When I reflect on truth, I think of the Netflix sensation Resurrection: Ertugrul. It has had seismic influence in Muslim countries, Pakistan, India and parts of Africa. I found out about it when a local Grandmother, from a small Australian country town, told me of her and her husband’s despair that the almost 500 episode series was coming to an end.
In it, you see three civilisations on the verge of war: the Mongols, the Turks and the Byzantine Empire. A proxy for China, the East and the West. It’s the story of how people, sickened by the deceit and corruption of their world, dreamed of creating a Just State, leading to the Ottoman Empire’s establishment.
It’s Islamic, associated with Turkish nationalism and soft-power and provides a chance to see how The Rest view The West – which can be uncomfortable! However, its themes are universal: justice, truth, resisting tyranny and stopping ‘the cruel.’ Its vision has appealed to global citizens the world over, and that, I believe may be something of great significance.
Concern about ‘truth and justice’ issues infused my PhD research, leading to a concept called the Creative State. This is the idea of re-imagining governance and society – what the State could be like – in an era of climate, ecological and other security crises. The Creative State sees more voices contributing to the shaping of their worlds and new institutional design. Of course, this reinvention process needs to include universities, or rather, the entire system of knowledge management and what we think of as ‘knowledge.’ The current model of statehood must change for two main reasons.
The biggest reason is to do with what I call the ‘hyperthreat of climate and environmental change’. The hyperthreat notion spotlights the violence, destruction, killing, harm, and loss of freedoms that are imposed by unravelling ecological and climate systems. It draws from eco-philosopher Timothy Morton’s concept of global warming as a hyperobject – something beyond human’s capacity to perceive or understand, which utterly defies our current ‘systems.’ Morton argues that, in the face of the hyperobject, humanity’s new existential truth is that we are now “weak, lame and vulnerable.”
In contrast, the hyperthreat notion, views that humans have still got a chance. It applies military strategy, re-imagined for the Anthropocene, to the problem and devises a hyper-response, (PLAN E). To contain the worst of the hyperthreat’s destructive power, (or avoid dangerous climate change), this diagram shows the path that we must be on:
Pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C, IPCC 2018 Fig SPM.3a
To support such a trajectory, research, learning and knowledge sharing must be in fast-track mode, as occurred during COVID19. Yet there is no such system for the #ClimateEmergency.
Truth and universities
The second reason relates to whether universities are serving the public well or not. When you talk to so-called ‘working people’ – those without a university degree, some say universities are a waste of taxpayers’ money. “What are they doing over there?” they say, “I have no idea what they do.”
Increasingly, to find information and make sense of a world in crisis, people are turning to social media. Disillusionment with official ‘experts’ is an issue of great significance to universities. What’s gone wrong? How could universities better meet their citizens’ knowledge and sense-making needs? It’s time for some blue-sky thinking.
How things could change
To return to the Ertugrul series, the reason its popularity matters is that it points to larger social-cultural forces and ‘universal truths’ that are sweeping the world. Widespread mass protests, from #ArabSpring, #YellowVests, #MeToo, #BLM, #ExtinctionRebellion, #StopTheSteal to the recent Russian protests, tell a similar story. Many crave new, ethics-based, leadership. The larger truth may be that population groups are tiring of a leadership body that is perceived as having failed the majority.
Yet while global citizens may be aligning in their aspirations for a fairer world, in other ways, we are being pitched against each other. In real terms, over the 2009 to 2018 decade, global military spending grew 5.4 per cent; the 2018 annual spend was $1.822 trillion. This spending reflects expectations of greater conflict over the next decade; the exact period in which the war against the hyperthreat must be waged. It’s lose-lose. What if the people of the world said:
“We’ve got a better idea… Let’s redirect our efforts to containing the hyperthreat – our mutual foe. We’ll also rescue our major important and beloved ally – nature.”
Truth and the hyperthreat
Here is a vision of a different future: The time of fake news, spin and deceit is rejected. The capacity to confront the truth is now understood as critical to human survival.
As the 21st Century progresses, the hyperthreat will increasingly speak in a form which transcends all languages and is heard loudly, across the globe. Climate and ecological issues emerge as a unifying and irrefutable truth that resets dialogue and sense-making through the sheer force of its physical presence. In this world of harsh realities, there is no tolerance for ineffective institutions.
As the Turks overcame widespread corruption to open the door to a magnificent chapter in human history, perhaps the current generation of global citizens can do the same. A global ‘army’ could be raised against the hyperthreat. Alliances between East, West, North and South could be made.
Woke up this morning
From the strangest dream
I was in the biggest army
The world has ever seen
We were marching as one
On the road to the holy grail…
There’s nowhere else to go…”
Lyrics, Hunters and Collectors, “Holy Grail”
Humans. Earth. We’ve got nowhere else to go. For my part, I hope to progress a concept called #Research2Public. In general, we must find a new way.
Think your name would look good in print? Woroni is always open for submissions. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with a pitch or draft. You can find more info on submitting here.
Underground, over Parkes Way, lies one of the largest archives in Australia. Unknown to most students who walk over or drive under it, the Noel Butlin Archives houses an extensive collection of Australian archival material ranging back to the 1820s. Alongside the archive’s rich collection of Australian trade union records, Pacific Island materials, and National AIDs epidemic collection lies the official archives of the ANU. Yet, among these records of committee meetings and key ANU documents, one set of documents are missing from the ANU archives: proof of student life.
Stephen Foster and Margaret Varghese’s The Making of the Australian National University: 1946-1996, details in-depth accounts of the development of the ANU. But they only dedicate two of its chapters to students, with one relying mostly on official ANU records and statistics. While such omission has its reasons, what is a University and its heritage without its students? With its (relatively) small numbers and tradition of residential halls, ANU has a rich student life on campus. Much, however, is ephemeral and undocumented, with many memories graduating away with each new cohort of students. If we are to remember our stories and our life on campus, where better to start than the archives?
It is 1966 and Canberra needs more roads to accommodate its growing population. One plan was to expand Parkes Way west, through ANU, so to funnel traffic to Woden. Rather than cut ANU in half, Acton Tunnel was proposed to cover Parkes Way and house 300 underground parking spaces on top of the tunnel. Following the opening of the tunnel in 1979, ANU repurposed the proposed lots to house its archival collection (then based in Coombs). During the conversion of the new archives, known then as the ‘cataCoombs’, the ANU found that the weight of the archival materials exceeded the expected loads of parked cars, limiting the total space available. Despite the weight limit, the archives hold over twenty-two kilometres of archival material, with more held off-site.
A search of the ANU Archives for student material reveals disappointing results. While not devoid of records, the archives primarily hold documents created by the ANU, either administrative or for marketing, as well as organisations like ANUSA, the ANU Union, and the ANU Labor Club. The only consistent ‘student’ engagement, bar some minor exceptions, has been various alumni depositing their personal papers, decades after their graduation. While existing archives materials, including Woroni newspaper copies, give us a glimpse of student life back then, it does not fully capture the beating heart of what it once was.
Why does our history matter? Because it reminds us that we are not alone. Most of our university life and struggles have happened before, in one way or another. Reading Woroni articles written in the 60s, familiar dramas in student politics, student opinions about university administration, and stresses of study and life, all rhyme with our present dilemmas. Poring through documents on the establishment of various university organisations all reveal the hidden meanings and intentions behind many of the symbols and structures that surround us. Discovering stories behind decades of student activism all illuminate the progress and arena of which many of our existing fights with the university battle within. By remembering that we are not alone, we can learn from the past and situate ourselves among generations of students.
We are not the first to think about archiving student life at the ANU. Various others have tried, whether through journals, alumni groups, or by depositing records at the archives, to honour student life. These efforts, despite their limited reach, allow us to understand a world that otherwise would be unknown to us. But for archiving to be truly effective it must be more than a one-time deposit – it should be systemic and renewing. Systemic meaning a constant and organised effort to ensure that groups and organisations archive what they believe is important. Renewing meaning that these groups and organisations then make archives part of their operation. Whether a resource consulted or a historical memory project conducted, the aim is to foster a relationship with the archives, remember the history and structures that surround us and to reassure ourselves for the path forward.
While lofty in ambition, a student historical project is not unique. In the United States, various universities and student organisations have pushed for students to donate materials to university archives and to encourage them to use archival materials. These projects have also sought to recover lost or destroyed documents that record key moments of student life and activism. For us, it is important that such an effort centres student voices. Student organizations, whether residents’ committees, clubs, or informal groups, should all ensure someone takes on a responsibility of archiving what matters. Whether meeting minutes, flyers, photos, newsletters, Facebook group posts, or webpages, any record is worth preserving. Some organisations, like rescoms and ANUSA, even hold documents ranging back over the decades, in deep need of preservation.
By archiving our stories and retelling them, we take control of our history and place at the ANU. Already projects like the wall of student activism in Marie Reay and the history of ANUSA, available inside of its offices, allow us to truly understand our place and heritage. Even academic papers like Tim Breidis’ 2019 article in the Journal of Australian Studies provide a unique, detailed account of the 1994 Chancellery occupation and the power of student activism. But we must do more, throughout campus, outside of the strict realm of student activism, to tell our own stories.
The author thanks the Noel Butlin Archives for taking the time to give a presentation on archival work and a tour of the archives. Students and staff can arrange a lecture and tour by contacting the Noel Butlin Archives.
CONTENT WARNING: Sex, Nudity, STIs, Sexual Harassment and Assault, Masturbation, Drugs, Homophobia, Violence Against Women
This piece is a combination of excerpts from essays, books and movies, creative pieces, statistics and figures. Excerpts from other works are italicised, original work is not, and creative pieces from this author begin with a bold sentence. Statistics and figures have been collected from the Australian Institution of Health and Welfare Services.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, apocryphal medical claims introduced the idea that men require regular sexual activity for good health. Male sexuality was expected to be active and aggressive, with many fe- male partners and extramarital relations. Female sexuality, on the other hand, was expected to be passive, sterile, monogamous and lesser. This led to the normalisation of male sexual degeneracy.
Male scientists argued that male sexual traits were products of evolutionary instinct and sexual physiology. Promiscuity, virility and sexual domination, they claimed, were within men’s nature.
Without doubt the man has a livelier sexual need than the woman… guided by a powerful natural drive, he is aggressive and stormy in his love-play.
Woman is quite different. If a woman is mentally normally developed and well-raised, then her sensual desire is scant.
– Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis, 1886.
However, the degeneration of masculinity was also a topic of great concern in the late 19th century. Male sexuality was seen as something contaminated. Issues such as sexual promiscuity, prostitution, STIs, and masturbation chipped away at the idealised norm of masculinity. The fear of sodomy and homosexuality added to this decline.
Wood: Here an act of grossest indecency occurred. Mr. Wilde used his influence to induce me to consent. He made me nearly drunk. [testimony censored]….Afterwards I lay on the sofa with him. It was a long time, however, before I would allow him to actually do the act of indecency.
Gill: I understand you to say that the evidence given in this case by the witnesses called in support of the prosecution is absolutely untrue?
– Two excerpts from the highly-public trial of Oscar Wilde. Alfred Wood examined by Horace Avery, and Wilde examined by C. Gill.
A Reading List for the Modern Man (1900):
Bénédict Augustin Morel’s Physical, Intellectual, and Moral Traits of Degeneration in the Human Species (1857),
Cesare Lombroso’s Criminal Man (1876). – Ray Lankester’s Degeneration (1880).
Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892).
The spread of STIs – syphilis and gonorrhoea, then HIV and AIDS – symbolised this degeneration. Advances in medical understanding led to a greater awareness of STIs. Syphilis was a sign of sexual de-generation because of its obvious visual stigmata: pustules, rashes and ulcerations. The spread of STIs was seen as a failure of public health.
Men, being sexually promiscuous, became vectors for disease. Men with STIs were corruptive influences on family life, capable of inflicting diseases from extramarital partners onto their wives. Damage could also be passed to offspring: syphilis caused stillbirths, miscarriages and physical deformations.
He examined with minute care, and sometimes a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead, or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age.
– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890.
Ennis Del Mar ain’t been in, has he?
AGUIRRE glares at him even harder. The wind hits the trailer like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck, eases, dies, leaves a temporary silence.
You boys sure found a way to make the time pass up there.
Time Magazine, AIDS, The Growing Threat, 1985.
JACK gives him a look, then sees the big binoculars hanging on a nail on the wall behind AGUIRRE’s head.
Twist, you guys wasn’t gettin’ paid to leave the dogs baby-sit the sheep while you stemmed the rose.
– Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain, 2006.
The masterful man was the purveyor of what Mayreder characterized as an erotic of the “strong fist,” which depended not only upon aggression and violence but also upon the subordination and sexual objectification of women.
– Kirsten Leng, Sexual Politics and Feminist Science, 2018.
You’ve tested positive for HIV –
RON looks at DR. SEVARD blankly.
…the virus that causes AIDS.
RON freezes. A long beat.
Who you kidding, Rock cock sucking Hudson bull- shit?!
Have you ever used intravenous drugs or had any homosexual –
RON spits out his candy.
Homo? Homo? That’s what you said, right? Shit. You gotta be kidding me. (laughs) I ain’t no faggot, I don’t even know any faggots! Look at me, doc. Come on now, look at me. What do you see? Huh? The god- dam rodeo is what you see.
Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Valleé, 2013.
– Cara Phillips, The Boob Book, 2012. From Phillip’s series, Singular Beauty: Technology has enabled us to correct and enhance our bodies with an endless array of procedures that promise to make us younger, thinner, sexier and more beautiful. Plastic surgery is one of many industries that affirms male sexuality as the lens through which women are seen.
The ‘Male Gaze’ doesn’t apply to him. He loves women. He treats women well. He can’t stand that his eyes follow the latest one into the coffee shop, her buttocks squeezing and unsqueezing in black active- wear as she walks to the counter. He will admonish himself later. She’s made her order and walks to the other side of the counter, giving him the opportunity to look at her profile. Her breasts aren’t very big, held tight by a sports bra under a loose-fitting white top.
He turns back to his own coffee. He wouldn’t look for long. He barely even notices himself doing it. Habit? He would scoff if you said it to his face. It’s an atavistic trait, primal even. All men do it. He doesn’t mean it, the guilty, compunctious, delicious, unintended leer. He wonders who she is, the woman caught in his gaze, as if this shred of empathy could save him. He does not hear her name as it is called out by the bearded man behind the coffee machine. Takeaway. This is his cue. He hasn’t intended this either. He gets up and beats her to the door. Really she’s not his type. Bottom-heavy. Frizzy hair struggling to be contained by a bun. But that doesn’t stop him from holding the door open and trying to catch her eye, his grin flashing like the emergence of the bright sunlight through the door.
I was not too crazy about sleeping with girls I didn’t know. It was an easy way to take care of my sex drive of course, and I did enjoy all the holding and touching, but I hated the morning after… the girl would wake up and start groping around for her knickers and while she was putting on her stockings she’d say something like, “I hope you used one last night. It’s the worst day of the month for me”.
– Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood, 1987.
Note on the below figure: it is clear here that women have disproportionately experienced dating or partner violence.
Note on the below figure: 10.8 per cent of men and 5.5 per cent of women have experienced violence in the 12 months before the 2005 survey. This may seem surprising; however, total violence includes violence inflicted on men, by men. Women experienced over double the amount of sexual violence or violence from a partner, committed by, to an enormous extent, men.
Note on the below figure: it is extremely interesting- here to see that 47.9 per cent of women hospitalised for assault specified their attacker as their spouse or domestic partner, while only 4.4 per cent of men hospitalised for assault did likewise. Instead, 50.5 per cent of men hospitalised for assault chose not to specify their relationship to their attacker. This perhaps indicates the embarrassment and emasculation of assaulted men.
…all part of a grand narrative in which male sexuality is directly responsible for women’s subordination. Women can’t equally compete in economic, political and social systems that privilege individual output because of the demands of pregnancy and childcare. This translates into overall subordination, enabling men to sexually dominate women and force women to service their excessive sexual lust…
Are you in your tote bag? In the plants? In the bad faith sods-stream (Palestinian tears)? In your rug? In the city’s half-assed attempt to recycle? In your tribe? In your kink? In your place of employment? In your wage packet? In the likes? In the rejections? In your documentation? In this sentence?
– ‘Locate the Self’, Grand Union Stories, Zadie Smith, 2019.
Note on the below figure: sexual assault rates have risen between 2011 and 2017. Around 60 per cent of women and 50 per cent of men have experienced both inappropriate comments about their body or their sex life, and unwanted touching, grabbing kiss- ing and fondling.
I hate the whole ugly circus.
I love fashion but then there’s the smoke-pumping, toxin-burning, forest-shucking stuff. There’s finger- nails holding together the stitching of the new Nike Air Max Flyknit. I bought something yesterday – on- line, of course – and hated it and now the ship will travel right back to where it came from. What are these ships? I think of an overhead shot, the vessel sitting on the clean black slate of the sea, long and straight like an enormous phallus with the bow as the head.
I want to be cool. I spent three hours and three minutes per day on my phone last week. When you’re trapped in a well and all you can see is the small opening far above you, it becomes your whole world. Your view will never be as straight, as uncomplicated as it is then. Who can even say what I did on my phone for three hours? Not me, that’s for sure. I’d throw the thing out but every time I try to the wires come out through the charge port and cut their way into my hand, and at each small puncture a drop of blood seals the deal.
I’m on the bus and my head is rattling around just like everyone else’s, but we’ve all got Airpods in and are calmed by the various things we hear. I’m hungover. I bet there’s some function through which we could all sync our Airpods together to listen to the same thing (if anyone could do it, Apple could! Haven’t you seen their Facetime ads?). We’d all be there, a harmonious little group connected by our bus route and our collective music. But instead we’re all tuned out. At the station, a man is cleaning the floor by the toilets with a huge, wheeled, electronic, ride-on mop, whose loud whirring creates a different aural buffer, encasing him and rendering my Airpods useless.
Porn is a type of voyeurism. I’ve been told that if you watch too much then real sex stops being good. Real Sex – love making, not drunk, not high, on a bed, naked and vulnerable, vulnerable together, together, not apart, joined as one. That’s what I’ve been told. Wake up the next morning, check your phone, hug a little longer.
Instead I sit out the back with the rest of the lot, and yeah I smoke with them, but I don’t say anything, I just sit in the dark like the real world is all inside my head. I don’t even wonder what people are thinking of me like I do every other time of the day. I can barely be seen in the half-light of the candle and the flare of the joint.
I’m in a funk for the rest of the week. I watch people as they do what people do. I see women on TV, on glossy snapshots in the hairdresser windows, on Facebook. I see one standing at a traffic light in a nude-beige skirt and a severe black worktop, mimicking perfectly the stance of a model on a large billboard over the top of the city: a tiny simulacrum.
What smog-filled metropolitan vista will visit me to- morrow? I’ll watch them all again. We’re filled up with the same stuff, it goes into us all: defiled air, social overload, falsity, coercion, blue light, flashing impulses. Here our sex is used against us: every frisson amplified, every thought seized upon, we crowd each other out. I’m one of them: a leech sucking on society, the blood turning black inside, black bile.
Comments Off on It’s Time for Scientists to Come Down From Their Ivory Towers
CONTENT WARNING: Brief Mentions of Death and Chronic Illness
Anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and believers of fake news are just like everybody else: people trying to make the most rational decisions possible based on the information available to them. The problem, then, is not entirely with those apparently doing their best to spurn scientific facts, but largely with the way science is communicated to the public. And this is no small dilemma. For example, the recent spike in measles cases in Australia has prompted immunisation warnings from the government. According to the ABC, there have been 92 cases of measles in Australia as of April 2019, compared to 103 cases for the whole of 2018, and even lower numbers for the preceding years.
It is no coincidence that this resurgence in measles has occurred during a time where both information and misinformation are so easily accessible. Critically analysing information and sorting fact from fiction is hard work, and most of us don’t want to triple-check everything we read. Doctors, however, blame the rise of preventable diseases on anti-vaxxers who are spreading dangerous misinformation based on fake ‘science’. Arguably, it is doctors and scientists who are in the best position to educate the public about making the most scientifically-sound decisions on such matters. However, they are notably absent from the conversation. Why then, if doctors and scientists have such strong opinions about anti-vaxxers, are they so reluctant to come out from their laboratories and share their knowledge in plain, accessible language?
Let us begin by examining the reticence of scientists with regards to engaging in public discourse. Professor Ian Chubb, Australia’s Chief Scientist, emphasises the difference between “good science,” which is grounded in rigorous evidence-based testing, and “bad science,” which is not but somehow manages to dominate public debate. As a consequence, scientists are now spending their time arguing against “bad science,” talking about how “bad science” is not science, rather than educating the public on what ‘good science’ actually says.
The Australian Government’s Blueprint for Reform noted that stronger relations between academia and policy making is a major contributor for innovation. Sir Paul Nurse, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, echoes this sentiment. He believes that scientists should “emphasise why the scientific process is such a reliable generator of knowledge – with its respect for evidence, for scepticism, for consistency of approach, for the constant testing of ideas.”
This brings us to the discussion of how vital scientists are in the fight against misinformation. So, how exactly can stronger relations between academia and policy manifest? A good starting point would be for scientists to talk more, and for politicians to listen, allowing scientists to take on a more active role in civic discourse.
Far from it being an extra burden, scientists have a moral and civic duty to communicate science to the public and engage in public discourse. This is because scientists are, first and foremost, members of the public, and within a democratic context such as Australia, scientists (as citizens) ought to exercise their right in partaking in decision-making. The added status of ‘scientist’ should not preclude them from discussions regarding policymaking.
There are, of course, limitations to this argument. One objection is that we ought to separate science from politics and its underlying ideology. Scientists should focus on conducting high-quality research, and let politicians evaluate and discuss the political ramifications of their findings. This separation is necessary, because engaging in civic discourse would undermine the credibility of science being a value-free ideal. Scientists play the role of being objective in pursuit of information, and advocacy introduces a subjective element to this role.
However, the blurring of science and advocacy can be beneficial. Whilst science is viewed as ‘value free’, the reality is that scientists often subconsciously impose their own personal values into research regardless, such as when questions about rejecting or accepting a hypothesis arise. This concept, known as inductive risk, demonstrates that evidence-based decision making is sometimes not entirely an objective process. The key to ensuring that science remains a ‘reliable generator of knowledge’ is to have transparency, and to convey the ins and outs of science in a digestible manner. If anything, scientists taking a more active role in civic participation can foster more honest conversations between policymakers, the public, and scientists, leading to less misinformation and better decisions.
Additionally, scientists often see their work as ‘too cutting edge’ for public understanding. Yet, in order for scientific knowledge to make a meaningful contribution, it requires society as a whole to be enlightened enough to make informed, progressive choices. To do that, science needs to be delivered in a manner that does not discriminate between peoples’ levels of education.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, one of Australia’s most well-known scientists, started off his career as a paediatrician. He eventually decided to give up his medical career and enter media after he witnessed a child die from whooping cough. It was a TV program that encouraged people to ditch the vaccine lead to a decline in herd immunity, which contributed to the death of the child. As a community, we rely on herd immunity to protect our most vulnerable members: those who are unable to be vaccinated, like babies, or people with chronic diseases and immune deficiency disorders. Weighing up his love of treating children and communicating good science to the public, Dr Karl opted for the latter. He has said that he does not regret his decision.
Given the trying times we live in today, it is absolutely imperative that scientists take the time to get out of the lab and immerse themselves in their communities. ‘Political debate’ is slowly turning into a ‘political fake news contest’ in which the loudest person is always right. In a world in which President Donald Trump has had his statements fact-checked and disproven, scientists bear at least some responsibility in guiding the public back to ‘political debates’ grounded in reliable, evidence-based knowledge.
Despite being published shortly before the popularisation of psychoanalysis, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde illustrates two of its better-known concepts: the Oedipus complex and the id/ego/superego model of the psyche. The application of these concepts to the text offers greater insight into the motivation and relationship of the eponymous character(s). This is particularly relevant to the final chapter, ‘Henry Jekyll’s Full Statement of the Case’, which reveals Jekyll’s divided self and the true nature of his relationship with Hyde. Before turning to the text, however, it seems wise to begin by posing the following question: what is Freudian criticism?
Broadly speaking, Freudian criticism is a form of literary analysis that aims to interpret texts through the lens of psychoanalysis, the method of curing ‘neuroses’ developed by Sigmund Freud. Fundamental to this approach is the distinction between the conscious self and the unconscious self. Similar to the psychoanalyst, it is the latter that the Freudian critic attempts to uncover from the text and its characters. Thus, rather than regarding the character of Jekyll as exemplifying man’s universal and ‘dual nature’ of ‘good and ill’ (as a liberal humanist would interpret him), for the Freudian critic the dualism would instead represent Jekyll’s conscious and unconscious. Jekyll represents the former, and Hyde the latter. This distinction was later developed further by Freud into a tripartite model consisting of the id, the ego, and the superego. As we will see, this model can be mapped onto the character(s) of Jekyll and Hyde.
Beginning with the most primitive of the three, the id, according to Freud, is ‘the dark, inaccessible part of [the] personality’. It is driven by primal urges, instincts, and immediate gratification, and which ‘knows no judgements of value: no good [or] evil.’ As such, the id is closely associated with Hyde, who can be read as the personification of Jekyll’s id. Jekyll’s statement provides a wealth of evidence to support this, most notably that ‘[Hyde’s] every act centred on self; drinking pleasure with bestial avidity’, and that he seemed to have a ‘complete moral insensibility.’ Furthermore, given the animalistic nature of the id, this reading of Hyde is reinforced by the many bestial descriptions of him as ‘apelike’ and with ‘corded and hairy’ hands. Contrasting with the id, and often in conflict with it, is the ego, the rational and conscious part of the psyche, and that through which one interacts with the world. As the ego is charged with controlling and restraining the desires of the id, the relationship between these two parts is not at all unlike that between Jekyll and Hyde. Unsurprisingly, the ego corresponds with Jekyll himself.
Strangely, the third and final part of this model, the superego, seems absent from Jekyll’s statement. According to Freud, it is this part of the psyche that loosely corresponds with the conscience and that ‘observes and threatens to punish’ the ego for its transgressions and failure to control the id. The result of this tension between the ego and superego is moral anxiety, as opposed to neurotic and realistic anxieties, the results of the ego’s tension with the id and the external world, respectively. Interestingly, Jekyll doesn’t appear to feel the pangs of moral anxiety for his actions as Jekyll or as Hyde. Instead, he expresses a large amount of realistic anxiety with regard to his reputation and social status. As the superego is developed following the resolution of the Oedipus complex, it could be argued that, in Jekyll’s case, this resolution has not been entirely successful.
This last term, the Oedipus complex, is related to an important developmental stage of childhood: the phallic phase. This is marked by the child’s desire for the parent of the opposite sex, in addition to feelings of jealousy and resentment toward the parent of the same gender. Successful resolution of this is achieved through a process of identification with the same sex parent, through which the child internalises that parent’s authority, which then becomes the basis of the superego. Failure to successfully resolve this complex results not only in an underdeveloped and weak superego, but also neurotic behaviour in adulthood. Returning to the novella, traces of Jekyll’s resentment toward his father are evident in two of Hyde’s actions: the destruction of his father’s portrait and the murder of the elderly statesman, Sir Danvers Carew. Although little is said regarding the former, the destruction of the portrait could be read as the id’s symbolic ‘killing’ of the father. The latter might be read similarly, but rather as an instance of displacement by which the more elderly and socially superior gentleman represents the authority of the father figure. Read as such, both actions represent the realisation of the repressed, oedipal desire to do away with the father.
Although the above-mentioned concepts seem suited to the text, closer examination reveals that neither can be mapped onto it in an unproblematic manner. Firstly, it should be noted that Hyde does not entirely resemble Freud’s conception of the id. Unlike the latter, to whom ‘the logical laws of thought do not apply’, Hyde often demonstrates a measure of rationality and reserve, which is particularly evident in Jekyll’s description of Hyde’s cautious behaviour following the murder of Sir Danvers: ‘The creature was astute; mastered his fury with a great effort of the will.’ Secondly, the speculation of the oedipal origins of Jekyll’s neurosis hinges on the absence of moral anxiety and on his relationship with his parents. In the case of the former, whilst Jekyll’s anxiety greatly concerns his standing in society, he does, in fact, occasionally mention ‘remorse’, suggesting at least some amount of moral anxiety. As for the latter, aside from two references to his father, Jekyll reveals very little about his upbringing. Thus, the evidence for an unresolved Oedipus complex could be considered rather weak.
By analysing the final chapter of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with reference to the Freudian concepts of the id, ego, superego, and the Oedipus complex, unconscious aspects of the text are illuminated. This includes the psychological nature of the relationship between the doctor and his alter ego. Whilst these concepts cannot be applied without difficulty, they do, however, give new life to the text by offering an interpretation which is more in accordance with the scientific rationalism of the modern age than that of an allegory of good and evil inherent to all mankind.
The powers that be love blaming millennials for just about anything and everything. Unsurprisingly, next up on the list of millennial faults is reduced organ donation from motorcycle accidents. Millennials aren’t riding motorcycles to quite the extent that Baby Boomers did. As such, motorcycle deaths are decreasing, dragging down organ donation rates from ill-fated bikers (heaven forbid a statistic relating to millennials should be positive).
Organ transplantation has a colourful and convoluted history. The first autograft-transplantation (movement of tissue from one part of the patient’s body to another) took place in the late 1800s. This was a skin graft from the inner thigh used to repair the patient’s nose, which had been destroyed by syphilis. By the early 1900s, effective skin and cornea allograft-transplantations (movement of tissue from a human donor to human recipient) had been performed. However, it was not until the 1950s that successful transplantation of larger, more complex organs began. The first of these was a kidney transplant. The first heart transplant was performed by South African cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard in 1967, and transplant technology has followed an exciting trajectory ever since. Doctors can now transplant a huge variety of tissues and organs including intestines, pancreases, hands, testes, penises, bones, heart valves, and, recently, faces.
The heart is one of the most in-demand organs for transplantation. Unlike liver and kidney donors who can share their organs and then live to fight another day, heart donors must, of course, be deceased to give their recipient a new lease on life.
Thankfully, medical researchers have been working to ensure that the lack of millennials involved in fatal motorcycle accidents doesn’t severely impact the number of patients getting the new hearts they need. In an attempt to make organ donors obsolete, scientists are seeing to it that the wild notion of hearts being grown in labs is becoming increasingly more realistic. As a side benefit, synthetic hearts mitigate an enormous risk that comes with transplantation: the patient’s body rejecting the new organ and mounting a massive immune response against the foreign cells. Scientists have been seeing to this in a number of ways:
Regenerating old hearts in the lab: Using a detergent, cells from human hearts unfit for transplantation can be striped away, leaving behind only the extracellular scaffold of the heart. This matrix can then be repopulated with the patient’s own skin cells that have been reverse engineered into stem cells. These are then induced to become the cardiac cells that are required to build a beating human heart. In 2016, it took just two weeks for scientists to grow such hearts, but the researchers are clear that although well structured, the hearts resembled immature organs. Consequently, much work remains to be done before we are able to create individualised hearts for patients to order for transplantation.
Growing hearts patches: A heart attack can result in up to a billion cardiac cells that can never regrow after being destroyed, but this doesn’t mean the whole heart subsequently becomes completely dysfunctional. Nevertheless, heart attack patients frequently receive heart transplants because a partial transplant (excluding heart valve transplants) isn’t a procedure that can be performed. However, early 2019 saw the announcement of successfully grown swatches of cardiac muscle that are capable of conducting the electrical signals required to make a heart beat. These can literally be used to patch up a broken heart. This has been a work in progress for the past 20 years, and the patches will imminently be tested in clinical trials. Once widely available, these heart patches will reduce the need for entire heart transplants and improve survival outcomes for heart attack patients.
3D printing hearts: The technology is still in its infancy but, earlier this year, researchers at Tel Aviv University 3D printed a tiny vascularised heart using the patient’s own cells. This made the miniature organ an immunological and biochemical match. The heart was printed in the same manner in which all other inanimate objects are 3D printed: layer by layer, additively growing the heart from the bottom up. It will be many years before a 3D printed, human-sized heart is stitched into Ruth Purcell, a patient. However, when this does happen, two huge barriers in organ donation will be overcome: lack of supply from donors, and organ rejection.
Although you may not yet be able to hit ‘print’ and receive your new heart ready for transplantation tomorrow, synthetic hearts are well on the way to saving lives. Of the thousands of people currently in need of a heart transplant, many of them won’t survive the waitlist. This tragic lack of supply is an issue I have every hope we will not face for many decades more.
Comments Off on A CRISPR Way Forward: Developments in Human Gene Therapy
News is constantly flooding in about the latest medical and technology breakthroughs, and it is easy to get lost amidst all the noise. However, one advancement has risen above the rest and in 2017, CRISPR took centre stage in the technological revolution.
CRISPR has garnered a great deal of attention in the media, but why are we so interested?
What is CRISPR?
I am glad you asked!
CRISPR (pronounced ‘crisper’) stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat… and that is why we use the acronym!
It is a simple and incredibly effective way to edit sections of DNA (the building blocks of life) by either adding, removing or altering the DNA sequence. Where CRISPR excels compared to other similar techniques is its way of targeting specific regions in the DNA sequence, which you want to manipulate. Instead of wishing for the right outcome, we can control it!
CRISPR achieves this accuracy by consisting of two key elements: an enzyme that causes a cut on both strands of DNA, and a guide that allows it to target specific sections of the genome.
Most DNA is double stranded, and CRISPR makes sure that both DNA strands are accurately edited. We can also ensure that every time it is replicated, the new strands will be stably inherited making the edited DNA a long-lasting change to the organism’s genetic makeup. Not only that, but one of the most exciting features of technology is the ability to create gene-drives out of CRISPR. This means that every mutation we create has a biased inheritance. Instead of having approximately a 50 per cent chance of inheriting a certain mutation, it now has close to a 100 per cent inheritance rate. This is called gene-drive inheritance, and this feature is going to revolutionise the way we tackle problems. It’s super effective!
Because of the immense capabilities of this technology, the possibilities are limitless.
Why this technology is important
With our increasing population, our current lifestyle is not sustainable. Food will become scarce, medical resources finite, and pure water sources less and less attainable. Diseases will evolve as quickly as our means of treating them. This is where gene-editing and CRISPR can play a major role in curbing nasty side-effects of a booming population.
CRISPR allows for the alteration of the genetics of crops such that they can grow under harsher conditions and with fewer resources needed to keep the plants alive. Scientists could also pack the plants with nutrients or change their growth behaviour so that they could potentially grow larger, faster and all year round.
Mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria, cause millions of preventable deaths worldwide each year. CRISPR could potentially save millions each year by altering the DNA of the mosquito to make the mosquito unable to carry the parasites, viruses or bacteria, which cause disease. Research into this is already well underway and has had promising results so far.
Most importantly, because of CRISPR’s accuracy and effectiveness, human gene editing (also known as human gene therapy) is no longer in the realm of science fiction but is poised to be the next medical breakthrough of this century.
Imagine a world where cancer could be cured by a simple procedure without the need for chemotherapy. A world where infections could no longer take hold, where inheritable diseases such as diabetes could be prevented and where disabilities such as blindness were unheard of. This and much more is increasingly possible, all because of CRISPR.
But why stop there? Humans always want to improve themselves. Gene-editing may one day be used as a tool to allow people to enhance themselves, whether it be to increase athletic ability, intellectual capability or cosmetically (changing eye colour, for example). It is an exciting time to be alive!
However, with these immense capabilities come ethical concerns.
A cautionary tale
Human gene therapy hasn’t always been this promising. It has a shady past.
The first volunteer human experiments took place in the mid to late 20th century. Public fears of the risks posed by this new therapy were high, and for good reason. A mixture of ambition, shortcuts, blind faith and little supporting science meant that the first 40 years from its inception in 1960 were unsuccessful and, arguably, morally dubious.
This culminated in the preventable death of Jesse Gelsinger in 1999, an 18 year old with a metabolism deficiency, which was kept in check by a modified diet and enzyme supplements. As part of a human gene therapy trial, viral vectors were used to insert a new DNA sequence in an attempt to cure his metabolism deficiency. This caused multiple organ failures and his eventual death four days after he participated in the trial, sparking outrage in the public and scientific community.
Gelsinger’s case was the first where a death could be directly linked to gene therapy treatment. As a consequence, and with further investigation by the United States Food and Drug Administration, the researchers were found guilty of misconduct. Gelsinger was not properly informed of the risks imposed by this procedure: under similar treatment, laboratory monkeys had died and fellow patients had suffered from serious side effects.
For a time after, human gene therapy took a backseat.
Nowadays, human gene therapy is tightly regulated and in Australia and the gene-editing of embryos is forbidden. This is due to ethical concerns based on religious and moral standings. Many people still feel uncomfortable about the thought of ‘designer babies’ and consent of the procedure. Yet despite all its history, the public seem cautiously optimistic about its potential.
People should have their say
CRISPR has the power to revolutionise the medical industry. But with great power comes great responsibility. People must be fully informed and allowed to have their say as to what the future may hold for this research. Key ethical questions must be answered and integrated into policy and regulation to ensure that CRISPR and human gene therapy doesn’t revert to its unscrupulous past.
Is the ability to enhance ones intellect or strength a personal choice? Or one that should be decided by all? What if some couldn’t afford to use this technology and only the rich had access to it? More importantly: if we enhance ourselves, do we become less human? Is that a good thing? Can we reverse it? Humans are always evolving, but is it wise to meddle with nature?
These and many more questions are raised by the prospects provided by CRISPR. It is now, as we stand on the precipice of a new era that we must decide, as a nation, on the extent of our willingness to use human gene therapy. We do not want to find ourselves in a position like Dr Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park:
The Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the ANU is conducting a survey to figure out where Australians will ethically draw the line between human gene editing as a way to cure disease or to enhance our abilities or appearance. Have your say! Click or type in the URL to let us know what you think human gene-editing: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/STFS9K7
Comments Off on (Un)Healthy Research: A Dilemma of Ethics and the Publication Bias
When was the last time you read research reporting failed results?
As worthless as they may seem, negative results are a fundamental component of science. Some hypotheses simply turn out not to be true after investing months of hard work.
But what are your options after a negative result? Publishing is an option, and the result will undoubtedly help future researchers who may think of similar or alternative hypotheses. Unfortunately, it is near impossible to get a negative result published in a major journal or conference. Interestingly, some journals exist solely to publish negative results but, as expected, their papers get minimal exposure and citations, making them difficult to discover without a high level of Google-fu.
Let’s step back a bit and understand what a negative result is, and why the reporting of a negative result is important for upholding the evidential rigour of research.
Let’s say you had the hypothesis that left-handed people are less likely to develop Parkinson’s Disease (PD). From surveying 10,000 people, you find that 0.5 per cent of left-handed people have PD compared to 0.6 per cent of the right-handers. It’s not enough to say that the hypothesis is true, as it is possible that these numbers are purely from chance. Assuming that of the 10,000, we have 1,000 were left-handers and 9,000 right-handers, that leaves five left-handers with PD and 53 right-handers without PD. If you happened to stumble upon another left-hander with PD, that would have swung your result from positive to negative!
A hypothesis test is what is used to either confirm or deny your hypothesis. There are many different types of hypothesis tests, and the goal is to check if the results that you’ve obtained are statistically significant and are not just from random coincidence. A statistically significant result which affirms a hypothesis is ‘positive’, whereas non-statistically significant tests are ‘negative’. Being a negative result indicates that the outcome attributes to random chance.
You may have heard of the p-value test, which is the most common hypothesis test used throughout the sciences. The test is easy to apply and, when used correctly, it’s a great measure of whether your results are indeed statistically significant.
However, the p-value test is not without flaws. A major criticism is that researchers will often accept them as the sole measure of a hypothesis’s validity. This approach also neglects arguably more important factors such as the design of the study or an analysis of the results in favour for raw results. Another core issue is that if you repeat an experiment enough times, you may end up with a p-value which is statistically significant.
This leads to a pervasive problem known as publication bias: research may be repeated multiple times, often by different researchers who have the same idea, to obtain a positive result. This positive result is the only result published, despite other potential results which may negate a hypothesis. While a p-value seemingly affirms the hypothesis, the actual research may remain highly objectionable.
Another problem which leads to publication bias is p-value hacking. This is an unethical way of getting a couple of publications out of a dataset.
Rather than starting from a hypothesis, the researcher starts with the raw data and tries to find interesting correlations which are statistically significant. This is like writing an aim of a test after conducting the experiment, and can lead to ridiculous correlations. Examples include the high correlation between the divorce rate in the state of Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine in the United States, along with the number of mathematics doctorates awarded in the United States compared with the uranium stored in United States nuclear power plants.
All of this leads to bias in researchers, who manipulate statistics and research to affirm a hypothesis. Ultimately, plaguing research with fundamental statistical and evidential flaws because a research journal publishes this positive hypothesis.
How big of a problem is this?
Manipulation of statistics and evidence is much more problematic in some fields relative to others. A study replicating 100 previous works in psychology found that only 36 results were statistically significant after replication, highlighting the apparent widespread statistical flaws in psychology research. However, this remains a fairly controversial piece with criticisms such as failures to follow original methodology perfectly. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that a hypothesis may not be rigid if replication can only occur under a very specific circumstance.
The problem of statistical and evidential flaws within research still stands, which is propagated by the bias of research publications to only publish positive hypothesis. As with the example with published works in psychology, this may lead to a substantial portion of literature becoming statistically and academically flawed.
So what are people doing?
Recently, the American Statistical Association has recommended against the use of p-values, promoting the Bayes Factor. Simply put, this is the ratio of the likelihood of the probability between two competing hypotheses, which is usually the testing hypothesis, and an alternative hypothesis.
Hypothesis testing is still a field of debate in statistics. However, this move by the American Statistical Association presents a fruitful step in increasing the rigour of the statistics used in research. A Bayes Factor presents advantages over other statistical tests, such as increased interpretability. It may also be more robust to ‘overfitting’, which assigns an undue degree of complexity to results which may only allow for a more simplistic hypothesis.
A mass literature review was recently conducted using Bayes Factors to analyse the results of 35,000 papers in psychology. Based on the stats reported in the papers, over 27 per cent did not reach the level of ‘anecdotal’ evidence, and 45 per cent did not achieve ‘strong’ results. From testing using Bayes Factors, the review concluded that the general threshold of statistical acceptance for psychological findings is set too low since a substantial proportion of published results had weak statistical and evidential support.
Another initiative being undertaken to prevent the publication of evidentially poor hypotheses is that some publications will only accept a research abstract for publication before determining the results. This prevents academics from using p-value hacking to publish data which affirms a given hypothesis outright.
Where to from now?
Fundamentally, the problem of publication bias lies with the publish or perish mentality of research, and of the bias by publications to only publish positive results.
It is no longer beneficial or even possible to invest time in outwardly far-fetched hypotheses which are unlikely to reap the rewards until far into the future. Instead we find more niche, somewhat trivial papers which offer only minor improvements to current research, since these are more feasible and make up a more impressive research portfolio on paper. In these cases, it’s easier to find a result which accords to a positive hypothesis.
Research shouldn’t be so dismissive of negative results. While rigorous statistical measures can be employed to stifle the publication of evidentially unsound conclusions, it is ultimately up to publishers to uphold the rigour of academia by admitting the value of negative hypotheses.
Comments Off on ANU Students Take On The World Solar Challenge
A project that started as a pipe dream of three ANU engineering students in 2013, has now turned into more than 30 students working together to grow an extremely complex start-up. The team has spent hours working hard on all aspects of the project – from business, engineering and design – to build something that will change the future of solar-powered vehicles.
Over the past few months, students have worked against the clock in the workshop to put together a car to race over 3000km from Darwin to Adelaide. Technical team leader Nathan Coleman recalls the time he and two of his mates conjured up the idea of making a solar car: ‘I was procrastinating, as usual, when I came across the Bridgestone World Solar Car Challenge website. We all wanted a chance to do something hands on.’ He is immensely proud of his team and grateful to all the students who volunteered their time. Business team lead Mark McAnulty says it is undoubtedly the largest ANU student-led project ever and certainly one of the most exciting projects at the ANU.
The vehicle will take part in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge that officially runs from 8-15 October 2017. From Canberra, the race team will be transporting the car to Darwin where they will undertake safety checks and prepare themselves for the long journey. ‘The car will be competing in the Challenger Class, up against some of the fastest solar cars in the world. The ANU is certainly an underdog as some teams get millions of dollars to build their car. However, we have put together something that is competitive and will get through the tough conditions,’ says Arlene Mendoza, Race team lead.
Students in the team will be away from the university for almost a month. ‘It is a huge time commitment, but it is also a once in a lifetime opportunity to be involved in this race. We have been dedicated to the project for the past 18 months, and this is the final push,’ says Arlene.
But the car’s journey does not end after it reaches Adelaide. The team is organising a tour of regional towns surrounding the ACT after the race. ‘We want to inspire regional high school students and show them what they can contribute to if they come to ANU to study’, Emily Rose Rees, team leader, explains. ‘Our sponsors have been instrumental in the process. It has been so encouraging to have genuinely interested and engaged sponsors.’
The team will live stream parts of the race via Facebook and will post regular updates on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Follow the team on social media by searching MTAA Super Solar Invictus to stay up to date throughout the race and find out if this new team can take out the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge.
Imagine you’re forced to play a game of Russian roulette. Someone loads a bullet into a revolver, spins the barrel, aims it at you, and pulls the trigger. There are, say, six chambers, so you’ve got a one in six chance of dying. Sure, you’ll probably be fine. But that’s not much comfort – you’d still be very worried, you’d still not want to play, and you’d still go to great lengths not to.
What if the stakes are higher? What if, somehow, it’s not just you on the firing line – what if your family, your friends, and everyone you love will be lost too? And what if, worse still, everyone alive today was at risk? What if there was a one in six chance that all 7.5 billion people on Earth – people with complex lives, each of whom experience joy and love and happiness, and who don’t want to die any more than you and your loved ones – had a one in six chance of being wiped out in this game of Russian roulette? That would be even worse – that would be catastrophic. That would be worth doing almost anything to prevent or to even just reduce the risk.
In 2006, the UK government’s Stern Review put the risk of human extinction this century at 9.5 per cent. A 2008 survey of experts by the University of Oxford found that the probability was 19 per cent (a bit more than one in six). And even higher estimates exist – Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, puts it at 50 per cent. So there it is – we’re in that game of Russian roulette, whether we like it or not. Between now and 2100, there’s roughly a one in six chance of absolute catastrophe – involving not just our deaths, but those of our friends, our loved ones, and of 7.5 billion other people. And, under most extinction scenarios, almost all animal and plant life would be lost as well.
How will it most likely happen?
Where is this risk coming from? Fortunately, researchers at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and elsewhere, have started looking into the possible causes of human extinction.
One major risk is nuclear war. It would only take roughly one hundred nuclear detonations distributed across the globe to potentially trigger a disastrous nuclear winter. This could sharply reduce global temperatures and cripple agriculture, such that humanity could not produce sufficient food for survival. This isn’t going to result from a nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea (the latter simply doesn’t have a large enough nuclear arsenal), but a future conflict between any two of Russia, China, and the United States could do it. Experts put the risk of such a conflict (or accident) happening by 2100, and the result of complete extinction at one per cent. That might seem low but combined with other risks; it adds up. And with what’s at stake, one per cent is still a lot.
Global pandemics are an even greater risk with a roughly two per cent chance of wiping us out by 2100. Naturally occurring diseases likely couldn’t do it (since evolution doesn’t favour a disease that wipes out all of its possible hosts), but it’s getting easier and easier to modify diseases in the lab to be more lethal. With synthetic biology developing so rapidly, producing a civilisation-ending virus could become so easy that even your average terrorist organisation could do it. And it might not even require the deliberate release of such a bioweapon: laboratory safety practices are not as good as you’d expect and, with so many labs around the world doing this sort of work, the chance of a leak gets quite high. It’s even happened before, albeit on a smaller scale. In 1979, anthrax spores were accidentally released from a lab near the city of Sverdlovsk, killing about 100 people. The next time this happens, it could easily be something much worse.
Climate change might also do it. We’re still not certain about the precise consequences of carbon emissions, and the International Panel on Climate Change estimates that, under a medium-level emissions scenario, there’s a 10 per cent chance that we’ll exceed six degrees of warming. Looking further up the scale, economist Martin Weitzman has found that we may have almost a one per cent chance of exceeding 10 degrees of warming, averaged across the Earth’s surface. This equates to more than 20 degrees of warming across Europe, and most of the Earth’s landmass becoming uninhabitable. If we don’t drastically reduce emissions, there’s almost a one per cent chance of this, and a good chance that we won’t survive. Again, this doesn’t sound high (it’s even lower than for nuclear war), but it all adds up.
It’s also highly likely that we invent some new, immensely dangerous technology over the next 80 years. We simply don’t know – prior to 1945, few people predicted the future destructiveness of weapons technology, and we could easily be in a similar position. In fact, it would be surprising if technology didn’t develop to an unrecognisable level by 2100. It might not result in what we see in science fiction, with the Earth being destroyed by Terminators, but something like geoengineering or nanotechnology could plausibly go very, very badly. Without foresight, safeguards, and solutions to the technical problems, unknown technologies like those could potentially be the end of us – the Oxford survey put the chances of this at almost 10 per cent.
The importance of preventing extinction
That’s all pretty worrying. But there’s something which makes extinction events like these even more worrying.
If humanity goes extinct, there’s no coming back. Yes, we’re in a game of Russian roulette with 7.5 billion present lives on the line, but that’s not all that’s at stake. If humanity goes extinct, our children, grandchildren, and every single future generation will be lost too. If we go, our entire future goes too. How many people is that? Ten thousand trillion. That’s the low estimate, assuming we never leave Earth. And it’s still a million times more people than are alive right now. This game of Russian roulette is bigger than one person, and bigger than every person alive today – more than a million times bigger.
That’s what makes this issue so important. Sure, there are other things that might make our future unpleasant – overpopulation, food shortages, moderate climate change, and so on – and of course we should prevent them. But these will either affect just one or two generations or merely decrease quality of life. If nuclear war wipes us out, it extinguishes a million times more lives. The effect is on vastly greater scale, and it is worth doing something about.
Doing something about it
But there’s good news – by addressing these risks, we can safeguard our future. And ANU is starting to take action on this. In June of this year, the Emeritus Faculty convened a roundtable discussion and, in late July, published a report on the topic – Pathways Past the Precipice: Flourishing in a Mega-Threatened World (featured on the VC’s blog). They proposed the development of cross-disciplinary research centres to improve understanding of these risks, an ‘Australian Future Change Commission’ to take broader action, and that such issues be included in university curricula.
This is all great news. For one, as a world-leading research university, we’ve got a great comparative advantage in furthering research into these topics. At the moment, there’s less research into human extinction than there is on dung beetles, or on analysing Star Trek (yes, really). And, from what we know so far, research here is so crucial since much of the risk comes from the unknown; much of it could potentially be dealt with through technical solutions, and we still need to find the most effective strategies for achieving global coordination to address these threats. By supporting new research targeted specifically at this issue, ANU could really contribute here.
With parliament house a stone’s throw away, we’re also in a great position to make a real difference to policy. In particular, we’re well placed to establish a national commission which maintains a strong academic foundation, informed by the very latest research and free to focus on the crucial issue our long-term survival – an issue which is just not on the radar of policy-makers.
There’s a major worry with any such initiative, however. It’s very easy to get distracted from the central issue. There are other problems which might affect humanity in the near future (moderate climate change, overpopulation, food shortages, etc.) and possibly even make life a lot worse for a generation or two. But existential threats are so much worse – they affect not just one generation but every generation that will ever live. Plus, they’re hugely neglected – little government effort goes into pandemic prevention or regulating technologies which haven’t even been invented yet. Meanwhile, globally, US$360 billion already goes towards combating climate change each year, and overpopulation and the rest have already gotten the attention of policy-makers too. Of course, these are worth dealing with but, with such resources going into them already (and failing to solve the problem), additional efforts likely won’t have a large impact. For genuine extinction risks, however, the lack of attention means that there are lots of low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking. Additional work here could have an enormous impact, and ANU could make it happen.
Despite this possible pitfall, the ANU initiative could go extremely well. And there’s no need to be pessimistic – although there is a risk of the greatest catastrophe in human history, there’s also an opportunity here to do an enormous amount of good. We can dial back the risk and, in this game of Russian roulette, make the chance of disaster a bit lower than one in six – perhaps by pushing for nuclear non-proliferation, for better lab safety rules, or for safeguards on emerging technologies. And if we do, there’s a chance we’re saving thousands of trillions of lives. We can save the world, one percentage point at a time.