Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Anarchism and Science (3)

Mental Health and Counter-Culture
- Madi, Bloomington, IN

I know demons are real because I can see them.” I’m sitting in my mother’s car alone with my sister; outside snow falls slowly to the barely too warm pavement. “We can’t always trust what we see, Paige,” I offer back. After that it was over, I’d lost her trust for the remainder of my visit home. She wants to be dropped off at her apartment, she won’t hug me goodbye. Malice, fear and hatred is the look of farewell I receive from my beloved sibling. It had been the most she had said to me in two weeks and I was stuck in a hard place; try to help her recognize her delusions or enjoy the brief moment of connection she was offering me. I chose the former and proved myself untrustworthy. What was I doing wrong and why does my own sister not recognize me anymore?

My sister is crazy, paranoid schizophrenic, an extreme case. She was first hospitalized and put on meds after she kicked a cop in the nuts at DIA. She was twenty-three at the time. God spoke to her and told her that her home was going to be bombed and that he was going to give her France to rule over. Paige kicked the cop because he was thwarting her escape, and she feared for her life. This was a real and terrifying experience for her. My mother and I drove behind the ambulance where she lay in four point restraints (she had also assaulted several medical staff) on her way from emergency room to mental hospital. Her face was the only part of her visible through the small rear window. Her eyes were wild and hair disheveled. She wore her mouth in a grin twisted to the side. I sat passenger next to my functionally schizophrenic mother, trying to hide my tears, my face contorted into an expression similar to Paige’s. Even through the bitter pain, we were relieved that Paige would now be getting the help she so desperately needed.

The onset of the disease, “the blossoming” as they call it, is a difficult time for any family. It signifies the death of your loved one as you know them. Most people however, can find solise in their unshakable faith in western medicine and the mental health industry. I, as a radical, had a much harder time. I’ve always preferred herbs, diet and stress-free living over drugs and medications. My lifestyle worked for me and I only heard stories from those whom had survived western medicine’s sordid version of mental health and now rallied against it. I had no reason to ever challenge my mistrust of the mental health industry. From my experience psychologists existed to pump money into the pockets of unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies. I couldn’t stand the idea of my darling Paige, my best friend, being turned over to these predators to be used as just another lab rat, pumped full of meds to feed the machine.

That was before I saw her inperson, that was before she shared with me just what was in her head and what the consequences of these thoughts were. That was before she proved she was literally unable to care for herself.
People, friends who are fellow radicals, mostly, ask me about Paige. They tell me how sorry they are that she is medicated, tell me that the side effects are worse than the symptoms. They say things like, “Who are we to deem her thoughts and her reality false.” Well intentioned though these people may be, they infuriate me. Where does this deep understanding and knowledge of schizophrenia come from? Have they ever intimately known a schizophrenic? Have they ever been one? Or are these just ideas free-floating amongst the radical “free thinking” populace about what the disease is. People often confuse schizophrenia for multiple personalities disorder, or think that schizophrenia is akin to the last time they took mushrooms and saw pretty pink ponies and silver snow flakes. Why medicate that?

My sister sees demons. She believes people are trying to kill her. She has told me that she has felt someone stab her in the chest, watched the blade enter, felt the blood trickle out. She hears birds demanding her to kill the sinners, dogs bark of god’s anger towards her. Paige has seen her boss pour her a dose of poison, then drink it for fear of loosing her job. These are her hallucinations, not pink ponies and silver snowflakes, but rather a living nightmare. They are terrifying, painful and debilitating. She cannot hold down a job; she leaves home in the winter wearing nothing but a shirt and jeans and is an easy mark for predators. I’ve watched forty year old ex-cons, scum fucks and generally unsavory folk drawn to her like flies. I’ve had to assemble groups of friends to chase abusers out of her life. Paige’s disease renders her scared, pained and vulnerable. However, once on medication her delusions fade, hallucinations lessen and she begins to trust her family again. Her outward behavior improves, and on a good day she can pass as a little awkward. She even smiles sometimes.

It is for these reasons I advocate for medication. Sure, Paige has suffered side effects such as lethargy, weight gain and depression but the positive has by far outweighed the negative. I’m not saying that I’m endorsing the rampant prescribing of depression and anxiety medications. The industry is still corrupt, but there is a basis for it’s inception and sometimes it gets something right. I will never trust the western medical institution implicitly, the way the majority of Americans do, but my ideas on it have turned around, considerably. I have no choice to trust the doctors, as they have held together the most broken of people, and because, without them, my family would crumble.

Anarchism and Science (2)

Work With What You Got
- mac, Denver, CO

I am the kind of anarchist who associates Science with technology, progress and change. The word reminds me of industry, academia, efficiency and productivity. Western medicine, chemical mining and interstellar exploration. Science represents a desire for more. Nothing is sacred. Bigger, faster, easier, stronger, thinner, deeper, better, more. It means everything should be broken down, isolated, separated or combined. Science tells me that anything can and should be “improved” and that whatever it is that we have right now, it ain’t good enough. I don’t know how exactly I developed these associations (for I am also the kind of anarchist who took AP Physics as an elective), but they are troubling to my fragile, socially-conscious sensibilities and so in my daily life, I try to avoid the grandeur of Science all it carries with it. While I don’t want to take my resources for granted (the ones I have directly because of science or merely from my wealth, whiteness and other privileges that this *grand* civilization has bestowed upon me) I try to live simply. I try to honor things for what they are. I try to be resourceful, practical and responsible. Ya know, I try to work with what I got.

I collect water where it falls from the sky. I fix salvaged bicycles with abandoned tools. I read books from the library. I repair plumbing leaks with rubber bands and fabricate hinges from tin cans. I don’t carry a cell phone. I lift with the muscles I have. I learn history from my neighbors. I try to trust and lean on the people near me. My favorite flavor is the one in front of me. I patch those pants. Glue those shoes. Eat that trash.

And moreover, when my team of big shot Endocrinologists suggest that I transplant insulin-producing cells into my pancreas, I say “hey man, thanks but no thanks. I wanna work with what I got.”

Okay. I am a Type 1 Diabetic. For 15 years I have been unable to survive without multiple daily injections of bio-engineered insulin and regular monitoring of blood glucose levels with hand-held electronic machines that read in milligrams per deciLiter. That’s right. I order medications online from international pharmaceutical companies. My closet is full of sterile-wrapped plastic syringes, alcohol swabs and computerized strips. The only expiration dates I regard are those on my insulin vials. For seven years while I used an external insulin pump I could occasionally be caught excusing myself to go “change my batteries.” My glucose meter is the first thing I see every morning and the last thing I see before I go to sleep. I get my retinas scanned, kidneys screened, blood work drawn, and Hemoglobin A1C checked every few months. I have lived this way for as long as I can remember, and (until industrial collapse) I always will.

So how is it that I imagine I can “work with what I got” when exactly what I got is a deadly auto-immune disease? And where do I get off condemning Science when I won’t last more than two days without my medication? And even if I merely tried to avoid the unsustainable forces of Science in my daily life, when would I take my insulin injections? And what, Mac, exactly is the point of this article?

Are we to conclude that hypocrisy of this magnitude is inherent to lifestyle activism and angsty privileged anarchists like myself? (Or is that another article...)

Do we simply sigh, “Science: Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.” Or more accurately “Science: we can’t live with it, I can’t live without it.”

Or is the conclusion more personal? Is it that I fear and distrust the things I am forced to depend on—hence I dislike Science—and I would rather distract myself with 101 Uses for a Busted Bicycle Tube than acknowledge my own powerlessness and denial?

Or maybe, dear reader, the conclusion is that my attempt to “use what I got” is the real bad science. The idea that life can be distilled into a slogan (or many slogans) is the worst hypothesis. There are no proofs or formulas or truths for this. Not everything can be described as cause and effect, a constant or a variable, a hypothesis, then experiment, then result. Maybe it’s Science that taught me I should have no variables or unknowns in my life, that I should adhere to a consistent process, that I should isolate all the parts until the original whole doesn’t make sense anyone. The same Science that objectifies people by making them subjects, creates poisons first and antidotes later, and just won’t accept belief without proof. The Science that told this little girl it would cure diabetes. The Science that promised to take care of us all. Yup. That’s the one. So fuck you, Science. Take your desire for more, your race for progress, your future plans and your fucking islet cell transplants and shove ‘em.

Sure, we conclude that I am grotesquely reliant on Science—its most wasteful, unequal, capitalist aspects. But just as my body cannot support itself, the systems that support me now are unsustainable on the most global scale. AND I want to know and honor that reality every day. I don’t want to ignore it or justify it away. I don’t want to break it down, compartmentalize it or dilute it. I don’t want to desire something different, something bigger, better, easier, stronger or more. I want to know that this world--with all the problems and sometimes even-more disastrous solutions--and this body---with this fucking disease--is what I got. And I want to honestly and truly use it.

Or maybe the point of the article is just that I wanted to talk about my diabetes. Seriously, LVN you could pick any topic and Mac would turn it into a rant about diabetes.

Anarchism and Science (1)

My Conversion to Chaos
- Meg Spohn, Ph.D., Denver, CO

Something wasn’t right. If the model was going to work, the numbers had to be simpler. If they were simpler, though, they were too artificial or something — the model wouldn’t predict jack-all. For days, I kept setting the work down, doing something else, coming back to it...from what I could tell, the model was actually working the way it was supposed to. It just, well, sucked. It sucked out loud, it sucked in nine keys, Marvin K. Mooney, it sucked, sucked, sucked.

The trouble was that the Cold War was over, and the field of international relations was suddenly without any grand theory (and still is). The bipolar order had melted away, a fifty-year historical fluke, and the last generation of scholars to have studied and understood anything else could not be reached for comment. As a young grad student, the Cold War models I had inherited were crude linear statistical ones, and they worked okay a little more often than they didn’t. With only two variables to deal with, that was probably good enough. But the world had become messy again, and those models could barely handle the two poles they had—they were not set up to handle a mess, otherwise known as reality. Plus, the field of international relations attracts people with superior analytical skills, but who fear math. I thought it showed in the models, but being old enough to have had my teachers tell me that girls were good at English while boys were good at math, I had giant cavernous holes in my own mathematical education and I didn’t really know what was wrong. I just knew why. And that the models sucked. That much was obvious.

Old-school game theory (like the Prisoner’s Dilemma) had brought me to dispute resolution systems design: trying to find new patterns and methods of resolving conflicts. I had been doing largely qualitative research, but some patterns are only visible in the numbers, and they stay hidden within the purely qualitative, like those dot tests they use to figure out if you’re colorblind. Being numberblind was keeping the insights—and the solutions—away.

I remembered hearing about chaos theory, and someone recommending James Gleick’s Chaos to me, so in an effort to fill in some of those educational holes and understand what was exactly wrong with the models (besides glaring suckitude), I read it. It changed my life.

Algebra hadn’t made sense to me because I didn’t understand what the applications were. Why the hell did I need to know what the slope of a line was? What, for the luvva Mike, was that ever going to do for me? Fix my car? Make me a sandwich? Get me laid? My teachers wouldn’t tell me what it was good for, or they couldn’t. Many years later, I learned that you could use it to determine things like how steep to build bridges, but by then it was too late. I was already a heretic.

Life is messy, Chaos taught me. It is not bipolar, and it never was. Natural and human systems don’t behave in a tidy, linear way—but they are also far from random. We can look at complex patterns that appear random (if only until we know what we’re looking at), and glean insights from them. We don’t have to look at little scraps of the system, we can look at the whole thing and process the patterns, large and small. Chaos was (and is) a new science, but it’s heading toward things like math that could be used for building clouds, and I thought, the holy grail of analysis: real-world predictive models.

The question was whether I really bought it. It made a lot of sense to my head, but at one point, so had parachute pants. I asked the professor who was holding my hand (in a dignified, helpful, scholarly way, not in a priest-and-Cub Scout way) in my forays into dispute resolution systems design. He said I was wasting my time and I shouldn’t bother with it. The few others I cautiously consulted didn’t think chaos had any value at all, and discouraged me from continuing to look into it. But the theories they did value didn’t make sense anymore. They were theoretical dead ends in the “new” world order, leftover pieces from a lost board game. Cold War Monopoly had only had that one set of dice, too. I had to test whether chaos worked—at least better than parachute pants.

I found one concept I thought I would be able to test without a huge computer, which I didn’t have access to, then, and that I could probably even test by hand: the Cantor Dust. It was used to understand the pattern of noise in data transmissions. They scale: that is, they are self-similar — they form similar patterns and shapes of noise and silence whether you look at them from the perspective of the whole transmission, or a piece of it, or a piece of the piece. It reminded me of what soldiers say about conflict: months of boredom followed by minutes of battle and violence and raw terror, followed by more boredom. Essentially, I wondered if battles scaled like Cantor Dusts. It seemed like a good test.

I went deep into the bowels of Widener Library, many floors underground, where you could go to do research and not see another living soul, and began to look up the details of conflicts. I decided to measure intensity by battle deaths, because they were the easiest number to get. I checked out a number of different (U.S.) conflicts over time, plotted them with graph paper and a mechanical pencil, busted out a calculator when I had a fair amount of data points, and lo and behold, the battle deaths did seem self-similar: they had the same kind of pattern over the century, over a part of the century, over the course of a conflict, over the course of part of that conflict, a year, a month... and sometimes that was about as close as I could look at it with the information I could get. Still, the results gave me chills. I was already in this spooky old library with retrofitted electricity and the smell of bookbinder’s glue in the stale air, of course, but it was eerie in itself nonetheless. An underground door next to me opened and air pressure moved a sort of stale wind through it whose molecules had maybe been fresh air when George Marshall delivered his famous keynote address on the ground above.

It all made intuitive sense to me: the colliding eddies in air and history and thought, and I found my way back up from the dry, dark underworld into a crisp autumn day full of fractals. I still had to do my frowned-upon research in secret, but I was a true believer, newly converted. I’d have to go elsewhere to complete my graduate work, or to declare jihad on sucky models. I had also become a lot more interested in the beginning of conflict than I had ever been in the end of it. I was a heretic. So be it.

Eventually, I found enough other chaoticists, chaoticians, fuzzy logicians, topologists, complexity theorists, and other nonlinear dynamicists of one kind or another that we could actually have conferences that were legit enough to get reimbursed and stuff. I guess that makes me more of a cultist or a zealot than a heretic now (legitimacy in numbers and all that), but it has really helped with making less sucky models. My most recent article, which appeared in the January 2008 issue of Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology and Life Sciences, is about how societies’ stability unravels into violence. I used a method called orbital decomposition to coax the patterns out of four qualitative case studies. Each of the analyses turned up interesting things that weren’t obvious in the qualitative data, like a good non-sucky model should. I hope it helps. Because that, by definition, would also not suck.