addressing climate change or optimizing economic efficiency.

Energy independence itself is no big deal.  However, it intersects with several issues that are each very big deals in their own right.  To the degree that a proposed plan or policy may make our nation more economically productive, less ecologically destructive, more technologically advanced, and/or less heavily involved in resource depletion, it is likely to be a good thing.  If actual energy independence is a side effect of those gains, so be it.  The danger lies in the prospect that none of those gains will be realized even as energy independence is pursued with tremendous national zeal.


What You Should Think About Space Elevators

November 23, 2007

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

–Arthur C. Clarke

In the novel Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C. Clarke creates a vivid tapestry of one plausible future. At one point in this work, penned in 1979, the leader of a major project does research online in preparation for a media appearance alongside a pundit skeptical of his work. While Google, Wikipedia, et al. provide a reality strikingly similar to Clarke’s vision of the future, another of his predictions has not yet come to pass. Yet there are encouraging signs of a sort.

The focus of the novel is a creation comparable to a vertical railroad for purposes of hauling mass into space. With thriving colonies on the Moon and Mars, rocket propulsion was becoming prohibitively expensive and taking a heavy toll on the upper atmosphere. Everything changes when an engineer finds out about a special sort of filament that is virtually indestructible. The incredible strength of this technology makes it possible to string wires from the a hub in geosynchronous orbit to a fixed point on the surface of the Earth. Building out a rail line from that radically changed the economics of human activity in space.

In reality there are no breakthroughs in the field of indestructible filaments. Yet work in carbon nanotube synthesis offers another striking parallel to Clarke’s foresight. Experts in the field today suggest the not-so-distant future may be home to a space elevator consisting primarily of a newspaper-sized ribbon of material synthesized to possess downright astounding tensile strength. Promising leads in the field of nanotechnology could make it possible to synthesize a ribbon that would remain unbroken while stretching the full distance from a ground station to an orbital anchor/spaceport.

In the halls of power, this remains an idea far ahead of the times. Though it may be less bold than America’s push to put men on the Moon, at present federal involvement seems limited to the occasional small grant along with NASA’s decision to assign one engineer to monitor and support ongoing research. Already this ongoing research offers much promise. In particular, carbon nanotube synthesis is subject to aggressive exploration by a mix of private and public institutions. Fantastically strong materials would have obvious commercial applications.

In that area I favor more publicly funded research. It seems that having such a fundamental technology in the public domain would produce more and better economic activity than allowing it to be controlled by a single vendor. Products produced by many corporate R&D departments working with the material offer much more promise than work with the fundamentals of making long carbon nanotube lattices shrouded in trade secrecy. Yet even if that winds up being a proprietary innovation, a space elevator project could provide the kind of enormous bulk order needed to get mass production underway promptly.

Assuming there is no crippling corruption in procurement, credible estimates suggest as little as $8 billion could finance implementation of this idea. That is no small price tag, but it does come in under the cost of two months additional funding for the occupation of Iraq or less than 1/10th the resources consumed by the missile defense budget. In fact, a consortium of private investors could pull together a project like this if the technology becomes available and this application is not pursued by any major government.

Be it private or public, the end result would be an ability to lift people and freight into space and return them safely to Earth at a small fraction of the cost involved in operating a rocket-propelled launch vehicle. Vast amounts of energy required to produce vast amounts of rocket fuel could give way to a solar farm in space and a single power plant on the ground to energize carriages traversing the elevator. The journey might be slower, but it would combine much reduced cost with much reduced physiological stress — opening up space travel to a much broader range of human beings.

Already teams of academics and engineers engage in competitions to produce the most effective or efficient vehicles for climbing or descending a prospective space elevator. Since the actual material has yet to be produced, variety in the format of these competitions builds up a flexible knowledge base. When the time comes that there is an actual need for space elevator carriages, many engineers will be capable of bringing years of experience to the project.

Using existing methods, it costs thousands of dollars to rocket a kilogram of cargo into space. The most wildly optimistic estimates about the future efficiency of ordinary spacecraft are in line with the most extreme pessimistic estimates about the cost-to-weight ratios made possible by a working space elevator. If we go beyond pessimism, the possibility exists of producing multiple Earth-based space elevators, not to mention lines for lunar and Martian shipping without the use of rocket fuel. Getting ample supplies to permanent settlements on those celestial bodies, and facilitating economically significant exports back to Earth, would be a huge advance on the journey to venture beyond humanity’s cosmic cradle.

In fact, a lack of interest among Earth’s rocket science establishment leads the protagonist in Clarke’s novel to look to Mars first. Lighter Martian gravity means that a much shorter tether is required to reach from the surface to a facility in stable synchronous orbit. As in reality, the book depicts the challenges posed by one of Mars’s small moons with a transequatorial orbit. The story resolves this problem by deliberately maneuvering the span to avoid the swift little moon as it races past.

Without significant economic activity on Mars, it is a poor place to look for space elevator funding. Yet were these feats of engineering to be accomplished on both worlds, substantial settlements and real interplanetary trade could be sustained with a much smaller energy budget than any rocket-based approach would require.

For now, the space elevator remains an intriguing idea more than it is a concrete proposal. Yet it is already much more than a pipe dream. No one would be enormously shocked to encounter headlines about the successful synthesis of carbon nanotubes in a format with properties suitable to the space elevator application. It is a result many scientists are already laboring to achieve as a logical extension of existing work in that field. So long as that result has not come to pass, perhaps it is wise that our government does no more than token work on space elevator planning and development.

Yet when it becomes possible to produce materials up to the task, swift and decisive action is warranted. Whichever government, intergovernmental agency, or private conglomerate manages to get an wonder like this to function will abruptly acquire a tremendous competitive advantage when it comes to launching and collecting spaceborne mass. Both the human adventures and the economic opportunities to follow from the initial achievement could make the following decades an age of marvelous progress.


What You Should Think About Population Growth

November 21, 2007

“Nobody gets there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

–Yogi Berra

Relentless defense of unsubstantiated optimism is bad behavior that rarely seems to draw the sort of criticism it deserves. On the other hand, relentless defense of unsubstantiated pessimism is also bad behavior, if amply criticized. People who are at their best crusading to raise awareness of serious problems live in times when there is no shortage of serious problems being met with inadequate public response. That makes it all the stranger that some should choose instead to disengage from reality and spread doom and gloom for its own sake.

Fear of global overpopulation may be as old as the first suspicions that the world is round. Yet as a widespread preoccupation it seems to have emerged from the role bad math and worse pontification played in adding “Malthusian” to the vocabularies of educated people. The old argument was simple enough — population was expanding geometrically while food supply was not. Therefore, “humanity is doomed!!!!!”

The math was lousy because it presumed neither increased demand for food nor increased capacity for human intellect could bring about changes in the nature of agricultural growth. Yet that shoddy thinking amounts of a relatively minor blunder compared to the alarmist conclusions Thomas Malthus et al. reached. Even the best apologists for this sort of work still seem to begin with the assumption that a human being is some sort of despicable entity inclined far more toward destructive acts than creative acts.

Presumably these general misanthropes are not bereft of affection for friends and family. Yet somehow those good feelings fail to translate into a broader goodwill. Even if any other signs of affection should be lacking, clearly their own ideas generate great amounts of it. Somehow this fondness for the mental processes of one human fails to extend into a fondness for an entire species populated by people inclined to think as freely as social context will permit. This combination of intellectual vanity and contempt for “the masses” is evident even today.

Rather than the racism and classism of Victorian England, it seems to be fueled by a political divide. I have no objection to characterizing ignorant people as ignorant. To do so is more correct than to do otherwise. I even have little objection to characterizing ignorant people as stupid. Though crude and pejorative, that approach is not necessarily misleading. However, to suggest that people lacking a certain degree of ecological or political savvy are not fit to live is profoundly unethical as well as profoundly misleading.

Before elaborating on factual problems caused by this sort of discourse, it is only fair to dismantle the underlying fiction. Many different factors drive population growth. At this point in history, the data is fairly solid holding that birth rates actually tend to be low in societies where effective educational policy marginalizes religious interference in family planning while effective retirement security policy eliminates the perceived economic need to raise many children.

Insofar as it is a reality at all, it makes no sense to take a long view of overpopulation. In a span of one or two generations, political and economic reforms that have already occurred in many nations can create conditions where internal population growth is minimal or even negative. This would involve facilitating strong economic growth in presently underdeveloped regions of the world, but it is downright myopic to argue that such development must entail making ecological mistakes of the same type or magnitude other societies made in less-informed times.

Too often, discussion of our planet’s capacity to support human life rests on the assumption that the negative environmental impact of that life is a fixed value. Clearly this is not the case. Yet establishing this involves establishing to what extent environmental impact is acceptable. Clearly there is no reason to anticipate that the activities of a modern civilization could become ecologically neutral without substantial change. If we possess enough sanity to stand against voluntary human extinction, then by extension we ought also possess the means to support some sensible compromises.

Building an unbroken fence along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border would have a serious ecological impact. Animal migrations across that line would be impeded, opportunistic species (e.g. rats) could spread and displace wildlife as they benefit from the structure and support services required for its maintenance. Yet all in all, the damage would probably not exceed that caused by the construction and upkeep of the Interstate Highway System. For a tremendous amount of economic support, cultural exchange, security enhancement etc. it seems like the level of damage is acceptable. On the other hand. increasing profits for human traffickers and self-satisfaction among xenophobes hardly seems like justification to do so much damage.

To persuade others against supporting a border fence, the ecological argument is almost certain to be ineffective. People who might be concerned about wildlife destruction are less likely to act on that concern when they are still afflicted with false concerns about immigration (or false beliefs about the effectiveness of walls as international problem-solving tools.) By the same token, an apocalyptic approach to environmental advocacy will tend to fall on deaf ears. Rather than stirring up emotions with exaggerated tales of doom and gloom, much better compromises can be forged through focus on relevant realities.

I compare highways and border fences because ultimately leaving a better world to future generations requires a keen sense of selectivity in tolerance for environmental distress. Humanity without industry is simply not a reasonable option. “Zero footprint” industry, while an admirable ideal, remains an impractical pursuit. Yet having no regard for resource depletion, declining biodiversity, industrial emissions, et al. also manages to be unreasonable and impractical.

Those enamored with modern day Malthusian thinking would do well to recognize that the “soft approach” of moderating population through political and economic reforms is proven viable. Hardships such as plague or warfare historically do not so much resolve Malthusian “problems” as they turn back the clock briefly. In the absence of stable secure prosperity, fear of the future conspires with lack of education to make large families commonplace. In many nations where the social order reflects modern values, large families occur as the result of a rare personal choice. Reproductive restraint and the will to exercise it are not at all incompatible with widespread human happiness.

By engaging with that reality it then becomes easier to avoid a “ships passing in the night” phenomenon when dealing with resistance raised against sound environmental policies. Industrialists and their passionate cheerleaders cannot be expected to make compromises based on the kind of warped thinking that leads to a “humanity is doomed!!!!!” conclusion. While the worst of dollar-worshipers are themselves so far detached from reality that no compromises could be expected, most proponents of robust economic growth are not misguided in any absolute way. Avoiding hyperbole about what is at stake may inspire some to recognize real risks and show support for really sensible initiatives.

Promoting a particular sort of development in underdeveloped regions of the world is part of a sensible response, but so to is drawing lines between economic activity that is genuinely useful and economic activity that is useless or even counterproductive. Developing a polio vaccine put a serious dent in the sales of iron lungs, but is any society better off for greater levels of paralysis simply to support the iron lung industry? So many human needs could be fulfilled at present or even superior levels with alternate methods that consume fewer resources or generate less work. In the end we must ask ourselves, should we define our economy by what improves the quality of our lives, or should we define the quality of our lives by what improves our economy?

Resolving the tension between environmentalists and economic conservatives is not about building consensus for a better tomorrow — that consensus already exists. Building consensus about the definition of a better tomorrow is the real challenge here. A national effort to update metrics and modernize industrial practices could simultaneously serve the agenda of those consumed by desire for greater prosperity and accommodate the concerns of those fearful of ecological crises. Yet the first step in reaching this middle ground involves embracing reality. Those who dwell on neo-Malthusian scenarios retard themselves from the beginning just as surely as their counterparts locked into false narratives of ecological optimism.


What You Should Think About Cetacean Intelligence

November 4, 2007

“. . . man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much — the wheel, New York, wars and so on — while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man — for precisely the same reason.”

–Douglas Adams

As self-aware beings, “are we alone in the universe?” is a question rich with intrigue. Though it is only one small part of that mystery, “are we alone on Earth?” merits more than the casual glance of traditional assumptions. For ages, our kind has assumed that the march of technology and the proliferation of our numbers were proof our intelligence is unrivaled on this world. Only in recent generations have people come to question if all our cultural and economic activity substantiates such a claim.

The creative and adaptive ways humanity explores, invents, and builds demonstrate great gifts resident in the human mind. No doubt these activities are proof of mental abilities clearly lacking in almost all other known species. Yet it is fair to question if agriculture, urbanization, etc. are inevitable consequences of intelligence. Might non-human thinkers, developing intelligence while pursuing much different survival strategies, manifest brilliance in ways not at all parallel to the rise of human civilization?

If we do not rely on the assumption that all roads of intelligence lead down the technological path we have followed, then we must look elsewhere to identify and quantify the phenomenon. There is no shortage of animal behavior that displays problem-solving ability. On the other hand, measuring this ability can be problematic. Creatures that almost certainly lack self-awareness may nonetheless be extremely sensitive to cues, even involuntary cues, provided by familiar handlers hoping for dramatic results. At least when it comes to gauging intelligence, a rapport between trainer and subject can masquerade as actual problem solving ability.

Still there are other avenues to consider. As much philosophy as psychology, one sensible theory of self-awareness holds that there is a “mirror stage” in which developing intelligence manifests as the ability to identify a reflection as the sight of oneself. This distinction is crucial in so many ways. Though many animals seem to exhibit emotional states, it is typically a projection of human self-awareness that causes us to feel empathy with these animals. Organisms incapable of, or not yet having reached, this mirror stage of development do not understand themselves to be distinct from nature. Primal imperatives and emotions, as complex as they may appear, are ultimately driven by pure stimulus-response mechanisms that do not involve a sense of self as a discrete being.

The best available understanding of all this means that even human infants do not initially understand themselves to exist as distinct entities. A wide range of supporting observations seem to reveal that newborns behave as if they thought of themselves as a physical extension of their mother or primary caregiver. Yet even that language is problematic, because the key distinction is that newborns simply do not think of themselves. Given normal development, human infants will acquire this fundamental component of intellect even before developing the coordination to walk upright.

Animal testing in this area is controversial for a number of reasons. Beyond the role of handlers intentionally or inadvertently encouraging successful results, there are other complications. Primate brains dedicate considerable resources to interpreting visual data. Some have argued that dogs could do much better in such a test if only a means existed to reflect scent as a mirror reflects light. While dolphins and whales possess useful eyesight, but it is often not the dominant sense. Predatory whales along with all dolphins rely much more heavily on echolocation. Thus it may be the case that presenting these creatures with visual reflections is not a legitimate test of self-awareness.

Also, there is the matter of interpreting cetacean behavior. A human (and some other primates,) marked with ink then presented with a mirror, can display understanding of the reflection by reaching to touch that mark on their own bodies as perceived in the reflection. Dolphins tested in this manner may twist and turn as if studying the mark, but this behavior is much more ambiguous than the self-touching behavior creatures with arms and fingers may exhibit. Thus one of the primary explanations behind the lack of evident dolphin technology also limits the extent to which dolphin self-awareness can be confirmed.

Then there is the matter of looking for specific variations within the cetacean community. After all, an extraterrestrial studying biological specimens recovered from Earth without any accompanying technology might require some effort to determine that we naked apes have minds so much more advanced than our furry evolutionary kin. It stands to reason that levels of intelligence may also vary from species to species within the cetacean branch of mammalkind.

Among whales, the largest varieties tend to have brains that dwarf those of other living beings. Yet much of that brainpower is required to provide fine muscle control and regulate complex biological processes in the bodies of whales. Comparatively speaking, bottlenose dolphins stand out as the brainiest of cetaceans.

Though the ratio of brain to body mass in bottlenose dolphins still compares unfavorably with humans, the margin of difference is not so vast as to rule out the prospect of dolphin intelligence. Alas, the evolutionary paths that lead to the present are so different that it is difficult to assess the role of dolphins’ prominent cerebral cortex. It is clear that feature’s growth played a vital role in the rise of hominid intelligence. It is also clear that bottlenose dolphins, pound for pound, actually have larger cerebral cortices than humans. It is not at all clear just what ramifications this has on dolphin cognitive ability.

Some analysts would resolve all this mystery by returning to the question, “if dolphins are so smart, why haven’t they developed writing or built cities or taken Jesus as their personal savior?” Focusing on what we know dolphins have not done draws the mind away from what dolphins may have done. Deciphering their complex social structures and intricate methods of communication is an ongoing process. New answers there tend to reveal deeper mysteries.

Various intriguing and provocative works of fiction have presented cetaceans as fantastic poets or well-meaning hedonists or even ancient allies of powerful extraterrestrial beings. Though so much uncertainty remains about the realities of cetacean intelligence, perhaps there is no finer way to close than with one of Carl Sagan’s observations about the subject, “it is of interest to note that while some dolphins have learned English — up to fifty words used in correct context — no human being has been reported to have learned dolphinese.”


What You Should Think About Medical News

October 25, 2007

“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”

–Mark Twain

Rarely a day passes without some new proclamation about the nature of a healthy diet. In some households this can produce grumbling about the overconfidence of doctors. Usually medical researchers are not at fault. It just happens that as the story passes through layers of intermediaries, it becomes distorted. Researchers publish with an eye toward being critiqued by peers. Popular medical journals borrow from this and publish with an eye toward keeping professionals up to speed. By the time someone involved with a general media organization decides to do a story about new findings, the emphasis is much more on storytelling than relating the actual findings.

In fairness, this is not just because original medical papers would be unpopular items in daily papers and television newscasts. Most readers would also find raw research uninformative. Competent dutiful science journalists build a bridge between general audiences and the original research. They assess it with expert eyes, then parse it in such a way that their own work is the most accurate and informative retelling their abilities permit. Generating interest with this model involves having some passion for the subject and being exposed to enough research as to have no shortage of genuinely fascinating topics.

I believe the emphasis on cutting corners does even more damage here than crass commercialism. Like a children’s soccer team, reporters in any given niche seem to act as a mob in pursuit of a single thing. After all, why stick your head in academic papers day after day when it is possible to skim somebody else’s report, perhaps glance at another document or two, put it in your own words, and still look like you’ve done the job of a diligent professional? When someone completely fabricates a report (or in Dan Rather’s case, when someone lets one fabrication slip into a report,) the result is scandal. Yet the “do just enough not to get fired” paradigm generates plenty of work that borders on scandalously poor quality.

On the other hand, commercialization is not blameless in all this either. It probably has much to do with a tendency to decontextualize statistics. For many conditions, risk of mortality is less than 1%. If eating a particular food causes a 0.08% chance of mortality to become a 0.17% chance of dying from that same condition, that food is far from toxic. Yet many editors would be much happier to oversee a report claiming “problem food doubles your chance of dying from <insert cause here>” than something like “this food may increase your risk of <insert condition here>.”

A difference like that may seem subtle. Yet a subtle difference in language combined with a dramatic difference in tone can turn a humdrum observation into an alarming report. I dispute the idea that alarming reports make for more popular news than fascinating observations (especially when the alarm is rooted in trivia.) However, I do understand production of fascinating science journalism is hard work, while making people scared of everything but their own shadows can be an easy day at the office.

Medical journalism in mainstream venues is especially problematic because it easily plays into a common misconception — immortality. Sure, everyone on the tall side of puberty should be well aware that death is a human inevitability. Yet how many people really think about it? How many people have come to accept the weight of such a thing? For many young adults, death is something that happens to other people. Even as the years take loved ones from most and provide personal close calls for some, this profound matter is still often left on the fringes of awareness. No doubt this is sensible and healthy — a constant preoccupation with death is generally regarded as one sign of a troubled mind.

Thus, in between the bombastic music and dramatic graphics, an ominous report about how this habit or that diet might have a 2% chance of causing your death is not typically met with the thought, “well, something’s got to do it.” The lack of context transforms new findings that only deserve a little consideration among those intent on a healthy lifestyle into some sort of dramatic threat to which all decent self-loving Americans must be strongly averse.

Of course, basic common sense has some say in the matter too. As legitimate information is transformed into unnecessarily dire warnings, the general public only develops a thicker skin as applied to medical risks. “So what if oil-based paint causes cancer when it seeps into groundwater? Last month ‘they’ said fried chicken could kill you!” goes the final interpretation of a story. The abstract “They” responsible for all expert opinions increasingly fades into background noise.

Commercial media then must strive harder to succeed in efforts to attract audiences through hyperbolic alarmism. The mechanism reinforces itself. This not only wastes people’s time by failing to provide more informative content; it also minimizes the impact of medical expertise when something that truly deserves alarm comes to light. Be it an obesity epidemic, overmedicated children, undermedicated hospice patients, etc. the medical issues of the day that should be a big deal sometimes get lumped in with the noise made about fresh research of trivial consequence.

One way to address this is simply to lose interest in those types of stories. If you go to the media to have an emotional reaction, both broadcasters and publishers offer up no shortage of excellent drama (or reality shows, for the shallow folks.) If you go to the media to become more informed, consider filtering out alarmism even if that means ignoring the majority of “health news” items. Of course, that approach is not for everyone.

In the alternative, get in the habit of digging the facts out of whatever journalistic coverage happens to encase them. Distinguish between research that quantitatively assesses risk and research that manages to establish a mechanism of causation. When practical, try to find out whether reports related to risk factors were normalized or based on raw data.

I would never deny that smoking is an unhealthy habit, but in a broad sample the higher mortality rate of smokers would be significantly attributable to a range of other factors from childhood nutrition history to occupational hazards. Without knowing what efforts have been made to factor out other influences, it is difficult to formulate any context for health risks ranging from the pesticides on apples to the tannins in Zinfandel. If you can get down to the facts without being moved by an emotionally charged presentation, then there is still much that can be learned from medical research . . . even after it percolates through the filters of commercial media.


What You Should Think About Mental Health Welfare

October 24, 2007

“The insane, on occasion, are not without their charms.”

–Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

There was a time when Western Civilization’s answer to obvious mental illness was to cram deranged individuals onto barges. In some ways this mode of thinking continued into the 20th century. One hundred years ago, it was thought that the most sensible thing to do with insane people was to lock them in asylums. Imprisonment without guilt is never a popular idea, but letting lunatics run wild is even less so.

Perhaps I should say, “was even less so.” As the politics of rugged individualism hijack so many debates about public policy, this one has also been turned upside down. All of the broad, and very real, consequences of depriving diagnosed psychotics of institutional support are waved away in order to focus on an absurd and bogus dichotomy between lower taxes on hardworking citizens or free benefits for do-nothing nut jobs.

Perhaps the public dialog has never been phrased in such stark terms. Yet public policy is clearly framed by such harsh thinking. Working hand in hand with majorities in Congress, President Bush was happy to make some progress in cutting spending not long after his inauguration. From coast to coast, residential mental health facilities were closed. Reduced funding also meant the most troubled patients would have less access to the most aggressive therapies. The warehousing approach to dealing with American mental illness had returned.

What makes this so objectionable is that the means exists today to achieve much better results. It is a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach that offers minimal institutional support in the most severe cases and none at all to garden variety schizophrenics. In the best cases, state and municipal governments act with foresight pick up the slack and maintain adequate services to meet the needs of, and minimized the harm caused by, mentally ill residents. In the worst cases, they pay a greater price dealing with these same individuals only after they have raised issues for emergency services and/or the criminal justice system.

Even as scholars, physicians, and chemical engineers continue to advance the human ability to treat psychological disorders; the role for America’s federal government in this process has been contracted. Humanitarian appeals often focus on the widespread use of prisons and criminal penalties as a means to deal with the problem of severe insanity. To be sure, there are few categories of tales more tragic than those of extremely troubled men and women, surrounded by brutality, denied any meaningful psychological support, essentially abandoned to the daily torments of their own madness.

Yet this is not merely a humanitarian issue. Many of these individuals could tend to some of their own needs in a different sort of institutional environment. Others could even lead healthy productive lives at liberty, requiring only the right sort of medication along with periodic oversight. A non-trivial amount of national productivity is frittered away in service to corrupt ideological nonsense taken from the “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” chestnut. Shortsighted public policy transforms a potential resource into an significant burden. Then there is the actual pain and suffering associated with the various crimes that abandoned psych patients commit as they transition from merely homeless to criminal convicts.

Of particular cause for concern at this point in history is the incredibly low amount of funding going into mental health care for returning veterans. Public figures and news reports have been going on for years now about the importance of readiness to deal with the psychological problems faced by soldiers returning to civilian life. Yet all this talk has been backed up by very little funding. In a good year these resources are still well less than 1% of spending on the war effort. Even worse, The Department of Veterans’ Affairs is apparently just plain incompetent when it comes to using what funds they do receive to upgrade mental health treatment capabilities.

The archetype of the homeless antisocial Viet Nam veteran, an angry beggar with visible injuries less shocking than the unmistakable damage to his pride, has strong resonance in our culture. This is not because of some sinister Hollywood plot to manipulate the American mindset. It is because Viet Nam was a particularly chaotic and pointless war, founded on lies, waged against savagely cunning enemies, and ultimately unsuccessful in the achieving the implausible objectives established by White House policies. In several crucial ways, it was more disturbing to its participants than typical wartime deployments.

Afghanistan presents a tricky case in that the war was launched with a clear purpose, some aspects of its management have been sensible, and the overall effort might yet be salvaged by more coherent policies of a future U.S. administration along with successes achieved by international partners in that effort. Yet it is still an occupation in which attacks could occur at any time from virtually anywhere. Suicide bombers, opportunistic snipers, convoy ambushes — combatants involved in action over there have more than a soldier’s usual reasons for coming back with nightmares.

Iraq creates a worst of both worlds situation. Insurgency tactics continue to involve surprise attacks, often with heavy civilian casualties. Participants in the original invasion force also must cope with the many civilian casualties inevitably resultant from Rumsfeld’s hasty plan of attack and barbaric rules of engagement. The Coalition Provisional Authority was more interested in placing control of Iraq’s oil fields in the hands of corporate profiteers than in restoring the basic institutions of civilized governance in that war-torn land. Regardless of however much soldiers in the field followed the politics of it all, they have been exposed to its consequences. It is impressive to see such dutifulness in the face the terrors they all must confront. Yet the unredeeming nature of the overall policy leaves them with no solace beyond that sense of duty in coping with the aftermath.

It would be excessively cynical to argue that the administration’s policy is, “let’s keep them in the fight over there so we don’t have to give them care over here.” Yet the interest in maintaining that fight is paired with a distinct lack of interest in providing that care. When it comes to the treatment of shellshocked warriors, minds and bodies forever scarred by acts of service to our nation, there is a convergence of moral imperatives.

Be it out of economic pragmatism, basic human decency, or a sense of obligation to those loyal in national service; there is no reason not to add much more funding and much more oversight to measures that will provide counseling and treatment to veterans deeply troubled by their experiences with asymmetrical warfare. Yet, setting aside the national service issue, the same arguments apply to all Americans with seeking treatment for some sort of mental disability. As a society we have the means to do much better than shove the lot onto itinerant barges. Why then would any national leader promote policies that regress the state of national mental health in such a downright medieval direction?