Friday, November 14, 2014

"Why Hell?": The Collected Wisdom of Jean-Luc Picard

I'm back in the US, trying to adjust again to a fourteen-hour time difference.  Which may be why memes like the above, posted on Facebook the other day, leave me feeling punch-drunk and combative.

My first reaction, predictably enough, was "What do you mean 'we', bald man?"  I didn't land on a goddamn comet, though I do find the achievement interesting and worthwhile.  Nor have I clicked through the many links to Kim Kardashian's nekkid picture that have been thrown my way, nor until the Picard meme erupted into my feed like an infected zit have I talked or written about it.  I could add that talking about one doesn't necessarily preclude talking about the other, which a lot of elitist-wannabes tend to forget.

I commented to that effect, and my Liberal Artist Friend replied:
Duncan, it has to do with the natural human tendency to identify with the group(s) one is part of (e.g., humans, Americans, educated people, Internet users). Or even a group one feels some connection to (e.g., scientists) – as with sports fans who refer to a team with the word "we," even though they aren't on the team.
To which I replied:
Yes, LAF, that is known as "tribalism." (All kinds of problems with that word, of course.)
Because I'm still getting my jet-lagged brain in gear, it didn't occur to me right away that LAF's comment had also, inadvertently, answered the Picard meme.  Talking about Kardashian's power glutes has to do with the natural human tendency to cluster together and gawk, especially when (supposedly) erotic stimuli are put on display. More people, evidently, are interested in a nekkid picture of Kim Kardashian than with some quite unsexy pictures of a piece of dirty rocky ice in space.  Like it or not, that's a normal human tendency. (The stereotypical male fascination with machinery, which leads little boys to gawk at construction sites and sometimes at pictures of a machine landing on a piece of dirty rocky ice in space, is also a normal human tendency, but not a sign of greater rationality than the mindless herd; it's just a compulsion found in a smaller mindless herd.)  It also explains why people vote Republican or Democratic despite the failure of either party to give them what they want or need: the natural human tendency to identify with the group(s) one is part of, or even feels some connection with. Hence the tendency of devotees to identify with Barack Obama (for example), when he definitely does not identify with them. Just about everything LAF (or I, to be fair) dislikes in humanity has to do with natural human tendencies.  Natural human tendencies are not necessarily benign.

It happened that the Onion A.V. Club posted a negative review of the latest Dumb and Dumber movie yesterday, and the comments there contained some interesting digressions.  Someone remarked that Jim Carrey had apparently recanted his earlier anti-vaccination views, which led to a thread on that subject.  One person wrote:
Insisting that you know better than doctors, when you have no medical training whatsoever - even though it's clear children are dying because of your advice - cannot be written off as her being tragically misinformed and uneducated.
Here we have an example of what might be called science tribalism.  I haven't looked into the anti-vaxxer controversies and don't much care about them.  What I want to address is the weird notion that doctors know best, especially when they are united in their stance.  It was doctors and biologists -- and politically Progressive doctors and biologists at that -- who pushed through the American eugenic laws that imposed involuntary sterilization on thousands of "defectives", laws which provided a starting point for Nazi Germany's eugenic laws.  These laws were upheld by an 8-1 majority of the US Supreme Court in 1927.  Although a few scientists criticized these laws on scientific grounds, they were outliers.  Most opposition came from churches and from social scientists, who were derided for their superstition and hostility to science and reason, and their disregard of the human suffering that results from unregulated human breeding.

I have my disagreements with Michael Berube, but his book Life As We Know It (Pantheon, 1996), about being the parent of a son with Down Syndrome, contains some useful information about what doctors know and what they don't.
Right through the 1970s, "mongoloid idiot" wasn't an epithet, it was a diagnosis.  It wasn't uttered by callow, ignorant persons fearful of "difference" and Central Asian eyes; it was pronounced by the best-trained medical practitioners in the world, who told families of kids with Down's that their children would never be able to walk, talk, dress themselves, or recognize their parents.  Best to have the child institutionalized and tell one's friends that the baby died at birth.  Only the most stubborn, intransigent, or inspired parents resisted such advice from their trusted experts.  Who could reasonably expect otherwise?  [27]
The Berubes were given a lot of bad medical advice when their son Jamie was born in 1991, but it helped that Janet Berube was a nurse.  "Most doctors are relieved that they can talk details with Janet, but a few can get weird" (36f).  Still,
At one point a staff nurse was sent in to check on our mental health, and she found us babbling about meiosis and monoploids, wondering anew that Jamie had "gotten" Down syndrome the second he became a zygote.  When the nurse inadvertently left behind her notes, Janet sneaked a peek:  "Parents seem to be intellectualizing."  "Well," Janet shrugged, "that seems accurate enough" (14).
Berube notes that
Sometimes these parents [who rejected the 'best' medical advice and refused to institutionalize their children] acted out of religious conviction, believing they should play the hand God dealt them, whatever His plan might be.  Sometimes they acted pragmatically: one family decided not to institutionalize their baby when one doctor informed them that, at a state hospital, "perhaps the care would be so minimal that he would not survive past the first year of life." That one piece of advice wound up offsetting the counsel of every other physician they heard from.  Another family drove across two Midwestern states, on the advice of doctors, to speak to the headmaster of the nearest institution.  The father told me the story some thirty years after it happened.  After hours on the road, they met the headmaster, who appeared to have stepped out of a famous Grant Wood painting.  But despite his dour appearance, he wound up being the first person who'd given them any hope for their child, advising them to keep the baby home at first and see whether they'd be interested in bringing him in anytime in the first year -- but there was no rush.  The parents thanked the headmaster, left the institution, and never made the return trip.  As the father put it, they had finally been given permission to try to love and care for their child themselves, and that turned out to be all they needed [27-8].
Parents aren't always right either, and I think it's fair to be skeptical about the motives of parents who supposedly decided not to warehouse their children because of religion.  I think they rationalized their decision by selecting a dogma that supported it.  But these stories -- and more; I recommend Life As We Know It to anyone who might be interested -- are a reminder that neither religion nor science can be a substitute for judgment.  Obedience to the best medical or scientific knowledge will produce bad, inhumane decisions as reliably as obedience to religious teaching.  And these parents' refusal to accept the best medical advice wasn't based on medical or scientific knowledge, though medicine eventually caught up with them; they refused on purely emotional grounds.  But then that medical advice wasn't rational either.