All posts by Brian Martin

Brian Martin is professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and vice president of Whistleblowers Australia. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles on dissent, nonviolence, scientific controversies, democracy, information issues, education and other topics.

Academic dissidents: be prepared for reprisals — and more

Academics who dissent from orthodoxies or who challenge powerful groups need to be prepared for the tactics used against them.

When Ivor van Heerden worked as a hurricane researcher at Louisiana State University, he was good at predicting hurricane impacts. But he may not have anticipated all the methods his detractors would use.

During and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, van Heerden presented his views forcefully to the media. In particular, he blamed the collapse of the levees on the Army Corps of Engineers. Top figures at LSU were not pleased, and tried to gag him and then to dismiss him.

Because his views were unwelcome, he was a target for reprisals. Is there any way he could have known what was likely to come next?

Ivor van Heerden

When you speak out and offend those with power, you’re at risk of adverse actions. This is true for anyone, including academics. Scholarly dissent is supposed to be protected by academic freedom, and sometimes it is, but in too many cases it is not, as shown in numerous case studies in Australia, the US and elsewhere.

Suppression of dissent

There is a regular pattern in cases of academic dissent. A scholar does something threatening to others, for example criticising scientific orthodoxy, doing research that threatens groups with vested interests, or teaching in an unconventional way. The most common trigger for suppression of dissent is challenging senior management within one’s own institution.

Then come reprisals, for example ostracism, damaging rumours, reprimands, censorship and dismissal. Sometimes the reprisals are subtle and hard to prove. Petty harassment can involve delays in processing forms, inconvenient teaching times, failure to be notified of meetings, and denial of requests for funding or leave.

The question is what to do. Sometimes it’s better to leave or to put up with the bad treatment. However, if you want to resist, what’s the best strategy? To better understand options, it’s useful to look at what happens with other sorts of injustices.

Outrage management techniques

When powerful individuals or groups do something that might be perceived as unfair, there is a risk of triggering public outrage. To reduce this outrage, powerful perpetrators regularly use five sorts of methods: (1) cover up the action; (2) devalue the target; (3) reinterpret the events by lying, minimizing, blaming, and framing; (4) use official channels that give only an appearance of justice; and (5) intimidate or reward people involved.

For a stark example, consider torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. (1) The prison guards and the US government hid the torture. (2) The tortured prisoners were called criminals or terrorists. (3) The torture was labeled “abuse.” Prison guards were blamed, with no responsibility taken by senior US officials. (4) Legal action against prison guards involved took many months, led to limited penalties, and allowed higher level officials to avoid responsibility. (5) Whistleblowers suffered reprisals.

Abu Ghraib was the exception, in that the exposure of graphic photos forced the US government to respond. In other torture centers around the world, cover-up and official denials prevent information getting out and limit public awareness and concern.

It may seem a large jump from torture to suppression of academic dissent. The commonality lies in the methods of outrage management. The same five methods of reducing outrage are found in a wide range of injustices, including sexual harassment, bullying, police beatings, massacres and genocide.

This means that when administrators take reprisals against academic dissent, with the risk of generating outrage from their actions, it is predictable that they will cover up their actions, devalue the dissident academic, provide plausible-sounding explanations for their actions, rely on formal processes to give credibility, and use threats and promises to thwart critics. In some cases, only one or a few of these techniques are used; in others, all of them are involved.

Techniques used against van Heerden

In July 2011, the AAUP issued a report on the van Heerden case. The report documents the intent of LSU officials to gag and eliminate him, because his public statements threatened their aim of gaining funds from the Army Corps of Engineers. The AAUP report provides evidence of all five types of techniques. (See also  van Heerden and Mike Bryan’s 2006 book The Storm.)

When the dean made the decision not to reappoint van Heerden, he did not give any reasons. Similarly, no reason was given for removing him as deputy director of the Hurricane Center. This was a type of cover-up. If reasons had been given, they could have been countered.

To devalue van Heerden, LSU officials emphasised that he had no credentials in civil engineering (relevant to design of the levees). In 2006 and 2007, van Heerden’s supporters asked the Chancellor to endorse their nomination of van Heerden for the 2007 National Wetlands Award. The Chancellor received advice from the Vice Chancellor, who wrote, “We would not want this award to justify his potentially misguided view of science/service.” (p. 10 of the AAUP report). By preventing the nomination, they denied van Heerden the possibility of significant validation of his contribution. Meanwhile, “a concerted media campaign arose defending the Corps of Engineers and attacking its critics, notably Professor van Heerden, in the New Orleans press” (p. 11). What seemed to be letters from members of the public were traced to “government computers inside the Corps offices in New Orleans.”

Van Heerden’s ouster was enabled by a reinterpretation of his job description. He had been employed for over a decade as an associate professor–research. His supervisor insisted that, “The formal job description is 100 percent research” (p. 11). This claim helped justify dismissing him on the grounds of not publishing enough papers in scholarly journals. Actually, van Heerden’s job description did not specify 100% research.

To challenge the decisions made against him, van Heerden appealed to the Faculty Grievance Committee. However, the committee copped out of its responsibility, declining to carry out an investigation. This is an example of the failure of official channels. The Grievance Committee provided the appearance of providing justice, but in practice none was forthcoming.

Van Heerden sued the university over wrongful termination. This provided the administration a pretext not to respond to other initiatives on his behalf. After the AAUP became involved, authorising an investigation, lawyers for LSU said, “the pendency of litigation prevented the administration from cooperating with the investigation” (pp. 13–14). This is an example of how using an official channel — legal action — can stymie other types of action. The administration refused to cooperate with the AAUP’s investigation, another example of cover-up.

When senior academics in van Heerden’s department met to consider his case, the dean was present at the meeting. “His attendance was widely (and unsurprisingly) perceived as intimidating.” (p. 17) More generally, the administration’s actions against van Heerden sent a signal to other academics about the risks of running foul of the administration’s agendas generally, as well as in supporting van Heerden.

These examples give a taste of the many facets of the van Heerden case. They show that the administration used all five types of methods to reduce outrage: cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation.

The same patterns are found repeatedly in cases of suppression of academic dissent. The more prominent the case, the more likely it is that the full range of methods will be used. It is wise to be prepared.


Each of the five methods can be countered. The counter to cover-up is exposure. Van Heerden’s supporters publicized his case; thousands of members of the local community signed a petition in his support. When wider audiences become aware of an injustice, some of them may be willing to act.

However, many academic dissidents avoid publicity, out of embarrassment, unfamiliarity with campaigning, or a trust in official channels. Anyone thinking of questioning or challenging orthodoxy should consider taking the issue to wider audiences.

The counter to devaluation is validation. Van Heerden had his impressive record of warnings concerning hurricane preparation and had allies in the university and local community willing to speak on his behalf. Dissidents can collect statements about their good performance and find people with credibility willing to vouch for them. Administrations will go through a dissident’s record, going back many years, searching for some transgression as a means to discredit them. Dissidents need to be prepared.

The counter to reinterpretation is to emphasize the unfairness involved. Van Heerden’s supporters pointed out the administrative contradictions involved in dismissing him: they cut through the false statements by those who wanted to get rid of him.

Dissidents can expect lies, blaming, and framing. Their opponents will try to explain reprisals in all sorts of ways — except as reprisals. Dissidents and their supporters need to be able to counter misleading accounts and insist on the unfairness of targeting a scholar for expressing unwelcome viewpoints.

The alternative to official channels is mobilizing support. Van Heerden’s supporters did this on his behalf. However, he put considerable trust and energy into official channels such as the Faculty Grievance Committee, which took energy away from a mobilization strategy.

Academics often assume that official processes, like grievance committees and courts, are set up to fairly adjudicate issues. Unfortunately, more often they give only an appearance of justice. Typically they are slow, focus on procedures rather than the core issues at stake, and rely on experts such as lawyers. As such, they are perfect for sapping energy from a campaign. Sometimes it is necessary to use formal processes, but relying on them is risky, and usually reduces wider concern about taking action.

The counter to intimidation is resistance. Van Heerden did not give up and walk away quietly: he and his supporters put up a powerful resistance to the administration’s attack.

For some individuals and circumstances, acquiescence is the wisest strategy. But if administrations are to be prevented from exerting too much power, some dissidents need to resist. Those who take their case to wider audiences, expose the injustice and refuse to accept it provide an example to others.

In resisting attacks on dissent, there are no guarantees. Van Heerden and his supporters mounted a major campaign but could not save his career at LSU. Others can learn some lessons from his story, in particular not to put too much trust in official channels.

The wider lesson is to be prepared for the likely tactics taken by administrations or by outside attackers. The methods of cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation are predictable. By being prepared to counter each of these methods, dissidents can better defend. It is wise to be prepared for hurricanes — and for reprisals against dissent.

Ivor van Heerden


In early 2013, van Heerden settled his case against LSU, receiving a payout of $435,000. Even considering that his career was destroyed, compared to other dissidents he was one of the lucky ones.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Nicola Marks and Ken Westhues for helpful comments on drafts.

Addicted to the screen?

Behavioural addictions are on the rise. It’s important to understand and be able to change them.

It’s commonplace to see people walking along with their eyes focused on their smartphones. Surveys show that many check their phones the last thing before going to sleep and the first thing when they wake up. And they have them within arm’s reach the whole night.

Some online gamers refuse to take a break, playing for days and nights on end. Playing the game becomes more important than eating or sleeping.

Is it reasonable to refer to obsessions of this sort as addictions? If so, they are addictions to behaviours, not substances.

            For insight into this rising problem, check out Adam Alter’s new book Irresistible. The subtitle explains the topic: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching. The book is highly readable, though not quite as irresistible as the activities Alter describes.

            To provide a context for understanding behavioural addictions, Alter examines the more familiar sort of addiction, to drugs. The usual idea is that the physical processes involved are the key, including wanting the drug and having withdrawal symptoms. In relation to pain medication, Alter says something more is involved: a psychological component, in particular emotional pain. Alter says addiction “isn’t the body falling in unrequited love with a dangerous drug, but rather the mind learning to associate any substance or behavior with relief from psychological pain.” (p. 89) For example, people who were sexually abused as children may cover up the emotional pain by using drugs.

So what’s involved?

“Behavioral addiction consists of six ingredients: compelling goals that are just beyond reach; irresistible and unpredictable positive feedback; a sense of incremental progress and improvement; tasks that become slowly more difficult over time; unresolved tensions that demand resolution; and strong social connections.” (p. 9)

Alter devotes a chapter to each of these six ingredients. One of the fascinating insights is the way designers try to make activities enticing.

Consider poker machines, in which players put in their money in the hope of winning a prize, especially a jackpot. Research shows that near misses provide an incentive to keep playing. Even so, there are fallow periods with no wins during which players are inclined to quit. In the US, gambling establishments are prohibited from manipulating the odds. So instead of the machine giving a little payout just when a player was thinking of quitting, an employee, watching the proceedings, will provide a small gift, such as chocolates. Even this process can be automated, with the machine providing information to the proprietors as to when to offer a gift to a player.

            Gambling addictions involve unpredictable positive feedback, but there is not incremental progress and improvement. For greater behavioural addiction, skill is involved, and skills improve.

Video games are the most common type of behavioural addiction. The most engaging games are very easy to learn, provide pathways for gradual improvement but make it impossible to achieve total mastery: there is always another level of difficulty. Alter interviewed video game designers. Some of them became addicted to their own games, and so did everyone else around them.

            Television producers try to induce viewers to keep watching a serial by using the technique of “unresolved tensions that demand resolution”, more commonly called cliffhangers. Near the end of an episode, some new development – an unexpected phone call, illness or assault – will be provided so viewers will want to tune in to the following episode to find out what happened next, namely to resolve the tension. This technique helps explain the popularity of soap operas and quite a few TV series. However, watching a show once a week is not a big problem. The addictive qualities of cliffhangers become more obvious when entire series are available on demand. Some viewers watch two or more episodes at once, or even binge for several days.

Knowing about the cliffhanger technique, a bit of planning can overcome bingeing on multiple episodes. The key is to end the viewing session after resolution of the tension, maybe 5 or 10 minutes into the next episode, and then start there the next time.

Alter provides numerous tips for overcoming or avoiding addictive behaviours. Email is a common problem: as soon as there’s a notification of an incoming message, it has to be checked or willpower is needed to resist checking it. One solution is to disable notifications. An even stronger technique is to shut down email altogether for most of the day, only opening it for a limited time. Alter counsels against the aspiration of an empty inbox, because this goal encourages obsessive checking of emails.

It’s now possible to buy all sorts of monitors, for example to record your pulse and the number of steps you’ve taken. Setting goals is fine, but Alter warns about making them too precise. When setting yourself the goal of 12,000 steps in a day, there’s a risk of injury by over-exercising. The target goal can overshadow messages from the body about exhaustion or pain. Self-monitoring runs the risk of encouraging addiction.

Who is susceptible?

It used to be thought that drug addicts had weak personalities and that to break an addiction, all that is needed is the assertion of willpower. These views are thrown into question by evidence that the environment makes a huge difference in addictions. Alter refers to the heroin users among US troops in Vietnam during the war. On returning to their home communities in the US, very few maintained their habits. The implication is that changing an addict’s environment is central to change. This includes being around different people and avoiding the triggers for the habit.

With behavioural addictions, environments are changing in ways that make more people susceptible. Video game addiction occurred from the earliest days of gaming. It was often thought that young males were especially vulnerable. But the reason they were more commonly addicted was opportunity. Not having jobs or other responsibilities, and having access to game consoles, they could devote hours to gaming every day.

            Therapists who treat gaming addicts have noticed an explosion in addiction in the US since the arrival of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. Suddenly many more women and older men began developing addictions. The reason: access to games has gone mobile. No longer anchored to a console, you carry your device with you. It’s like having drugs on demand, with no cost.

For substance addictions, one treatment option is abstinence. It’s possible to totally avoid alcohol or heroin, and this is the basis of twelve-step programmes, most famously Alcoholics Anonymous. However, treating Internet addictions through abstinence is not feasible, because jobs and other activities so commonly involve operating online. Alter canvasses various ways to deal with Internet addiction. Many of these draw on insights about how to change habits.

The difficulty of changing habits points to a strange discrepancy. Powerful groups seek to promote behaviours, like checking Facebook, that serve their interests, but that can become addictive. There are relatively few groups dedicated to countering these potentially addictive behaviours. Furthermore, there is even less effort put into helping people break damaging habits.

It’s worth thinking broadly about damaging habits and challenges to them. Smoking is the classic example. Tobacco companies benefited from hooking people on smoking and it has taken extraordinary efforts by campaigners to bring tobacco addictions under control. A key part of the change has been to make ever more spaces non-smoking. Another part has been to stigmatise smoking.

Alcoholism remains a scourge on many people’s lives. Alcohol producers so far seem to have avoided many of the controls applied to smoking.

Then there are illegal drugs such as marijuana, heroin and ice. The prohibitionist impulse is a manifest failure, enabling the rise of organised crime with disastrous consequences for users and their families.

With the vast expansion of behavioural addictions, what are the choices? Internet companies benefit from behaviours, like checking phones regularly, that easily become addictive. Because there is relatively little harm to others, there is unlikely to be a movement analogous to the anti-smoking movement. So what are the prospects?

            One source of hope is the availability of apps and devices to control Internet use, for example apps to shut down access after a specified time. But even to use such apps requires a degree of self-awareness. Ultimately, the culture of Internet use needs to change. If checking a phone while talking face-to-face with a friend were seen as extremely discourteous, there is some hope, but only if talking face-to-face remains common. Perhaps things will have to become much worse before major efforts are made to change social expectations.

Imagine that all children learn, at home and in school, the characteristics of addictive behaviour and how to change habits. Imagine people becoming more self-aware of their own damaging or time-wasting habits. Imagine companies becoming more responsible. If you’ve come this far, you have a good imagination and maybe you’re just dreaming.

Adam Alter

Brian Martin

Vaccination in perspective

To understand debates over vaccination, it’s valuable to look at the history and politics of vaccine development and policy-making.

Australian government health departments and leaders of the medical profession are united in supporting the standard programme of childhood vaccines. Vaccination rates in Australia are high and stable. However, a small number of citizen vaccination sceptics continue to raise concerns.

In the 1990s, Meryl Dorey set up what became the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), around the same time as vaccine-critical groups were formed in several other countries. Then, in 2009, some citizen vaccination proponents set up Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN), dedicated to discrediting, silencing and destroying the AVN. There has been a ferocious struggle between SAVN and the AVN. SAVN’s campaign was instrumental in politicians bringing in measures to pressure parents to have their children vaccinated, even though some pro-vaccination researchers opposed the measures.

            SAVN is strident in its advocacy, with the mantra “Vaccination saves lives.” AVN members, and quite a few others, remain sceptical. They continue to question the effectiveness of vaccination, raise the alarm about adverse reactions, and suggest vaccination may be implicated in diseases such as autism.

Both sides adopt the mantle of science, claiming the evidence supports their viewpoints. SAVN denigrates vaccine sceptics as deluded or ignorant. Some vaccine critics say proponents are in the thrall of the pharmaceutical companies.

In this highly polarised debate, there is little room for anyone to take an intermediate position, for example saying that many vaccines are worthwhile but others are unnecessary. However, this might well be the view of some parents, though they are given little support to express their views. Any reluctance about vaccination can lead to the stigma of being called an “anti-vaxxer.”

Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial

Stuart Blume is emeritus professor of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He has a lifetime of experience researching the politics of science and technology, and two decades ago began studying the vaccination issue. His approach can be called social history: a study of history taking into account social and political dynamics. Blume brings to the issue the perspectives of science and technology studies, seeing science and technology as subject to social processes.

            Blume decided to write a book summarising insights from his research. The result is Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial, recently published. I wrote one of the endorsements on the book jacket.

There is much here to ponder. The book does not mesh neatly with either the pro or anti positions in the usual public debate.

Blume tells two sorts of stories, one about vaccines and one about vaccination policy, and neither is a just-so story. Many traditional histories present science as a continual upward trajectory of discoveries and the overcoming of misguided beliefs. Blume, though, follows the path of historians of science who report on uncertainties, mistakes and unproductive paths. The implication is that present knowledge may be just as precarious, in its own way, as past knowledge.

Knowledge about vaccines and the immune system developed gradually, and for many decades there was no assumption that vaccination would prove to be a major route to public health. Smallpox was the initial target for vaccination, but there were many other killer diseases, such as diphtheria and tuberculosis, and other ways to address them besides vaccination. Today, with the focus on vaccination, it is sometimes forgotten that infectious disease can also be addressed through quarantine, sanitation, improved diet and general increases in the standard of living.

Vaccination campaigns are not always the best strategy to improve health. Blume highlights a problem with the polio eradication campaign. In a number of poor countries, resources for public health interventions were siphoned off to support polio eradication, which meant that impoverished people, needing basic medicines, were instead offered polio vaccinations, something less important for their own health.

A related tension permeated vaccination development beginning in the 1980s, when commercial considerations became paramount. Effort was put into developing vaccines for problems in affluent countries, where money could be made, while major illnesses in impoverished populations were left unaddressed.

Stuart Blume

            Blume notes that vaccination is often treated in isolation, as a special method of promoting public health, and not compared with other methods. To counter this tendency, he presents vaccination as a technology, in the broad sense of a set of techniques and artefacts, that can be compared to other public health technologies such as sanitation. He sees vaccination as a socio-technical issue, as having both scientific and policy dimensions, and as shaped by social, economic and political influences in both these dimensions.

Blume addresses vaccines separately, rather than as a group. As a result, he does not make a universal judgement about vaccination, as a good or bad thing. In these ways, Blume offers a different perspective than the one taken by most of the campaigners for or against vaccination.

One of the peculiarities of the vaccination debate is that nearly all the disagreement is about whether vaccination is beneficial or harmful, for example whether it has led to declines in infectious disease or whether there are significant numbers of adverse effects. Seldom are comparisons made with other ways of improving health, in particular children’s health, for example addressing poverty. Blume notes some of the disagreements about early vaccines.

As many infectious-disease killers were brought under control in western countries, while others such as HIV were proving too difficult, vaccine developers turned to other diseases, seeing opportunities for profits. Blume writes that the rise of neoliberalism led to significant shifts in the rationale for new vaccines. Whereas previously companies and scientists had freely shared information and vaccines in a common commitment to public health, from the 1980s onwards the pharmaceutical industry became more dominant and less public spirited.

Government health departments in different countries responded to industry pressure in different ways. It became more common to use cost-benefit analysis, especially given that many new vaccines were highly expensive. Health departments sometimes approved new vaccines without as much evidence as they might have required earlier.

            Cost-benefit analysis is not a good way to promote vaccines to the public. In several cases, notably measles and mumps, companies adopted a “rebranding” strategy to convince parents that diseases they had known as a routine and unthreatening part of childhood were actually killers to be feared and thus protected against using vaccines.

Blume believes that vaccines have saved millions of lives. Yet he is also sceptical of many of the latest vaccines, developed not as part of a public health agenda but by pharmaceutical companies whose primary aim is profit. Furthermore, there are dozens of new vaccines under development, many of them targeted at non-infectious diseases such as breast cancer.

Vaccination seems to have become a single-method solution for health problems, overshadowing primary health care that addresses the conditions that cause disease in the first place. Think how much easier it is to sell a vaccine than to address poverty and inequality, or illnesses due to industrial chemicals.

Vaccine hesitancy

For many readers, the most interesting part of Blume’s book will be the final chapter in which he addresses current anxieties about vaccination, especially in the west. He dismisses the idea, common among vaccination promoters, that the source of the anxieties is vaccine-critical groups such as the AVN. Sociologically, this explains neither the existence of the groups nor their alleged influence. It is like saying the reason people are concerned about economic inequality is because of protesters.

Blume cites research into the attitudes of parents that suggests something deeper is at play. Rather than dividing people into vaccine-acceptors and vaccine-refusers, Blume addresses a widespread vaccine hesitancy that affects many parents, especially well-educated ones, even when they adopt all the standard vaccinations.

Rather than vaccine-critical groups being the cause of vaccine hesitancy, it is better to understand them as a result of changed perceptions. Blume says vaccination has, for many people, become symbolic of a more general unease and sceptical attitude about the role of pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession. He notes that the usual survey research carried out by vaccination proponents can pick up demographic variations in parental concerns but does not get to their source.

It is perhaps relevant that citizens have no say in the development of vaccination recommendations, and even politicians are usually left out of the picture, as decisions are made by international organisations subject to corporate lobbying. This does not mesh well with people’s increasing knowledge about health matters. The experts might be right but nonetheless be distrusted.

Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial provides great insight precisely because it eschews the easy generalisations made by vaccination partisans. Vaccine development was not a straightforward linear process, and vaccination policy has been subject to a variety of influences. Vaccination is usefully seen as a technology, as just one of several approaches to promoting health, and thus judged in a wider context than a narrow calculation of benefits and risks. The contemporary vaccination debate is not just a matter of pro and anti, but should be seen in the wider context of attitudes towards social institutions and citizen participation in decision-making.

Blume does not offer easy answers, but more usefully points to the complexities and contradictions in the history and social dynamics of vaccination. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to get beyond the usual partisan positions in the vaccination debate.

Brian Martin

Opiate addiction in a market economy

In the US, there has been a huge increase in deaths from heroin overdoses. Why?

In the past two decades, opiate use in the US has soared, and so have deaths from overdoses. The amazing story explaining why is told by journalist Sam Quinones in his 2015 book Dreamland: the true tale of America’s opiate epidemic. Quinones spent years interviewing users, parents of users, drug dealers, researchers, police and others. Dreamland is fascinating reading, telling the stories of individuals and communities caught up in the opiate epidemic.

There are two parallel stories involved, involving legal and illegal drug use. The legal side concerns painkillers. US doctors have long used morphine as a painkiller, but only as last resort because of the risk of addiction. Then came the “pain revolution,” during which opiates became acceptable and often prescribed in ever-increasing amounts.

The change in attitude was driven by commercial considerations. The company Purdue Pharma developed a time-release opiate pill, gained government approval for its sale and embarked on a massive marketing campaign to win over doctors. A key part of the sales pitch was that because there was no euphoria from an immediate hit, the drug was hardly ever addictive. To back this claim, Purdue representatives referred to an obscure publication.

Quinones found that doctors went along with these claims, with no one bothering to look at the publication. Its authors had forgotten about it and didn’t know it was being used to justify massive opiate prescribing. (Like Quinones, I’m not distinguishing between opiates and opioids.) As it turned out, the claims about there being little addictive capacity were wrong.

The marketing pitch was that if someone has pain, prescribe Vicodin or OxyContin, and if the pain continues, up the dose. Before long, huge swathes of the population were seeking prescriptions. Some unscrupulous doctors set up pill dispensaries, writing scripts for anyone who asked. Users would get their prescriptions filled at a low price subsidised by the government and sell portions to others to maintain their habit. At these dispensaries, lengthy queues would form of people waiting for their drugs.

The areas of the country most affected were those where the economy was in decline, so many residents faced bleak times. Quinones tells about small and mid-sized towns in Ohio and neighbouring states, subject to deindustrialisation and despondency about civic pride and public life. Addiction took hold, but it took a while before authorities realised the scale of the problem. One reason was that the parents of those most affected were ashamed to admit their son or daughter was an addict. They were white middle class.

The Mexican connection

In the small Mexican state of Nayarit, poppy seeds grow abundantly. Boiled down, they form a sticky substance called black tar. It is heroin. Some entrepreneurs from Nayarit came to the US and began building a heroin franchise operation. It was like nothing before.

Previously, most heroin imported to the US came from Asia, especially Afghanistan, brought in through New York and distributed by gangs. This heroin was often cut, namely adulterated, as it moved down through the distribution chain. Many small-time dealers were themselves addicts; dealing is a way of making money to support a habit. The heroin business is highly profitable, leading to violence between operators and drawing the attention of the police. It is devastating to poor inner-city areas, especially black neighbourhoods.

The Nayarit entrepreneurs developed a different model. They brought in poor young men from Xalisco, a small city in Nayarit, who were willing to work at low pay in the US because the alternative was backbreaking work on sugar fields at even lower pay. These young men were paid a wage, so they had no incentive to adulterate the heroin they delivered. Furthermore, they were not users themselves. They lived in barren apartments and were given old cars to make deliveries. After a few months they were sent back to Mexico.

            The Nayarit entrepreneurs had several rules. They did not use violence and did not carry guns. They sold only to whites, as this was considered far safer. And they marketed only in areas where the previously established heroin operations were absent, such as Portsmouth, Ohio.

The Nayarit operators used a pizza-delivery model. They prepared black tar in carefully measured amounts tied up in balloons. They would hand out a mobile phone number to prospective users. When they received an order, a courier (one of the boys from Xalisco) would drive to the location with balloons of black tar in his mouth and spit out the appropriate number, for example two balloons for $40. It was high quality heroin provided promptly and reliably. For white addicts, this was enticing. There was no need to go to a seedy neighbourhood and negotiate with addict sellers.

            The operators would check in with their clients to ensure service was satisfactory, calling to ask whether the courier was on time and provided the goods. If a client didn’t call for a few days, the operators might ring and ask if there was a problem. They would lower prices to build their clientele, and sometimes give out free samples to win favour.

            If police pulled over a courier, he would swallow the balloons. Initially, police sent couriers back to Mexico. They were replaced within days. Later, some courts sent couriers to jail with long sentences. They were replaced too, with little interruption to business. Xalisco seemingly had a bottomless reservoir of poor young men willing to take chances to make money. Their reward was to impress their friends and families back home by taking them to expensive restaurants and building nice houses.

The Nayarit heroin operation happened to expand at just the time that opiate addiction was dramatically expanding due to sales of painkillers. For example, a high school football player might be injured and given OxyContin for the pain, developing an opiate habit. To maintain the habit, it was easy to switch to black tar, provided so conveniently.

The first major signal of this emerging opiate problem was deaths due to overdoses. A few individuals, in different parts of the US, started expressing concerns, but it was difficult to gain attention due to the pain revolution and the low profile of the black tar distribution operation. It was striking that the death were not blacks in big cities but whites in small towns. In many cases, parents did not know their children were addicted until they overdosed and died. The parents included politicians, doctors and judges. So why didn’t they speak out? The reason, according to Quinones, was shame. In white suburbs, heroin addiction was stigmatised as something happening somewhere else, to a different class of people. Many parents made up false stories about how their children had died. So it took a while before a few courageous parents started speaking out, raising the alarm.

Drugs and profit

In the US, there has been a so-called war on drugs since the 1930s, when federal authorities began a scare campaign about marijuana, whose use then was concentrated in immigrant communities. Illegal drugs were demonised. Meanwhile, legal recreational drugs, notably tobacco and alcohol, were massively advertised. Then came pharmaceutical drugs, also massively advertised.

            Drug issues are difficult to summarise briefly, especially because government pronouncements, media reports and advertising have cemented in certain attitudes. A simple contrast is between a policy of harm minimisation and one of regulated markets.

Markets are never “free,” but are shaped by government regulations, cultural expectations and social values. In the US, regulations enabled the profit motive to foster addiction and destroy communities.

The company selling legal opiates, Purdue Pharma, ended up making billions of dollars per year on the back of a massive marketing operation based on the claim that time-release opiate painkillers were hardly ever addictive. Profits drove the rapid expansion of use.

Making addictive drugs illegal is a different way to regulate a market. The trouble is that when the demand is inflexible, and alternatives are less enticing, this creates a strong incentive for organised crime. The result, often, is distribution via gangs, reliance on violence and corruption of the police and other authorities.

What is fascinating about the Xalisco distribution network is that it offers a different model for success in selling illegal goods: agents paid a salary rather than a commission, provision of high-quality service and goods, and avoidance of violence.

The US model for dealing with drugs has been disastrous for the people there and in the rest of the world. Tobacco is the world’s most damaging drug, and it was entrusted to large corporations with a huge incentive to expand sales. Alcohol is another damaging drug, again promoted heavily. Then there are pharmaceutical drugs, including morphine. Meanwhile, making some drugs illegal created different sorts of markets. The US war on drugs has contributed to corruption and the world’s highest imprisonment rate.

Quinones does not engage with arguments or efforts for law reform or a different way of managing drugs, instead simply telling the story of the different players in the US morphine/heroin saga. A compelling treatment of the US war on drugs is Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream.

In the US, there seems no end in sight for the toxic relationship with drugs. If ever there was a case for moving away from profit as a driving force, this is it.

There has been one good result. Overdose deaths in white middle-class areas have changed the attitudes of some politically conservative communities and politicians, creating more understanding and sympathy for opiate addicts. Perhaps there is some hope for change.

Sam Quinones

PS In recent months there has been some media coverage of opiate addiction problems in Australia.

Brian Martin

To do your best work, focus

To tackle the biggest work challenges, it’s vital to reduce distractions.

In today’s Internet-connected world, it is easier than ever before to spend time without thinking deeply. Texts, tweets, Facebook posts, emails, web stories: they all serve to attract your attention and keep your mind flitting from one item to another.

For many people, mobile phones have become an addiction, checked at every opportunity. When life becomes just a little boring, out comes the phone.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But if your job requires intellectual effort, then it’s vital to be able to focus on the most difficult challenges.

I coordinate a “high-output writing programme” based on research by Robert Boice and Tara Gray about how to become a productive researcher. The core of the programme is daily writing. I recommend 5 to 20 minutes writing “new words” and then additional time revising previously written text, reading, collecting data and all the other components of research work.

Quite a few participants tell the same story: “If I start work by reading emails and looking at the web, my day is gone. I need to write first, otherwise I get nothing important done.”

Facebook and email can be addictive: “I’ll just check to see if there’s anything important.” One link leads to another, and hours can go by. This undermines the commitment to writing.

Deep Work

In this context, I was attracted to a recent book titled Deep Work. The author, Cal Newport, is a US computer science professor, and a writer. For him, “deep work” refers to intellectual work focused on the most difficult parts of the job. His basic contention is that by devoting more time to deep work, you can dramatically improve your productivity.

Deep Work is aimed at white-collar workers in large US businesses, the workers who are supposed to be contributing to productivity through their ideas. Newport says “Deep work should be a priority in today’s business climate. But it’s not.” (p. 70) He gives several reasons for this, including that less taxing tasks are more enticing, that looking busy has become more important than achieving goals, and the assumption that everything to do with the Internet must be worthwhile.

You may think, “Well, this book isn’t for me, because I’m not a high-level brain worker in business.” This is a legitimate response, but there’s also a different approach. Rather than judge a book overall, either accepting or rejecting it, instead I often look for useful ideas. Sometimes an author’s work may be flawed, largely irrelevant or just plain annoying, but still there are some valuable things to learn from it.

There are two aspects to increasing the amount of deep work: devoting more time to it, and cutting back time on the more trivial activities, called “shallow work.” Newport tells of some leading figures who cut themselves off from interruptions entirely, for days, weeks or even months at a time. How do they do it? They have assistants who answer messages. This isn’t practical for most people. But it does provide a useful pointer: think of ways to protect yourself from distractions.

Newport points out that great thinkers often work to a routine rather than wait for inspiration. Not coincidentally, this is the basis for the writing programme. Newport quotes journalist Mason Currey, who studied the habits of prominent thinkers such as Charles Darwin:

There is a popular notion that artists work from inspiration – that there is some strike or bolt or bubbling up of creative mojo from who knows where . . . but I hope [my work] makes clear that waiting for inspiration to strike is a terrible, terrible plan. In fact, perhaps the single best piece of advice I can offer to anyone trying to do creative work is to ignore inspiration. (pp. 118-119)

Newport addresses collaborative work, which has the advantage of sparking ideas. Nevertheless, he recommends separately undertaking individual deep work and, when interacting, for collaborators to push each other towards thinking deeply.

Newport, with young children at home, a demanding job and the self-imposed task of writing books, nevertheless finishes work at 5pm. He advocates working hard when you’re working and then finishing, and being sure to get plenty of rest. For intellectual work, good quality sleep is vital.

Doing deep work

In essence, deep work involves concentrating intensely on addressing an issue or task. It is thinking. Concentrating intensely doesn’t happen automatically. It requires practice to do well. And you can’t do it well, or even practise, if you’re being distracted. Constant distractions, such as reading online posts, make it harder to concentrate even when you have the opportunity. Deep work requires training.

What counts as deep work? If you’re writing a thesis, thinking about the structure and key arguments is deep work whereas attending to emails is not. This much is obvious, but what about other sorts of tasks? Newport provides a useful test: figure out how much training would be required for someone to do the task for you. To prepare someone else to undertake your thesis would probably require years of training, whereas to train someone to sort through your emails, deleting some and selecting others as high priority, might take only a few days or weeks. This criterion can be used when trying to decide whether something you’re doing is high or low priority in your deep-work time.

What about the problem that you have so many demands on your time that you can’t set aside much for thinking deeply? Newport creates more deep-work opportunities by undertaking focused thinking during daily tasks like walking the dog. One of my PhD students, who had a very busy life, used to think through her topic while doing the ironing. Other possible opportunities are while swimming or standing in a queue.

To make full use of such opportunities, it’s necessary to prepare by developing lists of topics to think about, preferably the most challenging ones. Few people do this. My guess is that very few of the people you see checking their phones are thinking deeply about anything.

Newport developed a method for reducing the number of Internet distractions. For any particular service, such as Facebook or Twitter, he says to stop using it for a month, and then to ask two questions.

  1. Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?

  2. Did people care that I wasn’t using this service? (p. 205)

If answers to both questions are no, then you should quit permanently. Newport says social media are particularly damaging to possibilities for concentrated thinking.

In order to have more time for deep work, it’s important to schedule all your time so it is not frittered away.

Decide in advance what you’re going to do with every minute of your workday. It’s natural, at first, to resist this idea, as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter. (p. 227)

To schedule every minute might seem constraining. But scheduling is compatible with doing things you find satisfying. When you’re in the moment doing something, you’re not thinking of whether or not it was scheduled.

One of Newport’s counterintuitive recommendations is to schedule your leisure time. Often, leisure opportunities are frittered away in doing what seems easiest at the time, and end up being unsatisfying.

Cal Newport


When you read about that’s required to engage in plenty of deep work and become highly productive, you might think “Is it really worth all that effort?” Newport has an answer: deep work is satisfying. Engaging in it can involve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” in which you are totally absorbed in exercising a skill at the limit of your ability. More generally, research shows that if you want to be happier, you need to put effort into practices known to improve happiness, such as physical activity, expressing gratitude and being mindful. This clashes with a common belief that happiness simply happens when you do pleasurable things. Having a purpose in life and working towards it brings satisfaction.

Newport comments that “The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits.” (p. 263) It’s easier to engage in social media and other shallow activities and uncomfortable to try to achieve your very best, because you might not measure up to your expectations. But it can be satisfying in a deep way.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Anne Melano and Holly Tootell for valuable comments.

Questioning a Trump-making system

The election of Donald Trump has triggered a huge level of opposition. But should the focus be on Trump or the system that enabled him to become president?

            In the US, there is a continual preoccupation with the presidency. News media regularly report on the president’s statements and activities and on speculation about the next election. When people oppose the president’s actions, they usually think of who else might be president. Trump’s election has accentuated angst over who holds the office.

What is remarkable is that there is so little consideration of alternatives to electing a president, an official national leader. Why should one person be granted so much power, indeed the most power of anyone in the world? The usual answer is that this is democracy. But it is a very limited, indeed distorted, conception of democracy.

            Winston Churchill famously referred to the view that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. The quote doesn’t specify the other forms of government, which might be taken to be fascism, state socialism and other dictatorial systems. Churchill didn’t mention participatory alternatives in which there would be no single individual with extraordinary powers.

            In many domains, there are tremendous efforts to innovate. Think of communications technology, in which radio, television, computers and smartphones have transformed the way people interact. Think of transportation, with trains, bicycles, cars, and aeroplanes. Think also of social relationships, with campaigns to overthrow slavery, provide safe working conditions and promote equality for women.

Why not consider innovation in political systems? There is a strange sort of complacency about politics. Like Churchill, most people assume that representative government is the best possible system. This is analogous to not bothering to look at alternatives to radio or to sexual discrimination.

Random selection

The word “democracy” means rule by the people, but it has been hijacked and applied to systems that are actually rule by elected officials. The pioneering democracy, ancient Athens, offers a different picture. There were meetings of the assembly, in which all citizens could participate. More importantly, for practical purposes the most significant mechanism for choosing public officials was random selection, using a device called the kleroterion.


            David van Reybrouck in his book Against Elections describes the role of random selection in politics beginning in ancient Greece and continuing in Italy and other parts of Europe. He notes that for centuries, selecting public officials randomly was considered democratic, whereas using elections was the aristocratic approach. Then, as pressures for popular participation increased, elections were rebadged as democracy, thus constraining the more authentic approach.

David van Reybrouck

            Critics of democracy in ancient Athens point to groups excluded from participation: women, slaves and aliens. True enough. But similarly, early voting systems excluded women, slaves and men without property. The point is that a system can evolve. However, nearly all the effort to innovate has been within one model, elections. Innovation in the use of random selection has been rare — at least until recent years.

There is one venue where randomly selected decision-makers have maintained a role: court juries. However, judges and governments have constrained the roles of juries and limited the expansion of jury-style decision-making.

In the past few decades, there has been an upsurge in experiments with policy juries: groups of people, randomly chosen to address a policy issue, who listen to evidence on all sides of the issue and then seek to reach an agreed recommendation. Studies show that policy juries, also called citizens’ juries, usually lead to sensible recommendations. Members take the process extremely seriously and most find it engrossing and empowering. The experience with policy juries shows they are a reliable means of harnessing people’s concerns for the collective good.

            Expansion of the role of policy juries is one possible alternative to representative government. Yet governments, the ones now holding all the power to make policy, are usually resistant to introducing, or even testing, this alternative. And policy juries are only one example. There are other participatory options, such as workers’ control and Gandhian-style village democracy, that could be tested.

Learning from mistakes

Testing and learning from experience are the keys to improvement. Scientific research is one of the most dynamic systems in the world today. It relies on experiments and open publication of results, allowing scrutiny and testing of claims. This is a competitive system in which ideas are championed but all can be challenged. Although there are many shortcomings in this system, for example the influence of vested interests on research priorities, the system of scientific investigation is a model for dynamic improvement.

Testing and learning from experience are also central to the production of consumer goods. Again, there are many shortcomings in the system, for example the manipulation of needs through advertising, but competition has enabled dynamism. There are also dynamic non-capitalist production systems, for example the system for production of free software and the free encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Like science and consumer goods, they build on testing and learning from experience.

In contrast, political systems usually run as monopolies. Electing leaders is a great improvement on dictatorship, but it can hardly be claimed to be the best possible system when there is no testing of alternatives. It would be straightforward to set up a variety of political-system alternatives in local communities, letting them run long enough to see how they operate, and to study them to learn their strengths and weaknesses. This would be expensive, at least in the short term, but not compared to the potential benefits.

            So why aren’t political alternatives being tested? The obvious answer is that current power-holders don’t want things to change. They want to keep their power. Examining alternatives is a threat.

The lesson from the study of systems capable of dynamic improvement is that testing of alternatives and learning from both success and failure are crucial. Complaining about current politicians and their political decisions will remain important, but also needed is more effort to explore and test alternatives.

Brian Martin

When activists attack scientific dissent

Doing research on some topics can get you in trouble.

Alice Dreger

Alice Dreger was the ideal person to become an activist on issues of intersex and transgender. She was white and straight and hence could be a firm ally without being accused of self-interest or personal animus. She was an historian of science and able to research the issues as well as speak out about them. And she was articulate.

In the US in the past two decades, intersex and transgender have become hot topics. Dreger became involved, almost by accident, through a suggested PhD topic: the history of biomedicine and what, a century ago, was called hermaphroditism.

Intersex refers to people whose bodies do not conform to the conventional ideas of normal female or male. For example, some individuals have versions of both a penis and vagina. Others have an extra large clitoris. There are many variations. Dreger found that in many cases such individuals were brought up as one gender or the other and most people didn’t know the difference. But in some cases, doctors decided that babies with ambiguous genitalia needed to be “fixed” by surgery, for example their clitorises reduced in size. This sometimes caused physical damage and led to emotional problems.

From a human rights perspective, it can be argued that surgery for intersex should only be undertaken when a person can give informed consent. Even the assignment to one gender or another at birth needs to be undertaken with care.

After researching the history of medicine and intersex, Dreger obtained visibility on the issue, was contacted by activists and was drawn into campaigning for intersex rights. She voluntarily relinquished her tenured academic job to become an activist, and for a decade she used all her skills on behalf of those who were being harmed by the imposition of a medical-sexual orthodoxy on people’s bodies.

Scientific research and gender politics

By another set of accidents, Dreger entered an even more contentious domain: defending scientists who challenged conventional ideas about sexual identity. Michael Bailey argued that transgender is shaped by both biology and culture. He distinguished between two types of male-to-female transsexuals: “transkids” (Dreger’s preferred term) who are males attracted to other males, and “amour de soi en femme,” males who dream of being females. Only some change their bodily sex, depending on cultural conditions. Bailey drew on previous work by Ray Blanchard.

Michael Bailey

As well as publishing papers in scholarly journals, Bailey wrote a book, The man who would be queen, which received some publicity and also generated hostility from a few transgender campaigners who were offended by being characterised as “amour de soi en femme.” The hostility went beyond expressing disagreement. Bailey was targeted as a scholar and a person, for example with complaints made to his university about ethics violations.

Some people who knew Dreger urged her to look into the Bailey story. She did, using her skills as a researcher. She concluded that Bailey’s research work was solid. She also arranged to meet Bailey, to judge for herself claims that he was anti-gay and anti-trans. To her surprise, she discovered that he was totally comfortable with gay and trans people, and highly sympathetic to them.

Dreger wrote a long analysis of the Bailey saga and arranged for it to be published in an academic journal. It amounted to a defence of Bailey against his attackers.

“After nearly a year of research, I could come to only one conclusion: The whole thing was a sham. Bailey’s sworn enemies had used every clever trick in the book — juxtaposing events in misleading ways, ignoring contrary evidence, working the rhetoric, and using anonymity whenever convenient, to make it look as though virtually every trans woman represented in Bailey’s book had felt abused by him and had filed a charge.” (p. 100)

As a result, Dreger herself became a target. This experience set Dreger on a course of action: defending scholars who unfairly came under attack.

She tells of her experiences in an engaging book titled Galileo’s middle finger: heretics, activists, and the search for justice in science. It is a candid account of her personal trajectory, with extended treatments of several case studies, of which Bailey’s is one.

Dreger addresses the damaging potential of political correctness in sexuality studies and anthropology. Political correctness here refers to adherence to a particular viewpoint that is linked to fair treatment of disadvantaged groups, for example sexual minorities and indigenous groups. A classic example is the study of race and IQ. The politically correct view is that there are no systematic differences in innate intelligence between different ethnic groups, with measured IQ variations due to cultural factors. Anyone who studies race and IQ enters a treacherous terrain in which the “wrong” findings can lead to being attacked. Most researchers steer clear of such topics.

Dreger is critical of subordinating scientific research to belief systems. She believes that doing good research is vital, and those who do good research should be defended against ideologues. Furthermore, she made it a personal duty to become a defender in a number of cases.

The mirror side of this position is a concern about bad research used to bolster harmful practices. Dreger became alarmed about the use of a steroid during pregnancy that was supposed to reduce the risk that a child would be intersex. This drug was being dispensed by a senior scientist, Maria New, to numerous mothers. Dreger began investigating and concluded that the research justifying this intervention was thin and that mothers were not being properly warned that the drug was experimental.

In this case, Dreger became involved to promote good science by trying to expose what she believed was bad science. She thought the solution was to get government regulatory bodies – one of them was the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – to examine the evidence, but to her dismay the FDA’s assessment was that all was okay. Dreger learned that regulators can sometimes give the stamp of approval to bad practice.

Suppression of dissent

Since the late 1970s, I have been researching what I call “suppression of dissent.” In a typical case, a scientist does research or speaks out on an issue and challenges the interests of a powerful group, and as a result comes under attack. In some fields, including forestry, nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation and vaccination, there is a pattern of suppression, with numerous scientists, engineers, doctors, dentists and others being penalised for expressing their views.

In some of these areas, there are key works describing numerous cases of suppression of dissent. George Waldbott, a US doctor critical of fluoridation, documented many cases of suppression of fluoridation critics in his 1965 book A struggle with titans. Robert van den Bosch, a US scientist, recounted case after case of reprisals against scientists who questioned the orthodoxy on pesticides in his 1978 book The pesticide conspiracy. David L. Lewis, yet another US scientist, tells of numerous suppression cases in his 2014 book Science for sale. To this list must now be added Dreger’s book Galileo’s middle finger.

(Suppression doesn’t only occur in the US! The 1986 edited book Intellectual suppression reports on numerous Australian cases and gives references to cases in other countries.)

There are many similarities between Dreger’s approach to suppression of dissent and my own experience. Both of us address challenges to scientific orthodoxy, often linked to influential groups, and attacks against dissidents. Each of us, in addition, became involved in a critique of establishment figures. In my case this involved analysis of the pro-nuclear positions of Sir Ernest Titterton and Sir Philip Baxter.

There are also some differences between our experiences and approaches. Most obviously, Dreger has addressed identity issues and taboo topics and encountered hostility from a particular group of activists. This is a different sort of configuration than the patterns I’ve mainly looked at, which involve vested interests of industry or government groups.

Another difference is that Dreger investigates research and researchers in considerable depth in order to determine who is right, scientifically. If, by her assessment, a scientist is doing good research, indeed better research than others, then it is unfair for the scientist to come under attack. This is a sound approach.

My usual approach is somewhat different. I do not seek to determine who is right, scientifically, for example whether a researcher’s findings on pesticides or vaccination are superior to others. My concern is that researchers should not be penalised just because their findings challenge orthodoxy or threaten vested interests. For this, the double standard test is useful. If two scientists do research on pesticides or vaccination, and one reaches conclusions supporting the orthodox view and one reaches conclusions challenging it, are they treated the same way? If the dissent-supporting scientist suffers reprisals but the orthodoxy-supporting scientist does not, this suggests suppression of dissent.

Galileo’s middle finger is an important book. Dreger learned from her journey:

“how badly most people want simple stories of male and female, nature and nurture, good and evil; how the Internet has gutted the Fourth Estate; how the government is made up of fallible and occasionally disappointing humans; and why, more than ever before, democracies must aggressively protect good research.” (p. 189)

Dreger has forged a vital path in a highly contentious area, and told of her experiences in a revealing and perceptive way. Anyone interested in science in a free society should pay heed.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Anneleis Humphries, Michael Matteson, Ben Morris and Tracey Woolrych for helpful comments.

Stress: how it can be good for you

By changing the way you think, you can deal with stress more effectively and use it to serve your goals.

A friend complains about being stressed: there’s a deadline at work, one of the kids is sick, the car broke down and she had a nasty argument with a neighbour. Stressful indeed. So the usual goal is to reduce stress, to avoid it. This seems like common sense.

However, when it comes to physical activity, the idea of reducing stress has long been discredited. Exercise is good for you, as long as it’s not too much. For athletes, training is designed to provide the amount of stress on muscles to build them up without causing injury.

Lack of physical stress is disastrous for the body. Lying in bed for day after day is a health hazard, with muscle wastage and other adverse consequences.

If the body needs optimal stress for best performance, what about the mind? Are there actually advantages to stress? The answer to these questions, according to Kelly McGonigal, is an emphatic yes, as indicated by the title of her book The upside of stress: why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it).

McGonigal spent many years recommending the usual advice to reduce stress. Then she was stimulated to rethink her position and started looking into research on the benefits of stress.

McGonigal writes in an engaging fashion. She draws on her personal experience and tells about research findings in an accessible way, often providing stories about the researchers or about people who have been changed by adopting a different approach to stress.

Think differently

Here’s the most amazing finding. If you think that stress is good for you, it will actually become better for you.

McGonigal cites research by Alia Crum. In one of Crum’s studies, one group of hotel housekeepers was told that the physical work they did on the job was a form of exercise and good for them; the other group was told only that physical exercise was good for health. Then after a period of four weeks, each group’s physiological parameters were measured. The group that thought of work as exercise did better, including losing weight and body fat and reducing blood pressure. Simply thinking about their work differently changed its effect on their bodies.

Another typical experiment goes like this. Two groups of subjects are prepared for a stressful experience, for example giving a talk in front of a large audience. One group is given the usual advice that stress is not good for you and that they should to try to relax. The other group is told that stress is a useful tool. The group thinking positively about stress performs better according to independent judges.

Then there are physiological tests. One group, put into a stressful situation, is told in advance that they’ll feel nervous and should try to relax. The other group is told they’ll feel excited. The group that interprets stress as excitement actually has lower levels of biomarkers for harmful products.

The implication is that fearing and avoiding stress causes harm, whereas accepting and embracing stress can reduce its negative impacts and enable better performance.


These results reflect an important process: the influence of thinking on behaviour, in particular the role of a mindset, which is a framework for understanding the world, or oneself. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset described two ways of thinking about intelligence and performance. One is the fixed mindset, in which an individual sees performance as reflecting an innate capacity. The other is the growth mindset, in which performance is seen as reflecting effort. The growth mindset is far better for long-term improvement. People with a fixed mindset avoid challenges where they might fail, because failure might shake their belief about themselves, whereas people with a growth mindset see failure as indicating they need to work harder.

Mindsets about stress are similarly important. The key thing is that they affect behaviour in systematic ways. Believing stress is bad leads to efforts at distraction, getting rid of feelings (rather than addressing their source), drug use and withdrawal. In contrast, when people believe stress is beneficial, they accept the existence of stressful events, strategise, seek information and advice, address the source of stress and make the best of the situation.

Stress responses

McGonigal traces negative attitudes to stress to Hans Selye’s classic studies of the effects of stress on rats. They were highly traumatised, and these findings were interpreted by doctors and the public as indicating that stress should be avoided. This was not Selye’s intention, because there were important differences between the experiences of his rats and those of most people. Selye’s rats were exposed to electric shocks in a situation in which the shocks were unpredictable, unavoidable and meaningless. In contrast, the stresses that most people experience in their daily lives are fairly predictable, sometimes avoidable and often quite meaningful.

“Even in circumstances of great suffering, human beings have a natural capacity to find hope, exert choice, and make meaning. This is why in our own lives, the most common effects of stress include strength, growth, and resilience.” (p. 45)

One of the ways to benefit from stress is to recognise that it provides the resources to deal with situations. Stress commonly causes your heart rate to increase, your body to sweat and your attention to become focused. The trick is to realise that these responses are helpful for dealing with challenges: your attention is focused on the issue at hand, your senses are heightened, your energy is mobilised. So rather than trying to dampen the stress response by avoidance, it can be used to take action.

A second dimension of the stress response relates to interactions with others. To benefit from stress, the key is to get beyond the fight-or-flight options and instead adopt a “tend and befriend” response. This means to interact with others, to help others, to be sensitive to others’ emotions, and to defend them.

There is a third dimension to the stress response: it can help you learn and grow. The way your body responds to stress can help integrate experiences.

The first half of McGonigal’s book is about understanding stress, covering these three dimensions. The second half is about transforming stress, addressing the same three dimensions, describing ways to learn how to change stress from a negative to a positive. This involves exercises to use anxiety (a stress response) for achieving goals, to respond to stress by caring for others and thus build resilience, and to become stronger as a result of stress.

This last dimension can seem unfair. If you’re subject to traumatic experiences, why should the onus be on you to use this as a way of becoming stronger? McGonigal repeatedly emphasises that trauma is bad news: it has many downsides and should be avoided. But trauma is an inevitable part of most people’s lives, and it is worth knowing that it is possible to gain something from it. This is a matter of recognising the hardship involved but also trying to gain something from the experience.

Making attacks backfire

Over the past twenty years, I’ve heard from hundreds of individuals who are concerned about being sued for defamation. Some are worried that something they have said would open them to legal action. Others have received letters from lawyers demanding an apology and a payment for damages. A few have received a writ and are facing expensive court proceedings.

Many of them are frightened, even terrified. They are afraid they might be sued and end up losing their house. To say they are stressed is to put it mildly. They often don’t know what to do and, while looking for information, have stumbled across my website.

McGonigal’s approach to stress offers a different way of thinking about legal threats. Rather than fearing them, they sometimes can actually be welcomed because of the opportunity to try to make them counterproductive for the perpetrators. Truda Gray and I have written about how to use publicity and other means to make defamation threats and actions backfire.

In some cases, there is no easy option, but nonetheless there are options and they need to be carefully considered. The stress of being attacked can be used as a resource to generate courage, seek support and think strategically. Rather than cowering in fear, a better attitude is to think “Come and get me (and beware – you may regret it).”

More on mindsets

In some ways, McGonigal’s biggest challenge is people’s deep-seated beliefs that stress is bad. She is fighting an uphill battle, and experimental findings and stories will only go so far. What is really required is a change of mindset, to rethink stress and how to respond to it.

Kelly McGonigal

McGonigal reports quite a few studies of “mindset interventions.” These are typically group sessions lasting 30 minutes to a few hours designed to change the way people think about themselves and the world. Done well, a mindset intervention can lead to lasting changes in behaviour, for example improved academic performance.

This can be hard to believe. Teachers spend hundreds of hours with students trying to help them learn, and can react with scepticism to someone who says a short session can make a lasting difference. There’s another confounding factor: people whose mindsets are transformed don’t even remember the intervention. They think of things differently and do better because that is their new reality. No extra effort is needed.

If you want to change the way you react to stress, you can create your own personal mindset intervention. Get The Upside of Stress and read some of it. Then write down a brief account of how you could react to stress more positively. Then tell someone else about what you’ve read and how they could change their own reactions. That’s it. It’s not much, and can have lasting benefits.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Dalilah Reuben-Shemia for useful comments.

Understanding minds

Who and what do you think has a mind? Research provides fascinating insights.

The mind is where we experience the world and how we take action in relation to the world — or at least so it seems. Although every person’s mind is, in a sense, the most intimate part of their being, there is much that we don’t know about our own minds, and those of others.

Psychologists have been busy doing all sorts of studies about minds, including our assumptions about minds other than our own. If you’d like to read an engaging treatment in this area, I recommend The Mind Club by Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray. The subtitle is informative: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters.

You may know your own mind, but how can you be sure that other people have minds? They might be zombies! This leads to deep philosophical issues, but Wegner and Gray are more interested in practicalities. The easiest assumption is that most human adults think and have experiences. This part is easy. But what about the less obvious possibilities for having a mind?

Non-human animals: do they have minds? Your dog or cat for sure, but amoeba surely not. Then there are machines, including robots. Does your smartphone have a mind? Presumably not, but sometimes it seems convenient to think it does, especially when it starts giving trouble. Another challenging case involves people in a persistent vegetative state (a long-term coma), unable to communicate. It’s uncertain whether they are thinking.

Thinking doers and vulnerable feelers

To help understand these different categories, Wegner and Gray introduce two categories, agency and experience. A capable adult has agency, namely the capacity to initiate action, and can experience sensations and feelings, such as pain and elation. However, others may be classified as having only agency or only experience.

A baby, for example, has little capacity for agency but can certainly have experiences. On the other hand, most people think a robot can act but is unlikely to have feelings. It turns out, based on many experiments, that there is a basic dichotomy in the way most people think about other minds: they are perceived as either thinking doers or vulnerable feelers. This dichotomy has many ramifications.

Those seen as vulnerable feelers are usually treated with sympathy, even when they do bad things. Non-human animals such as kittens and puppies are usually treated as vulnerable feelers, so when they cause harm by biting or scratching they are seldom blamed, except when it is done to someone even more vulnerable, like a baby. On the other hand, some animals are seen as doers, like sharks.

A vulnerable feeler

“Our compassion for vulnerable moral patients translates into rage when they are harmed. People care when adults are injured, but they are incensed when children or animals suffer.” (p. 104)

One of the consequences of this dichotomy is that people who are either villains or heroes are perceived as less sensitive to pain. This can help to explain why so many people think it is acceptable to punish criminals severely, with long prison sentences and torture via extended isolation, even though criminologists have shown this is neither rehabilitative nor protective of the community.

Heroes are also seen as relatively imperious to pain. One study asked subjects whether pain should be inflicted on either a bank teller or Mother Teresa. Most said neither but, when forced to choose, selected Mother Teresa because she had more capacity to take it. She was seen as a thinking doer and hence less vulnerable to pain.

Whistleblowing and nonviolent action

Wendy Addison has pointed out the implications for whistleblowers, those people who speak out in the public interest. Employers commonly see whistleblowers as villains and subject them to reprisals. Members of the public, on the other hand, often see whistleblowers as heroes, but the trouble is that this makes them see more capable of handling the reprisals. Seeing whistleblowers as either villains or heroes may be a factor in the resistance to giving them financial rewards.

People who are disadvantaged due to disability, illness, harassment or assault can gain sympathy by being seen as vulnerable feelers. However, this has a disadvantage: they can be assumed not to have agency to respond to their situation, leading others to think of them in as objects of charity rather than having the capacity to take action.

Another possible application of the doer-feeler dichotomy is in relation to nonviolent action. When peaceful protesters come under attack by police, this can be seen as unfair and generate outrage. A video of students sitting in a protest and being pepper-sprayed by police became famous. The students were not threatening anyone, so to many viewers harming them seemed outrageous.

However, sometimes protesters are seen as heroes, especially when they undertake more energetic actions such as chaining themselves to bulldozers or swimming in front of ships. This can turn them from vulnerable feelers to thinking doers and make it seem like they are better able to endure pain and bad treatment.

Robots are seen as doers, with little feeling

Wegner and Gray introduce a sequence of possible minds: animals, machines, patients (vulnerable feelers, without agency), enemies, the silent (people who cannot communicate), groups, the dead, God and the self. Each one of these topics, comprising the chapters in the book, provides fascinating insights.

Dyadic completion

One of the psychological processes that helps explain how people think about minds is called dyadic completion. If there is an injustice, people believe someone must be responsible. Pure randomness is not satisfying psychologically. Wegner and Gray describe a case from 1457 in France in which a pig ate a baby, and the pig was put on trial. Something terrible had happened and so the pig was attributed agency and responsibility.

Dyadic completion is also involved in many conspiracy theories. When something bad happens, the normal explanation may seem inadequate. For many in the US, the 9/11 attacks were so horrific and traumatic that it wasn’t enough to blame only the 19 individuals who piloted the aeroplanes. They assumed something bigger and more sinister must be involved.

Your own mind

Of all the minds in the world, the one we think we know the most is our own self. Yet psychologists have carried out numerous experiments showing that self-knowledge is often quite limited. People do things but often misconceive the reasons why they do them. Pioneering studies by Benjamin Libet showed that when people make a decision, for example to push a button, the brain is activated a fraction of a second before the intention enters the conscious mind. The implication is that the conscious feeling that you are making a decision is an illusion: it is a rationalisation for what the unconscious mind has already decided.

The Mind Club is written in an entertaining fashion and is filled with all sorts of observations about minds. You can learn a lot even if you don’t agree with every point raised by the authors. The book is a highly successful popularisation. I can recommend it to you knowing that whether you decide to read it is not necessarily something you can consciously control!

Daniel Wegner

“Trying to perceive your dead mind is paradoxical, because you have to perceive a state that is incapable of perception – which is impossible while you are currently perceiving.” (p. 243)

Kurt Gray

“Despite the ultimate uncertainty surrounding the question of other minds, it is likely that everyone you know has the same powerful emotions and deep thoughts as you do. Unfortunately, your own collection of memories, thoughts, and feelings – your mind – prevents you from truly appreciating that fact. Being one mind prevents you from truly appreciating the minds of others.” (p. 321)

Brian Martin

The advantages of negative emotions

Happiness is a good thing, but there are also advantages in other emotional states.


Most people would like to be happy, and strive for it in various ways, everything from eating chocolate and taking holidays to helping others. But in the pursuit of happiness, is something being missed? Are there actually some advantages in being unhappy?

From 2009 to 2016, Chris Barker and I coordinated a course on happiness. We assigned weekly readings, most of which were about activities or ways of thinking that research shows increase happiness, for example physical activity, gratitude, mindfulness and optimism. To give a bit of balance to the readings, and encourage students to question the dominant orientation, Chris and I wanted to include a text providing a critique of research on happiness. However, we had a hard time finding a suitable reading. Most of the critiques of positive psychology are written in a technical and difficult-to-understand style and were not suitable for our course, which included students from engineering, science, law, education and other fields, with many international students.

Too late, I discovered the ideal source: The Upside of Your Dark Side, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, published in 2014. The authors are psychologists who have written extensively on wellbeing. They are fully aware and supportive of the goal of being happy and all the things that contribute to improving happiness. However, they became concerned about an emerging obsession with being happy, an obsession that obscures the advantages of other mental states. In short, they think it is important to be aware of, and sometimes embrace, the “dark side” of human emotions.

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a pleasure to read: clearly written without jargon, filled with examples and anecdotes, logically organised, thoroughly referenced and provocative throughout. It is a powerful counter to the usual one-sided emphasis on positive emotional states.

Benefits of the dark side

You might imagine that being unhappy, pessimistic, mindless and manipulative are things to be avoided. It depends, though, on the circumstances. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener cite lots of research showing the advantages of these apparently negative states. Consider, for example, whether it’s better to be happy when on the job. If the task requires close concentration and attention to detail, then happiness can hinder performance. Air traffic controllers, for example, need to be alert and always aware of possible danger. A happy atmosphere would undermine their job performance and put lives at stake.

More generally, it is valuable to be aware of negative emotions, because they provide information that can give courage, stimulate alertness to dangers, and enable creativity. Being positive all the time can hide the information available in negative emotions, and for example lead to poor choices. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener advocate embracing negative states (not wallowing in them) as part of the skill of emotional agility, meaning the capacity to use a variety of emotions as tools chosen for their value in specific situations.

Mindfulness, which involves being aware of your own situation, including your own emotions, is rightly touted at a route to deep satisfaction and a counter to cascades of intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness enables maintaining a distance from negative feelings like anger and anxiety, so they cause less damage.

            Kashdan and Biswas-Diener are well aware of the benefits of mindfulness, but they also point to the benefits of mindlessness. The unconscious mind is a powerful tool if used the right way. For example, in making a difficult decision when multiple factors are involved, for example choosing where to live or what job to take, studies have shown that making a decision based on intuition can be better than one based on a careful, conscious consideration of all the information. Furthermore, it may be best to first make a careful study of the options, then to be distracted (mindless) for a period before making a quick, intuitive decision. The point is to harness both the mindful and mindless capacities of the mind.

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say there are times when it is possible to take advantage of anger, Machiavellianism, narcissism and even psychopathy. Psychopaths, who are characterised as having no empathy, do not have a good reputation, often being put in the same category as serial killers. However, many psychopathic traits are functional in specific situations. For example, you probably want your brain surgeon to be focused entirely on the delicate task and not disturbed by feelings of empathy. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener also cite research showing that in some situations when a person needs help, psychopaths are more helpful than others.

            Similarly, narcissistic personality disorder – having grandiose ideas of personal importance and intense anger at being criticised – is not attractive. Yet there are some positive aspects to narcissism, for example a drive to achieve so as to measure up to self-evaluations and to attract praise from others.

Other dark sides

Looking at the benefits of anger, manipulation and other supposedly negative aspects of human personality and behaviour raises the question of whether there are any “dark sides” that should be totally avoided, such as hatred, sadism, greed and envy. Certainly they can cause severe damage, as documented by Joseph H. Berke in The Tyranny of Malice.

Consider greed, the desire for more, especially for more than others have. “Greed is good” has become the mantra of winners in the neoliberal economy, so in this context greed might be necessary for success. But what about individuals who desire a more egalitarian society? Are there still circumstances in which individual greed is part of reaching one’s full potential? Or is it simply greedy to pursue self-interest at the expense of others?

Envy is another dark emotion. It has a positive aspect: it can stimulate efforts to emulate the person who is envied. The more destructive side of envy is revealed in efforts to denigrate, undermine or even destroy the envied person. Envy is thus assuaged not by personal achievement but by tearing down envied others. Even so, this potentially has a positive function. In a highly unequal society, in which those who are privileged exploit the underclass, envy can contribute to revolutionary change.

            Expressing gratitude is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to increase happiness. Research shows that thinking of a few things you are thankful for just once a week can lead to significant improvements in happiness. This is certainly far easier than doubling your income. Yet might there be occasions when it is better to be ungrateful? Perhaps when someone is showering you with favours, you suspect they are trying to manipulate you. Withholding gratitude might make you more alert to scams.

Then there is physical activity, shown to be one of the most reliable mood-boosters available. Too much exercise can be damaging, to be sure, but what about the opposite of exercise: laziness? Are there occasions when laziness is beneficial? Anyone who exercises regularly needs to recover, and being lazy is an opportunity to do this. But what is the benefit of laziness for couch potatoes who avoid activity at all costs?

Forgiveness – better thought of as emotionally letting go rather than sanctioning another’s actions – enables a person to escape damaging thought patterns. However, the pursuit of justice is sometimes served by remaining vengeful for years or even decades.

Todd Kashdan

The whole self

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a valuable antidote to the one-sided glorification of positive states like happiness, altruism and mindfulness. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say that a person who is “whole” is able to take advantage of negative as well as positive states. The subtitle of their book states this: Why being your whole self – not just your “good” self – drives success and fulfillment.

            They are careful to say that in most circumstances, maybe about 80% of the time, the “good” states are desirable; for the remaining 20%, using your “dark side” can be advantageous to both you and others. By referring to 80% and 20%, they are really saying to draw on negative emotions just occasionally. They also note that “negative” states like anger and selfishness shouldn’t be faked. To obtain full benefits, they need to be genuine, just kept on a leash.

Robert Biswas-Diener

The whole community?

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, like most figures in the field of positive psychology, focus on the individual. They give little sense of how emotions are linked to social arrangements. In part this reflects their US orientation and the fact that most psychological research is carried out in affluent countries, often with university students.

Research indicates that narcissism has been increasing in the US for decades: surveys of university students reveal that personal goals are now more commonly to make money and become individually successful rather than to serve broader community goals. In this context of competitive individualism, linked to the rise of neoliberalism, displaying narcissistic traits can be useful for the individual, and those who are too altruistic can be easily exploited. But in a different sort of society, drawing on negative personality traits may not be so advantageous, or may be required less often.

            Looking at the social function of emotions and behaviours brings up the challenging issue of how best to bring about positive social change. If the goal is a more caring society, with greater equality and support for those who are most vulnerable, what is the role of anger, manipulation and unhappiness? There are no easy answers.

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a valuable treatment because it raises questions about things taken for granted. It can lead to a philosophy of moderation or balance. If I were again teaching a happiness course, I would assign one or two extracts from The Upside of Your Dark Side, and then hope to learn more from the response of the students.

“Being whole is about being open and accommodating of all parts to your personality: the light and dark passengers, the strengths and weaknesses, the successes and failures. To this we add the combination of a pleasurable and profoundly meaningful life, and the embrace of both novelty and stability. Acknowledging seemingly contradictory aspects of the self will increase the power and influence you wield in the present, and the vitality, agility, and perseverance you can bring to the life tasks that lie ahead.” (p. 213)

Brian Martin