Understanding Witch Hunts

One of the signs of good literature is the ability to stay relevant with the passage of time. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, written in the 1950s, uses the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the paranoia surrounding Communism in the US after the end of the Second World War. It is a testament to the strength of the play that it resonates just as strongly in the world of today, with the fears around fake news and the targeting of individuals and communities.

The play has a fairly straightforward narrative (minor spoilers to follow): a group of young women lie and claim that certain members of their town are indulging in witchcraft. This sets off a chain of events both absurd and scary, with the accused being presumed guilty until they either confess (leading to a loss of reputation and property) or refute the charge (leading to a death sentence).

As I read the play, two things struck me as being particularly relevant for understanding the nature of witch hunts in general.

One, the women who accuse others do not create a new divide in their society but instead widen existing ones. They allow the townsfolk to give voice to their prejudices and social distrust, something that normal bounds of propriety would have otherwise prevented them from acting upon.

Two, and a related point, is that the people who back the claims of the women often have baser reasons for doing so. This includes the pursuit of material profit at the cost of a neighbour’s, petty dislike, or to right perceived historical slights. In other words, these people are self-aware. They are not acting for the “right reasons,” even if they claim otherwise.

The Conundrum of Informed Consent

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks recently, a masterful book about the real-life story of a woman named Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer in the 1950s. Before her death, Henrietta’s cancer cells were collected by doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and it was found that they had a remarkable capacity to grow and proliferate. The sheer scale of the scientific achievements that followed and which owed a measure of credit to HeLa, as the cells came to be known, is immense. The crux of the book, however, is that Henrietta Lacks never gave informed consent to the harvesting of cells from her body.

Towards the end of the book, the author juxtaposes Henrietta’s case with that of other individuals, like Ted Slavin, who recognise the potential that parts of their bodies have for research and medical advancement, and ensure that they have control over who uses the tissue in question and under what circumstances.

The following text from the book, centred around these examples, is one of the best enunciations of the dilemma of informed consent that I have read:

“This is a capitalist society,” says Wayne Grody. “People like Ted Slavin took advantage of that. You know, the way I see it is, if you think of doing that on the front end, more power to you.”

The thing is, people can’t “think of doing that on the front end” unless they know their tissues might be valuable to researchers in the first place. The difference between Ted Slavin, John Moore, and Henrietta Lacks was that someone told Slavin his tissues were special and that scientists would want to use them in research, so he was able to control his tissues by establishing his terms before anything left his body. In other words, he was informed, and he gave consent. In the end, the question is how much science should be obligated (ethically and legally) to put people in the position to do the same as Slavin. Which brings us back to the complicated issue of consent. [emphasis from the text]

A Quid Pro Quo Life

While reading Pedro Domingos’ The Master Algorithm, a book about machine learning, I found the following extract that talks about life in the digital age:

Every transaction works on two levels: what it accomplishes for you and what it teaches the system you just interacted with. Being aware of this is the first step to a happy life in the twenty-first century.

To reassure us that this is a positive development, Domingos goes on to say that it is better to think of a computer as a tool to serve us rather than as an adversary. And what it learns from us helps it to serve us better.

I have three thoughts about this.

One, this element of reciprocity is already present in transactions between humans. A shopkeeper I buy something from, is learning about me and, by extension, his customer base. The presence of machine learning amplifies this part of our lives.

Two, this logic can be applied to the products offered by companies like Google and Facebook. This would be a more nuanced way of looking at our relationship with these enterprises than the simple, and now over-used, notion of data being the new oil.

Three, in the event that Domingos’ optimism is misplaced and a system happens to be malign, we should have the ability to walk away from a transaction.

Small Decisions, Large Effects

Do humans make environmental history or does it make us? I recently came across a paragraph in Sunil Amrith’s Crossing the Bay of Bengal which captures the beauty of migration between India and South-East Asia. Here it is,

“Blood and dirt” gave the frontiers of Southeast Asia their dynamism— the human suffering of migrant workers reshaped the land. We tend to think of environmental history as something that happens to us. Environmental history on the largest scale is made by the forces of nature that shape human society: human beings are “biological agents” alongside plants and pathogens, competing for supremacy. Alternatively, we think— anthropocentrically—that environmental history is driven by the state, particularly in its modernist incarnation in a drive to conquer nature and make it productive at any cost. But what would it mean to turn this around, to think of those who crossed the Bay of Bengal as agents of environmental transformation? They crossed the sea to alter the land. Small decisions within families, small acts of coercion—the motive force of debt, or the glitter that adorned the kangany’s promises— accumulated to shift the “metabolic balance” of the Bay of Bengal.