Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why We Can't "Outgrow" War

James Carroll asks in an opinion column in the Boston Globe Monday 1/25 if the human race can outgrow war. http://tinyurl.com/yeek4a2. Accepting his Nobel Peace prize, Martin Luther King said we could, that we should, and that in the face of weapons of mass destruction, we must; “If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war.” (Full speech at http://tiny.cc/T2mv8) But King’s word “survive” captures the main reason why his honorable plea for peace is na├»ve, and why the answer to Carroll’s plea for reason is “No, we can’t.”

Large scale violence happens for the same reason that most violence does. When we are threatened, we often protect ourselves with physical force. And it’s not something we even think about. It’s instinctive. Whether threatened as individuals on the playground and the streets, or as tribes across larger territories, turning the other cheek is not how we are wired to react to threats. Deep in our neural architecture and chemistry, probably in our very genes, we have a powerful set of instinctive subconscious systems that help us detect and respond to danger, whether it’s a direct physical threat, a threat to our resources, or even a challenge to our basic ideas about social structure. These precognitive systems have evolved to help us survive. They fire up before thinking and reason even have a chance to contribute to our response to risk. And as the threat continues, between cognition and instinctive emotion, the edge definitely goes to the latter.

In nearly every animal known, including the human animal, the first hint of danger triggers the Fight or Flight or Freeze response. (More commonly known as the Fight or Flight response, animals that perceive a threat also instinctively freeze, so I’ve taken the liberty of renaming the phenomenon.) Before thinking even has a chance to get going, we respond to danger by instantly rearranging our bodily systems and metabolism to either fight, flee, or freeze.

One of the things those initial changes do is magnify the power of instinct over reason as our response to the risk continues. We not only use instincts first and thinking second, but in an ongoing risk response, we use emotions and instinct more than reason. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, who helped pioneer the research that identified the amygdala as the part of the brain where fear begins, says of the neural systems that control our response to risk, “While conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than the connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.” (p. 19, the Emotional Brain, http://tiny.cc/DeqLG)

Ending war would require that reason conquer these self-protective instincts. That’s not entirely out of the question. We do have the capacity for thinking our way to a non-violent response to threat. And our powerful thinking cortex may yet evolve to become the more dominant contributor to our risk response system, developing smarter and more effective ways to respond to risk than our older hard-wired instincts which, so far, have worked pretty well. But for the foreseeable human future, when it comes to the perception of and response to danger, thinking comes second and instinct comes first. Even King seemed to acknowledge this in his speech when he said “…we have ancient habits to deal with...”

Two other Nobel Peace Prize winners offered their answer to Carroll. President Barack Obama said “To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism - it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason (my emphasis).” (full speech at http://tiny.cc/3MMJ4) Obama talked about a “just war”. Which the Prince of non-violence himself, Mahatma Ghandi, also invoked when he said “Fighting a violent war is better than accepting injustice. So, really there is no contradiction in fighting a just war, and believing in non-violence.”

The problem is, what is just to the U.S. feels like injustice, and threat, to radical Islamists. What was just to France and Britain after the carnage of World War One didn’t feel like justice to Germans struggling to survive, so we had World War II. Nationalist tensions in the Balkans, conflict over power among tribes in Kenya, or over whose religion will “win” throughout history…the evidence of how we instinctively fight when we are threatened makes for a long tragic list that will surely grow. Until the time comes when we aren’t threatened by competition over resources, or ideas - and who can foresee that day - despite the attractive rational appeal of peace, our more dominant animal survival instincts insure that violence will continue.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Do we care more for some people than others

The unfathomable devastation and loss of the Haiti earthquake has sparked a huge outpouring of concern. Greater, in fact, than that evoked by natural disasters, including earthquakes, when they happen in places further away. Why does the Haitian disaster evoke so much more concern than massive killer earthquakes or natural disasters in Turkey or Bangladesh or China, people just as poor and powerless as those in Haiti? Shouldn't the same number of people anywhere evoke the same care?
Or are there things that are different with Haiti?

Can it simply be we are somehow more moved because Haiti is closer, which makes those people more "real".

Could it be that we relate more intimately to people, some of whose relatives live in the U.S.?

Could it be that because it's closer, and "our" media can get there, that the greater amount of coverage personifies the risk more. The risk perception literature suggests that when a risk is personified - is portrayed in human terms - it raises more concern than when it's abstract (climate change).

Could it be because the greater coverage has made us more constantly as well as intimately aware? The literature finds that the more readily we can bring a risk to mind, the more dramatically it troubles us.

Can it be that we're more aware of how impoverished Haiti is than poor parts of the world further away? Another finding of the risk perception research is that unfairness - bad things happening to people who can't protect themselves - makes risks seems worse.

The scale of this tragedy is impossible to imagine. But so was the earthquake disaster in Szechaun China that killed nearly 70,000. So was the 1991 typhoon that killed 125,000 people in Bangladesh and left millions homeless. Those tragedies, and others further away, evoked great concern, but nothing like we're seeing now.

It's not just about the numbers. Risk perception never is. Risk is a subjective thing, not quantitative. It's a matter of how things feel, and this terrible tragedy somehow feels especially awful.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Risk of Fear of Risk (Nuclear)

The last surviving double hibakusha has died. Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who had the incredible fortune of surviving both atomic bombings in Japan, has succumbed at age 93 to stomach cancer, after leading an otherwise healthy life since he was in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later. His story, and those of all the survivors, known in Japan as hibakusha, teach us many things. One of them is that ionizing radiation from nuclear energy is indeed a carcinogen. But it’s not nearly as potent a threat as many people believe. Another lesson is that our fear of nuclear radiation may actually be making things more dangerous, not less.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki created a horrible human experiment from which we have learned just what this type of radiation can do to human health. Nearly 90,000 hibakusha have been followed by epidemiologists for nearly 65 years. Scientists compared them to a non-exposed Japanese population, to see what the radiation exposure did. The current estimate is that 572 hibakusha have died prematurely from radiation-induced cancer. To many, that is a surprisingly small number.

Research by the international Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) http://www.rerf.or.jp/ also found that the developing children of pregnant hibakusha women suffered horrible birth defects. But, awful as those impacts are, that’s about it. Studies by RERF and many others have found little other long-term health damage, even among the 54,000 hibakusha who were close to the explosions and were exposed to extraordinarily high levels of all sorts of radiation. (Ionizing radiation comes in various sorts of radioactive bits and energy waves, each of which has a different penetrating power and thus, danger.) Not even genetic damage. “Thus far, no evidence of increased genetic effects has been found,” the RERF scientists say.

The World Health Organization estimates of the health effects from Chernobyl rest on what those atomic blasts in 1945 taught us. Based on a meta analysis of the epidemiological research done post-Chernobyl, the WHO says that of several hundred thousand people exposed to potentially dangerous levels of ionizing radiation, over the entire lifetime of that population, roughly 4,000 might die prematurely from cancer caused by the radiation. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2005/pr38/en/index.html

Again, tragic. But again, a smaller number than many people assume.

But there are other reasons why nuclear radiation is scary. It’s invisible, which makes us feel like we can’t protect ourselves, and a lack of control contributes to fear. It causes cancer, a particularly painful end result, and the more pain and suffering something causes the more afraid of it we are likely to be. It’s human-made, and that makes it scarier than natural radiation risks, like the sun (which kills an estimated 8,500 Americans per year from skin cancer. www.cancer.org/downloads/STT/500809web.pdf).

Atomic bombings, and events like Chernobyl, are large scale and sudden, and catastrophic events tend to freak us out more than chronic killers, like skin cancer, or the air pollution from burning fossil fuels, estimated to cause tens of thousands of deaths each year in the U.S., 3 million globally according to the WHO.) The huge amount of attention these catastrophic events receive - rightfully - tends to burn the fear deep into our memories, raising our sensitivity to any similar risks when they come along.

Risk is subjective, a matter of both the facts and our feelings. Despite the evidence from the hibakusha and Chernobyl, nuclear energy scares many people, who resist it as one of the solutions to climate change, or a low emission way to reduce local air pollution. Their questions - “What about another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island,” “What about terrorist attacks on nuclear plants near big cities,” “What about the waste?” are all fair concerns that must be addressed. But, as we have learned from the experience of Mr. Yamaguchi and his fellow hibakusha, we should also honestly look to what science can tell us about this risk, or any risk, and keep the actual level of danger in mind as we weigh what to be afraid of and just how afraid we need to be. Otherwise the choices we make, both as individuals and as a society, may feel good, but may actually make things worse, not better.