” ‘PASCAL: Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would
amount to another form of madness.’ And Dostoievsky, in his DIARY
OF A WRITER: “It is not by confining one’s neighbor that one is
convinced of one’s own sanity.”
We have yet to write the history of that other form of
madness, by which men, in an act of sovereign reason, confine
their neighbors, and communicate and recognize each
other through the merciless language of non-madness
… ” —Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization
“‘Bullshit’ how?”—Michel Foucault
Perhaps a decade ago I was walking with a friend I’ve known since the 1990s. This friend is an intelligent middle-aged man from the lower upper-middle classes (his parents are retired university teachers and he was raised in a nice neighborhood, the upper reaches of which, financially, were several levels higher than that of his parents). He’s fluently bilingual and has a degree in engineering but I had to explain statistics to him, in a manner of speaking, during this particular walk, because he was using statistics incorrectly in his effort to explain to me that my “fear of flying” is unrealistic or superstitious. He argued that statistics indicate that the odds of me dying in a plane crash are reassuringly remote. I said,
“Statistics are only accurate modeling populations… the larger the populations, the greater the accuracy. Statistical predictions about my safety, specifically, on an airborne plane, toggle between being mystically vague or catastrophically inaccurate. If I fly and survive, what’s the difference between surviving a high probability of death and surviving a low probability of death? The metaphysical figure of the statistical prediction becomes moot when I complete the flight. It’s like Schrödinger’s Cat: the probability wave function collapses when you open the box. All the relevant variables can vary insanely from one plane flight to the next… the age of the plane, the competence of the ground crew, the weather, the experience of the pilot, the quality of the equipment when it was new… and, by the way, are all or any of these factors taken into account when they concoct supposedly scientific statistics about the likelihood of a crash? They’re probably just comparing total air miles flown in a year versus total air crashes. Or total passengers flown, in a year, versus total passengers killed or injured on a plane. But that’s not my point. The statistical predictions about my luck on a given plane are either, like I said, in the best case vague or the worst case very wrong. That’s the binary: to put it into the most accurate English renders a tautology: you will either die or you won’t. There are no gradations of accuracy or inaccuracy when you try to apply statistics to individual cases. People don’t seem to get that about statistics. Especially when they’re applied to mortality, prognostications about which can only fail you once. Statistical models for how likely an individual human is to get the Flu are more interesting because you might get the Flu x-number of times in a year, and a statistical model might predict that, although it isn’t entirely a matter of chance… there are chains of steps one can take to change the likely outcome (hand-washing, vitamin D consumption, where one goes or doesn’t go, etc) … are all these possible steps factored in? Statistically modeling a whole population can get more and more accurate all the time, depending on the nuance and sheer quantity of factored data. Modeling an individual is always going to be hit or miss. Say everyone who flies in a given year also read air crash statistics that year, and the statistics were favorable to flying. But say there were two plane crashes that year. For the people who died, the statistics became meaningless the instant their planes exploded. There should be statistics about how many people are failed by statistics every year.”
That is more or less what I said (that’s more or less how I talk in meatspace) but my friend didn’t grasp my point, intelligent as he is. He listened patiently to what I had to say and then said, “But your chances of dying in a plane crash are less than your chances of dying in a car wreck,” to which I responded, “Unless I die in a plane crash.”
The philosophical implications of the discussion are richer than they appear, though I don’t want to take this rumination on too wild a tangent, but: if I toss a coin fifty times in a row, is each toss a separate act, or are the fifty tosses somehow physically connected by the parallel fact that they’re conceptually connected? If each coin toss is a physically separate act (which each would appear to be), why would tossing “heads” become increasingly unlikely as the series progressed? First “heads” toss: shrug. Second “heads” toss: cool. Third “heads” toss: hilarious. Fourth “heads” toss: weird. Twentieth “heads” toss in a row: stunning/ miraculous/ should have filmed it! But why is the twentieth “heads” toss in a row more significant than the second if each toss of the coin is a separate act? It only becomes “miraculous” when the coin tosses are grouped in a series… but the “series” is merely a convention of your mind, no? From the standpoint of any particular coin-toss in the series, the next coin toss, or previous coin toss, may as well be separated by 30 million years, or interrupted by a billion other events occurring (somewhere in the universe) between the (perceptual) timeline of two consecutive tosses. The difference between a statistical “miracle” and a total “banality,” then, is only one of perception. Though how can that be? We perceive (psychologically, at least) a continuum; what connects the points/moments on the continuum, governing the law of the relation between its consecutive points? A kind of Temporal Æther?
But that’s not the gist, here.
One of the points I attempt to make, here, is my friend’s pseudo-rational comfort in the pseudo-scientific “protection” of the psychologically palliative convention of statistics as applied to his life as an individual. This is a to-all-appearances rational, middle-aged, upper middleclass white male of Central Europe who thinks he’s walking around clad in Invisible Numbers-Armor. He feels protected by the statistically low likelihood of a member of his demographic developing (say) Type 2 Diabetes, as if the Numbers can protect him from unscrupulous manufacturers sneaking deceptively-labeled sugars (and even-more-damaging pseudo-sugars) into the deceptively-advertized “food” products he trusts are safe to eat. He feels protected by the statistically low likelihood of a member of his demographic being injured or killed by a stray bullet (re: crime statistics in his neighborhood) because he’s unacquainted with the historical record of the powerful political expedience of orchestrating a False Flag resulting in a death of a member of his demographic in order to support the polling numbers of (say) an incumbent Chancellor (and whichever Xmas the Berlin truck-crashing Xmas-market event happened, with x-number of fatalities, I had visited the very market the very day before).
Further, and more dangerously, the magic spell supporting this Invisible Numbers-Armor my friend feels pseudo-rationally invincible wearing only really works if he’s obedient to the Authorities who provide the prophylactic statistics. “Do this, don’t do that,” they warn him (constantly and subliminally) “and your Invisible Numbers-Armor works. Break these rules and the warranty on your health and happiness is null and void!” The numbers are more or less random when it comes to his actual life, but numbers themselves have a charming “scientific” feel to them… especially numbers featuring digits to the right of a decimal place. The further right one can place a digit in relation to the decimal place, the more “scientific” the number containing this fractional value feels. The numbers function as a precautionary sense organ with the attenuated figures to the right of the decimal place waving like exquisitely sensitive antennae.
Five years or so after the air-crash conversation, the same friend and I were walking (the walks are always in the same “hip” neighborhood, near the office of his “hip” Agency) and discussing Psychological Research, because his girlfriend R____ is a Research Psychologist.
“Do you think,” I asked, “that this research is designed to help people?”
“Yes,” said my friend, who is every bit the cheerleader and optimist (and who over-uses, for my taste, corporate buzzwords like “partnerships”. In fact I find the use of that word unaccountably grating in its ability to make my friend seem both slightly sinister, and rather naïve, whenever he uses it).
“After decades of such Psychological Research, do you feel people, in general, are getting better?”
“Well, we don’t know any of the people suffering serious psychological disorders. Maybe they’re getting a little better every year?”
“You’d think all that research would end up providing some noticeable trickle-down benefits after all this time, though. Like, you know, how military R&D ends up filtering down to the consumer level at some point and we get to buy cheap video cameras featuring a smart auto-focus feature that locks on to a moving target.”
“Things are probably getting better but we haven’t noticed.”
“Anecdotally, it appears to me, though, that people are as fucked up as ever if not ten times worse. Depressed, addicted, angry, confused. Neurotic. From the late ’70s until the early ’90s, before the Internet, it seemed to me that I was constantly revising my estimation of what percentage of the population was nuts. When I was young I thought it was relatively rare and it really seemed that way. I remember driving through downtown Philly in ’76 with one of my Uncle’s employees and he pointed and said ‘Look at that lady there, her boobies are sticking out,’ and, sure enough, there was this older overweight woman walking around topless in a ripped house coat with a zombie expression and it was a striking thing. I was like, ‘Wow, an actual crazy person!’ Before that it was just something I knew from tall tales or from Television. On Television you saw crazy people all the time, usually walk-on characters in a sitcom. When I went to college I met a few people, among all the new acquaintances, who seemed pretty ‘normal’ until a few months into the semester and I noticed they seemed, in fact, to be rather neurotic or off. You’d see them in the dormitory hallways freaking out over small things or yelling at people at 3am or crying while watching the TV in the dormitory lounge. College opened the door to the mildly amusing world of First World Problems, for me… we didn’t call it that then, of course. College… getting in or not, doing well or not, getting laid or not or having a breakdown while there, or not, is, itself, a First World Problem. Suddenly there were these middle class, or even rich, kids who were from dysfunctional families. That was eye-opening. But, still, I’d say that by the time I hit 25, or so, my estimation of the percentage of the population that was technically crazy, in 1984, was 5 to 10 per cent. I finally left the country and lived in London when I was thirty and the world seemed perhaps a little crazier than that previous estimate, though not by much. The crazy did not, yet, seem to dominate the landscape. But I wasn’t prepared for the mid-’90s, when I returned to the US after five straight years of living in Europe. I was totally disoriented. I hadn’t watched much TV here in Berlin when I was living here the first five years and I got back to the US and Daytime Television was Hieronymus Bosch, it was a nightmare. There were shows called The Phil Donahue Show and the Ricky Lake Show and The Geraldo Rivera Show and all the guests and all the hosts and all the studio audiences seemed batshit insane and extremely crass, vulgar, degraded. Okay, that was just TV World, and maybe it could therefore have been dismissed as trashy, unreal, hyperbolic entertainment as such, you know, just an evolutionary entertainment step to the next level after The Gong Show. But the people out on all the streets and in the malls and grocery stores… most of them were so obese that it seemed like a physical manifestation of insanity. I tried not to stare but I saw not only people fatter than any fat people I’d ever seen in books about freaks, when I was a kid, but there’d be like ten in a row of the fattest people I’d ever seen crossing the street or waiting in line or crowding into an elevator. And all of my old friends… the people I had last seen in March of 1990… now this was the fall of 1995… they weren’t fat, I’ll give them credit for that. Physically they looked the same (in fact, they looked identical: most of them were wearing the same plaid shirts I’d seen them in years before I left). But every single one of my old friends, and I mean every single one, tried to sign me up for what was called a “Multi-Level Marketing” scheme. What people used to call a Ponzi or pyramid scheme. Suckers are tricked into signing on and then the only way for them to make money is to trick more suckers into signing. One old friend I contacted the day I got back… I was really glad to see Mark… about an hour into our lunch he started in on this memorized spiel, with a crazed smile. It was eerie… I first assumed it was a joke. But he was serious. I left that lunch thinking, ‘Oh well, I guess I’ve lost a friend, but shit happens…’ but the next couple of weeks I had the identical experience at least a half a dozen times. My friends had all become these awful, scheming, two-faced hucksters who were desperate to find new suckers to sign on to the Ponzi scheme they had all been suckers for. I must have seemed incredibly enticing prey to them, since I’d been out of the country for five years. My sense of the percentage of the population I’d consider fucking deranged shot up to 30 or 40. At least. And that was before The Internet.”
“This is why R____ is a Psychologist. Only through proper research…”
“But that’s my point. The research has been going on since long before we were kids. At this stage in my life I’ve known at least a dozen people in psychiatric therapy of one kind or another… many for years… and none got better. Most got worse. Most got increasingly desperate. Most of my old friends in the US are on mood-leveling drugs. I don’t think you can apply general research to the psychiatric issues of an individual. And I don’t think you can ‘cure,’ or make life easier, psychologically, for an individual who is suffering, when you get down to it, from the pressures of his or her environment. I think most people are nuts because the world is nuts and they aren’t quite strong enough to protect themselves. They seek psychiatric help but the therapist could only help them by giving them a plane ticket to a simpler, kinder, healthier place where they could relax, eat healthy food, get a good night’s rest every night, go for walks in fresh air without fear of assault and interact with other healthy people without fear of being belittled, judged, ignored or conned. So what is all this ‘research’ for if the only real way to ‘cure’ a patient is to fix the world? The only way to help the patient ‘integrate’ in a sick world is to make the patient sick in an ‘acceptable’ way. So what’s all this psychological research for? What are these highly-funded studies about? These aren’t the fringe activities of obscure little scientists. Psychological research is an industry. There’d be no funding if there weren’t any useful results but there is a huge amount of funding, as you know.”
“Yes, it’s a big business.”
“If it isn’t leading to breakthroughs in the ability to improve the quality of life for individual humans, isn’t it obvious that what all this research is really about is the human mind in aggregate? Aka Crowd Control? Mind-control for masses of people. That’s obviously where the research pays off. Corporate advertizing, political advertizing. How to sell a potentially unpopular law or war or a huge social change or trend. Individual human problems like insomnia, anxiety, depression etc… that all belongs to the pharmaceuticals. Psychology is all about demographics, now; it has to be. Who’s going to fund a $30, 000,000 study to get to the bottom of the nature of unhappiness if it isn’t about the development of a lucrative new drug? I wonder how much of the data R____ gathers and analyzes goes straight to Brussels?”
That was back in 2016.