Monday, March 17, 2014

Turning the United States Into Radioactive Dust

I don't know if you noticed, but it appears that the post cold war era is over.  The Putin appointed head of a Russian news agency Dmitry Kiselyov went on Russian television this morning and stated that Russia is "the only country in the world capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust."  In case anyone wanted to dismiss that as being short of a threat, he went on to say the President Obama's hair was turning gray because he was worried about Russia's nuclear arsenal.  We have not heard that kind of serious rhetoric since the actual Cold War.  As a survivor of the Cold War, I went back and looked at what time period it ran for and although it is apparently controversial the dates 1947 to 1991 are commonly cited.  I can remember writing a paper in middle school on the doctrine of mutually assured destruction as the driving force behind the Cold War.  In the time I have thought about it since, some of the cool heads that prevented nuclear war were in the military and in many if not most cases Russian.  We probably need to hope that they are still out there rather than an irresponsible broadcaster who may not realize that if the US is dust, irrespective of what happens to Russia as a result of weapons, the planet will be unlivable.

I am by nature a survivalist of sorts.  And when I detect the Cold War heating up again I start to plan for the worst.  The survivalist credo is that we are all 9 meals away from total chaos.  So I start to think about how much food, water, and medicines I will have to stockpile.  What king of power generation system will I need?  What about heating, ventilation and air filtration?  And what about access?  There are currently condominiums being sold in old hardened missile silos, but what are the odds that you will be able to travel hundreds of miles after a nuclear attack?  If you are close to the explosion there will be fallout and the EMP burst will probably knock out the ignition of your vehicle unless you have the foresight and resources to store it inside a Faraday cage every night.  There is also the question of what happens to the psychology of your fellow survivors.  In the post apocalyptic book The Road - a man and his son are surviving in the bleakest of circumstances on the road.  We learn through a series of flashbacks that their wife and mother could not adapt to the survivalist atmosphere and ended her life.  In one scene, they meet an old man on the road and the man gets into the following exchange with him after the old man says he knew the apocalyptic event was coming.  It captures the paradox of being a survivalist (pp 168-169):

Man:  "Did you try to get ready for it?"
Old Man:  "No.  What would you do?"
Man:  "I don't know"
Old Man:  "People always getting ready for tomorrow.  I didn't believe in that.  Tomorrow wasn't getting ready for them.  It didn't even know they were there."
Man:  "I guess not."
Old Man:  "Even if you knew what to do you wouldn't know what to do.  You wouldn't know if you wanted to do it or not.  Suppose your were the last one left?  Suppose you did that to yourself?"

By my own informal polling there are very few people who want to unconditionally survive - either a man-made or natural disaster.  Many have told me that they could not stand to be in their basement for more than a few hours, much less days or months or years.

For the purpose of this post, I want to hone in on the rhetoric or more specifically the threats.  I have had previous posts on this blog that look at how this rhetoric flows from the history of warfare and dates back to a typical situation with primitive man.  In those days, the goal of warfare was the annihilation of your neighbors.  In many cases, the precipitants were trivial like the theft of a small number of livestock or liaisons between men and women of opposing tribes.  In tribes of small numbers of people, even when there were survivors if enough were killed it could mean the extinction of a certain people.  Primitive man seemed to think: "My adversaries are gone and the problem is solved."

Over time, the fighting was given to professional soldiers and it seemed more formalized.  There were still millions of civilian casualties.  I think at least part of the extreme rhetoric of Kielyov is rooted in that dynamic.  Many will say that is is propaganda or statements being made for political advantage and in this case there are the possible factors of nationalism  or just anger at the US for some primitive rhetoric of its own.  But I do not think that a statement like this can be dismissed without merit.  There were for example two incidents where Russian military officers exercised a degree of restraint that in all probability prevented a nuclear war.  In one of those cases the officer was penalized for exercising restraint even though he probably avoided a full scale nuclear war.  In both cases the officers looked into the abyss and realized that they did not want to be responsible for the end of civilization as we know it.

I don't think extreme rhetoric is limited to international politics.  It certainly happens with every form of intolerance at one point or another if that intolerance is rooted in race, religions or sexual preference.  That is especially true if there are physical threats and physical aggression.  Intolerant rhetoric can also occur at a more symbolic level.  We have seen extreme rhetoric on psychiatry blogs recently.  Rather than the annihilation of the United States, the posters would prefer the annihilation of psychiatry.  I would say it is a symbolic annihilation but it is clear that many of them want more than that.  It still flows from the sense of loyalty to tribe, the need to annihilate the opponents, the necessary rigid intolerance and the resulting distortion of rational thought.  Certainly self serving bias exists to some extent in everyone, and it may not be that apparent to the biased person.  It took Ioannidis to open everyone's eyes to that fact in the more rational scientific world.  It can serve a purpose in science where the active process often requires a vigorous dialogue and debate.  Sometimes people mistake science for the truth when science is a process.  In order for that dialogue and debate to occur in an academic field there has to be a basic level of scholarship in the area being debated.  Without it there is a digression to tribal annihilation dynamics and complete intolerance.  That is counterproductive and negates any legitimate points that the proponents might otherwise have.

In science, the risks are lower.  At the minimum it adds nothing to the scientific debate.  An irrational bias with no basis in reality is the most primitive level of analysis.  In the 21st century, nobody needs to be annihilated in reality or at the symbolic level.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Cormac McCarthy.  The Road.  Vintage Books.  New York, 2006.


  1. I find it interesting that you see your opponents in this way, as a tribe. I concur on the "rigid intolerance and the resulting distortion of rational thought" in that camp, and you know where I stand on the annihilation of psychiatry. But, cannot the tribal behavior be seen in the psychiatry community as well. They may be rational, but still a band of brothers, no?

    And, how does one get into the tribe of anti-psychiatry? They are not born into it, it is not geography that keeps them together or a shared upbringing. Overall, they are a pretty diverse group. Still, I see them bond strongly together against psychiatry, perhaps a bit too naive of those that fan the flames for apparently their own vengeance or profit, but they willing belong. I take them at their word how they got there; that they have been hurt. Some massively so. I think you see the hurt in front-end of people's lives, yet do you see the hurt in the back-end of it from their care or rather lack of it? I am not saying you don't; I am just looking for your thoughts on this.

    Like I said, you know where I stand. There are individuals in psychiatry, perhaps even groups in psychiatry, that are epic fails, yet it isn't psychiatry as an ideal that let these people down, it was society. That their anger is directed at the psychiatric profession, I think is misguided, and more importantly, tactically incompetent. However, history will certainly weigh in on this.

    On surviving a nuclear holocaust, I grew up and live within 12 miles of a nuclear power plant. When I have told others that do not live in the area about this, they all express concern and look at me like I should be living in fear for my life everyday. I tell them that I would rather be at ground zero never knowing what hit me than to suffer radiation sickness; the military taught me it is one of the most painful things known. So I live here without worrying about it.

    [OT: The nuclear plant is one that Dr. Pies lived near at one time. Perhaps some will say that there is something in the water there when referring to us, I don't know. But I would probably laugh and agree if they said that to my face.]

    "Sometimes people mistake science for the truth when science is a process."

    This is profound.

    1. "Sometimes people mistake science for the truth when science is a process."

      This is profound.

      I agree but I can't take credit for it. I learned this reading Massimo Pigliucci's work. He used it in an argument against creationism. When you have studied science for decades it makes immediate sense, but I guess it takes a brilliant philosopher of science to point it out. None of my previous science or philosophy professors had. It is a truly distinguishing characteristic.

      To your other points - tribal behavior can occur anywhere and in any group of people. One of the key questions is whether there really needs to be a tribe at all or is this a common flaw in human decision making now that we are no longer primitives? Individuals and nations can easily be observed killing of abusing people who disagree with us. So called civilized nations have very low thresholds for killing large numbers of people. Does this also happen at the symbolic and rhetorical level? I would submit that it does and the reason that psychiatry attracts an inordinate number of these "critics" is that they believe there is a very low threshold for being an expert. They clearly lack any scholarship in the area and most claim they are instant experts.

      The problem with the approach is not just the lack of scholarship but also a lack of information. Psychiatry itself was hurt not by external critics, but by the biological psychiatry - psychotherapy conflict that is still playing out on psychiatric blogs today. Combatants need to keep in mind that if you symbolically kill off your opponent - the gene pool gets shallower. Of course if you have no investment - you don't really care.

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