Rely on Reason

It is important for us to rely upon facts as the realm of mystic and faith is vulnerable to abuse and manipulation. To support this, I draw upon Galileo’s experience and the myth of Apophis.

Galileo

In 1615, Galileo discovered that “the sun remains motionless at the center of the revolutions of the celestial globes, and that the earth both turns on its own axis and revolves around the sun.”

As the discovery contradicted commonly held views, detractors began to “spread abroad the idea that these propositions are contrary to Holy Scripture and therefore to be condemned as heretical” and they found “others who were prepared to declare from the pulpit, with uncharacteristic confidence, that they were indeed to be condemned as heretical.” […]

In addition, “They pretend not to know that its author – or rather the one who revived and confirmed it – was Nicolaus Copernicus, a man who was not just a Catholic but a priest and a canon.” […]

Hence Galileo had no choice but to make a case for himself. He remarked, “It seems to me that the starting point in disputes concerning problems in natural science should not be the authority of scriptural texts but the experience of the senses and necessary demonstrations. For while Holy Scripture and nature proceed alike from the divine word…it is agreed that Scripture, in order to be understood by the multitude, says many things which are apparently and in the literal sense of the words at variance with absolute truth. Nature, on the other hand, never transgresses the laws to which it is subject, but is inexorable and unchanging, quite indifferent to whether its hidden reasons and ways of working are accessible to human understanding or not.” […]

“So I do beg these most prudent Fathers to consider very carefully the difference between statements that are a matter of opinion and those which can be demonstrated. If they keep in mind the strength of logical deduction, they will better understand why it is not in the power of those who profess the demonstrative sciences to change their opinion at will.”

The unbending spirit of Galileo in his maintenance of scientific observation and truth, reminds us that we should too be fact finders and defend truth with reason.

Apophis

In Ancient Egypt, Apophis or Apep was the spirit of evil, darkness and destruction who threatened to destroy the sun god, Ra.  It was associated with several frightening natural events, such as the unexplained darkness of the solar eclipse, storms and earthquakes. It was depicted as a huge serpent, all-powerful and impossible to overcome.

To defeat Apep, priests of Ra would conduct an annual ritual: “Banishing Apep”. An effigy of Apep would be taken into the temple and imbued with all of the evil of the land. The effigy would then beaten, crushed smeared with mud and burned.

After learning of this myth, I felt great sympathy for Apep. It was the scapegoat for all that it could not control; its name cursed and its image crucified for natural events that were bound to happen. Hence, it is important to have knowledge. We have come a long way from the times of Gods and myths, but our human nature remains the same. We still retain some irrational fear, some imagination; yet all must be in moderation and reason shall inform most of our modern lives.

Lovaas’ Punishment of Electric Shock

As gleaned from the book, NeuroTribes:

In the book, Science and Human Behaviour (1951), B. F. Skinner cautioned on the use of aversive. He explained that while aversive may seem to stop undesirable behaviour quickly, the behaviour often returns with a vengeance after the punishment stops, because one has not been taught more adaptive ways to behave. Also, punishment creates fear, guilt and shame, resulting in less learning overall. 

Skinner also advised against the use of aversive in research. He propounded, “In the long run, punishment, unlike reinforcement, works to the disadvantage of both the punished organism and the punishing agency.” 

O. I. Lovaas disregarded the advice when working with Beth, an autistic child. He punished her for a range of behaviour that included hand flapping, rocking, spinning and other forms of self-stimulation. Based on his own experiments, he concluded that stimming made autistic children less sensitive to sounds, which hindered learning. He also believed that extinguishing this “garbage behaviour” would reduce a major source of stigma for autistic people and their families. 

Eventually, researchers would discover that autistic people stim to reduce anxiety – and also simply because it feels good. In fact, harmless forms of self-stimulation may facilitate learning by freeing up executive-functioning resources in the brain that would otherwise be devoted to suppressing them. 

[This reinforces my previous post on the importance of skepticism towards authority.]

After Lovaas’ work with Beth, he conducted a series of experiments with a pair of five year old twin boys named Mike and Marty.

For one of his first rounds of experiments, his punishment was exceptionally loud sound. He aimed blasts of “well over 100” decibels at them – comparable to the roaring of a power saw at close range. His aim was to produce “pain or fear” so that they may learn to seek safety in adults. The results were disappointing as the twins did not respond to the punishment that could have caused physical damage to the eardrum

Hence, Lovaas turned to electric shock. He argued, “It is important to note, in view of the moral and ethical reasons which might preclude the use of electric shock, that their future was certain institutionalisation.”

He taped strips of metal foil to the floor and wired them to a modified Faraday coil. When the grad students tested the aversive barefooted, they remarked that it was “definitely painful and frightening”.

In a typical round of trials, a researcher would say “Come here,” beckoning to the boy with outstretched arms. If he didn’t approach within three seconds, he would get a shock. The same procedure was repeated over and over again, for hundreds of trials. In just a few sessions, the twins learned to jump into the researchers’ arms to avoid the painful shocks. Lovaas deemed these experiments a stunning success.

In a subsequent round of trials, instead of the electrified floor, he employed a remote-controlled device (used in canine obedience tests) affixed to the boys’ buttocks. A researcher would ask either twin to  “hug me” or “kiss me” and apply shock if the boy didn’t do so in three seconds. Lovaas noted that their behaviour “changed markedly toward increased affection.”

Next, Lovaas subjected the twins to strict behaviourist diet: no food at all, seven days a week, but the token scraps earned by performing a complex social task while pressing a bar to avoid shock. Water deprivation was also stringently enforced. 

In order to legitimise his unorthodox techniques, he invited members of the press down to the lab to watch him in action. Before his demonstration, he showed them footage of children who had attempted to chew through their own limbs or bite off their nails with their teeth. His message was clear: This is what autism looks like if it is left untreated. 

Even journalists who might normally be troubled by the use of electric shock, were persuaded by his solemn pronouncements that “No one punishes who isn’t prepared to devote a major part of his life to that child. Nobody punishes a child who doesn’t also love that child.” One reporter was so impressed that he dubbed Lovaas a visionary – a “poet with a cattle prod”. 

Life magazine brought Lovaas to international fame with a profile that ran under the headline “Screams, Slaps, and Love.” It praised his work as “a surprising, shocking treatment that helps far-gone mental cripples” and the article shaped public perceptions of autism for decades to come.

It is clear to our conscience that the above punishments amount to abuse. It is appalling that many doctors, researchers, students, journalists and parents deemed these methods as acceptable. Hence, it is important to gain more information across sources and regard loud voices – of authority, of media – with circumspect. Also, one needs to form one’s own moral and ethical judgment by reading more.

Furthermore, the use of electric shock tools is not just a question of “Is this ethical when used on a child deemed mentally handicapped?”; it is also a question of “Is this ethical at all?” The response of the child mimicked that of an animal: I would do anything to avoid pain. What makes it unacceptable in the former and acceptable in the latter? 

Why we should not rely on authority blindly

Why do we rely upon authority – as if their words are absolute truths – when history has proven that theorists can be gravely mistaken? Arguably, we should rely on the quality of argument (and evidence) rather than the mouth from which it is uttered. 

Below, we look at how the concept of autism developed (as gleaned from NeuroTribes):

In the 1940s, Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger expounded on autism, at about the same. However, their concept, attitude and perception were dissimilar.

Concept

Kanner focused only on the first years of childhood. Adults and teenagers were not considered. Instead of presenting his syndrome as a broad spectrum with widely varying manifestations, Kanner framed his patients as a strictly defined and monolithic group.

On the other hand, Asperger defined autism as a broad and inclusive spectrum that was “not at all rare”.

Attitude

Asperger saw threads of genius of disability inextricably intertwined in his patients’ family histories – testifying to the complex genetic roots of their condition and the “social value of this personality type”.

In contrast, Kanner saw the shadow of the sinister figure that would become infamous in popular culture as the “refrigerator mother.”

Perception

Asperger recognised his patients’ behaviour as a specialised form of intelligence systematically acquiring data in a confusing world. 

In contrast, Kanner interpreted his patients’ behaviour to be the result of poor parental treatment. These patients’ unusual fascinations and extraordinary memories were to him, a desperate bid for parental affection. He theorised that overambitious parents had “stuffed” the impressionable minds with useless information to bolster their own egos.

He would conclude “For the most part, the parents, grandparents and collaterals are persons strongly preoccupied with abstractions of a scientific, literary or artistic nature, and limited in genuine interest in people. This much is certain… In the whole group, there are very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers. Even some of the happiest marriages are rather cold and formal affairs.”

While emphasising the likelihood that autism was innate and inborn, he too suggested that these children had been pushed into mental illness by their selfish, compulsive and emotionally frosty parents. This made his syndrome a source of shame and stigma for families worldwide while sending autism research off in the wrong direction for decades.

It is likely that his perception was influenced by the concept of the “schizophrenogenic mother” This concept bloomed amidst cultural anxieties in the post World War I era, when women who had been previously subservient and self-effacing began cutting their hair short, smoking cigarettes, demanding the right to vote, and taking jobs in fields like education that had been formerly reserved for men, replacing them as primary breadwinners in many families. Hence, the insecurity with regards to changing women evolved into the “refrigerator mother”. 

A Forgotten Epidemic

Encephalitis, also known as acquired brain injury, is an inflammation of the brain. Most of the types of encephalitis are caused by viral infection. 

Between 1915 and 1926, an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica spread throughout the world, affecting five million people, a third of whom died in acute stages. Those who survived were conscious but not fully awake – sitting motionless and speechless all day, lacking motivation to do anything. 

In the spring and summer of 1969, the late Dr Oliver Sacks began to use the drug, L-Dopa at Mount Carmel – a total palliative care centre. This sparked the “awakening” of fifty individuals. They emerged from their decades-long isolation and find themselves back in the world. They all began to dance and talk together, and delighted in each other’s daily-increasing health and vitality. There was communal health, of shared excitement and hope.

However, in September, there emerged tribulations of all sorts. Some suffered treacherous side-effects of L-Dopa, such as respiratory crises, while others to their own regressive needs. In the small wards, the despondency would spread from one to another. Every setback then aroused fear in others and every discouragement a blow to the morale of the community. The atmosphere of the ward, its mood, became all important.

The condition of encephalitis lethargica is poignantly expressed in the following recounts.

“Nothing, just nothing.” Miss R would say when asked what she was thinking about.

“I think of a thought, and it’s suddenly gone – like having a picture whipped out of its frame. Or I try to picture something in my mind, but the picture dissolves as fast as I can make it. I have a particular idea, but can’t keep it in mind; and then I lose the general idea; and then the general idea of a general idea; and in two or three jumps my mind is a blank – all my thoughts gone, blanked out or erased.” – Miss R

“She seems to have no appetite for anything, really no appetite for living.” wrote the speech-pathologist, Miss Kohl.

It is a wonder how the world can forget such a moment in history – when a strange disease stole the lives of millions, and for which a cause has yet to be determined. Also, it serves the question of “Should life be sustained, when all hope seems lost? Especially since these cases have shown that recovery is possible after a frozen state of 50 odd years.”

On John and Jacqueline Kennedy

If a film so provoked my interest, I have to research about it. Here’s what I found after watching Jackie (2016).

John F. Kennedy, in his pursuit of young Jacqueline Lee Bouvier,  gave her several French books to translate for him. Poor Jacqueline, much in love with him, spent months labouring for him. They married in 1953.

Unlike John, who was candid, charming and a people person, Jacqueline was an introvert who preferred to read and write. When John became the 35th President of the United States, she had to step into the limelight. Her shy demeanour was obvious as she gave her first awkward waves from the car.

During the political career, John was ridden with copious amount of stress, with meetings after meetings. In 1961, he faced his first defeat. He sent 1500 U.S. trained Cubans to the Bay of Pigs, with the intention to spur a rebellion which would overthrow the communist leader Fidel Castro. It was a failure. The Cuban government captured or killed the exiles and he was forced to negotiate for the release of the 1189 survivors. His wasting of lives, of these men brought him to tears, according to Jacqueline.

In his years of service, John’s back problem returned with a vengeance. He had to walk with crutches and manage his pain throughout long hours of meetings or travel. Jacqueline said “I felt so sad for him.”

Often, Jacqueline accompanied him as they met leaders around the world. In later accounts, she would reveal her fiercely truthful opinion of these people. She once noted that Martin Luther King was “a tricky” person, and that she hates “all french people. They are all for themselves.” Her perceptive accounts of people, and her ability to bring them into conversation, brought many advantages to John’s career.

For the White House, she had not merely spent the people’s money for vanity. She refurbished objects of historical value, in order to piece together a narrative for America. So meticulous was she in her observation that she noticed similarities in engravings of different furnitures. She later put them next to each other to form a coherent picture. She had a true taste in Art, and the historical and cultural knowledge to back it up. The photographs before and after her work, are astounding.

Unfortunately, John was assassinated on 22 November 1963. The second bullet collided with and chipped off part of his skull, leaving a gaping hole. He slumped over onto Jacqueline’s lap. Later, Jacqueline returned to the plane and refused to change out of her blood-stained pink suit. She wanted the world to see the violence committed against her husband. Even after the traumatic experience, she remained under control and held herself in dignity.

In the aftermath of the assassination, she made the decision to have a funeral procession, in order to honour the legacy of her husband. Not since the funeral of Britain’s King Edward VII in 1910 had there been such a large gathering of presidents, prime ministers and royalty at a state funeral. Even in the midst of huge security concerns, the new president Lyndon Johnson, marched behind the caisson.

Sadly, this was not the last Kennedy funeral Jacqueline would attend. On 5 June 1968, John’s younger brother, Robert Francis “Bobby” Kennedy, was assassinated. He was fatally shot in the head by a Palestinian immigrant, just because of his “sole support of Israel and his deliberate attempt to send those 50 bombers to Israel to obviously do harm to the Palestinians”. The date of the assassination was the first anniversary of the start of the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours. In the war, about 1000 Israelis were killed, whereas about 15000 Egyptians, 6000 Jordanians, 2500 Syrians  were killed.  Perhaps, we can begin to understand his reckless hatred.

In a world of conflict, people in positions of power will always bear the risk and consequence of their decisions.

Hans Asperger – A Man with a Conviction

In 1943, the University of Vienna was merely a shadow of itself – of the nearly two hundred senior members of the medical faculty, fewer than fifty remained. Some had been forced to flee the country, some were in exile, imprisoned in concentration camps or dead of suicide.

In the period of fanatic Nazism, of eradicating persons who are “life unworthy of life”, Hans Asperger stood firm and propounded his belief that autistic children are not “defects”.

In his thesis, “Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood, 1944”, he wrote:

“The example of autism shows particularly well how even abnormal personalities can be capable of development and adjustment. Possibilities of social integration which one would never have dreamt of may arise in the course of development. This knowledge determines our attitude towards complicated individuals of this and other types. It also gives us the right and the duty to speak out for these children with the whole force of our personality.”

On October 3, 1938, he gave the first public talk on autism in history, in a lecture hall filled with swastikas. He remarked:

“Today, let me not discuss the problem from the point of view of the people’s health, for then we would have to discuss the laws for the prevention of diseased genetic material; instead we will address it from the point of view of the abnormal children. How much can we do for these people? That shall be our question…Not everything that steps out of the line, and is thus ‘abnormal’, must necessarily be ‘inferior’.”

The gravity of his words hits one, when one takes into account the social and political context. His courage to stand alone in the face of colleagues who have lost their rationality and humanity, shows extraordinary strength of character. His fearlessness in conviction and compassion, should be written in history.

To find out more, read NeuroTribes.

Eugenics vs Euthanasia

In light of information gleaned from Chapter 11, The Gene, I shall revisit my previous post on  whether severely disabled children may be euthanised.

In 1933, the Nazis enacted the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. The law mandated that “Anyone suffering from a hereditary disease can be sterilised by a surgical operation.” An initial list included mental deficiency, schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, blindness, deafness and serious deformities. The law stated that “Once the Court has decided on sterilisation, the operation must be carried out even against the will of the person to be sterilised…where other measures are insufficient, direct force may be used.”

The slip from sterilisation to outright murder came virtually unannounced and unnoticed. In 1939, Richard and Lina Kretschmar petitioned Hitler to allow them to euthanise their child, Gerhard. Eleven months old, Gerhard had been born blind and with deformed limbs. The parents – ardent Nazis – hoped to service their nation by eliminating their child from the nation’s genetic heritage. Sensing his chance to ramp up gene-cleansing efforts, Hitler approved the killed of Gerhard. 

To justify the exterminations, the Nazis had already begun to describe the victims using the euphemism lebensunwertes Leben – lives unworthy of living.

The killing began with “defective” children under three years of age, but by September 1939 had expanded to adolescents. Juvenile delinquents were slipped onto the list next. Jewish children were disproportionately targeted – forcibly examined by state doctors, labeled “genetically sick” and exterminated, often on the most minor pretexts.

By October 1939, the program was expanded to include adults. 

The eugenics movement in 1933 differs starkly from euthanasia in terms of purpose. The former sought to produce a superior society by means of genetic selection while the latter seeks to relieve an individual from suffering. Thence, the former encompassed a broader scope of illnesses, many of which will not fall under the eligibility criteria of euthanasia. Furthermore, while the courts were able to order involuntary sterilisation, euthanasia of adults must be voluntary, with full and informed consent. This then begs the question of whether severely disabled children may be euthanised.

Firstly, can severely disabled children possess a will to live? If yes, how can we determine that will? If the will to live is determined, arguably, involuntary euthanasia will be ethically and morally wrong.

In 1939, Gerhard Kretschmar was involuntarily euthanised. Today, he would have failed the first of four requirements, which is the presence of hopeless and unbearable suffering. As society has progressed over the years, more has been devised to improve the lives of others such that suffering may be bearable and life, of hope. More importantly, the purpose of involuntary euthanasia today lies in the interest of the child, and not the parents’ or the state’s.

In order not to slip into humanity’s horrific past, power must not go unchecked and unchallenged. The horror of the Nazi era began when the German parliament endorsed the Enabling Act, granting Hitler unprecedented power to enact laws without parliamentary involvement. Support for genetic cleansing grew due to state-controlled media, propagating only one side of the story. The slip of judiciary and medical judgement was likely due to the political and psychological environment of the Nazi reign. Hence, one should not trust fully and blindly the systems of power, but question with one’s own conscience.