Thursday, March 15

Dry Your Eyes, My Little Friend

Monday I'm driving home with Sparky in the truck bed and the CD ends and I'm just a couple miles from home so I hit the button for the radio and catch the last five minutes of Fresh Air, and it's the guy who wrote the cover story about Neurolaw in the Sunday Times Magazine, and he pisses me off in about forty-five seconds. He's talking about taking part in these studies pinpointing where certain activities are located in the brain, and he's a bit too gung-ho about it for my tastes to begin with. And then he says something like this (which I'm cribbing from the article):
Two companies, No Lie MRI and Cephos, are now competing to refine f.M.R.I. lie-detection technology so that it can be admitted in court and commercially marketed. I talked to Steven Laken, the president of Cephos, which plans to begin selling its products this year....“In lab studies, we’ve been in the 80- to 90-percent-accuracy range,” Laken says. This is similar to the accuracy rate for polygraphs, which are not considered sufficiently reliable to be allowed in most legal cases. Laken says he hopes to reach the 90-percent- to 95-percent-accuracy range — which should be high enough to satisfy the Supreme Court’s standards for the admission of scientific evidence. Judy Illes, director of Neuroethics at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, says, “I would predict that within five years, we will have technology that is sufficiently reliable at getting at the binary question of whether someone is lying that it may be utilized in certain legal settings.”

Now, first of all, let me assure you that thirty years ago people were saying exactly the same thing about the polygraph. "In the hands of the right operator it's 98% accurate". "In a few years it will be admissible in court." The world is not likely to run short of people who admire the reason-like efficiency of the standard fascist model anytime soon.

And second, let me ask the first question that pops into my head, and you guys tell me if you've already thought of it. Okay? Here:

What the fuck should we do about the pathological liars who make the laws in the first fuckin' place?

Okay, okay. We can and should expect anything whatsoever from people determined that making more money for themselves is the highest order of human achievement. It'd be nice to read some future-is-just-around-the-corner piece that suggested some new electrical gadget we could stick them into.

And yeah, sure, research is research, as Doc Mengele used to say. If it doesn't happen here it'll happen in Korea or France or Lumbago, and, anyway, you don't ever know where these things lead. Maybe it will serve to rationalize laws, spur economic justice, remove Bronze Age belief systems and the wars that follow them around. Sure.

But what I see is how it's being sold. And it's not being sold to you, dear reader, although in the five minutes I heard Mr. Rosen was being a little cagey on that point, talking about using fMRI to back divorce case contentions. It's not divorce court claimants who'll benefit, despite the Era of Universal Bliss that would undoubtedly usher in. It's governments. It's lawyers. It's multinational corporations. It's the people for whom sticking a probe in you and shutting you into a box is all in a day's work.

The article actually frets a bit about how the technology might make us less likely to execute people:
To suggest that criminals could be excused because their brains made them do it seems to imply that anyone whose brain isn’t functioning properly could be absolved of responsibility. But should judges and juries really be in the business of defining the normal or properly working brain? And since all behavior is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behavior could potentially be excused?

Oh, well, we can always fix it in software.

Is the impetus to do away with civil rights not moving quickly enough? Is waterboarding too messy, too "controversial", too first decade of the 21st century? Or is it just that the materials are too cheap and readily available?

Don't you have anything better to do? Isn't global climate change, the threat of nuclear annihilation, unaffordable health care, contaminated food supplies, wars, plagues, earthquakes, and the exploitation of children enough for you to chew on, or at least enough to give you pause? Could you at the very least try doing something about people who find fart jokes endlessly entertaining? Demonstrate some small amount of expertise, then work up from there? I mean, the track record of psychiatry is not exactly all that great. Mussolini has you beat by a train schedule, and Alabama actually stopped enslaving people before you did.

It's a prime example of what Jonathan Miller once called "the charismatic panoply of modern professional power". It's the Holy Grail. the Little Chromium Switch Here that controls everything, so long as the interpretation of its secrets remains safely in the hands of our vaunted government scientists.

"C'mon, Mr. Luddite," I hear you say--and I do, too--"get yourself a cell phone, download some ringtones, and plug into the 21st century for what little part of it you have left. Surely you admit to scientific progress? Right? They're discovering how your brain operates, where you process information, what the difference is between authentic and false memories. We're goin' back to the Moon, we're gonna make ourselves a bunch of perfectly spherical ball bearings, and there's a rainbow party at eight."

Okay, okay. The future can take care of itself. This isn't Colossus: The Forbin Project, nor even A Clockwork Orange. What disturbs me is that in the midst of the Bush administration we can still gleefully imagine that if we just give the government enough information it will protect us from terrorism, mendacious spouses, and bicycle thieves, let alone how a generation removed from Birmingham and Selma we can insist that The Law can be trusted to be impartial. Truth is binary only when we drastically restrict the conditions under which we observe it.

As for psychiatry, well, remember on Star Trek when Bones McCoy would get a snootful of Xendorkian brandy or somesuch, and start wailing how "in the 20th Century they actually cut people open! Like Proterian butchers!"? Just remembering back a few decades is all I'm askin'.

3 comments:

stAllio! said...

the other night, sci-fi showed the "to serve man" episode of the twilight zone. in the episode, the humans administer a polygraph on the alien kanamit to determine whether the kanamits' goals are truly philanthropic.

the kanamit passes the test, but this being the twilight zone, you can guess that things don't end so well.

D. Sidhe said...

"C'mon, Mr. Luddite," I hear you say--and I do, too--"get yourself a cell phone, download some ringtones, and plug into the 21st century for what little part of it you have left. Surely you admit to scientific progress? Right? They're discovering how your brain operates, where you process information, what the difference is between authentic and false memories. We're goin' back to the Moon, we're gonna make ourselves a bunch of perfectly spherical ball bearings, and there's a rainbow party at eight."

Oddly, I find myself frequently disputing the potential benefits of every item on your list. So you might be hearing someone say that, but it ain't me.

Anonymous said...

Best first sentence (blog division) ever.

Also, if they make our brains not care about shit, doesn't that make it a perfect world?

Sometimes messy things are better, or at least, less bad. We need to understand that a democracy, a free country, is kinda like a house. There's always housework. You can wash the dishes one day without being shocked that they'll need washing again the next day. And dust: dust keeps happening. And eventually the pipes and the roof and such will need fixing. That's just how it goes. I mean, who thinks that a roof repair means that you've failed, that your ethics are phony and your philosophy sucks? And who can trust anyone who promises a permanent fix?

Work, work, work. Busy, busy, busy. Every generation has to think about stuff. That's okay.

Larkspur