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Thursday, October 12, 2006 -- 11:03 pm

One topic that I find simultaneously fascinating and exasperating is the deliberate renunciation of knowledge, which often seems to be motivated by morality, religion, or politics. There are various kinds of knowledge we could be talking about here, but I imagine most sort themselves into two broad categories: technical knowledge (how to do something) and factual knowledge (knowing about things). We need not worry about whether anyone torched the Library of Alexandria; there are plenty of other examples. In the Icelandic Sagas, there are reports (if we choose to credit them) of Viking sorcerers who knew the old pagan magic -- which was supposedly effective -- but who made a deliberate decision no longer to practice or record it after Iceland's conversion to Christianity in the year 1000. Inquisitors have burned many libraries, including those of the Mayans during colonial times. I've read at least two autobiographical ethnologies in the last year in which American-born initiates shied away from learning the most powerful magic of African peoples or, again, old Mayan healers. There are contemporary debates about using the data from unethical science experiments or, for that matter, pursuing research in supposedly controversial fields such as cloning and stem cell therapy. And deliberate decisions appear to have been made over the last century to discontinue the practice of teaching children Latin and Greek in school, and teaching them how, for example, to compute square roots by hand.

What is the rationale for deciding that not only should knowledge not be used, but that it should not be preserved? And there is the related question of how we decide to renounce a field of inquiry altogether. I suppose there are various arguments that could be made, based on the type of knowledge we're talking about. One could argue (though I'd tend to disagree) that Latin and Greek are no longer considered vital components of one's education, and that other skills that are more economically useful or (idealistically) more relevant to citizenship should be fit into the finite curriculum instead. Teaching square roots in the age of the calculator? Perhaps I'm the only one who would even contemplate it. But I must add that it's virtually impossible, these days, to even find out *how* they did those obscenely difficult calculations back in the old days. Square roots, sure, a few people remember that. But I had to reinvent methods for calculating third roots, fifth roots, etc., by hand, as well as invent my own algorithm for computing base-10 logarithms. There's simply nothing available in print, anywhere. Fortunately, these were puzzles that could be solved without resorting to empirical or cultural knowledge. But I find it shocking and surprising that knowledge that we once had is slipping through our fingers, simply because no one thinks enough of it to make the effort to preserve it.

For other types of knowledge, we face a similar situation. We have both deliberately abandoned knowledge -- my only way to track down African or Mayan magic would be to revisit those rapidly vanishing societies, in part because the people who have gone there before us were offered the knowledge but refused it -- and knowledge lost through neglect. What about the unpublished field notes of anthropologists who learned the languages of obscure peoples, sitting in some dusty bin? And genetic engineering, cloning, and stem cell research are wrapped up in enough trade secrets, controversy, and esoterica that it's difficult enough to get hold of the information in the first place, let alone argue for its preservation or extension.

I suppose an argument could be made that specialized anthropological knowledge, including use of special herbs and rituals, may not be completely characterized unless the rituals are studied, practiced, and continually tested against experience, i.e., the only way to perpetuate the knowledge and keep it from disappearing is to continue to use it, and train others to use it, and in some cases that may be regarded morally unacceptable. (Ritual ingredients may include, for example, organs taken from endangered species, or result in human sickness or death.) I suppose there's also an argument to be made that the practices themselves (including stem cell research) may, on occasion, be so troubling-- atrocities, to some -- that they should not be dignified or credited by memorializing them. But these arguments are unique to specific practices; there's an entire world of ethnobotanical knowledge that disappears every day concerning the medical applications -- including taxonomy, method of preparation, and dosage -- of poorly studied plants that will soon be extinct.

But let's leave that aside for the moment. Neglect of knowledge, allowing it to disappear, is infuriating enough. But the deliberate decision to abandon knowledge is, to me, absolutely perplexing. Although unimpressed by the argument, I suppose someone could argue that the investment of time and other resources needed in order to record and pass on such specialized knowledge is not economically feasible. And that tends not to be the type of argument people make. I get the impression that the main reason why people call for the renunciation of certain kinds of technical knowledge is because if society forgets how to do something, it will become impossible to repeat it. And I find this policy unacceptable for several reasons: first, it mistakes ignorance for virtue. A truly moral person, and moral society, is one with the capacity for injustice but the moral discipline to resist it. The contrary attitude that we should limit our knowledge for our own good is simply paternalism, and is unworthy of our species. Second, history is full of examples where once-discredited branches of inquiry suddenly yielded fruitful insights, especially when cross-fertilized with our disciplines. It seems poor judgment to abandon marginal inquiries simply because they're non-conformist; the thing about knowledge is that it tends to acquire a significance and usefulness that you weren't expecting when you acquired it. Third, there appears to be a pervasive tendency, either in our culture or in human nature generally, to believe that knowledge itself is a corrupting influence. Plausible or not, this is a mistake. As everyone knows, the skills of the healer and the torturer are intertwined; it's not the knowledge that's corrupting, but our rather poor educational system that fails to give students practice in critical moral thinking, or in self-discipline. I would much prefer that people have the knowledge at our disposal, in case we needed it for whatever reason, and be confident in that it will only be put to legitimate uses, than to conclude that no one could be trusted with it. It seems to be a sad irony that the people in our society most in favor of suppressing knowledge, however, are the ones most likely to tout their moral credentials.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006 -- 10:41 pm

There's an article in today's NY Times (on the website, anyway) on the subject of Do-Not-Resuscitate Orders, in which instructions are placed in a hospital patient's medical chart indicating that if he or she goes into cardiac arrest, no effort will be made to administer CPR or other life-support treatment. Apparently it's the law in New York that a DNR can only be administered with the consent of the patient or, absent patient competence, with the consent of a family member. From the article, it appears that some doctors are not taking this responsibility seriously, and resent the intrusion of family members' wishes into the decision-making process, which the doctors regard both as imposing inappropriate suffering on the terminally ill patient, and a usurpation of their prerogative to make informed medical decisions.

I can't say I'm terribly sympathetic to that position. Yes, there are times when resuscitation efforts are not medically (or humanely) appropriate, and yes, resuscitation efforts are extremely trying experiences for the medical staff. But who are these people to decide, unilaterally, whether another person's life is worth the effort? There's nothing quite like being told that your loved one is going to die, and there's nothing that can be done about it, and any further efforts are a waste of the staff's time. Is all of that true? Possibly. Am I a medical expert? No. But I expect, at the very least, to be involved in the decision-making process. To be told that my opinion is irrelevant, and it doesn't even matter whether I understand the decision is arrogance of the highest order. Although I have enormous respect for the medical profession and for many of its individual practitioners, I believe that some practitioners, and the population at large, labor under grave misimpressions about the state of knowledge in this field. And perhaps even more grave is the tendency of a small number of practitioners to mistake technical knowledge for a moral prerogative. (More on this another time.)

And of course, there's another concern about DNR's that I believe I've written about elsewhere, but haven't published. It was once explained to me that in the early 1960's, expectant fathers were never admitted to the birthing room during labor. At some point there was a dispute and controversy, and a decision was made that henceforth, expectant fathers would be permitted in the birthing room if they wished. When the same parents were expecting another child in the 1970's, they had to argue to an insistent staff that the father really preferred not to be present and his attendance should not be required.

I've been told that the Vietnam war occasioned dramatic developments in our technical ability to keep ailing patients alive who were suffering from organ failures of various kinds, and this raised issued where patients who were tired of such efforts at life support were not permitted to die in peace, if that was their choice. Congress accordingly enacted legislation, as a result of this controversy, guaranteeing patients the right to refuse medical treatment. In many states, however, there is no right to insist on receiving medical treatment; in most states, the decision whether to provide medical treatment is the sole prerogative of the doctor, who cannot be compelled to administer treatment that he or she feels is inappropriate or would do more harm than good. It appears that New York is the exception.

But the person who told me the foregoing story about delivery rooms predicted that DNR's, which began, through an act of Congress, as a right that could be asserted by the patient, would end up as an obligation following the same evolution as the father's presence in the delivery room. I personally can attest that in some hospitals, the request for family members to consent to a DNR is automatic, even routine, and that if consent is not forthcoming, family members may be asked again and again in the hope that they'll change their mind. It appears that the human mind is not well-adapted to contemplate the possibility of moral liberty. It is far easier for us to grasp the extremes of compulsion and prohibition, than the intermediate position of freedom. And among those who are sophisticated enough to appreciate the value of discretion and individual choice, many fail to realize that the decision is not theirs alone, but belongs to a number of people who are all entitled to contribute to the discussion and to both agree with and understand its outcome.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006 -- 10:34 pm

'Tis the season for unripe pomegranates. I break one open, over-eager, and find pale seeds stuck like frog eggs in their membranes, translucent, unready to hatch.

Ideas should not be plucked too early from the tree.

Monday, October 9, 2006 -- 8:52 am

I wonder how good a grasp we have on the information (history, scientific data, literature, etc.) available in the world today. Even with the development of the Internet and the availability of huge amounts of data that was previously inaccessible, I have a lot of trouble tracking down information for various research projects. Take, for example, my efforts to track down information on the Aymara language. I've managed to snag a couple of dictionaries (one of them during a visit to Peru), but so far any real information about its syntax and grammatical structures has eluded me, other than occasional references to its ternary logic system and its unusual ways of representing temporal relationships spacially (i.e., the future is behind us). www.aymara.org is a rare exception, but even that isn't really enough to begin a detailed study of the language.

And this is just one example. The same is true for the dying Khoisan languages of southern Africa. I've been able to track down a handful of dictionaries in assorted languages, but no grammars, and certainly no audio recordings to try to get a handle on the highly complex phonemes. And this doesn't even broach the topic of literary traditions, ethnobotanical knowledge, religious views, music, survival skills, cooking techniques, and the like.

Nor is my concern strictly linguistic or anthropological. With all the scientific knowledge extent in the world today, there still hasn't been anything like a suitable compilation summarizing everything we know on a given topic. Is there anyone alive today who, waking up on a new planet, would know how to recreate our technology, our financial institutions, our medical knowledge, our culture? I doubt it, especially if we had to make our tools from scratch and mine our raw materials. But when the question is put that way, it seems to me that it's information worth compiling and preserving. Thucydides wrote his History intending his work to last for all time, and I imagine that most of the ancient world suspected that its masterpieces would be copied and passed on indefinitely. (But is this true? Was the classical conception of future history anything like ours?) Livy's History of Rome, as well, was so highly esteemed that almost every competing historian has been lost or forgotten. But both of these works barely survived the Middle Ages -- and in Livy's case, we only have a few fragments from, it appears, a single copy tucked away in a monastery.

With the thousands of books published every day, and the huge amount of information posted on the Internet on a continual basis, it might be tempting to think that we were not at risk to repeat this sort of problem. And I suppose that's true to a certain extent, even if we take into account the declining price of paper and printing. (And I suppose we'll never know precisely how much of what was lost in the ancient world was truly valuable literature, and how much was trash. Not *all* of Athenian literature could be as good as what survived.) But I'm not sure that we've really made solid efforts to consolidate and organize our cultural heritage, including our knowledge of technology, in any systematic fashion, so that if disaster were to strike (global war, the occasional stray asteroid) we'd be in a position to get back on our feet and start again.

And this raises, I suppose, a further question: to what extent can we claim to understand our own culture if we are unable to reproduce it? It seems to me that we haven't so much mastered the world through our technology, as continually adapted ourselves to a changing social and technological environment that few of us can really claim to understand. More on this, perhaps, at another time.

Monday, October 9, 2006 -- 8:36 am

So North Korea has now, unequivocally, joined the nuclear club. I suppose we'll see the national and international political implications of this soon enough. But I think it's particularly timely that the October 5 issue of Nature features an article on how Deinococcus radiodurans comfortably survives enormous doses of radiation, which sometimes shatter its chromosomes into thousands of pieces. Apparently many desiccation-resistant bacteria have this ability, which seems to rely not on exotic proteins or cellular mechanisms, but on the same molecular machinery the rest of us have but don't use quite as well. Will this result in a radiation vaccine any time soon? I doubt it; it'll probably come along the same time as the mitochondrial system upgrade I've been waiting for, to give mammals the same age-resilience as birds seem to have. Yet another thing for the to-do list.

Sunday, October 8, 2006 -- 9:53 pm

Having read a bit more of the House Debate on the Military Commissions Act, I don't feel terribly enlightened. I can take some comfort that for a stretch of about 7 pages of the Congressional Record, members of Congress were actually debating the habeas corpus issue. What they said, though, can only be taken as inconclusive. I now realize that to know whether this bill is fair, I need to understand the following:

I should, however, amend some earlier comments. It turns out that some members of the House of Representatives did raise, as I did, objections to the failure to provide for a speedy trial, and some regard this, plausibly, as an element of the writ of habeas corpus. Some even included some thoughtful suggestions, such as a provision for expedited judicial review or a requirement to videotape interrogations.

But other parts of what I've been reading simply confirm my initial impressions. The bill was apparently drafted by the White House, with secret revisions made by a Congressional committee working in secret. When the bill was presented to the House, it was presented under a rule permitting no amendments, and only two hours of debate, to be followed by a yes-or-no vote on the entire package. Anyone who voted against it, of course, can expect to be portrayed as coddling terrorists, and the record indicates that there were several who spoke who regarded the bill as flawed, or rushed, and yet who chose not to oppose the bill. It would be interesting to see how close their re-election races are at the moment.

Two things, though, seem clear. One is that the legislative history of the Military Commissions Act shows that it isn't intended to apply to American citizens, even though it was so hastily drafted that the text of one section is ambiguous. The other is that I still don't see how this bill can be regarded as condoning torture in any form. But I have several hundred more pages to read before I understand all these issues.

Sunday, October 8, 2006 -- 2:35 pm

The human knack for procrastination is truly powerful -- we seem to have a nearly infinite ability to distract ourselves from what's important by dwelling on the trivial, the petty, and the superficial. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in all cases (to what extent can we separate denial from hope?), and I'm certainly not advocating some austere and joyless work ethic, no matter how daunting others may find my ideas about fun. But procrastination seems to take a variety of forms, from simple rest and diversion, to negligent delay, to willful obstruction, and it's the last that, unfortunately, seems most prominent in contemporary political life. Apart from a handful of thoughtful and diligent souls that are hidden, like Easter eggs, in little nooks of society, it seems that most of our citizens spend more time arguing points of prestige and political advantage than they do studying the more mundane issues of, say, the logistics of feeding the poor, curing the sick, preserving endangered species, and ensuring a fair and representative government. These problems should not be insurmountable. I suspect that they would not be, if we workd at it nearly as much as we work to maintain our pride and to attain positions of authority from which very little is accomplished. This is part of my frustration with party politics; I don't have any answers, but there's nowhere to look for someone who does more than repeat unexamined assumptions. Political discussions these days seem to concern themselves far more with strategies for gaining office than with the merits of the policies that will be implemented once they get there.

This is illustrated by my continuing research on the Military Commissions Act. I find that most of the Congressional debate for and against the statute is predictable and not terribly informative. Saying that the bill will give the president the tools he needs to defend the country in an unconventional war, on the one hand (and one member of Congress has been sufficiently candid to admit that the bill is imperfect, but he was voting for it anyway), and saying in a conclusory fashion that the bill is unconstitutional and will put our own citizens at risk of reciprocal treatment abroad, on the other, do not really address the issue: whether this regime of military commissions, on its own terms, provides for a just trial for the accused consistent with our interests of national security. It is particularly troubling that debate of these questions was limited to no more than two hours. What issues of national security actually impede the process of a regular trial, with typical rules of evidence and grounds for appeal? So far I haven't seen any elaboration on this, though I have more reading ahead of me. And, continuing (and amending) my earlier thoughts about habeas corpus, I note that Hamdi v. Rumsfeld was itself a petition for writ of habeas corpus, on the entirely reasonable grounds that Hamdi wasn't allowed to be present at all parts of the trial or to be informed of the charges or evidence against him. If Congress is denying future prisoners access to the courts through the petition for writ of habeas corpus, what other provision is in place to allow us to test the humanity, reliability, and legitimacy of the proceedings? At this point, the methodology by which our government has created these military commissions -- with much speechmaking but (so far as I have found) little discussion of substance, inspires little confidence in the reliability of the military commissions themselves.

Why do I bring this up in the context of procrastination? Because I get the impression that many of the speeches made about the Military Commissions Act, both in Congress and outside of Congress, may have had more to do with the elections taking place a month from now than with ensuring that our treatment of prisoners in the so-called War on Terror satisfies our own standards for civilized conduct. I still have some reading to do, and I keep hoping that I'll find some substantive discussion somewhere in the Congressional Record. But I've already found that one member of Congress went on record as stating that he regarded the passage of this bill as one of the Republican successes to show to voters in the coming election. It may be convenient for us to postpone these questions of moral propriety in favor of political expediency -- moral conduct is often harder to come to terms with than political conduct -- and to defer all questions of legality until an inevitable court challenge, but I simply cannot understand why no one is looking at this closely now, when we're in a position to minimize the potential harm we inflict through intellectual neglect.