Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Pair of Really Interesting Articles

Over at Wired Magazine, there are two articles I saw recently that I found absolutely fascinating. I thought I'd pass them along in case you'd like them.

The first one is entitled How Good People Turn Evil, From Stanford to Abu Ghraib. The article consists of an interview with psychologist Philip Zimbardo, about the social pressures that can turn normal people into moral monsters. Zimbardo is perhaps best known for the infamous Stanford Prison Study from 1971, in which the test subjects--ordinary students--were divided into "prisoners" and "guards" simulating a prison environment. The study had to be stopped after five days or so, when the "prisoners" started having emotional breakdowns, as the "guards" started forcing them to strip and perform indecent acts. The results of this study were a shock to everyone--including Zimbardo, who felt himself transforming into a monster along with all the other guards:
As principal [scientific] investigator [of the experiment], my job was to care about what happened to everybody because they were all under my experimental control. But once I switched to being the prison superintendent, I was a different person. It's hard to believe that, but I was transformed.
Several lessons were learned from this study--the most important being that people who are ordinary, moral people can turn into monsters if subjected to the right kinds of pressures. We shouldn't wonder about how it was that the German people could stoop to such horrible things during the Nazi reign; it wasn't that they were particularly evil, it was that the regime itself created a social environment not far different from the one in the Prison Study, and the people reacted in essentially the same way. There but for the grace of God go we.

Anyway, most of the interview is about what happened at Iraq's Abu Grahib prison--what the set of conditions was that allowed it to happen, how the breakdown in authority (and basic human decency) proceeded, and what must be done to prevent this in the future. But there was something interesting mentioned at the end of the interview that caught my eye. Zimbardo said:
If you can agree on a certain number of things that are morally wrong, then one way to counteract them is by training kids. There are some programs, starting in the fifth grade, which get kids to think about the heroic mentality, the heroic imagination.

To be a hero you have to take action on behalf of someone else or some principle and you have to be deviant in your society, because the group is always saying don't do it; don't step out of line. If you're an accountant at Arthur Andersen, everyone who is doing the defrauding is telling you, "Hey, be one of the team."

Heroes have to always, at the heroic decisive moment, break from the crowd and do something different. But a heroic act involves a risk. If you're a whistle-blower you're going to get fired, you're not going to get promoted, you're going to get ostracized. And you have to say it doesn't matter....

Emphasis added.

I find this a fascinating idea. It's true, of course: the hero is a social deviant. Everyone else keeps their heads down; the hero stands and fights. Everyone else tries to go along quietly; the hero speaks up, and often attracts the enmity of the powers that be.

And I also find it gratifying that he believes that the heroic imagination, the heroic mindset can be taught. I think Tolkien in particular would agree--in his view, the social function of Epic Literature (the such as Nordic sagas, Greek myths, fairy tales, and the like) was to give the inhabitants of these various civilizations a sense of who they were, of where they fit in their societies and in the universe, of what the virtues were that they would need to survive and thrive in their world, and of what these virtues looked like in practice. I suspect it's much easier for a person to recognize the need for a hero, and then step up and be the hero, when that person recognizes a similarity between his current situation and a scene in a work of Great Literature where the hero stepped up (or where he failed and caused a calamity).


The other article that I found interesting was entitled High Tech Cowboys of the Deep Seas: The Race to Save the Cougar Ace. This is a much longer article that tells the story of an outfit called Titan Salvage, whose purpose is to keep ships from sinking (or salvage them if they do sink). The guys from Titan Salvage--and it appears from the article that there are less than a dozen of them--fly out with some special equipment (custom pumps and tanks, demolition tools, the like) to the area where a ship is in distress, helicopter on board, and do what it takes to keep the ship from sinking.

The Wired article tells in pretty good detail the story of what happened back in June 2006, when a large transport ship carrying over 4000 Mazda cars heeled over onto its side. The problem had been caused by unbalanced ballast-water pumping. The Titan Salvage team managed to save the ship, but lost one of its team members in the operation.

The article reads very much like something that would have made a good episode of Mission: Impossible. It covers the entire story, starting with the ballast problem, to the identities of the team members who took part in the salvage operation, the investigation they made of the ship (which involved rappelling down inside the cargo compartment of the ship, which was listing at more than 60 degrees), the events causing the death of the team member, the plan to right the ship, struggling with weather conditions, and so on.

All in all, it was a fascinating adventure story, made all the more fascinating because it really happened.

If you've got the time, take a look.

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