Letters to the Editor

November/December 2011

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Letters to the Editor

Asking How and What

Experimental philosophy is not a new field ("Putting Philosophy to the Test," September/October). It sprang up in the 19th century when Wilhelm Wundt, a professor in Germany, decided to address philosophical questions through experimental means. Better not speculate endlessly, he said; better to collect data. He proceeded to focus on a primary question of epistemology: How do we know what we know or think we know? The field known as experimental psychology grew out of Wundt's studies.

I have a PhD in experimental psychology, so I am a doctor of philosophy, albeit one with an experimental-psychological bent. Interestingly, the main focus of experimental psychology has continued to be the one that Wundt pursued. The methods used in the field have become more refined than the (introspective) methods that Wundt began with, but the "how" question has prevailed over the "what" question: What do we know (or believe)? The latter question is the one taken up by Josh Knobe, who probably knows that experimental philosophy is less controversially a branch of experimental psychology than it is a branch of philosophy.

Experimental psychologists have not entirely eschewed questions of what is known or believed, even if they have eschewed the question of whether what people know or believe reflects their "philosophy." One of the great discoveries made by experimental psychologists in connection with the what question is the "framing effect," a phenomenon amply mirrored in one of the examples in your article—getting very different assignments of blame to the protagonist of an ethically fraught scenario if s/he either hurts or helps others. Decades ago, Amos Tversky, later a member of the Stanford psychology department, along with Daniel Kahneman, showed that slight variations in the way scenarios are presented dramatically affect what choice of action participants say they would follow. Sadly, Tversky died while at Stanford. Had he survived, he would have won, along with Kahneman, the Nobel Prize in economics for this line of work.

My aim is not to scold Knobe, who surely knows about everything I have said here, nor the author of the article proclaiming the novelty of experimental philosophy. My belief—my personal philosophy, if you will—is that it is desirable to avoid hype in favor of humility. Finding out what people know or believe—no matter how coherent or incoherent that knowledge or those beliefs may be—is a valuable way to study human nature. We experimental psychologists have never dreamt that what the man or woman on the street says about ontology, for example, is the stance on that subject that official, card-carrying philosophers ought to adopt. Our aim has always been more modest—to learn as best we can through the tools at our disposal how and what people (and animals) seem to know or believe.

I am happy to welcome Knobe to our experimental psychology club and suggest that even if not all philosophers will welcome him or his methods, we experimental psychologists will be glad to seriously consider his data, provided they are collected through the rigorous and ethical methods that we have developed in the 100-plus years that we have been doing our research.

David Rosenbaum, PhD '77
State College, Pennsylvania

No, No, Chevette

 An excellent article on GM and Mary Barra ("What Drives Mary Barra," September/October). I disagree with one assertion: that the Chevette was "practical." A practical car actually runs. I bought one new. It wasn't even finished in the assembly plant. When finally completed by the dealer, it coughed and bucked, and sounded cheap. The next 20 years I drove Volkswagen Beetles and Jettas. GM richly deserved its disasters.

Thomas P. Lowry, '54, MD '57
Woodbridge, Virginia

HumBio Founders 

The article "HumBio Turns 40" (Farm Report, September/October) was disappointing in that it failed to acknowledge any of the wonderful faculty who collaborated to start and sustain this program that has easily lasted 40 years. While it is obvious that every article cannot include every founding member, this program is being feted for its success, its level of adoration by Stanford students and its continued relevance. As a Medical School faculty member starting in 1974, I remember the pleasure in participating in teaching some of these excited young people turned on by the freedom offered by HumBio.

Sometimes the editorial policy of Stanford escapes my understanding: Founders of programs are forgotten, as if it all arose effortlessly.

Michael Eliastam
Weston, Massachusetts

Sharing Stein 

 The article "Making Sense of Gertrude Stein" (Farm Report, September/October) misses the most interesting part of the story: the relationship of Tirza True Latimer, PhD '03, to Wanda Corn, her exhibition co-curator and catalogue co-author. Wanda Corn was Latimer's adviser and they discovered their shared interest in Stein when Latimer was at Stanford.

Carolyn Kastner, PhD '99
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Editor's note: We regret the omission of Latimer's Stanford affiliation. 

Autism's Roots

How do twins help differentiate between genetic and in utero environmental factors ("Scientists Rethink Autism's Roots," Farm Report, September/October)? The genetic link may be even weaker than the article proposes when in utero factors are further examined.

Barbara Shang, '92
Newport Coast, California

Three Articles, Two Dynamics

 I would like to make some observations regarding the interesting combination of articles in the July/August issue. There were two articles about conflict and persecution—"The Menace Within" about the Stanford Prison Experiment and "The Persecution of Daniel Lee" about the South Korean hip-hop star Tablo. Sandwiched between these was "A Giant Leap," which describes people working together to win, and continuing to be grateful for, a World Series.

Contrasting these two dynamics, it appears that inclusivity and transparency result in successfully working together. Exclusivity and anonymity create situations where parties end up working against each other. While all the articles involved groups or organizations—the "Stanford Prison," the San Francisco Giants baseball organization and the South Korean public—both the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Korean Internet smear campaign involve anonymity. One is not seen first as a human being with a name—Philip, David, Eung or Daniel; one is the Internet alias, the hip-hop star with a stage name, the prison guard in uniform or the prisoner in prisoner's clothing. We see the anonymity of the human being and subsequent identification with the role in soldiers, nationalistic identification and in more apparently innocuous things such as job title, university, corporate or political affiliation.

The awareness that one is a human being, encountering another human being, creates transparency. Identifying first with roles, especially ones that are inherently antagonistic towards each other such as guard/prisoner or star/anonymous critic, sets the stage for conflict. [If] roles are used, as in the Giants' organization, only after engaging the individual and finding commonality by setting agreed upon goals, this sets the stage for working together.

See the human being. Avoid identifying with a role. Confront within yourself any sense of inadequacy you may have without a role to define you. Focus on what is in common. Could harmonious relations be that simple?

Jonathan Ward, '88
Port Townsend, Washington

'Prison' Perspectives

"It began with an ad in the classifieds." With all due respect to Professor Zimbardo, it actually began several months earlier when David Jaffe, '72, an undergraduate research associate of his, recruited a number of students for a pilot "prison program" conducted in the basement of Toyon Hall. As one of the guards, I can attest to the same feelings of desensitization and turmoil experienced by participants in the subsequent larger study. I remember well denying medication to a student who had forgotten to list it on her medical requirements form. I remember, too, that Jaffe's experiment was called off well before the target date, as prisoners and guards alike began to fray at the edges. It was the startling results of this pilot project of David's that I believe provided the impetus for the larger Stanford Prison Experiment.

Tom Jordan, '71
Eugene, Oregon

I wonder how the American Psychological Society could have investigated and found that this study "satisfied the Society's ethical standards." How was this possible when sleep deprivation, which many consider to be a form of torture banned by the Geneva Conventions, was a basic structural tenet of this experiment? The prisoners were also denied exposure to the sun as well as [enduring] the degradation and humiliation of being forced to wear sheer smocks and nylon stockings on their heads, conditions that are extreme even for real prisoners. That these structural conditions would lead to disorientation and potential resistance or depression is a logical expectation.

It further baffles me how we student guards were issued batons, which are potentially lethal weapons, without any training or guidance. This was also considered to have met ethical guidelines, and yet the same investigation [resulted in the prohibition of] these methods.

Professor Zimbardo's dual role as lead researcher and prison warden would seem an obvious conflict of interest. On the one hand he was supposed to be a neutral observer as a researcher. Yet in his role as "warden" in the real world and certainly in a student experiment setting, he would be expected to counsel or discipline any guards who were acting inappropriately. Instead warden Zimbardo theorizes on why other guards did not perform this duty, instead of him.

In the interview Professor Zimbardo states that as a result of the experiment he encouraged students to challenge him. I would take that opportunity to challenge him to finally (with consent) release the names of all the prisoners, guards and research assistants so that they can be contacted to try to reconstruct a fuller picture of the experiment. This might also lead to open panel discussions among the participants. 

Several times Professor Zimbardo and assistant researcher Craig Haney expressed the thought that maybe nothing would happen and that the participants might just sit around playing guitars. To my mind, that might have happened were it not for extreme mental and emotional stressors having been built into the experiment along with the allowance (and thereby tacit approval) of observed abusive guard behavior on the graveyard shift. Viewing this experimental structure in context, very different inferences can be drawn about human behavior resulting from abusive behavior and directions by those in authority (be they professor/warden Zimbardo or any person with ultimate authority) rather than the current popular version of spontaneous Lord of the Flies cruelty. And many of the "conclusions" about the inherent evilness inside us all might implode as part of the reexamined "Piltdown" prison experiment.

John Mark, '73
Sausalito, California

Romesh Ratnesar's article looked at what happened from the point of view of those who participated in the Stanford Prison Experiment but did not consider how the participants may have been selected to create what it became.

I was a participant. As a grad student in electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford, I participated in several research studies. Summer quarter was over; fall quarter had not yet started. I had the time and could use the money.

I was selected to be a guard. As I remember it, the main problem was boredom. It was such an artificial situation. Unlike a real prison, we didn't need to do anything specific. So we made things up. The activity I remember was lining the prisoners up and having them call out their prisoner numbers. After a couple times, that gets to be old hat. Someone then varies it: Call out your prisoner number backwards!

Then it's my turn. We've done numbers forwards and backwards. I'm a computer science nerd. I yell out "Call out your prisoner number in nines' complement!"

Everyone—prisoners and guards—just turns and stares at me. Nines' complement. It's a well-known concept in computer science.

The next day I was fired. I had done one or two days and then was told to go home. I think I was paid for the whole week, so I was happy; I could go back to my studies or do some programming until classes started up again.

I realize that even if I had stayed with the experiment, it might not have turned out any different. But given the historical importance given to it, people should be aware that the participants were not random. They were selected—at least in part as the experiment was running—to achieve the results that were desired. Zimbardo did not want some stupid grad student nerd messing things up.

James Peterson, MS '71, PhD '74
Austin, Texas

I think the claims that Philip Zimbardo's SPE "shocked the world" and was "heroic" are like the laughable advertising buzz used to salvage bad Hollywood movies. The military, which usually isn't associated with higher learning, has a knowledge about prisoners of war and their experience in POW prisons that's more sophisticated, extensive and enlightening than what the psychology department's Bearer of Light "discovered."

During Vietnam, I was an intelligence officer in the Navy, and I was assigned to debrief a Navy pilot after his release from prison in Hanoi. All Navy combat pilots went through a simulated POW camp to learn what to expect if they survived capture. I joined them to get familiar with what he went through, though I was advised not to belittle his terrible experience by saying, "I know exactly what you went through."

All of us were actors, helped into character by waterboarding, being locked doubled up in a small box, psychological manipulation—and when it was all over, all of us, including the guards, easily slipped out of character. We understood the discomfort had a beneficial purpose. The guards who inflicted pain were well trained and permanently stationed there. Any pleasure they felt came from knowing they were helping people to survive. The prisoners were there temporarily. Those who "broke" learned techniques to survive the real experience. None of us, guards or prisoners, suffered from "inflicted insight." Most of us saw it as an adventure, but only because we knew it was faked, temporary, and survival wasn't an issue.

The camp had an advantage over Zimbardo's prison. Its purpose wasn't to experiment, and it wasn't bound by a research protocol. Unusual "findings" that surfaced under stress were incidental to the purpose of familiarization, but they added value to the military's extensive knowledge base about the POW experience.

In contrast to the SPE, I think Stanley Milgram's experiments at Yale [about] obedience to authority could justifiably be called mildly shocking and slightly heroic. Zimbardo's experiment, which came later, looks like a subset of Milgram's, which I think predicted Zimbardo's results. Zimbardo, the authority, authorized test subjects to be guards or prisoners. The distribution of results likely matched those of Milgram and the POW camp, but the military knew about them before Zimbardo "discovered" them.

The real shocks to the world have come from human experimentation by Milgram-like authority figures in medicine. Consider the experiments performed by the medical doctors hanged in Tokyo and Nuremberg; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment; the Guatemala syphilis experiment, for which Hillary Clinton apologized in October 2010; the human radiation experiments; Henrietta Lack's "treatment" by medical doctors who made billions from her cells. [These experiments] suggest a better oath for medical doctors would be, "I will do no harm, other than what's required to obtain unambiguous repeatable results, that, when published in a prestigious journal, will enhance my reputation, advance my career, and, of course, benefit humanity."

Peter Pansing, '67
Culver City, California

The Stanford Prison Experiment was flawed from the first moment of the first day, but not because of experimental design. As the verbal recollections of Dave Eshelman relate, he went into the experiment not as a virgin guinea pig, but rather with a mission. As a budding young actor, he deliberately set out to be someone or something that he was not. By "consciously creating this persona," Eshelman sabotaged the entire experiment. I believe that social scientists call it "confirmational bias." He thought he knew how a prison guard should behave, and he did so, based on a fictional character in a movie. Having, apparently, a charismatic persona, he pulled the other guards along with him.

Interest in the SPE has had a revival recently because of somewhat similar prisoner abuse in Iraq. Probably no one would have thought twice about Professor Zimbardo and his graduate students from the '70s had Abu Ghraib not occurred. It is interesting to note that the sole remaining Army enlisted man sentenced to prison for such abuse has just been released from prison. The talking heads have noted that he was a "charismatic personality" who influenced the other military police to fall in with his abusive tactics. Sounds just like Eshelman.

This is not to say that abuses do not regularly occur in prison because of the power/powerless dichotomy. Having worked as a physician in California prisons, I can attest that correctional officers, nurses, psychologists and (gasp) even doctors abuse inmates on a regular basis. Some of them seem to delight in it. But it is not because the correctional system is inheren tly bad. It is that, as editor Kevin Cool points out, "we should never forget who we really are" ("A Shadowy Reminder of an Ugly Truth," First Impressions, July/August). A more accurate statement would be that we, as St. Paul wrote, do the things that we should not do, and do not the things that we should. The lack of a strong moral compass allows even the best intentioned social justice seekers to go astray.

William O. Harrison, MD '60
Carson City, Nevada

More Than a Bed

 It was fascinating to read about Bogdan State's study of "couch surfing" (Research Notebook, Farm Report, July/August). A member of the organization for five years, I have had nothing but good experiences as a guest and, more often, a host. It is set up in a way that gives me the chance to judge each request or host thoroughly, and it has never misled me. Not only does it permit an assessment of safety but also lets participants match interests. Yes, it saves money on lodging, but more important is that it enables personal contacts in places where I am visiting. By offering beds in a house really too big for me alone, I have met, shared my life with and spent many pleasant hours preparing meals, eating, talking and hiking with people I would never have encountered otherwise. My first guest was a young cellist touring to find inspiration for compositions, who gave me a private concert of Bach's music in my living room. Other notables were a professional astrologer/vegan bicycling down the coast with his teenage son whom he was home-schooling on the way; a tattoo artist walking across the United States with a potbellied pig in a cart; and an Austrian bicyclist who started his journey at my home and arrived in New York City 45 days later.

John Markham, '65
Arch Cape, Oregon

Cuts Both Ways

I am rather disappointed in the bias displayed in "Diagnosing the Body Politic" (Farm Report, July/August). Race-biased voting is a problem, of course. However, we have on the other side the race-biased voting for the president, which is self-evident in the percentage of black voters who chose him. It cuts both ways.

The Obama-bias of your pollsters is further affirmed by their polling on the health-care bill, which few if any people in Congress chose to read before passage. Objection to the bill by Republicans was based on particular parts and not the 2,300-page bill as a whole.

The initial projections of savings by the supposedly unbiased review agency was based in the first instance by 10 years of revenue against seven years of expenses, and in the second instance by provisions which Democratic staffers said were in the bill but were not. The reviewing agency was forced post-passage to issue a retraction.

To question people on parts in which they had no interest in my opinion biases the results. In no sense can your pollsters be called unbiased researchers.

Paul Speer, '53
Mount Prospect, Illinois

The Role of Nurses 

Stanford so quickly has forgotten that until 1974 there was a nursing school affiliated with the Medical School ("Children's Hospital Turns 20," Farm Report, July/August). The compassion, care management, 24/7 presence that RNs provide is rarely acknowledged by Stanford—even in light of its distinguished nursing history. As a graduate, I was taught that nurses make a difference in patient and health care, that they are the glue that holds so many diverse and complicated pieces together so that the patient will get well or be helped to a peaceful end.

When I read about the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital turning 20, I felt a great deal of pride. I began my professional career on the old peds unit and still use it as a reference. I was, however, most distressed to note that "By the Numbers" did not acknowledge the nursing presence at LPCH. Medical staff of course were listed. Then employees. Nowhere does Stanford recognize the unique contribution that nursing makes to that institution; nurses are simply employees. How many are RNs?

Stanford should be proud of the Medical School, but the partnership required in patient care today includes RNs. Patients are not admitted to hospitals for doctor care, they are admitted for nursing care. If patients didn't need the expert assessment, observation and skills of the RN, they could stay at home. Registered nurses are independently licensed and do not work under the direction of the medical staff. Stanford should not forget that it had a major role in educating nurses in the not-so-distant past [and that] the legacy of those graduates remains.

Many of us are still working and trying to influence the delivery of health care today. I am teaching nursing to another generation of future nurses. The message I try to convey to those students is that they must be prepared to be partners and colleagues of the medical staff. I also tell them that their contribution may not be acknowledged or appreciated as it should. I am disappointed that Stanford does not understand or appreciate the special role of the RN.

Jane Sherwood, RN, MSN, CPNP '68
Kamuela, Hawaii

Fan Mail 

This letter is about your Letters. It astonishes me how this section can consistently contain contributions that in any other context would be considered literary works of art. Each letter assails the mind from a different quarter; and each is a one-of-a-kind masterwork of clear thought, clear point of view and tightly reasoned argument. And as if this were insufficient to ensnare unsuspecting victims of your letters editor's malicious conscription of a busy reader's time, unfailingly they are artfully articulated and passionately (or, frequently, humorously) written. Rich food for the intellect, wafting seductive, diet-busting aromas promising surprising and irresistible new nutrients. It's unfair, really.

To forestall any suspicion that these eyes are tuned to see only peace, light and harmony, it must be said that not every letter is a delicious treat. But while one cannot always agree with the assertions offered by every letter-writer, one is each time driven to seriously consider the author's contentions, sometimes in painful assault upon one's claim to intellectual integrity. Often contradictory letters you print "side by side" create the deepest intellectual double-binds. But I suppose scholarship requires the maturity to deal with this. I try to be a grown-up about it.

As a marginally related corollary, I applaud your willingness to publish letters that "diss" your editorial decisions, or chosen articles. Journalism at its best, in this letter writer's humble opinion.

If Stanford contained only a letters section, I would read it cover to cover! Big kudos to all involved.

Harry Saunders, PhD '82
Danville, California

A piece of abstract art with a blue-green gradient. Correction: The image identified as Richard Diebenkorn's Ocean Park #60 in the September/October Farm Report story about the Anderson Collection ("A Transformative Bonanza") was in fact Ocean Park #36. Shown here is Ocean Park #60 by Diebenkorn, '44, one of 121 works of art given to Stanford by Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson and their daughter Mary Patricia Anderson Pence. We regret the error.

The following letters did not appear in the print edition of Stanford.

A Better ‘Prison Experiment’ 

The most remarkable thing about the Stanford Prison Experiment was how little was known or anticipated going in and how little was learned going out (“The Menace Within,” July/August).

The SPE was hardly an original test. Since at least the end of the Korean War, the U.S. military has conducted training intended to prevent prisoners of war (or conflict) from behaving badly, because they were deemed to have been too easily broken by what was then called brainwashing. This training was usually identified as SERE training—Survival, Escape, Resistance (or Reconnaissance) and Evasion. If the article is accurate, the military training was more real than the SPE if for no other reason than the military trainees were under real duress. The “guards” were not allowed to injure anyone [so badly] as to reduce their value to the military, but they could and did rough them up, starve them and deprive them of rest and sleep.

The SERE training lasted through the Vietnam conflict and may well continue today. Did anyone at Stanford, before or during the SPE, try to get information from the Defense Department about the programs or what could be expected? If the questions were never asked, shouldn’t we ask why not?

And what was learned? The SPE was too broad to be useful. SERE was not about the prison guards; their actions were scripted. It was about the escapees/prisoners. Before field training started, the students were given a week of classroom [instruction covering] the focus of the field and prison stages to come. They were reminded that they would need to maintain military discipline: help each other, adhere to the primacy of the chain of command, tell the enemy nothing that could harm fellow prisoners, resist when possible, escape and evade.

The chilling result was that [trainee] prisoners, never in real danger and never subject to any ill treatment other than that which had been exactly foretold, broke almost to a man. They failed to maintain the chain of command, failed to resist, refused to attempt to escape, and betrayed their fellows and superior officers.

Trainees found out much about their fellow men and themselves. They found out how men can fall apart by being kept no worse than hungry, exhausted, cold and wet. The designers and implementers of the SPE should be encouraged to obtain and read the reports.

Franklin Leib, ’66
Naples, Florida

No to New York

Thanks for the letters from Enrique Garza and Chip Martin on the idea of a Stanford campus in New York City (“New York Quest,” September/October). I agree with both of them. I can easily imagine a Stanford in New York, à la Stanford in Italy, where students could spend six months feasting on the cultural riches of the city, but as Garza and Martin aptly point out, Stanford’s unique flavor is intimately linked with its truly outstanding location. Stanford University in New York City would not be the real Stanford. Better to spend the development money on enhancing the University’s humanities.

Julie Spickler, ’62, MA ’65
Menlo Park, California

Late Bloomers

I’m impressed by the story of Pam Lewis’s Young Wife, and her way of paying tribute to her mother and grandmother  (“Past Imperfect,” Planet Cardinal, July/August). Not stopped by her limited facts, she has summoned their very lives back from the otherwise lost past. Your writer, Anne Stephenson, seems impressed by the age at which Lewis wrote her first novel, 59 years. I admire Lewis for waiting for the maturity to write their story and am glad to be reminded that Harriet Doerr, ’31, wrote her fine novel Stones for Ibarra at the age of 73.

But I’ve waited longer than either of them, 83 years, to finish my first novel, Wise Ones of Mull: A Gift of Vision, which I published with Amazon help as Helen Prentice. I too pay tribute to women of my family, though they lived farther in the past than Lewis’s grandmother. My women were hardly more than ghosts of the 16th-century Inner Hebrides with powers which would have made them doomed as witches anywhere else in Scotland. I’m pleased that their story has been acclaimed by its few readers. Now I’m 85 and I’ve just written my version of strange events during the record-breaking blizzard of 1966 in Anna: Her Calling.

Helen Prentice Theimer, PhD ’62
Aurora, New York

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