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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hypothetical Questions

OTA*

The study of ethics often deals with hypothetical questions, and it's always exasperating when people refuse to grasp that the conditions of a hypothetical question are provisional. For instance:

Questioner: If the world were going to end tomorrow, would you take the day off from work?

Respondant: The world's not going to end tomorrow.

Sigh.

(The answer is non-responsive, of course. The whole point of making a question hypothetical is so you don't have to get sidetracked arguing about the premises and conditions. Don't they teach this in schools?)

Amateur beekeeper pouring bees into a hive. Photo by smthng (used with permission)

Anyway, you've probably heard of an emerging potential crisis that's just beginning to catch the world's attention—colony collapse disorder (CCD). To make a long story short, bees are disappearing—abruptly, mysteriously, and in large numbers.

This issue about the bees is going to be interesting, and most of the questions I have are (as usual) hypothetical. If (provisional condition), as the most recent research suggests, it turns out that cell phones are responsible for CCD, and if (additional provisional condition) it could be demonstrated that this syndrome were going to be total, causing the collapse of human agriculture and resulting in widespread starvation, would the world's governments have the will to ban cell phones and destroy the cell phone industry? Or would we politicize the premises and gab our way straight to perdition? Hypothetical question.

One premise here that's not conditional is the importance of bees. Not to nature—to us. Here's something Albert Einstein supposedly said: "No bees, no food for mankind. The bee is the basis of life on this earth." Another quote ascribed to Einstein: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

The content of these statements is true enough—bees are essential to agriculture—but the arguments over the premises are going to be fierce. What's killing the bees? (Genetically modified crops and pesticides have also come under scrutiny for blame.) How important are bees? Unlike, say, puppies, or panda bears, most people don't have any attachment to bees. There's no helpful sentimental construct or anthropomorphic link to fit them to. (Another small trouble is that it's doubtful Einstein ever made the abovementioned statements, at least according to his most recent biographer, Walter Isaacson, former editor of TIME magazine. Einstein is one of the most frequent misattributions for quotations; whenever someone has some point to make that needs the indisputable imprimatur of science, one quick and easy way to secure such an endorsement is to ascribe it to Einstein. What they're trying to do is subvert the idiotic arguments about premises we should all know well enough to take for granted.)

When the premise seems absurd—and you only wish it were
The other side of this coin is illustrated heartrendingly by some of the responses to the calamity Monday at Virginia Tech. An item from the New York Times: "'As a parent, I am totally outraged,' said Fran Bernhards of Sterling, Va., whose daughter Kirsten attends Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, as it is formally known. 'I would like to know why the university did not immediately shut down.'"

Before the fact, the hypothetical would have had to have been constructed like this: "If you knew in advance that a shadowy anonymous murderer were going to go on a killing rampage unprecendented in modern society hours after either he or someone else murdered two people in a dorm room, would you try to close down a thriving institution of some 34,000 people (24,000 students, 10,000 university employees) after the first two murders had occurred?"

I suppose you might, although we could argue as to whether such a move would be either feasible or effective. The problem with the question is that, lacking foreknowledge, any sane person would simply have to dispute the stated condition. As a premise, it appears to be nearly as absurd as saying "If the world were going to end tomorrow...." There's utterly no way anyone could have foreseen that 30 more murders would follow the first two. Not only is it atypical, it had literally never happened before. Murders happen every day; like it or not, they do. But the police aren't in the habit of shutting down a whole city or town after a single murder, and you can't shut down a whole huge campus after two, either. It wouldn't be rational. In advance of the event, it barely makes sense even to consider it...except as a hypothetical.

If only that's all it had been. Fran Bernhards' outrage is completely understandable, but its nature is psychological—it's the result of fear and a desperate desire to believe that the horrific event of Monday was a) foreseeable and b) preventable, if only someone who should have known better or done something differently had acted in a different way. It's a desperately fond hope, something most of us would dearly love to be able to believe. Regrettably, the more probable reality is that random violence of such magnitude is unforeseeable and unpreventable, rather than the result of a essentially benevolent authority simply making a mistake.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

*Off-topic alert


ADDENDUM: I've disallowed a number of the comments about bees. Not because I don't appreciate learning about them, but because I'm feeling a bit...wounded. Rightly or wrongly, I fancy that I'm at least a fair-to-middling writer, with an above-average ability to express myself clearly. But here in this post I went way out of my way to explain exactly how, and why, my hypothetical question was not about bees. It was about responses to threats.

You know, like how the first question is not about whether the world will end tomorrow?

I guess that was not clear. I suppose I am not as articulate as I think I am. (Actually, for many years, one of the words I could never quite remember, and thus typically stumbed over in conversation, was "articulate." Maybe the gods were trying to tell me something?)

Anyway, thank you, but let's talk about the bees some other time. VT was what was really on my mind.

36 Comments:

Blogger doonster said...

So many things come to mind on this...

Would we ban mobile phones? No, because tech cos have stronger lobbies than naturalists. Don't see SUVs going any time soon, either. Argument likely to be on the lines of essential to modern age etc. Personally, I hate the things and would be quite glad to be shot of them.

On the Einstein thing - if it is his quote, then I wouldn't trust it. He was a Theoretical Physicist, not a Biologist (or even Naturalist) so was far from an expert in the field.

Actually, my personal observation suggests bees are doing well. I used to collect them as a kid (butterlfy net & a bucket). Used to see bumblers & a few honey bees. Last weekend I saw 3 bee species & a beefly (never seen one of those before) all in April, well before the normal June/July hotspot. Maybe we're not doomed?

7:42 AM  
Blogger Hoainam said...

RE: Bees. We would gab our way to perdition. Given the current administration's track record, I can't imagine them doing something that would be unprofitable for the telecommunications industry.

Even with different leadership, I don't think cell phones could be banned in a timely manner.

Leaded gasoline, for example, took more than twenty years (from 1973 to the Clean Air Act of 1996) to be phased out of normal road vehicles in the U.S. Loopholes exist, such as certain off-road vehicles having until 2008 to comply with the ban.

Worldwide there are still countries that have yet to ban leaded gasoline, despite evidence that doing so would reduce the lead in our bloodstreams.

For more depressing facts, read this:
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20000320/kitman

8:12 AM  
Blogger Max said...

On the chains of events, I see human mind has a great way of preserving sanity by twisting probability rules. Events A and B happen in sequence, and after both have already happened, the joint occurrence probability is 100% (kind of dumb, yes). B happening is what drives us mad, so we try to make or break correlation links between A and B, whichever makes us more safe, and this happens almost subconsciously. In this case, saying there was a high degree of correlation allows us to believe somebody was in charge of noticing such correlation and preventing B from happening, hence, we can be relieved of senseless pain and find someone we can blame the whole thing on.
The clue is in the perception, once both events happened, the correlation chain seems quite obvious, while in truth the "a priori" probability of B following A was not that high.
In short, in the back of our minds chains of past events might be perceived as correlated just because it protects our psyche from falling apart.
(as an example, most religious miracle perceptions are constructed a posteriori, I think)

8:48 AM  
Blogger smthng said...

Good post, odd timing... I just spent a weekend photographing a hive installation.

As for the whole CCD issue... even if it were proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that cell phones were responsible and that the effect would be absolutely no bees left alive in any modernized country, I think it would take most 1st world countries at least 10 years to do anything about it. And whatever we did wouldn't be enough, IMO.

2nd and 3rd world countries wouldn't do anything. They simply have too many other issues to deal with and would never believe the scope of the problem.

Even if it was abundantly clear that total world-wide crop failures would be a near immediate result of the whole CCD thing, I still think that the major world governments would do nothing other than whine about what they should or shouldn't do.

That's just the way humanity is, IMO. Individually, we may or may not be geniuses. Collectively, we're idiots.

Mike, if you want a few pictures of the hive install for this blog entry, you're welcome to some. Msg or email me for a link to the Flickr set (I don't want to spam your blog - bad form and all that). ;)

9:00 AM  
Blogger Stephen said...

thanks, well said both about the bees (as scary as global warming?) and virginia tech (scarier than global warming), and the larger non-hypo question of how we deal with hypothetical questions. (i'd take the day off.)

9:10 AM  
Blogger Joe Goh said...

The tragic murders on Monday are perhaps also a reminder of how different the US can be from other countries where gun related crimes are comparatively low.

Over here in Singapore, if a gunman is found to be on the loose, even if he has "just" killed a single person, no one in Singapore is going to be surprised if a country-wide search is launched immediately by the police. If the gunman is found to be on the loose in a university campus here, i'm pretty sure that the campus would be shut down very promptly. Gun related murders ARE a big deal here.

I understand that gun related murders are common in the US, but isn't that the real problem here, the fact that gun related murders can be so common to the point that police see it as "no big deal"?

Gun control or not, something must be done to curb gun related crimes in the US. US citizens may have been conditioned to treat living in a country or state where gun related murders are a daily occurance, but to the people worldwide living in countries where such events are rare - the US seems like a rather barbaric place.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Gun control or not, something must be done to curb gun related crimes in the US. US citizens may have been conditioned to treat living in a country or state where gun related murders are a daily occurance, but to the people worldwide living in countries where such events are rare - the US seems like a rather barbaric place."

Joe,
No doubt. We have decided as a society that we would rather be armed to the teeth. Suffering a high rate of gun violence is just the price we pay for that.

I don't personally agree with this, but society-wide the consensus must be very clear, and people like me have to accede to the will of the majority.

--Mike

9:39 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

smthng,
Thanks! I've used one of your pictures and linked to your Flickr page. Couldn't find your email address or name on flickr. Let me know if you want me to use your real name in the photo credit.

--Mike

9:42 AM  
Blogger dasmb said...

doonster -- the fact that you saw three kinds of bees does not mean that bees are not in decline globally, anymore than the fact that it was cold out this weekend means the average planetary temperture is not increasing.

Then, I am unusual in that I tend to be concerned by well constructed studies even if they contradict my local conditions or hopes. This is probably due to confirmation bias -- I know a lot of research scientists and think they're really cool people.

I do agree about the veracity of the Einstein quote. However, remember that he ran in a really smart crowd -- what do you think they talk about at those Princeton cocktail parties, American Idol?

9:45 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

Our inability to predict improbable events is coupled with our insistence ex post facto that the event was actually probable, predictable and preventable. A new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb discusses this very interesting question. It's called "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable".

Here's part of the description of the book from Amazon:

"A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans underlie almost everything about our world, from the rise of religions to events in our own personal lives.

Why do we not acknowledge the phenomenon of black swans until after they occur? Part of the answer, according to Taleb, is that humans are hardwired to learn specifics when they should be focused on generalities. We concentrate on things we already know and time and time again fail to take into consideration what we don’t know. We are, therefore, unable to truly estimate opportunities, too vulnerable to the impulse to simplify, narrate, and categorize, and not open enough to rewarding those who can imagine the “impossible.”"

FWIW, I have no personal connection to Taleb, his agent, his publisher or Amazon. I am a fan of his work, however and highly recommend his previous book "Fooled by Randomness".

The Amazon link to "The Black Swan" is http://www.amazon.com/Black-Swan-Impact-Highly-Improbable/dp/1400063515/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-1416148-9436018?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1176907333&sr=8-1.

9:54 AM  
Blogger smthng said...

>Couldn't find your email address or name on flickr. Let me know if you want me to use your real name in the photo credit.

Nope, "smthng" is fine. I'm sure my real name is buried in an exif tag or something somewhere, but it's not really that important to me... they're all licensed under creative commons for non-commercial re-use, so feel free.

10:09 AM  
Blogger DrCorona said...

I'm certainly not a bee expert but that is me and those are my bees in the photo. The truth about CCD is that we're not sure what the cause is. CCD predominately effects commercial pollinators. They are folks that take a tractor trailer of hives from orchard to orchard. They drop the bees of while the crop is blooming and allow the bees to do they're job. They yank the hive up after a week or so and move along to the next type of crop that is blooming. One thing about bees is that they do not like to be moved. I've been cautioned about moving my hive an inch or two. The bees have a very complex navigation system and it's not easy for them to adjust. Moving the hive makes them unhappy and if you do it to much the queen is going to get pissed and leave. If she goes they all go with her. There's a good chance CCD is just the result of moving the hives to much and upsetting the colony. Very few hobbyist and static beekeepers are affected by this. There are other considerations as well, genetically modified crops could play a role and who knows about the cell phone thing. My initial thought on cell phones is that EMF has been around on those freqs. for a long time now and I can't see the link yet.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Mike, I think your point about gun control is just about right. I live in England, where some gang related inner city gun crime has a high profile, but where the ownership of guns is very tightly controlled. So my English friends ask me why the Americans are so crazy. And you've got the answer: they take it for granted that guns are everywhere, a condition of life. In the US climate it even seems reasonable to suggest that, if everyone were armed, then there would be more security, an argument that gets a shake of the head and a change of subject here.

The real nightmare for me was the gradual arming of Sri Lankan society. When I was there in the mid 70's guns were held only by few, mostly army or police. Now guns are everywhere, plus the climate of fear created by having a lot of people walking around with the means of instant death. It was far from paradise before, at least for Sri Lankans, but now...

But for another view of guns, you might look at Rachel Papo's site, which has many beautiful and startling images of girls with firearms, though nothing remotely like an ad for anything.


http://www.serialno3817131.com/

10:25 AM  
Blogger Rory said...

As a physician, I am very disturbed that the gunman was evaluated at least once by a counseling facility, and rumour has it that he was evaluated elsewhere also. In psychiatry, there are only 2 major tenets of a patient evaluation that a psychiatrist must get right: "does this patient pose a threat to society?" And, "is this patient likely to harm himself?" If a psychiatrist / psychologist cannot meet those 2 tenets of diagnosis, he/she should be erased from the medical register, as has happened a good few times in the U.K. This boy should have been institutionalized years ago based on the accounts of his behaviour from his colleagues.

12:06 PM  
Blogger neumero4te said...

We only have to look at the drop in gun violence in Australia after they changed their laws in the 90s to see the answer to our mass-murder problem. However, Australia (and Great Britain and other countries with very strict gun laws) don't have populations as diverse as the United States'. Basically, my classmates and professors have to die so some hick can have his guns.

David Walsh, VT '07

12:16 PM  
Blogger Michael Seltzer said...

I disagree. You've phrased the hypothetical in a manner that pushes it toward the absurd. Of course, there was no way for anyone to know what was going to happen. However, there was a gunman loose, someone who had already killed twice and so had nothing left to lose (and, for instance, might fight to keep from being captured). In addition, the same information that led them to believe it was a boyfriend killing his girlfriend also indicates that he was unstable. In any other similar situation, if there was such a dangerous person on the loose, the community would likely have been warned so people could take precautions, make their own decisions about going out, etc. (I live in a mobile home park; if a killing took place in the park, and the killer had not been caught, I'd want to know so I could be careful.) Also, the police would be out in force in the areas around where the shooting took place. The authorities at Virginia Tech, as I understand it, chose not to say anything. I don't know if they beefed up the police presence or not. It seems almost as if, once they came to to the conclusion that it was a boyfriend killing his girlfriend, that they decided there was no more danger at all. So I think a better hypothetical is, "If you knew that two murders had just taken place, and the killer was still loose, would you tell others in the area and/or take some measures to try to insure the safety of those in the area around the killings?" Most likely, that wouldn't have been able to stop what came next. But at least that would've been forthright with the community, and they would have done what they could.

What happened is a tragedy. My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones; and my heart goes out to those who were in authority. If mistakes were made, they were completely innocent mistakes, and, in any event, I don't see how this could have been stopped. Further, your comments about the difficulties, and even inadvisability, of shutting down what amounts to a small city are right on target. As are you remarks that acts of violence such as this are an inherent risk of living in community with others, one that cannot be entirely eliminated. And I don't want to say or do anything that might add people's distress, as those in authority at Virginia Tech must be in right now, so this whole discussion might be happening too quickly. Nonetheless, and for the future, I wonder why nobody was told of the presence of an armed and dangerous man.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Awake said...

In regards to the Virginia mass killing, there is very little hindsight or predicting the future involved. As more information comes out, the incompetence and inaction on the part of the university authorities becomes more and more apparent. This was a situation primed for an explosion, and NOBODY took it seriously.

-- The killer was so nasty that students stopped going to classes that he attended just to stay away from him.
-- He had been remanded for involuntary psychological care but the university did nothing as a follow up (ie internal psychological monitoring)
-- Twice in the last couple of years he had been brought up on charges of stalking
-- The list goes on.

Closing the entire school after the first too shootings is ridiculous, but the point is that the first two shootings could have been avoided... if only the school had taken appropriate action. Here we have a student that goes around terrorizing other students, and he is allowed to continue attending school as if there is no problem. One of his teachers even had a "code word" specifically setup to ask for help in case the guy got violent, yet he still remained within the general school population, living in an open dorm.

Just like the US government (both Clinton and Bush) should be held accountable for their criminal negligence regarding the buildup to Sept 11, (and let's not even start with the Iraq tragedy) so should the school authorities be held liable for their lack of actions in this case.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Thomas D. said...

Very good post! This is where you shine - it's bold, and very well written! Good points, and well put into perspective. It adds food for though, and manages to be both amusing and very serious. I had nothing to add to the debate, I just wanted to thank you.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Ctein said...

Dear Mike,

Your last paragraph sums it beautifully. If only the regime in DC had understood this, we'd not be under the thumb of Home Security and the Patriot Act.

Those who say "You can't be too careful" don't understand the limits of the real world security. You can be far too careful. At the best, if you spend far more to prevent an unfortunate occurrence than what that occurrence will cost, you've been too careful ("cost" needs to be carefully defined and analyzed). If you create a false sense of complacency that prevents you from being appropriately vigilant. At the very worst, you end up being LESS secure as people responsible for security become fatigued by excessive security theater and hearing "Wolf!" cried over and over again and start tuning out legitimate signs of threat.

I strongly recommend this book:

BEYOND FEAR
by Bruce Schneier

http://www.schneier.com/book-beyondfear.html

While written for the popular lay audience, BEYOND FEAR is a bit of a slog at times. I think the narrative flow is a little clunky and sometimes one can get overwhelmed by the (fascinating!) details and anecdotes. But, once you've read the book, you'll find yourself thinking like Bruce... some, away. And that's a VERY good thing! Bruce is one of the only truly sane and grounded voices out there.

I need to disclaim that Bruce (and Karen Cooper, who he's married to) have been friends of mine since before he became a famous crypto/security star. In fact, I just had dim sum with them Sunday. They even buy my artwork from time to time.

But that doesn't color my recommendation. Life is way too short (and bookshelves too long) for me to ever recommend a book I didn't REALLY think people should read.

pax / Ctein

==========================================
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://www.ctein.com
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com
==========================================

4:35 PM  
Blogger paul said...

I would argue this has very little to do with guns per se. It has to do with an unreasonable attitude as to who among us should be restricted from access to weapons.

It has come out that the shooter was a young man with serious, documented mental problems that clearly singled him out as a clear and present danger to both himself and others.

Yet he had zero trouble buying guns. Because the prevailing attitude is that ANY restrictions on weapons ownership will lead directly to mass confiscation of weapons. Which is ridiculous.

Background check and waiting period laws with real teeth could have prevented this incident (or at least have made it much harder to execute) without infringing on the rights (real or imagined) of responsible gun owners.

But the attitude of both the NRA and gun rights-supporting politicians seems to be: If you can sign your name, you have an inalienable right to own as many guns as you want.

That's insane. As a responsible gun owner, I want that to change NOW. Because if things remain as they are, eventually there will be a lot more avoidable incidents of this type and a majority for confiscatory legislation.

It has come out in the coverage of the VT incident that the federal government may have a database of every drug prescription ever filled in this country. I think most of us would agree that is a hell of a lot more frightening and a much greater threat to our freedom than the idea of keeping a database of people who are too unstable to own guns.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"This boy should have been institutionalized years ago based on the accounts of his behaviour from his colleagues."

Except that...many of our institutions stand empty and abandoned. Many of our mentally ill live on the street (or die there). What's the protocol for involuntarily "institutionalizing" someone these days in America? Can it be done? Do such institutions exist? Are students routinely referred to such places at our universities? I don't know the answers to any of these questions.

--Mike

10:13 PM  
Blogger tim atherton said...

On Virginia Tech, sadly it would seem the University was either unprepared or didn't follow established protocols.

Standard procedures and protocols developed and put in place following other school and college shooting (Columbine, Montreal etc) would have led - following the initial two shootings - to the incident being re-classified from a stand alone assault (e.g. an isolated domestic incident) to being an attack (or potential attack) on the institution.

As the attacker had not been located, this should automatically have set off a whole chain of events and procedures form warnings, to lock-downs, to evacuations and such.

Unfortunately this was not done.

That the emergency and first response teams followed other aspects of these new procedures with regard to the second wave of shooting (i.e. not remaining outside and containing the scene, but moving directly into the building to attempt to directly interdict the shooter) shows that they were fully aware of these procedures.

Somewhere around the first two shootings someone (university police/administration, city police/state police??) dropped the ball - very badly.

Chances are a big part of this could have been prevented if such protocols had been followed and acted upon.

Someone is at fault because they either weren't acted on or weren't in place (the latter is doubtful - and if it actually is so is also a serious failure)

The authorities should also already have had a heightened level of awareness following the two earlier bomb threats - especially when combined with April being the most high risk month for such incidents.

A large part of this may well have been preventable

10:55 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Re Awake's and Michael Seltzer's comments, I have a personal experience that might shed a little light on their contentions. When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I wrote a weekly column for the student newspaper, the "Daily D." One week, my column was about an incident that happened at the bus station in an adjacent town (thus, off campus). Three drunk Dartmouth students had gone on a rampage in the little coffee shop in the bus station. It was no prank, not mere high spirits--they ruined a lot of merchandise, squirted ketchup all over everywhere, broke glasses and plates, threatened the waitresses, and even ripped several anchored bar stools out of the floor. The two waitresses were so terrified that they locked themselves in the walk-in freezer.

Well, the local police were called, arrested the three students, and took them to jail. The next day, however, the college bailed the students out, paid for the damages, and negotiated with the local authorities to have the charges dropped.

I interveiwed the waitresses, one of whom was really furious, and bitter that the crime had been "covered up" by the college, and that the students "wouldn't pay." She made the excellent point that if her nephew, who was the same age but not a college student, had done the same things, he would be charged, tried, and would probably have ended up in jail. I couln't disagree.

My column--an opinion column, mind you--merely made the case that when students committed crimes on campus, maybe the college had the right to cover up, but that when they committed crimes in public off campus, their actions affected the reputation of the student body in general, and the local law enforcement authorities should be allowed to determine the consequences like they would with any other citizens.

Cut to very early on Saturday morning, about 7 a.m. I got a phone call in my dorm from the Dean of Students, who told me he had read my column and that he "could not let it go unanswered." He asked me to come to his office later that morning. I assumed I would be questioned about my sources, or asked to clarify my views, or something. I didn't even suspect what was really in store for me.

But no. When I arrived at the Dean's office, I was asked to take a seat, alone, on one side of a large table. On the other side were no fewer than seven faculty members and college officials. *I* was reprimanded and threatened with *expulsion* for "making the college look bad!" They felt that it was the college's perogative to punish the wrongdoers from the coffee shop, which they had done by meting out 4-day suspensions to all three individuals. By drawing attention to the matter, *I* was the one who had dishonored the college and stained the reputation of the student body, etc., etc., all the things that I said the culprits had done.

So the three students who trashed the bus station coffee shop got off with four days of no classes, but for writing about it, I could get thrown out of college altogether.

I later received a call from a music professor. He had been one of the seven on the other side of the table. Apparently the group had been heatedly discussing the situation before I arrived that morning. He mentioned that one of the deans was in hot water because it was his job to "review" (that is, censor) the contents of the student publications before they were published, and he had missed my column (because, um, I had turned it in late). This faculty member told me that he agreed with my position. But he also said I shouldn't tell anyone that he had called me, because he could get in trouble for contacting me, and that if I quoted him he would deny it.

This experience is right in line with several others I knew about as a teacher. The implication is clear--schools have a vested interest in downplaying anything that's bad for their image.

If anything is to blame for the fact that other students weren't warned, it is most probably this aspect of institutional culture. The last thing any college or University wants is a murder or any other violent crime to happen on its watch, but the second-to-last thing it wants is to blare the news all over campus and call a lot of attention to it. I imagine that part of the equation that morning was how best to keep things quiet, not how to advertise the double murder to the whole university community.

--Mike

11:07 PM  
Blogger Rory said...

Yes, individuals can be held against their will for an average period of about 15 days in the US (depending on the state) pending a formal psychiatric evaluation. Any physician or psychologist can confer an "emergency certificate" on a patient who they deem to be a danger to himself/herself or to society. The law is a bit different in the U.K. The fear of patient litigation may deter some doctors in the US, I guess. In the UK, the law is more lenient to physicians who err on the side of caution with regards to detaining someone who may be deemed dangerous. The converse is not true, however: letting someone go loose who may be deemed dangerous is considered very poor medical pracitise.

1:30 AM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

In response to your first hypothetical question: no, governments would not ban cell phones. Are you going to summarize the results?

2:32 AM  
Blogger adamei said...

Mike,
I think you were perfectly articulate about the bee situation providing an apt way of looking at the VT situation and responses.

However, random human violence is kind of an undocumented feature of the species (well, actually I guess it's been pretty well-documented we just have a hard time accepting it). However the VT events, appalling as they are don't really teach us anything. I don't even think they call for new security measures (that could be way wrong of course - but your point about closing down the campus for highly unpredictable mayhem is a fair one). Humans sometimes go unaccountably haywire.

The bee story, however, was news to me and the truly interesting thing about it is how a pesky insect could turn out to be so absolutely indispensable. There's nothing you can really say about Virginia Tech it's just too awful and meaningless. There's plenty to mull over with the bees, however - I'm guessing that's why you got the responses you did.

8:29 AM  
Blogger smthng said...

Sorry about the bee sidetracking comments... at the time I could easily wrap my head around the bee issue. I cannot say the same applies to the VT issue. It's just easier for some people to deal with one than the other.

The VT issue is a tragedy, no matter how you look at it. It will affect the college, if not all colleges and society in general for years to come. However, I don't believe for a second that the issue has anything to do with security, gun control, police response or any of the other general issues that are being discussed in the media. It's about individuals and society.

In our culture, freedom is a fundamental right... while it's occasionally trampled because people can't be bothered to stand up for it, it's still there. EVERYONE (except convicted fellows and a few other select groups) has the complete freedom to be a jerk, creep out other students, write and produce morbid plays and stories, pose in pictures showing massive amounts of firearms, seek and/or refuse psychological counseling, etc. In our society, unless it can be PROVEN that a person is a danger to the rest of the society, that person can generally do what he/she wants. That's just the way this country works (ok, most of the time).

Even though the shooter displayed "warning signs", there's not much anyone can do about it. If we lock up every creepy or freaky individual out there, the country would fall apart. Freaks abound and have the right to be freaky.

Personally, I don't think there's anything our society can do to better handle situations like the VT incident. We can't stop people from being individual (weird) and we can't protect everyone from every possibility all the time.

Stuff happens. There are always death and disaster lurking around every corner. That's just a part of life. Unfortunately, it's pretty near to impossible to stop anyone who's willing to go to any extreme. Terrorists, nutjobs... whatever. If someone is willing to do ANYTHING, including die, for a cause (especially a personal cause), there's no real defense for society as a whole. That's just the way life is. Eventually, more of the average population will figure that out and we'll stop spending all our time and resources putting up band-aids.

8:31 AM  
Blogger Dave Jenkins said...

This is obviously not a very popular viewpoint here, but facts speak for themselves.

In a comprehensive study of all public, multiple-shooting incidents in America between 1977 and 1999, the economists John Lott and Bill
Landes found that laws permitting the carrying of concealed weapons
were the only laws that had any beneficial effect.

How effective were these laws? States that allowed citizens to carry concealed handguns reduced multiple-shooting attacks by 60 percent and reduced the death and injury from these attacks by nearly 80 percent.

The reason schools are consistently popular targets for mass murderers
is because of "Gun-Free School Zone" laws. The other major "Gun-Free Zone" in America is the post office.

The gun-free rule at VT did not keep "Ismail Ax" (as the killer called himself -- what does that signify, do you think?) from bringing in a gun and killing 32 people. It only kept someone from ending the slaughter before so many died.

12:20 PM  
Blogger doonster said...

Interestingly, I've been doing a course today on safety managemtn & assement, the nature of hazards and risk and control thereof.
Quite a lot was discussed on the different approaches of individuals and governments to apparant risks versus to defence of rights.
General conclusion is that in the US, there is much more focus on protection of rights than providing protection: if you want people to comply, hit them in the wallet. UK & Europe tend to fall towards protection. Examples such as seatbelts and mobile phones when driving highlight the point.

I think the VT incident runs somewhat in this vein. NRA/gun lobby seem to be focussing on the 2nd amend't right to bear, missing the 2 other key points therein - well ordered militia and protection of the State.

Anytime there is a pervasive opinion that individual rights stand above societal rights/protection things will not change. About the only thing that forces a change in opinion is the killing of 100s or 1000s.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Al Benas said...

I have been following CNN coverage of the Tech incident since the first hours. They almost immediately assigned blame to the campus officials for not warning everyone. I spent my college career on that campus; 90% of my classes for my last 2 years were in Norris Hall. It was a big campus then, and more has been added since I left, than existed when I was there. The academic quad has many classroom buildings in very close proximity to each other. Why did the killer pick Norris instead of McBryde, Patton, Randolph, etc.? While the police could have been "locking" down this small city, the killer calmly walked to the post office and mailed off his manifesto. Should we wonder why the postal clerk didn't alert authorities about a student that "express" mails a letter to a major TV network? With so much tragedy, there's got to be someone to blame!

As more and more FACTs about this incident come out, my candidate is our political culture and healthcare industry that looks askance at mental health. Check your medical insurance, if you can afford it, for the segment that has the worst coverage. I'll bet it's mental health. In my area, there was a court case about a young man who wanted to treat his cancer with alternative medicine. The courts decided that he couldn't take a chance on dying - one person - and had to take the normal, medically recognized treatments. Yet Mr. Cho could check himself out of a mental institution so that he could kill 32 innocent other people. Smoking kills, heart disease kills, cancer kills, drug abuse kills, but so can severe mental health problems - and the ones killed by the mental problems are not just the patient. I don't know the answer, but it's not "his right to privacy and insanity." We, as a country, must find a way to address these issues.

I once took a management course that discussed an underperforming subordinate. Was he unsatisfied in his work environment, or was he dissatisfied by his nonwork environment? This type of analysis can be applied to many different situations. Why did Mr. Cho feel diconnected? Why did his "employers" (teachers, parents, associates, etc.) ignore the signs?

Al Benas, VT '64

8:16 PM  
Blogger Michael Seltzer said...

Mike, your experience at Dartmouth is frightening, dismaying and infuriating. And it never even occurred to me that such an attitude could be a possibility at VT. I have a fairly long history with the local university (35 years), and am unaware of any time when the administration chose to keep something quiet to protect the reputation of the U. Of course, if they had done so, and done it well, I might not know. And certainly we've never had anything like what happened at VT happen here. We've had some deaths, but only one I can think of that was premeditated murder. The rest were either suicides or the result of stupidity. And I am aware of several times when the administration thought there was a situation that was potentially dangerous and quickly got the word out about what exactly was going on and that people needed to be cautious (in fact we just got such a warning). We are a State university, and do not have anything like the reputation of the Ivy League schools, so maybe that has something to do with it. Nonetheless, if in fact such an attitude as you described had anything to with the decision not to warn people at VT, then the authorities their have lost any sympathy I may have had for them.

10:58 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Hi Dave,
Look, I know you and I know you're a good guy, but the unpopularity of that viewpoint is hardly its major defect. You're seriously proposing that arming every University student in America would result in FEWER gun deaths?

As one of my English friends said of just such a situation, "Just the frat parties don't bear thinking about."

Besides, the picture that's emerging is one of clear warning signs that were simply not acted upon--as well as insufficient background checks in the purchase of the handguns involved. For more on the former, read the article "Anger of Killer was on Exhibit in his Writings" in today's Times.

--Mike

7:11 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Michael S.,
I'm generally not one to freely cast blame for events ex post facto, as I feel it's usually too pat and convenient to do so. However, the picture that's emerging appears to be one of administrative inaction and of a fractured, uncoordinated response on the part of VT to clear warning signs. The NYT is reporting this morning that a group of Cho's English teachers had actually formed an ad hoc committee to try to work out how to deal with him. Nikki Giovanni even refused to let him come to her classes! There seem to have been many warning signs which, taken altogether, would have been sufficient to have had him remanded to care. In a society with more reasonable limits on gun ownership, they should have been enough to have prevented from buying guns.

Incidentally, it's come out on the news here that a gun dealer in Green Bay, Wisconsin, sold him one of the guns, over the internet.

--Mike

7:51 AM  
Blogger Awake said...

Yeah... that's what we need... arm everybody with guns... then when the shooting starts, everybody can go wild, shooting each other since they have no clue, training, instinct or coordination as to what they are doing. Then the police can show up, and have no clue who the real shooter is, since everyone is going around shooting.
Instead of 32 dead (I refuse to include the shooter in the count), we would have 322 dead.
"Look, he is shooting! Shoot him, Shoot him!"
Between 2000 and 2004 there were 148,000 gun deaths in the USA. (Source: government CDC official statistics) During the same time frame there were about 250,000 vehicle related deaths. That is an amazing statistic... it means that you are 70% as likely to die from a gunshot as you are from a vehicle accident. Ban cars you say smugly? Well,the difference is that almost every vehicle death is a true accident, while almost every gun related death is intentional. Big difference.
And the 148,000 deaths over 5 years does not include gun related injuries. Assuming that one out of three gun accidents actually results in death, about 1/2 MILLION gun related injuries would take place over a 5 year period.
And there are people that want to extend the availability of guns?

9:15 AM  
Blogger rob povey said...

Gab our way to perdition!! Definately.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Raphael Aizan said...

i think we're going to see a change in how people react to terrible events. in the same way people wouldn't have expected a second plane to hit the south tower on 9/11, nobody expected a second, much larger rampage after the first two murders at virginia tech. nobody's going to want to take chances, especially on large scales.

1:09 PM  

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