The Driving Force of Science

Has the lockdown saved more lives than the virus took?

My acquaintance with several nurses at a local hospital provides just a glimpse of what it must be like to help confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

The devastation of the crisis itself—whose duration will be measured in months—is not to be mitigated in any way.

And yet, there are crises—whose duration will be measured in years, decades and centuries—that threaten the health and survival of even more people. A group that works “to understand the relationship between society and the environment” calculated that “the reductions in air pollution in China caused by this economic disruption likely saved twenty times more lives in China than have currently been lost directly due to infection with the virus in that country.”

Wait. What? We quickly shut down virtually all our normal activities—as we should—in the face of a temporary threat, and yet we accept and overlook the constant, greater impact of many of those same activities year after year, decade after decade. “More than 100,000 Americans each year die of heart attacks, strokes and other illnesses caused by air pollution,” according to a 2019 National Academy of Sciences study.

Can we really be that blind to the means of our own destruction? Are we really okay with the choices we’ve made about the cost of our way of life?

As Future Crunch said, the crisis acts “as a mirror, forcing us to carefully examine our way of life….Pandemics cause immense pain and suffering but teach us a great deal. They show us that the industrial economy we’ve always taken for granted is killing us. They force us to sit up and acknowledge that we’re sharing a planet with other species. They reveal who society’s real key workers are. Not the bankers. Not the politicians. Not the elite hedge fund managers. It’s the nurses. The doctors. The delivery drivers. The carers. The porters. The teachers. The shelf stackers. The check out staff.”

The New York Times said that this crisis is an example of “what you get when you ignore science“: “The failures to contain the outbreak and to understand the scale and scope of its threat stem from an underinvestment in and an under-appreciation of basic science.”

The same goes for the impact we are having on the environment and our insistence on largely ignoring it.

But, as they relentlessly do, Future Crunch grasped for something positive, saying, “The most encouraging thing is that perhaps [as a result of COVID-19] we might finally start taking scientists seriously again. For the past decade, populists have hammered the experts who contradict their public claims and interests. But those experts, whose budgets and capabilities have so often been eroded by the leaders who despise them, are now our main line of defence. Isn’t it interesting that when the s*** really hits the fan, scientists are suddenly back in vogue?”

As the health service of the local university in my town says, “In science lives hope.”

In her detective novel, The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah wrote this exchange:

Detective Edward Catchpool, Scotland Yard detective: “For all your talk of scientific method, you’re a bit of a dreamer, aren’t you?”

Hercule Poirot: “You believe hope to be the enemy of science and not its driving force? If so, I disagree.”

The Restoration of Order?

Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of all time

Bulletin: Crime stories are popular.

In particular, British writer Agatha Christie‘s detective novels and short story collections have sold over a billion copies—with a b!—in English and a billion copies—b again!—in translation. Known as the Queen of Crime and considered by some to be the inventor of the whodunnit, Christie lived from 1890 to 1976 and, in an industry that craves “best sellers,” she remains the world’s best-selling author.

Her best-known character—Belgian detective Hercule Poirot: “world-renowned, moustachioed…unsurpassed in his intelligence and understanding of the criminal mind”—appeared in 33 original novels and over 50 short stories. Her Miss Jane Marple—a “fussy and spinsterish” amateur detective—appeared in another twelve novels and twenty short stories.

As a young girl, Christie “listened more than she talked” and “saw more than she was seen.” She was “paralyzingly shy” and often reluctant to interact with anyone, preferring instead to write.

Her estate’s web site says, “Spending most of her time with imaginary friends, [her] unconventional childhood fostered an extraordinary imagination.” She wrote stories describing “the world she knew and saw, drawing on the military gentlemen, lords and ladies, spinsters, widows and doctors of her family’s circle of friends and acquaintances.”

Before there were apps for note-taking, “she made endless notes in dozens of notebooks, jotting down erratic ideas and potential plots and characters as they came to her.”

Critics of her work have said that she often withheld important information until the crime was explained by the detective who had used it to solve the mystery, and that her characters were intentionally opaque in order to conceal the killer until the end. Some have said that her typical story predictably “made the unlikeliest character the guilty party,” frequently by revealing false identities at the conclusion of the story.

Others have said that she often failed “to show the effects of murder, the blood and gore and grief” or that many of the crimes in her stories “were predicated on pure chance, and some actually impossible.” But, Laura Thompson countered, “What is being solved is not the act of murder, but the human dynamic….[The crime] is there to be solved, not to be compared with reality.”

For most, the seemingly endless appeal of detective stories is said to be “the restoration of order,” but Christie often allowed her criminals to elude punishment. And, in fact, “stage, film, and television productions of some of [her] mysteries were traditionally sanitized with the culprits not evading some form of justice.”

I guess when you’re selling a billion books, you can decide whether order deserves to be restored or not.

For The Increase and Diffusion of Knowledge

A mysterious and seemingly random act by a foreign stranger created an institution that gave the U.S. scientific community a global reputation

Few institutions in the world are more universally known and esteemed than the Smithsonian. Indeed, it is the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex. But its beginnings are shrouded in the mystery surrounding its benefactor, Englishman James Smithson.

Nina Burleigh’s book, The Stranger and the Statesman: James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the Making of America’s Greatest Museum: The Smithsonian, related the story of James Smithson’s gift to the still nascent United States government upon his death in 1829.

Born in France in 1765 as James Lewis Macie, James Smithson was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, Duke of Northumberland. As a “serious but not terribly original or brilliant scientist,” James Smithson conducted research in chemistry, mineralogy, and geology and was a member of the Royal Society of London. Though he lived and traveled in several European countries, he never visited the United States, and his wealth—approximately $500,000 at his death—was primarily inherited from his mother, Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie.

When Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829, at the age of 64, he left his entire estate (upon the death of his unmarried nephew):

to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge among men.

According to Burleigh, the United States in the 1820s was “a provincial, agrarian nation and the constant butt of European cultural condescension.” Naturally, therefore, government, press and public in both Britain and America were startled—and in many cases troubled—by the very large gift from the unknown Englishman and its stated purpose. Since he “did not explain his bequest in his public or private writings,” even today “Smithson’s motives in leaving money to the United States are unknown.”

Ideas about Smithson’s reasons for the specific terms of his bestowal include:

  • He felt his gift would have more impact on a young nation with only a few major educational and research institutions.
  • He hoped to immortalize himself in the United States in reaction to opportunities denied him in Britain by his illegitimacy.
  • He was inspired by the tenets of many scientific societies of his day that held that civilization could achieve perfection through increased knowledge and public education.

News of the gift was not welcomed by everyone in America. When the money became available in 1835, talk about federal support for the arts and sciences had been swept aside by President Andrew Jackson, and distrust of the British remained as one of the few common sentiments in American politics.

Acceptance of the gift became a matter of controversy among members of the United States Congress, which bore responsibility for its use. States’ rights advocates, nationalists, federalists, anglophobes, xenophobes, and others disagreed over the possible repercussions of accepting a gift that would go on to “profoundly affect American cultural life for centuries.”

Following his term as President, Congressman John Quincy Adams had become a leading force for the promotion of science. He opposed Southerners who contended that it was unconstitutional and “beneath the dignity” of the United States to accept the money. Instead, he saw it as a sign that God approved the government’s involvement in scientific research and, largely due to his staunch support, Congress authorized acceptance of the funds on July 1, 1836.

It was only after ten years of negotiation and compromise, however, that the bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution was signed into law by President James K. Polk on August 10, 1846.

Resisting calls to build a library or a national university, Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian’s first chief executive, centered his vision for the Smithsonian around his interpretation of Smithson’s will as a call for a scientific research establishment.

Ultimately, a “mysterious and seemingly random act” by a foreign stranger created an institution that “gave the U.S. scientific community a global reputation” and expanded to include sixteen museums and galleries and the National Zoo, some of the most-visited public places in the world.

Bringing Flesh and Blood to a Shadow

Dr. James Brussel provided the critical break in New York's longest manhunt by bringing flesh and blood and form to a fugitive

“When you catch him, he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit…and it will be buttoned,” said the psychiatrist to the police detectives who sought his help.

In his book, Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling, Michael Cannell described how in 1956 a psychiatrist helped the New York City police end a sixteen-year manhunt. According to Dr. James Brussel, he used “Freudian insights, deductive reasoning, and intuition” to help rid the community of a menace and create a new method for law enforcement.

The modern day profiler, now a standard component of many criminal investigations, particularly of serial offenses, attempts to help narrow the search for a suspect by putting himself “mentally and emotionally in the head of the offender.” He combines accumulated data—the location of a crime, its organization, how the offender behaved before and after an event—with traditional methods to sketch a portrait of a suspect.

Profilers readily acknowledge the fallibility of their methods, said Cannell, but he insisted that “by combining accumulated data…with solid criminological judgment, profilers succeed at a far greater rate than they would without this expertise.”

The New York City case of the “Mad Bomber” was revolutionary in the relationship that formed between police investigation and social science, and it stands as one of profiling’s most astonishing successes. When Brussel told the police detectives who had solicited his help that their man would be wearing a double-breasted suit with the coat buttoned, it was “a bit of bravado,” he admitted, and the skepticism of the detectives was unmistakable. But in the end, even on that detail, Brussel was right.

Criminal profiling—also called criminal investigative analysis or psychological profiling—has many critics, however, none more dismissive than author and speaker Malcolm Gladwell.

“Profiling stories aren’t Whodunits; they’re Hedunits,” Gladwell said in a 2007 New Yorker article. “If you make a great number of predictions, the ones that were wrong will soon be forgotten, and the ones that turn out to be true will make you famous. The Hedunit is not a triumph of forensic analysis. It’s a party trick,” he insisted.

Cannell maintained, however, that when Gladwell attempted to dismiss the remarkable success of Brussel in the Mad Bomber case, he merely “cited a list of minor mistakes Dr. Brussel made.”

And, “The extemporaneous profile [Dr. Brussel] wrote a year [before the arrest],” Cannell contended, “had not led police directly to Metesky’s door, but it had provided the critical break in New York’s longest manhunt. His portrait of the mystery bomber—Slavic, friendless, single, fastidious, chronically unemployed, irascible, given to delusions of self-importance—allowed detectives to narrow the search frame and concentrate their efforts on a specific type. Just as important, Dr. Brussel had provided a geographic target for the manhunt. He also decisively changed the course of the investigation by convincing the police to publicize his profile. Exposure would, he promised, help lure F.P. into the daylight, which is exactly what happened as F.P. began his correspondence with the Journal-American. The resulting newspaper coverage planted the basic facts of the case in the public’s mind.”

Moreover, in contradiction to Gladwell’s claim that, “The true hero of the [Mad Bomber] case wasn’t Brussel; it was a woman named Alice Kelly, who had been assigned to go through Con Edison’s personnel files,” Cannell said that, “Without [the basic facts in Brussel’s portrait] Alice Kelly could not have recognized the threatening remarks in the Metesky file.”

Describing the working relationship of profilers and police departments, F.B.I. criminal profiler John Douglas told National Public Radio, “We’re not soliciting cases. This is domestic police cooperation, the police are coming to us.” He said that profiling “helps narrow…and focus, or refocus the investigation.”

I’ve written about Malcolm Gladwell a number of times because I find him entertaining and thought-provoking. But after reading Cannell’s account of the Mad Bomber case, I think Gladwell failed in his attempt to use it to dismiss profiling—or a caricature of it—as a useful tool.

As Cannell said, “Dr. Brussel brought flesh and blood and form to a fugitive who for more than a decade had no more shape than a shadow….His profile helped lead detectives to F.P.’s door; it also had an electrifying effect on law enforcement. He had shown that a psychiatrist could deduce personality patterns, motivations, and future behavior from physical evidence—and do so with startling accuracy.”

And, in at least one other New York case, Brussel’s work caused Queens homicide detective Captain Tom McCarthy to gush, “You solved the case by telephone, without even visiting the scene of the crime. Just sitting there in your office, you gave a picture of the killer….I still don’t understand how the hell you did it.”

In The Game

I didn't help land on the moon but I was in the game, gathering requirements and writing code

My sons and I watch soccer games from a different perspective because they played in dozens (hundreds?) of organized soccer games from youth through high school and I have never played in an organized game of any kind. Though their level of play never approached that of the players they enjoy watching, they will always watch with the experience of a player who has been in the game. They understand the games we watch in a way I never will.

I wrote last fall about digging deeper into the Apollo missions when the first moon landing’s 50th anniversary was marked. Further on, I learned about Don Eyles, a NASA computer programmer who wrote a significant amount of the code that allowed man to land on the moon and became briefly famous for his best known hack which came in a later Apollo mission.

I think I felt a little bit of how my sons feel when they watch a soccer game while I was reading Eyles’ book, SUNBURST and LUMINARY: An Apollo Memoir. Obviously, nothing I worked on during nineteen years as a programmer approached what Eyles and his team did, but I read his descriptions from the perspective of someone who has been “in the game.”

My programming career didn’t start until the late 1980s, so I only created one punch card in my life, and I certainly never had my code woven into core rope memory. But I do remember “desk-checking” a hard copy of my code with a greenbar listing like Eyles had twenty years earlier. And his need for give and take over requirements documents—formal and informal—rang true since it is as relevant in the twenty-first century as ever. Moreover, the challenge of meeting users where they were and satisfying their practical needs, not just my technical ones, applied to working for my users as much as they did to him working with the Apollo astronauts.

Steve Jobs said that “the best ideas emerge from the intersection of technology and the humanities” and I always felt like I did my best work as a programmer in that context. Eyls brought “the idealism, the freedom of thought, and the sense of exploration, inner and outer” of his era’s counterculture to the pocket-protector, nerdy world of 1960s NASA and helped realize one of mankind’s greatest achievements by being “honest with himself.” Without formal training or prior experience, he figured out how to program a spacecraft computer and how to land on the moon, one line of code at a time.

Quietly Behind the Scenes

Math can express the nature of the universe

My relationship with math over the years has been like many of my other relationships—promising, awkward and ultimately disappointing. (Understand, BTW, that this is from someone who has remained happily married for 37 years, so there have been exceptions.)

After scoring the highest mark in my large high school class on the math section of the SAT (surpassed thirty years later by my son’s perfect score), I chose not to take any math in my senior year of high school or in college. Multiple friends and classmates said, “What a waste!” but I retained an appreciation for the reverence many great thinkers have had for math and its centrality in understanding the world around us.

In his book, Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe, Steven Strogatz quoted Galileo: “This grand book [i.e., the universe]…cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.”

Over centuries and across cultures, attempts to understand and solve practical problems about things like inheritance law, tax assessment, trade, accounting and interest calculations drove the progression of math from geometry (plane and analytic) to algebra (verbal and symbolic) to calculus (integral and differential). As they were combined and visualized in new and changing ways, the branches of math provided solutions to new problems, enabled new inventions and enriched our understanding of ourselves.

I don’t understand much about calculus, but in many aspects of modern life, Strogatz said, “calculus operates quietly behind the scenes.” I know, as Strogatz said, that calculus has two sides: differential (which divides complex problems into an infinite number of pieces) and integral (which reassembles the pieces to solve the problem). In this way, while geometry deals with things that are static—speed, straight lines, ratios—calculus can address things that change—acceleration, curves, interest rates—by using derivatives to model rates of change and integrals to model the accumulation of change.

Operating “quietly behind the scenes,” calculus enables the functioning of things like GPS, electronic financial transactions, wireless communication, HIV immunotherapy and satellite navigation that we mostly take for granted and depend on every day.

I get pleasure from reading about math not because I understand its highest levels—I don’t—but because it makes me aware of how many ways math can express the nature of the universe and how useful it can be.

Getting Better, XIII: Best Year Ever…Again?

Action is possible, better solutions are available and a better future can be built

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said that 2019 was The Best Year Ever (as he did about 2018 and 2017, and the National Review said about 2016).

Future Crunch provided 99 reasons to agree about 2019 and defended their thinking: “This has never been about the warm glow, or creating a false sense of hope. We understand as well as anyone that the challenges facing the human family right now are big and scary and there’s no guarantee we will overcome them. As you’ll see in this year’s list of 99 stories though, millions of people have demonstrated in the past 12 months that action is possible, that better solutions are available and that a better future can be built.”

These are my favorites from the Future Crunch list:

  1. The number of people killed in wars around the world reached its lowest level in seven years, and battle fatalities have fallen by 43% since 2014. PRIO
  2. A new study covering 90% of the world’s population showed that the international homicide rate has dropped by 20% since 1990. Eureka Alert
  3. New research showed that the proportion of people in extreme poverty around the world fell from 36% in 1990 to 8.6% in 2018. Absolute numbers were down from 1.9 billion in 1990 to 610 million in 2018. Overseas Development Institute
  4. Save the Children’s 2019 Global Childhood Report showed that in the last 20 years, children’s lives have improved in 173 out of 176 countries. Compared to 2000, today there are:
    • 4.4 million fewer child deaths per year
    • 49 million fewer stunted children
    • 130 million more children in school
    • 94 million fewer child labourers
    • 11 million fewer girls forced into marriage or married early
    • 3 million fewer teen births per year
    • 12,000 fewer child homicides per year
  5. Poverty in the United States reached its lowest rate since 2007, with 1.4 million people leaving poverty in a single year, and poverty in Canada reached the lowest level ever recorded, 9.5%, down from 15.6% in 2006.
  6. Clean energy jobs grew by 3.6% in the United States last year, adding 110,000 net new jobs, and the dramatic reduction of coal in the country’s energy mix has reduced deaths from air pollution and has cut the cost of damages by more than $200 billion. Ars Technica
  7. The world’s largest multilateral financial institution, The European Investment Bank, agreed to stop all financing for fossil fuels, and committed to investing half of its entire annual outlay — not just its energy budget — on climate action and sustainability by 2025. Guardian
  8. Dolphins are breeding in the Potomac River in Washington, DC for the first time since the 1880s, whale populations are exploding off the shores of New York, and 100 seal pups have been born on the shores of the Thames, 60 years after the river was declared “biologically dead.” Telegraph
  9. The US Senate passed its most sweeping conservation legislation in a decade, protecting 1.3 million acres and withdrawing 370,000 acres from land available to mining companies. LA Times
  10. Since 2000, the number of democracies has risen from 90 to 97, including 11 countries that became democratic for the first time ever, and in 2019, 2 billion people in 50 countries voted, the largest number in history. Al Jazeera

If We Are to Remain Safe

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.'” His blanket denial of the necessary and beneficial role that government plays in our lives and our institutions is both offensive and juvenile, particularly when applied to regulations regarding public health.

Federal legislation that requires businesses to consider more than their profits has saved millions of lives—and improved the quality of millions more—by addressing major public health issues in many areas, including:

Deborah Blum’s book, The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, documents the work of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley to establish food safety laws in the United States.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was “the only civilized country in the world that does not protect the consumer of food products against the adulterations of manufacturers,” charged Senator William Mason of Illinois.

Opposition to the establishment of appropriate food safety legislation in the late nineteenth century came primarily from southern states and their legislators, and it carried a familiar but ludicrous charge. In 1893, when re-elected President Grover Cleveland appointed Julius Sterling Morton of Nebraska Secretary of Agriculture, Morton slashed the department’s staff and budget for food safety research and reporting. Public science writer Alexander Wedderburn produced what he had been told would be the last report before his position was eliminated; it described “poisonous adulterations that have, in many cases, not only impaired the health of the consumer but frequently caused death.” In response, Morton “was appalled”—not by the dangerous and predatory practices addressed but—“by what he saw as an attack on American business”!

As chief chemist at the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry, Wiley began by promoting the establishment of legislation requiring food products to be labeled with an accurate list of their ingredients. He insisted that “consumers had a right to know what manufacturers were mixing into their food.”

Corporate opponents of this initiative included:

  • The dairy industry, which regularly used formaldehyde to salvage sour milk;
  • The baking industry, which feared limits on the use of aluminum in baking powder and other products;
  • The industrial chemical industry, which increasingly invested in preservatives and aniline dyes;
  • The whiskey industry, which used synthetic ethanol as a key ingredient and also contained toxic compounds; and
  • The meatpacking industry, whose appalling practices had been exposed by Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle.

But Wiley’s Bureau of Chemistry grew in its influence as it conducted experimental trials—whose participants were known as the “Poison Squad”—and produced reports on the harmful effects of many common food additives, including:

The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair opened the eyes of many Americans for the first time by featuring an exhibit of samples of adulterated food and a guide that listed “secrets of those who are putting dollars into their pockets by putting poison into our foods.”

When numerous attempts to establish Federal food and drug safety legislation continued to fail, however, Wiley increasingly turned to industry lobbyists, grocers, factory owners, the National Farmers’ Alliance, women’s groups, state commissioners and crusading authors—whose activism continued to focus the nation’s attention by producing a steady stream of articles, speeches, letters and telegraphs.

As Senator Algernon Paddock of Nebraska had predicted, “Eventually consumers would come to appreciate that they could not protect themselves against systematic cheating without regulatory help.”

In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed as the result of the Bureau of Chemistry toxicity studies, the World’s Fair pure food exhibit, and the advocacy of Wiley’s “energetic network of allies.”

Even the new legislation and the continued overwhelming public support of Wiley’s efforts did not halt the opposition of the majority of food manufacturers—the H.J. Heinz Company being a notable exception—or the undermining role of Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson. When Wiley eventually determined that he had done all he could in the continuing toxic environment at the Agriculture Department, he resigned in March, 1912 and went to work for the Good Housekeeping Institute.

Summarizing additional laws that have built on Wiley’s work, Blum wrote, “We have succeeded in creating a protective system that at its best protects all of us impartially. But it’s our responsibility to value and maintain that system. We still need those who will fight on the public’s behalf; we still need our own twenty-first-century version of Harvey Washington Wiley—or rather a cadre of them—to fight for those protections if we are to remain safe.”

Strangers Are Hard

Talking to strangers is harder than we like to admit

“Some books take something complicated and simplify it,” Malcolm Gladwell said. But his book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know, “is the opposite; it takes what we think is simple and complicates it.”

About strangers, Gladwell said:

  1. The modern world requires us to talk to them a lot, and
  2. Talking to them is harder than we like to admit.

“Throughout the majority of human history,” Gladwell said, “encounters—hostile or otherwise—were rarely between strangers. The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings and organized their cities in the same way you did, fought their wars with the same weapons according to the same rules. Today we are now thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own.”

For Gladwell, there are three things that make talking to strangers hard:

  • Default to truth—”Our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.”
  • Transparency—We believe that “the way [people] represent themselves on the outside…provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.”
  • Coupling—We fail to recognize that “behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.”

In order to improve our ability to interact effectively with strangers, Gladwell suggested that we:

  • Resist the temptation to distrust—”To assume the best about another is the trait that has created modern society. Those occasions when our trusting nature gets violated are tragic. But the alternative—to abandon trust as a defense against predation and deception—is worse.”
  • Learn to see beneath the surface of people—”There is no perfect mechanism…to peer, clairvoyantly, inside the minds of those we do not know….There are clues to making sense of a stranger. But attending to them requires care and attention.”
  • Recognize how surroundings influence behavior—”It is really hard for us to accept the idea that a behavior can be…closely coupled to a place….We do not understand the importance of the context in which the stranger is operating.”

Gladwell contended that we have more contact than ever with people we don’t know. This raises the stakes of the digital world’s tendency to reinforce our existing views and to diminish the quality of our face-to-face interaction. Unless we learn to make technology our slave instead of our master, our conversations can only continue to be fraught with peril.

What Pain?

Sure, someone is selling all those opiates but someone is taking them, too

I’m naive about a lot of things. Drug addiction is probably one of them.

For the record, while Psychology Today said that anxiety among addicts is “disproportionate to the rest of the population,” I tend to think that my anxiety is one of the things that makes me resistant to addiction; the thought of surrendering control of my faculties or wondering whether I owe my well-being to an intake of chemicals is terrifying to me.

I have been prescribed opiates on multiple occasions for specific pain episodes, namely kidney stones. I gratefully took the medication as prescribed and when my pain stopped, I stopped taking them.

Sam Quinones’ book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic was called an “astonishing work of reporting and writing” and received the 2015 National Book Critic Circle Award for non-fiction. After seeing it several times on library shelves, I finally started reading it to understand what I was missing about this ubiquitous story, but there remained so many things that still didn’t click for me.

Quinones spent a lot of time describing the way residents of a particular Mexican town sell heroin in American cities—allowing it to “enter the mainstream”—but nothing about that explained or excused the insatiable demand of largely white middle-class addicts for their product.

For Quinones, the unprecedented marketing of pain medication—by “legitimate” and illegitimate sources—and the changing attitudes of the medical community toward it were key to the rise of the crisis. He portrays sufferers of chronic pain—as many as 50 million Americans for whom some of the new drugs were key to living a productive life—and the doctors who sought to address their condition as primary sources of the problem.

By choosing not to emphasize the large percentage of young people who became addicts after taking pain medications recreationally, Quinones played to those who portray the epidemic as a perplexing tragedy brought about by Mexicans and their “pizza-delivery-style” marketing system. And placing blame on sufferers of chronic pain, their doctors, and drug manufacturers may well have been more acceptable than placing it on “nice white kids from excellent families.”

Opiates were developed to numb pain, as Quinones documented in detail. But as he and a police officer toured the “fine neighborhoods south of Charlotte [South Carolina] where [the officer] arrested kids for pills and heroin,” the officer asked rhetorically, “What pain?”

Certainly, a number of overwhelmed doctors, greedy drug manufacturers, and criminal elements have played a part in the opiate epidemic. But there would be no demand for their services and no payoff to be achieved if abusers weren’t willing to provide them.