Science Fiction Project - Free Culture
Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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THE VALUE OF PANIC
There's a well-known and well-hated law of laboratory experiment that goes, "In a laboratory experiment, if something can go wrong... it will".
"Wrong" in this sense usually means that a random factor gets in, where none is supposed to be. And random factors, by definition, can do anything. It could even improve the results of the experiment, of course.
Dr. Wayne Batteau, of the Harvard School of Applied Science, has been studying the basic structure of the scientific method from the viewpoint of Information Theory analysis. One of the interesting logical results - translated from symbols into English - is "In total ignorance, try anything. Then you won't be so ignorant".
Let's add a third item; all higher animal life-forms display the characteristic that, when under extreme environmental pressure, they can go into panic behavior, acting with great violence and determination in a manner entirely different from the normal behavior patterns of the organism. This applies all the way up to and including man.
Usually, panic behavior is characterized by its ineffectiveness or complete inappropriateness. The woman who tosses the mirror out the window of her burning home, and carries the pillow carefully down the stairs, is essentially similar in behavior to the chicken that, panicked by the rapidly approaching automobile, runs frantically, squawking, for home... into the path of the car.
Panic certainly appears to be an utterly negative, useless, and destructive characteristic, and has almost invariably been so labeled.
Maybe it isn't, though. If it were so completely useless, why would three billion years of evolution have yielded organisms which, quite uniformly, retain the characteristic?
Perhaps Dr. Batteau's statement of the case is applicable. Given: an organism with N characteristic behavior modes available. Given: an environmental situation which cannot be solved by any of the N available behavior modes, but which must be solved immediately if the organism is to survive. Logical conclusion: the organism will inevitably die. But... if we introduce Panic, allowing the organism to generate a purely random behavior mode not a member of the N modes characteristically available?
When the probability of survival is zero on the basis of all known factors - it's time to throw in an unknown. Panic is not logical - but it is most exceedingly sensible, as a basic mechanism of evolution!
If an organism is being attacked by a predator, the predator has a plan of campaign all figured out. It knows the characteristic behavior of its prey, what its defensive and evasive maneuvers are, and how to compensate those variables. For the predator, it's a sort of laboratory experiment.
But the experiment can go wrong, if the victim can introduce a purely random, uncompensated, and unpredicted factor. It might cause his survival.
Panic behavior is, necessarily, unlikely to yield useful results - the probability of any particular random act leading to success is pretty small. But - an organism doesn't use panic in a random fashion; it uses the panic mechanism only after all known, high-probability methods have been ruled out as having no probability of success. Under those conditions, panic has the maximum probability of success, simply because it never has a zero probability!
If I ask the question, "What number am I thinking of?" you have a certain, extremely small chance of guessing the right answer. But if you answer "Isaac Newton" the probability of that being correct is, obviously, zero. When a certain pattern is specifically, and positively known to be a wrong answer, then any random pattern has a higher probability.
These simple facts have a very great bearing on an important human problem; the problem of the quack doctor, particularly the cancer quack. The method of attack on the problem now being used specifically has zero probability of success; it is inherently futile to pass laws against him, because three billion years of evolution have established that his function is necessary!
Consider this: John Brown, rich bachelor, without family, is found to have cancer. It happens to be a type which cannot be treated by surgery, radiation, or drugs; it is inoperable, incurable, and inevitably lethal. The best and most competent medical experts examine him, and assure him that there is nothing that medical science can do.
If John Brown is a sane, rational man, and believes that his doctors are competent and expert, he will recognize that it is now time to go into panic. He will reject any further medical consultations, because he has been assured, by the best available authorities, that medical technique has zero probability of helping. The only rational thing to do, if he trusts the competence of his doctors, is to look for non-medical help. Any other course of action is irrational.
It will be far more rational for John Brown to go to a hex doctor in the Pennsylvania hills, or to a South American Indian witch doctor, than to a licensed M. D., he has been authoritatively informed by doctors who know medical technology thoroughly, that medical technology cannot help. No one knows enough about the technology of a hex doctor to make such an authoritative statement; therefore it is perfectly rational to try anything other than a licensed M. D. A licensed M. D. is the one type of healer he knows cannot help him.
He may try mysticism, astrology, herbal remedies, psychotherapy, or any unlicensed, unorthodox, medically-rejected quack. The very fact that the quack has been rejected by medical science is John Brown's assurance that he has some idea that medical science does not have.
He will be perfectly sensible and rational to spend every nickel of his fortune in this way, so long as he does not spend it with regularly licensed physicians!
Only if John Brown does not trust his original doctors to have full and competent knowledge of medical technology can he have reason to visit another orthodox M. D.
John Brown is in an environmental situation of lethal stress, and overwhelming immediacy; he might donate his money to the American Cancer Society - but there will be another John Brown's body mouldering in the grave, which is what concerns him.
Trying to legislate against the quack cancer doctor is trying to prevent the ancient human right to try anything, when all known methods fail. There isn't anything more ultimately hopeless than to seek to prevent a man who knows he has no chance within the orthodox framework from trying unorthodox methods. Furthermore, it's inherently unethical; if medical science cannot help the man - they have no business whatever trying to deny him help from any other source, whether they think that other source is valid or not.
The Panic Experiment is an inherent right of every living entity; three billion years of evolution shows it makes sense. The one thing that a wise therapy organization can do is to help the Panic Experimenters, and allow them to help humanity by making their Panic Experiments - their random, try-anything experiments - as efficiently useful in gathering understanding as possible.
It's an ancient, basic right, that right to try anything. If the medical profession wants to help - help that right constructively, instead of futilely, and quite pointlessly, trying to block it. The simple fact remains; if you can't help a man - don't try to keep him from seeking other help.
The medical profession has a tough problem, however. Naturally, no M. D. would be an M. D. if he felt that a hex doctor's training was more effectively curative. How then can a commission of M. D.'s evaluate hex doctors as to whether they are intentional quacks, or experimenters sincerely trying a different approach to a problem that medical science hasn't yet solved?
How is Panic to be evaluated? It consists, essentially, of acknowledging that no known method is adequate, and that an unknown must be tried. Suppose that the unknown is applied, and that shortly thereafter John Brown is found free of cancer.
Now how do we evaluate that? That medical efforts applied previously had finally taken effect? That the Unknown - let's say it was laying-on-of-hands by a hex doctor - was the cause of the effect? That the change in his whole life-pattern that took place when he accepted the need for the Panic Experiment caused a change in some psychogenic factor that underlay his cancer?
The M. D. will reject the laying-on-of-hands; it isn't a universally repeatable experiment. It cannot be fitted into any framework of cause-effect logic now known. It isn't, and can't be made into, a teachable science.
It's an individual-vs-group problem again. The individual hex doctor laid on his individual hands, and cured John Brown, individual. But what good does that do anyone else, if it isn't teachable? Understandably, John Brown isn't too concerned about that, just now; he's cured.
But there are other problems. There was an old doctor in Upper Michigan, years ago, who had his own mystic salve for wounds (not cancer). Some weird gunk of his own. The local medical society tried several times to make him shut up practice, but didn't succeed. The salve was analyzed at the University of Michigan and rated worthless. People liked his salve, and claimed it helped on ulcerated sores. The medical society objected strongly, back in the '20s and '30s, because it was perfectly ordinary salve, except for some highly unsterile, foul-smelling mold he put in it.
By all that was then known, putting a mold in a wound salve was not only nonsense - it was unsanitary, and wrong. How were the doctors then to guess that the old boy had, somehow, accidentally stumbled on some high-potency antibiotic producer? Understandably, they were intensely irked that the old fool with his crazy salve was so well-regarded by patients who didn't know any better. To the best of their sincere and honest judgment, the salve was, or should be, a menace to the health of the patients. It contained nothing beneficial, to the best of their knowledge, and did contain something that was very probably - to their best knowledge - decidedly unsterile. They would have been dishonest if they had not maintained that, in their best judgment, the salve was a menace. Certainly no honest doctor, in his right mind, in 1930 would have suggested to his patient that smearing a blue-green bread mold on his wound would stop the ulcerative infection!
It just happened to be true.
That, in essence, is the problem of the cancer quack. It's complicated by the fact that, as has been demonstrated repeatedly at Lourdes and other shrines, in some individuals, for some unknown reasons, faith-healing of cancer does take place. If John Brown happened, for reasons unknown, to have developed enormous faith in "Dr." Johannus Q. Diddlewiddy, and Dr. Diddlewiddy gave him a series of injections of not-too-sterile salt water - John Brown could have been completely, thoroughly, and unarguably cured of his incurable cancer. Since present science looks to objective causes for observed events... how to evaluate Dr. Diddlewiddy's salt-water cure? Particularly if Dr. Diddlewiddy happened to be not a money-grabber quack, but an entirely sincere, however misguided, man? Suppose Dr. Diddlewiddy has that mysterious power of "laying on of hands" - which has been reported repeatedly - doesn't know it, and sincerely believes that his impure salt water is the curative agent?
Sure, the problem's tough. But it is not going to be banished by trying to rule out "cancer-cure specialists" by legal action. The W. C. T. U. tried to solve the problem of alcoholism by passing laws against alcohol.
The American Medical Association is going to get just about equally effective results in trying to legislate away the ancient human right to Try Anything when the panic situation arises.
Panic makes sense, then; legislating against panic action is faintly ridiculous, isn't it?