On the dangers of reading.

On the dangers of reading.

During most of human evolution, children died regularly.  In some cultures, the risk was so high that children weren’t named until they’d survived their second birthday.

But the advent of modern medicine – vaccines, antibiotics, sterile technique – has dramatically reduced childhood mortality.  Wealthy parents in the U.S. expect their children to survive.  And yet, this expectation can increase anxiety.  Families are smaller; children are less replaceable.  Parents pour so much of themselves into children’s early years that we’d be devastated if something went wrong.

And so modern parents hover.  Rather than letting children roam free, comforted by the thought that out of six kids, surely one will be fine, wealthy parents in the U.S. strive to control the development of their one or two offspring.

In the book On Immunity, Eula Biss describes how difficult it can be to relinquish that control.

CaptureI already practiced some intuitive toxicology before my pregnancy, but I became thoroughly immersed in it after my son was born.  As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory.  Caught up in the romance of the untainted body, I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time.  “Unclean!  Unclean!” my mind screamed.

Because I didn’t breastfeed my child, I glossed over this passage when I first read it.  Even early on, I sometimes used water to dilute the milk that my partner pumped at work – when my kid was thirsty, I needed to offer something.

But I found myself thinking about this passage recently, when our eldest learned to read.  Our family loves books – we’ve probably read to our children for an hour or more each day, and they spend more time flipping through the pages on their own.

When I read to my kids, I reflexively alter texts.  In our version of James Marshall’s Fox on the Job, Fox had a bicycle accident while showing off for “his friends,” not “the girls.”  In Fox is Famous, a character bemoans the challenges of baton twirling by saying “I’m just not good at this yet,” that (unprinted) final word used to convey a growth mindset.

Go_dog_go_hat.jpgAnd our kids would probably be puzzled by Raquel D’Apice’s essay about Go Dog Go because the voices I’ve used while reading led them to assume that the pink poodle was a fashionable male asking a female friend for advice (“Well, maybe he doesn’t have a mirror at home,” I explained when N was curious, “Why does he keep asking that?”).

I could control the stereotypes that my children were fed.

But books are dangerous!  At the beginning of summer, our eldest learned how to read.  A week later, I hid all the Calvin and Hobbes.  She loves these!  So do I.  But four is too young to really understand concepts like “irony” or “anti-hero” – her behavior promptly tanked in mimicry of Calvin.

About a week after that, I hid the Peanuts.  And Garfield (“He shouldn’t kick Odie off the table, right?  Just like you shouldn’t have hit your sibling”).

She loves comics, but the only books we kept out were good, wholesome Mutts by vegan artist Patrick McDonnell.

021217-600x202

And I hid others, like James Howe’s Howliday Inn (too scary – she could hardly sleep that night).  We look over the front-page headlines of our local newspaper before deciding whether it can be left on the table.

Like Viet Thanh Nguyen, I’ve felt a little sad to see my child venture off into the intellectual world of books without me.  I still worry what she’s ready for.

For much of human history, the paternal impulse to restrict access to books was blatantly evil.  The medieval Christian church was reticent to use local languages because then poor people could interpret religious precepts for themselves.  And the written word was considered exceptionally dangerous in the U.S.  It was illegal to teach literacy to the people who were being tortured on sweltering plantations.

I’d like to think that my motivation for wanting to sculpt my child’s library is more benign.  More akin, perhaps, to the scientists dismayed when the untrained general public dabble with misleadingly curated excerpts from research journals.

On Immunity documents the efforts that Eula Biss made to learn about vaccination.  She writes that:

vaccinationUnvaccinated children, a 2004 analysis of CDC data reveals, are more likely to be white, to have an older married mother with a college education, and to live in a household with an income of $75,000 or more – like my child.

The mothers I knew began debating whether or not to vaccinate our children against the novel influenza virus long before any vaccine became available to us.

Another mother said that her child had screamed frighteningly all night following her first vaccination and she would not risk another vaccination of any kind.

Although many of these women have received extensive schooling in the humanities, and clearly care deeply for their offspring, they are putting lives at risk, including those of their own children.

It’s possible to remain ignorant even after extensive schooling.

Cattle_herdWhen my son was six months old, at the peak of the H1N1 flu pandemic, another mother told me that she did not believe in herd immunity.  It was only a theory, she said, and one that applied mainly to cows.  That herd immunity was subject to belief had not yet occurred to me, though there is clearly something of the occult in the idea of an invisible cloak of protection cast over the entire population.

In Biss’s social circle, people doubted demonstrable principles.  Herd immunity, like the theory of evolution, is not only correct, it is the mathematical implication of uncontroversial assumptions.  In the case of herd immunity, that viral diseases are communicable and that severe symptoms tend to make a virus more contagious.  In the case of evolution, that the DNA replication process producing gametes has a non-zero error rate, that heritable DNA gives rise to traits, and that individuals with different traits might have different numbers of offspring (perhaps because one critter was eaten as a child, whereas the other survived).

But the people making ignorant decisions in Biss’s social circle certainly don’t think of themselves as ignorant.  After all, they’re trying their best to stay informed.  They aren’t scientists, but they read.  They look up information, ingest it as best they can, and try to make good decisions.

When people read (and spin) articles in scientific journals without putting forth the effort to understand what the data really mean, they create an incentive for scientists to hide their findings.  Sometimes there are caveats to the truth.  For instance, each year’s flu vaccine is often much less effective than other vaccinations.  Some years, the flu vaccine is dramatically ineffective.

I read that report – then went and got my vaccination.

If people are using papers like this as propaganda, though – trying, for whatever reason, to convince people not to get vaccinated (you want an evil conspiracy theory?  Vaccines are cheap, and they prevent deadly, expensive illnesses.  Are wealthy imbeciles recommending you forgo vaccination simply so that you’ll need to pay for more medical care?) – it stifles scientific discourse.

Every scientist knows that vaccines are helpful.  They write papers about the rare failures in order to make vaccines even more helpful.  But nobody wants to provide fodder for the ignoramuses to distort.

Roald Dahl wrote an open letter urging parents to have their children vaccinated.  He describes his own family’s tragedy – before a vaccine was developed, his seven-year-old daughter died of measles.  He thought she was getting better; he was wrong.

Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious.  In twelve hours, she was dead.

Incidentally, I dedicated two of my books to Olivia, the first was James and the Giant Peach.  That was when she was still alive.  The second was The BFG, dedicated to her memory after she had died from measles.  You will see her name at the beginning of each of these books.  And I know how happy she would be if only she could know that her death had helped to save a good deal of illness and death among other children.

image-20160802-17177-6ogm1s

 

On theft and bullying.

On theft and bullying.

We aren’t born equal.

We never have been, not humans or any other animals.  Among species that birth in litters, the baby that leaves the womb largest has a lifelong advantage.  In the modern world, where a baby happens to be born dictates its future prospects to a huge degree.  Maybe it’ll be born in the United States, instantly reaping the benefits of citizenship.  Or maybe it’ll be born into a war-torn nation, amidst strife caused by climate change… which was itself caused by the creation of wealth and prosperity for all those U.S. babies.

And we use our initial advantages to further tilt the scales.  The largest mammal in a litter pushes the others aside and takes the most milk.  The rich get richer.

The same principal holds true in astrophysics.  The more dense a black hole, the better it will be at grabbing additional matter.  Densely-arrayed galaxies will keep their neighbors longest: because empty space expands, the rate at which stars drift away from each other depends upon their initial separation.  The farther away you are, the faster you will recede.  The lonely become lonelier.

But we are blessed.  Through the vagaries of evolution, humans stumbled into complex language.  We can sit and contemplate the world; we can consciously strive to be better than nature.

We can read Calvin and Hobbes and think, “Hey, that’s not fair!”

calvin 9 - 11.png

It is perfectly natural for Moe to get the truck.  He is bigger, after all.  He is stronger.  In the world’s initial inequalities of distribution, physical prowess determined who would reap plenty and who would starve.  After all, not all territories are equivalently bountiful for hunters or gatherers.  Now we have sheets of paper that ostensibly carve up the world amongst us, but in past eras raw violence would’ve staked claims.  Human mythology brims with accounts of battle to gain access to the best resources… and we humans still slaughter each other whenever insufficient strength seems to back the legitimacy of those papers.

When the threat of contract-enforcing state violence in Syria waned, local murder began.  And we lack an international state threatening violence against individual nations – inspired partly by the desire for resources, George W. Bush initiated a campaign of murder against Iraq.

Except when we’ve banded together to suppress individual violence (the state as Voltron), the strong take from the weak.

At least we know it’s wrong.

We’ve allowed other forms of bullying and theft to slip by.  After all, differing physical prowess is only one of the many ways in which we are born unequal.  If it is wrong for the strongest individual to steal from others, is it also wrong for the most clever to do the same?

weaponsofmathdestructionFrom Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction:

But the real problem came from a nasty feeling I started to have in my stomach.  I had grown accustomed to playing in these oceans of currency, bonds, and equities, the trillions of dollars flowing through international markets.  But unlike the numbers in my academic models, the figures in my models at the hedge fund stood for something.  They were people’s retirement funds and mortgages.  In retrospect, this seems blindingly obvious.  And of course, I knew it all along, but I hadn’t truly appreciated the nature of the nickels, dimes, and quarters that we pried loose with our mathematical tools.  It wasn’t found money, like nuggets from a mine or coins from a sunken Spanish galleon.  This wealth was coming out of people’s pockets.  For hedge funds, the smuggest of the players on Wall Street, this was “dumb money.”

the math was directed against the consumer as a smoke screen.  Its purpose was only to optimize short-term profits for the sellers.  And those sellers trusted that they’d manage to unload the securities before they exploded.  Smart people would win.  And dumber people, the providers of dumb money, would wind up holding billions (or trillions) of unpayable IOUs. … Very few people had the expertise and the information required to know what was actually going on statistically, and most of the people who did lacked the integrity to speak up.

O’Neil was right to feel queasy – after all, she had become Moe.  All the high-frequency traders – who are lauded as brilliant despite often doing no more than intercepting others’ orders, buying desired products a millisecond before anyone else can, and re-selling them at a profit – are simply thieves.  Sometimes they are stealing because they are more clever.  Other times, they are stealing because their pre-existing wealth allows them to buy access to lower-latency computer servers than anyone else.

In any case, Calvin would disapprove.

calvin 9 - 20.png

Thankfully, O’Neil quit stealing (although she doesn’t mention returning her prior spoils).  After all, that is part of our blessing – we cannot change the past, but…

… and here it’s worth mentioning that Ludwig Wittgenstein was clearly incorrect when he wrote that “One can mistrust one’s own senses, but not one’s own belief.  If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely’, it would not have any significant first person present indicative.”  Most physicists believe in free will and the mutability of the future, despite also knowing that, according to the laws of physics, their beliefs should be false…

… we can always fix the future.

(As a special treat – here is one of the most beautiful comic strips about opening your eyes to change.)

021217-600x202