Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Clever Hans

One nurse used to make some wishes on different fingers and ask me to pick a finger. She believed that the wish corresponding to the finger I chose would come true. She never told me what her wishes were and I never asked her about them. I just played along with what she asked me to do. At first, I used to choose a finger randomly but over time, I learnt how to choose the wish she desired the most. She came to believe that I had extra-ordinary clairvoyance and she frequently made me go through this 'choose a finger' routine.

I would look vaguely at her fingers so that she couldn't quite make out which finger I was looking at. So she would bend each finger and ask me which finger I had chosen. I soon noticed that the first finger she bent was often the wish she most desired. Occasionally this guess would be wrong. I could make out from her expression that she was disappointed with my choice. I would quickly indicate that she had misinterpreted my communication and that I had actually meant  another finger.  Overall, my guess was right about 90% of the time. Put my subterfuge down to horse sense.

Over a century ago, a horse from Germany named Clever Hans was known around the world for his inexplicable abilities. Not only could Hans count - something no other animals were said to do - but he could also tell time, identify playing cards, read and spell (in German, of course). In response to a question he would tap with his hooves either to indicate a number or the right option among many given. If Hans was asked what five and two added up to, he would tap seven times; if he was asked what day came after Monday, he would be told to tap once for Tuesday, twice for Wednesday, and so on.

Even rigorous questions of critical skeptics were answered correctly. More than a dozen scientists observed Hans and were convinced there was no signaling or trickery. What was the secret - if indeed there was one? Was it all a hoax or trick? Or was this a truly unique horse? The obvious guess was that this was an elaborate hoax, set up through some means of training between horse and master. It soon became apparent, however, that Hans answered not only his trainer, but co-operated even in the absence of his master with any person he had never seen before.

In 1904, the German board of education set up a commission to determine if the claims made about Hans were genuine. After a thorough examination, they concluded that there was no hoax involved. Finally in 1907, Professor Oscar Pfungst, a biologist and psychologist explained the phenomenon after close study. He found that the horse was unable to answer any question if the questioning person did not know the answer. Furthermore, the horse was unable to answer any question when it could not see the face of his examiner.

It turned out that the horse was an excellent and intelligent observer who could read the almost microscopic signals in the face of his master, thus indicating that it had tapped or was about to tap the correct number or letter and would receive a reward. For example, when Hans was asked to add two and three, the owner or another questioner would lean forward slightly after Hans had tapped the fifth time but before he could tap a sixth. Each time the horse would reach the correct number of taps to provide human-like knowledge about the day of the week, what a word meant or a mathematical answer, his trainer would make subtle movements (sometimes merely a change in facial expression or a shift of stance) that would cue Hans to stop. In the absence of such a signal, he was unable to perform.

The horse was indeed clever, not because he understood human language but because he could perceive very subtle muscle movements. More important, Pfungst discovered that people can unconsciously communicate information to others by subtle movements and that some animals can perceive these unconscious movements. Even Pfungst himself found that he was unable to control these clues as the horse continued to answer correctly when his face was visible to it. Therefore, it is now recommended that during all studies of animal behavior, any face-to-face contact between the examiner and the experimental animal should be strictly avoided.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ – IV

Evil is never intended as evil. Indeed, the contradiction inherent in all evil is that it originates in the desire to eliminate evil.  – James P. Carse in 'Finite and Infinite Games' 

I was shocked by this report that there is brisk sales of Mein Kampf in Delhi with some management students seeing it as "a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it".  Young people seem to crave success (whatever it means) without bothering about the means employed to achieve it. If education is only about learning skills at the cost of basic human values then there is something rotten at the core of modern education. Arendt writes in Eichmann in Jerusalem about Eichmann's chief motivation that made him mistake a demagogue for a demigod:
What he fervently believed in up to the end was success, the chief standard of "good society" as he knew it. Typical was his last word on the subject of Hitler …Hitler, he said, "may have been wrong all down the line, but one thing is beyond dispute: the man was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German Army to Führer of a people of almost eighty million. . . . His success alone proved to me that I should subordinate myself to this man." 
His conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and eagerness with which "good society" everywhere reacted as he did. He did not need to "close his ears to the voice of conscience," as the judgment has it, not because he had none, but because his conscience spoke with a "respectable voice," with the voice of respectable society around him.
Within a couple years of Hitler coming to power, he was hailed as a great national statesman. He made rousing peace speech - "Germany needs peace and desires peace," "We recognize Poland as the home of a great and nationally conscious people," "Germany neither intends nor wishes to interfere in the internal affairs of Austria". The massive rearmament program had removed unemployment and eliminated the initial resistance of the working class. So what if Jews were being discriminated against? The economy was doing well, right?

Although Eichmann had been doing the jobs in connection with the Final Solution that were being assigned to him, he had harboured some doubts till some point. But then he found at a conference all the elites of the Third Reich ‘vying and fighting with each other for the honor of taking the lead in these "bloody" matters’. He says, "At that moment, I sensed a kind of Pontius Pilate feeling, for I felt free of all guilt." Who was he to judge? Who was he "to have [his] own thoughts in this matter"? Arendt adds grimly, ‘Well, he was neither the first nor the last to be ruined by modesty.’

There were physicians, engineers, military leaders, etc. who were in support of the Nazis. Many prominent scientists and engineers built the Nazi war machine and helped Hitler to come close to world domination. German physicists and engineers built solid- and liquid-fuel rockets, worked on developing an atomic bomb, invented nerve gases such as sarin, produced a cruise missile (the V-1), and much more. Ferdinand Porsche (the founder of the company that makes Porsche sports cars) worked enthusiastically for the Nazis. He designed the Volkswagen Beetle, which was intended by Hitler to be a “people’s car.” Werner Heisenberg (one of the giants of quantum physics who discovered the ‘uncertainty principle’) was director of Germany's nuclear-fission research project.

The ethologist Konrad Lorenz was a card-carrying National Socialist and he actively participated in Nazi activities.  Doctors tested new drugs on the prisoners, presenting the results to a scientific conference. The Nazis poured resources into medicine, increasing doctors' pay, setting up new health care facilities for "Aryan" citizens and by 1939, around two thirds of all German doctors had some connection or other with the Nazi Party. Nazi racial hygienists were among the top professionals in their fields.

Academics in every field gave support to the Nazi regime.  Many university faculty used party membership as a method of advancing their careers. How easy it was to set the conscience of the Jews' neighbors at rest is best illustrated by the official explanation of the deportations given in a circular issued by the Party Chancellery in the fall of 1942: "It is the nature of things that these, in some respects, very difficult problems can be solved in the interests of the permanent security of our people only with ruthless toughness".

For Nazi operations in Hungary, there were protests from neutral countries and from the Vatican. The Papal Nuncio, though, thought that it should be explained that the Vatican's protest did not spring "from a false sense of compassion". Arendt comments that it was ’a phrase that is likely to be a lasting monument to what the continued dealings with, and the desire to compromise with, the men who preached the gospel of "ruthless toughness" had done to the mentality of the highest dignitaries of the Church.’

In short, the most educated, privileged and respected people were Nazi sympathizers. There has been no evil in history that has failed to find support among many of the great and the good who will find myriad ways to rationalize it as essential for national progress and morally justified. The cleverer the people, the cleverer the justifications. A result of modern higher education seems to be to dull the sense of moral outrage while internalizing simplistic concepts like 'maximising rational utility' which are applicable to  a species known only to economists. The Supreme Court once said that education helps people distinguish between right and wrong. The evidence doesn't support the statement. Arendt writes:
The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied - as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels - that this new type of criminal, who is in actual act hostis generis humani, commits his crime - under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ – III

Sin and immorality cannot become tolerable because a majority is addicted to them or because the majority chooses to practise them. - Ambedkar

It is rare to find Nazi documents in which such bald words as "extermination," "liquidation," or "killing" occur. The prescribed code names for killing were "final solution," "evacuation" and "special treatment"; deportation was called "resettlement" and "labor in the East". Only among themselves could the "bearers of secrets" talk in uncoded language, and it is very unlikely that they did so in the ordinary pursuit of their murderous duties eg., when their stenographers and other office personnel were present. The function of such clichés and stock phrases is to protect people against reality.

Arendt says that these language rules proved of enormous help in the maintenance of order and sanity in the various widely diversified services whose cooperation was essential in this matter. She says the term "language rule" was itself a code name; it meant what in ordinary language would be called a lie. Eichmann easily accepted and internalized these ‘objective’ Nazi rules which deprived them of their emotional content. The net effect of those rules, Arendt argued, was not to keep the involved officials “ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, ‘normal’ knowledge of murder and lies.” Arendt says about Eichmann:
What he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such. 
None of the various "language rules," carefully contrived to deceive and to camouflage, had a more decisive effect on the mentality of the killers than this first war decree of Hitler, in which the word for "murder" was replaced by the phrase "to grant a mercy death." Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid "unnecessary hardships" was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the  unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain.  
He seemed to have an extraordinary capacity to deceive himself. So completely had he accepted the language rules that apart from the specifics of his job, he seemed to be living in an alternate reality. So much so that he once said: "One of the few gifts fate bestowed upon me is a capacity for truth insofar as it depends upon myself." He had once issued a fantastic warning to "future historians to be objective enough not to stray from the path of this truth recorded here". Arendt says that it was 'fantastic because every line of these scribblings shows his utter ignorance of everything that was not directly, technically and bureaucratically, connected with his job, and also shows an extraordinarily faulty memory'.

But the mother of all ‘objective’ statements was made by Eischmann’s lawyer, Servatious, who said that his client was innocent of charges bearing on his responsibility for "the collection of skeletons, sterilizations, killings by gas, and similar medical matters," whereupon the judge interrupted him: "Dr. Servatius, I assume you made a slip of the tongue when you said that killing by gas was a medical matter." To which Servatius replied: "It was indeed a medical matter, since it was prepared by physicians; it was a matter of killing, and killing, too, is a medical matter."

The continuum of destruction often begins with seemingly harmless acts of blaming a group for one’s misfortune or supporting exclusion of this group as a solution to one’s problems, which slowly escalates into dehumanization.  It in necessary to demonize and belittle the nature of those one wants to exploit so they will be called cockroaches, vermin, etc. (The lower an organism is in the evolutionary tree, the less the restraint of the conscience in killing it.)

If the creeping normalization of hate speech and exclusionary ideologies are not opposed at the very beginning because they still seem “below the threshold” of concern to many, it may escalate into unimaginable violence given the ‘right’ kind of leader. The ground, especially in the youth, is fertilized over time to produce evil. The dehumanization of victims slowly but surely dehumanizes the perpetrator too.

Before targeting Jews, the Nazis chose softer targets as the thin end of the wedge. Soon after Hitler took power, the Nazis formulated policy to create an "Aryan master race." People with physical disabilities, mental health needs and chronic illnesses including people with conditions such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and alcoholism were deemed to be damaging to the common good by the Nazi party and were subjected to forced sterilization. The killings began in 1939. The model used for killing disabled people was later applied to the industrialized murder within Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. But the murders were only the end-point of what Auden called ‘a low dishonest decade’.

As the months and the years went by, Eichmann lost the need to feel anything at all. He did not meet anybody in his circle who was opposed to what was happening. An order from Hitler did not have to be in writing  (no document relating to the Final Solution has ever been found; probably it never existed). Thus the Führer's words, his oral pronouncements, were the basic law of the land. Within this "legal" framework, every order contrary in letter or spirit to a word spoken by Hitler was, by definition, unlawful. He was following orders so he was convinced that he was acting as a law-abiding citizen.

In a terrifying act of self-deception, Eichmann believed his inhuman acts were marks of virtue. He would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do. And this slow dulling of emotional  outrage extended to the general population to the point where they started believing that gassing people was actually a humane thing. Arendt illustrates this with a couple of anecdotes. She writes of a female "leader" who told peasants in Bavaria in 1944 about impending defeat about which no good German needed to worry because the Führer "in his great goodness had prepared for the whole German people a mild death through gassing in case the war should have an unhappy end."

She then tells of a woman from the countryside who says,`The Russians will never get us. The Führer will never permit it. Much sooner he will gas us.' No one who heard the statement felt it out of the ordinary. Arendt adds wryly, ‘The story, one feels, like most true stories, is incomplete. There should have been one more voice, preferably a female one, which, sighing heavily, replied: And now all that good, expensive gas has been wasted on the Jews!’ In Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott says:
Utopian aspirations per se are not dangerous. As Oscar Wilde remarked, "A map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.’’ Where the utopian vision goes wrong is when it is held by ruling elites with no commitment to democracy or civil rights and who are therefore likely to use unbridled state power for its achievement. Where it goes brutally wrong is when the society subjected to such utopian experiments lacks the capacity to mount a determined resistance.