Saturday, June 27, 2009

Middle-Aged Men and Fire
Or, Runaway Hose

So I made it through Fire School. Here I was, a 47-year-old rookie, running around with teens and twenty-somethings, struggling to hold fire hoses on target [1], crawling on hands and knees in heavy turnout gear, my fire-resistant balaclava pulled over my face to simulate zero-visibility smoke, straining to control my breathing so I didn’t suck all the air out of my SCBA tank …

Man, was I sore on Monday. But I held my own, did better than some, and kept up with my pre-18 junior firefighter partner — a solid kid, by the way, I definitely want him there on a real call. We determined to volunteer to be the first to do everything, and damned near did.

Thanks to my joining Harmony Volunteer Fire Company a couple of weeks after last year’s Fire School, I’d been in the company for nearly a year before I had the opportunity, and so most of it turned out be a review of stuff I’d already been taught. But they had one exercise that was new to me: how to recover a runaway fire hose.

You see, at the end of an already-heavy fire hose is a metal coupling that can really hurt somebody if the hose gets loose, either from a break in a coupling, someone not following proper procedure and allowing a charged hose to turn itself on, or merely somebody taking a fall and losing control of the hose. Remember, the stream of water coming out of fire hose can be between 100 and 300 pounds per square inch — that’s a lot of specific impulse, and can make a hose end into a deadly projectile.

The safe way to wrangle a runaway hose is to straddle the hose, well upstream of the offending end, on your hands and knees, crawling as fast as you can while keeping the hose down with your hands. You dampen the erratic pendulum of the hose gradually, lessening its amplitude, and thus its potential for mayhem, finally getting hold of the coupling itself.

Only trick was, if the hose was behaving itself a little too much as we got toward the coupling, the instructor kicked it to send it moving. Thanks, dude; but I guess I did OK, all the same.

Today I thought I’d take on a scientific/ethical/moral quandary that is more complex, more like a runaway fire hose, than the many discussions you can find on the web often seem to fathom.

Was Josef Mengele a bad scientist, or merely an evil scientist?

It seems like you can’t take two steps without tripping over a gratuitous comparison of someone to Hitler. My own take, I think, is that Jon Stewart got it exactly right [2]. And as the Better Half has pointed out, comparing someone to the closest thing this world has ever seen to Sauron is tantamount to admitting you have nothing intelligent to say about them. It’s the ultimate ad-hominem attack; you don’t get many people in a generation, worldwide, whose evil is so profound and powerful that the reference isn’t, as bad as the person in question may be, a slur.

A few years back I had the opportunity, at a seminar connected with a major medical school’s graduation ceremonies, to watch a physician-turned-historian [3] give a talk on Nazi medicine that was spectacular. His argument was not the standard — that the Nazis subverted science — but that their entire belief system was, at the time, a logically justified, if undeniably evil, extrapolation of the best science of the day. His point was that science carries no moral polarity of itself; that no proper scientific knowledge is immune to being harnessed to the purposes of evil.

Eugenics — the narrow end of the wedge that led from the Nazis initially sounding, to some people anyway, as beneficent, to the practice of unapologetic mass murder — is exhibit A. Based on the evolutionary and genetic science of today, it’s a joke. Today we know it’s a fundamental misunderstanding, which failed because it didn’t account for the then-unknown phenomenon of genetic drift. The latter makes it impossible to improve or enhance the human race by weeding out the “unfit,” even if you had a morally defensible definition of that concept, as slippery as a runaway fire hose.

But scientifically, that’s hindsight. Based on the scientific understanding of the late 1930s, eugenics wasn’t a fringe belief: it was the mainstream of medical thought. And it was not uniquely Nazi or even German [4]; its leadership, arguably, hailed a generation earlier from America, where much eugenic legislation got its start, though thankfully it didn’t take hold (more about that in a moment).

Here’s the bitter pill that those of us trained to be researchers in liberal democracies have tremendous trouble swallowing: whether it is correct or incorrect, what we think we understand scientifically will not civilize people, will not necessarily help the Good Guys. And conversely, unpleasant, dangerous, and made-for-evil scientific discoveries are not, by definition, bad science. Evil, yes; not bad, in the sense of necessarily being improperly performed or producing incorrect discoveries.

Two observations along these lines. The first, though I’ve gotten to it late in the discussion, is the paper that launched me onto this topic in the first place: a treatise on the senses by Sir Kenelm Digby, and published in 1644. Amidst the archaic spellings, get a load of the following, regarding the sense of smell [5]:

“So that thofe mafters, who will teach vs that the impreffions vpon fenfe are made by fpirituall or fpiritelike thinges or qualities; which they call intentionall fpeciefes, muft labour at two workes: the one to make it appeare that there are in nature fusch thinges as they would perfuade us, the other to proue that thefe materiall actions we fpeake of are not able to performe thofe effects, for which the fenfes are giuen vnto livuing creatures. And vntill they haue done that, I conceiue we should be much too blame to admit fuch thinges, as we neyther haue ground for in reafon, nor can vnderftand what they are. And therefore, we muft refolue to reft in this beliefe, which experience breedeth in vs: that thefe bodies worke vpon our fenfes no other wayes then by a corporeall operation; and that fuch a one is fufficient for all the effects we fee proceede from them: as in the proceffe of this difcourfe we shall more amply declare.”

Get that? He’s refuting the theory that we smell things through a fairy-like transmission of qualities in favor of a corporeal contact between the object being smelled and the nose. He’s anticipating the concept of airborne chemicals constituting scent by at least a couple of centuries.

When I first read the above, it made me think of the Nazi eugenics movement — and its uncomfortable origins in science that has now been refuted, but was cutting-edge in its day — and made me want to set Digby and Mengele up as opposite ends of the spectrum: the former coming to the right conclusions despite the fact that he was using an unscientific method, the latter going so very wrong, morally at the very least, while following the scientific method, including peer review, experimental design, all nine yards. In retrospect, though, I’m going to give Digby a pass, as the standards of his day did uphold his work as scientifically valid.

We want to dismiss Mengele as an anomaly, and certainly we would be spurious to take the logical leap of blaming Nazism on genetic and evolutionary science, as some do [6]. But we can’t get off the hook that much of the laudable science of today will turn out to be just as incorrect as the eugenic beliefs of then. What matters is not whether we’re wrong or right — I can’t tell you how many PR bosses I’ve had who didn’t understand the critical fact that much of science is wrong for perfectly valid reasons — but how we apply the knowledge we think we’ve learned. And that’s not science; it’s morality.

Which brings me to eugenics in America, and one of the shimmering events that helped prevent the insidious practice from gaining a permanent (or more extended than it was, anyway) foothold here.

In 1905, both houses of my own Pennsylvania’s legislature voted in favor of a measure to force sterilization of “idiots” [7]. The state was poised, I believe, to become the first in the nation to enact a radical eugenic agenda.

Enter Governor Samuel Pennypacker, who vetoed the bill with words that continue to ring with all the right stuff a century later:

“Scientists, like all other men whose experience has been limited to one pursuit … are prone … to lose sight of broad principles outside of their domain … To admit such an operation would be to inflict cruelty upon a helpless class … which the state has undertaken to protect.”

Go, boy.

Though the legislature failed to override Pennypacker’s veto, he did not kill politically sanctioned eugenics in the U.S. — two years later, Indiana enacted a similar bill, and of course there’s the gut-wrenching, if not strictly eugenic, Tuskegee study, which shamefully didn’t end until 1972 [8]. But Pennypacker’s stand, seeing past the scientific question to the moral imperative beyond, put the eugenicists on notice that there would be resistance. And it set the stage.

Some of us, you see, know how to ride a runaway fire hose.

[1] In some ways, the 1.75-inch hose is a bigger beast than the 2.5-inch hose — for the latter, you tend to use a four-man rather than two-man team, and of course the former has a higher operating pressure (I’m afraid I can’t remember the respective pressures at the moment, and they depend on what kind of nozzle you’re using as well; I’ll have to ask).
[2] Stop reading my blog and watch this video right now.
[3] It’s a shame, I can’t find this guy on the web, can’t recall his name; all I remember was that he was of Asian descent, and that he made a damned good case.
Richard Evans makes a case that the Nazis dominated the medicine of the age, but that’s a distinct issue.
[5] Remember, the “fs” have an “S” sound, not an “F” sound.
[6] I haven’t bothered to give a link here, because if you Google “Nazi evolution” you’ll get a craw full of people making gratuitous Hitler and Nazi accusations (along with treatises trying to convince us that Nazi science was fundamentally flawed).
[7] Whistling in the dark, if you know anything about the Pennsylvania legislature.
[8] Nineteen-fucking-seventy two. Makes you want to puke.

1 comment:

Linda Kaim said...

If you have not read it already Ken, Might I suggest "War against the Weak" by Edwin Black.

Repulsive, but fascinating stuff.