Letters to the Editor

July/August 2007

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Letters to the Editor

As a guard in the Stanford Prison Experiment, I have been troubled by the conclusions drawn and the conventional wisdom, without nuance, that has subsequently evolved from it (“Zimbardo Unbound,” May/June). In my extensive readings about the experiment and the methodology, the direct and indirect roles of Professor Zimbardo were not completely disclosed and have led to misleading conclusions.

My opinion, based on my observations, was that Zimbardo began with a preformed blockbuster conclusion and designed an experiment to “prove” that conclusion. Then, when not all guards’ or prisoners’ actions comported with this view, he effectively ignored or downplayed those behaviors. This resulted in broad conclusions that incorrectly painted all student participants with the same broad brush, while minimizing if not ignoring his own active role in the transgressions.

I am extremely uncomfortable about Zimbardo’s recent book and his “expert” testimony in the Abu Ghraib guard trials, based upon the “findings” of the Stanford Prison Experiment. I do agree with his conclusion that the context and training (or lack thereof) of the guards can lead to aberrant behavior. This inappropriate behavior can and should be laid at the feet of the leaders. In the infinitely more serious instances of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the guards were most likely acting at the direct or indirect behest of their commanders.

Likewise, I feel that acts of abuse that may have been perpetrated by [Stanford Prison Experiment] guards (none of which I witnessed on the day shift) were perpetrated within the context of rules of engagement laid out by our de facto warden, Zimbardo. And to the extent that these guidelines encouraged and resulted in bad behavior, I feel that Zimbardo was our Donald Rumsfeld.

Clearly my role as an 18-year-old guard on the day shift does not qualify me as an expert on the entire scope of the experiment. But I have always believed that the popular characterization of randomly chosen students being placed in guard or prisoner roles (no, we did not flip coins to choose our status) and left free to our own devices, only to then devolve into a Lord of the Flies mentality, is a complete distortion that has become popular psychological wisdom.

I would greatly welcome a renewed and reasoned discourse of the merits and methodology of the Stanford Prison Experiment and the possibly suspect conclusions that have been drawn from it.

John Mark, ’73
Sausalito, California


I am very much interested in Professor Tom Andriacchi’s orthopedic shoe (“A Step in the Right Direction,” May/June). His statement, “If you can move, you can exercise your cardiovascular system” aptly [refers to] my painful and frustrating condition. I believe many people in my situation would jump (if they could!) or limp toward the chance to buy such a shoe. I look forward to staying informed as this admirable project advances.

James W. Fitch
Santa Rosa, California


Having read that the so-called English department plans to teach “non-European” and “Palestinian-Israeli” literature (“Search for Tomorrow,” Farm Report, May/June), I envision a cartoon as follows: a computer screen showing the text of an e-mail message reading English 201: Palestinian Poetry; English 243: Dominican Drama; the “to” line of the e-mail reading Lewis Carroll, the “from” line George Orwell, and the subject line LMAO. I wonder if the students of Stanford’s Brave New Department would get it.

David Altschul, MA ’76
Berkeley, California


You brought up some interesting points that seem to have been forgotten since the early-to-mid-’90s when recycling and earth-friendly items were a craze. But your points about diapers were quite amiss (“No Time to Waste,” First Impressions, May/June).

“Take a single mother living in an apartment with no laundry facilities . . . “? It’s called a diaper service. Cloud 9 was the least expensive option when I had my daughter and was working as a research associate in the Medical School. They were $45 cheaper a month than I would have spent on disposables. This amount may not sound like much now, but when trying to live off a paltry Stanford salary in the Bay Area, it was enormous to me. They picked up the used and dropped off the clean, and used lower water volumes to sanitize than a home washer and dryer ever possibly could hope for.

No, [cloth diapers] are not more work. This is the myth propagated by the disposable diaper industry. The diaper covers are Velcro-fastened and pull off and slap on just as fast as the tapes on the disposables (see Seeing a pattern yet? They’re cheaper, just as fast and actually less work since you don’t have to remember to buy them at the store and you don’t have to wash them yourself.

The sacrifice is nothing more than letting go of education we received from commercials. In the nearly two years I dealt with diapers, I [changed] the attitude of two daycare providers, my mother-in-law, my sister and several neighbors.

Of course those who like the convenience of not having to change the diaper as often and letting the child sit in it for hours will never convert. They will instead continue to buy enormous loads of diaper rash ointment and wonder why they have such a problem.

But the best way to convince someone is to show a direct cost comparison. Most diaper services keep their prices low, so they have to sacrifice advertising dollars, which prevents them from competing with the big guys.

The bottom line is it’s a myth that you have to be wealthier to take the earth-healthy options. You just have to be willing to accept that there are options to what you see in advertising every 30 seconds.

Dana Fos
Seattle, Washington


Jason Weaver’s essay is about him, his wife and their journey in homeschool-ing (“Going Her Way,” End Note, May/June). In no way is this decision about their daughter, her needs or her future. Being an aunt of five homeschooled children, I can verify that the self-absorption (and hubris) of the parents is clearly the common denominator among the homeschooled.

Marilynne Rose
Penn Valley, Pennsylvania


Emerson Sykes’s letter (“Between the Lines,” May/June ) shows the devastating power of politically correct ignorance. Aboriginal Americans are identified as such by their membership in tribes. The tribes are separate autonomous and legal units used for just that purpose. Those who aren’t members of the tribes are generic American citizens. It’s not a question of “tribe” versus “family,” as Sykes foolishly believes, but between tribes and other U.S. citizens. That it’s easier to say “local” than “other U.S. nontribal citizens” is not a knock against either group of people.

As for “local” itself, in case Sykes is confused, tribal land (not family land) is semiautonomous, and people who live close to but not on the lands, and who aren’t members of the tribes, are just that, local. Also, he’s inconsistent and uses “American Indian,” considered racist by many people. It’s also confusing to others [who may be] American citizens born in India.

The supposedly politically correct, nonracist name is “Native American.”

However, isn’t that reverse discrimination? Hasn’t anthropology shown not only that their ancestors weren’t native and crossed from Asia, but also that they’re possibly descended from the third group to do so? What makes one descendent of immigrants native and the other not? I prefer aboriginal as the most nonbiased and accurate word, as it means either native or earliest known.

Sykes, sadly, reminds me of an experience as a student senator in the mid-’80s. After committees chose the heads of all the student organizations, two women claimed they weren’t selected because of “racism.” The Daily had it as front-page news, and the Rainbow Coalition began shouting in the Senate that the selections all had to be annulled and begun anew. I, however, checked the statistics. A higher percentage of black students were in the applicant pool than in the student population at large, and a higher percentage were picked. In fact, those two women were the only black students not picked. When I pointed out the statistics and the two complainers could point to no indication that racism existed, the issue was dropped. One woman wrote an apology to the student government, while the second never did. Neither the statistics nor the apology made an appearance on the front page of the Daily.

Yes, racism still exists and must be dealt with. However, as the old story shows, ignorantly crying wolf ensures that too many people miss the real examples and retards the fight we must keep going against racism. I would hope that Sykes and his ilk can learn from their errors.

David Teich, MS ’88
Rehovot, Israel


Among the jewels in the crown of Stanford, one surely is the swimming program. It is acutely embarrassing that so quickly after your “Master Stroke” article (January/February) the transgressions of the [men’s] swimming coach came out (‘Coach Suspended,” Farm Report, May/June). Additionally, one wonders how many alumni are aware of the [alleged] sexual harassment incident involving the coach in the 1990s. This matter was not mentioned in your piece. The more recent incident—and the University’s lenient adjudication of it—is shameful to all Stanford’s student-athletes, current students, alumni, and to all of us who love and revere this rare place that is Stanford.

Jon Bell, ’75
Lynn, Massachusetts


Who knows whether the “two different and factually inconsistent accounts of creation” in the first two chapters of Genesis “were never intended to be understood as literal, factual accounts of creation” (“Fact vs. Parable,” Letters, May/June)?

It seems to me that when the folk traditions came to be written down, representatives of the tribes tried to arrive at a consensus over divergences in the separate oral traditions; but in the case of the seven days of creation the agreement reached was that the discrepant accounts would both be recorded. Thus the recipients of the word-of-mouth tradition that woman was created from Adam’s rib as “an help meet for him” in response to a felt need, were accommodated by those believing that after creation of fish, fowl, cattle and creeping things, God simultaneously created Adam and Eve; “male and female created he them.”

Ronald N. Bracewell
Lewis M. Terman Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus
Stanford, California

There are a few scriptures in the Bible which are difficult to understand, but that does not necessarily mean they are untrue, any more than the difficulty of understanding Einstein’s theory of relativity proves its lack of veracity. To cherry-pick which scriptures are true [opposes] the Bible’s claim of divine inspiration in its entirety (2 Timothy 3:16). Fortunately for us, salvation scriptures such as John 3:16, which declares the central truth of the Bible, are easily understood by all.

Although the four Gospels contain a number of instances where Jesus used parables, He also commonly conveyed truth without the use of metaphor. Two examples are His famous Sermon on the Mount and His extended farewell/prayer at the Last Supper, both of which contain a mix of the two modes of teaching.

We should take care not to hastily allegorize any Old or New Testament scriptures that would otherwise be taken literally. Ascribing symbolism to any scripture, simply because one does not agree with a literal rendering, may lead to relegating the Bible to nothing more than a Jewish version of Aesop’s fables.

A careful examination of the Bible shows that what appears to be inconsistencies between certain scriptures is actually information that provides a fuller depiction or emphasizes different facets of a given event. Taken in this light, the first two chapters of Genesis are not factually inconsistent in their creation accounts. Although it may be disappointing to some that dinosaurs are not specifically mentioned in Genesis, we should keep in mind that the Bible was never primarily intended to be a history or biology textbook. That said, no alleged errors, whether historical, biological or otherwise, have been substantiated.

Robert Griffin, ’63, MS ’64
Loomis, California


While [Professor Eamonn Callan’s] course may attempt to be about “thinking clearly and rigorously about what the fairest solution to a specific social problem would be,” I am afraid that the one example provided (how should the state allocate educational resources between various children) is neither clear nor rigorous (“What’s Fair and What’s Not,” Farm Report, March/April). I wonder whether the good professor or his class have ever considered the question: why is the state playing any role? Why not return all monies spent on education to the parents, who can then decide how to allocate resources? With this distinction in mind, it will be understood that what is being debated is social politics, not social justice. Otherwise, this flawed concept of “social justice” is likely to be confused with justice in the same way military intelligence sometimes is with intelligence.

Kalyan Dutta, PhD ’75
Los Altos Hills, California

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

Wrong Answer?

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Just One Question, May/June) may want us to know that constituents are listened to, but the nearly complete insulation that efficiently gerrymandered districts provides to “our representatives” inhibits my belief in her assertion.

Raymond R. White, PhD ’73
Palo Alto, California

Good and Evil

Congratulations to Philip Zimbardo and Marina Krakovsky for explaining how “chess masters” can impose systems that are “cruel and inhuman” (“Zimbardo Unbound,” May/June). I have seen or known of examples of this all my life, and seen the impotence of most ordinary people. (I'm 71.) Thanks also for explaining how ordinary people can become evildoers or heroes.

Robert K. Lancefield, JD ’61 
Palo Alto, California

Basque ‘Fiction’

I was dismayed to read about the Basque studies course at Stanford (“Basque Studies Debut,” Farm Report, March/April). It is difficult for me to understand why a prestigious institution like Stanford would offer such a course but, in any case, it does not belong in the Spanish and Portuguese department. As you probably know, Spanish is spoken by nearly 500 million people all over the world. The population in the Basque Country is 2 million people (5 percent of Spain’s total) and just a few thousand of them speak Basque as their everyday communication tool. Ancient and of unknown origin, with no linguistic relationship with Spanish or any other language, Basque was practically dead 40 years ago. With the restoration of democracy in Spain and the establishment of autonomous regional governments, it was artificially brought back to life as an important element of the cultural heritage claimed by the nationalist regional governments. Nowadays, the public educational system in the region unfortunately imposes the learning of Basque on a lot of people who cannot afford private schools.

In my opinion those 100,000 years of Basque history are science fiction. The prehistoric Altamira Caves are not in the Basque Country but in Cantabria, a neighboring region. Ever since the late Middle Ages when, over 500 years ago, Spain emerged as the reunification of several independent kingdoms, there has never been a “Basque history” aside from the Spanish one. Nowadays the Basque Country is one of the most developed areas in Spain and certainly within the top tier in the European Union. In political terms, the degree of autonomy of the Spanish regional governments is unsurpassed and, for all practical purposes, equivalent to the states in a federal organization like the United States.

The big drawback in the Basque country is called ETA. As the article says, “ETA has been fighting for independence for almost 40 years,” but it forgets to add that more than 1,000 people have been killed in this period. A shot in the back of the head, explosives hidden under your car detonated when you start the engine or bombings in a crowded shopping centre or airport parking lot is the language that ETA really speaks. ETA is a prominent member of the FTO (foreign terrorist organizations) listed by the U.S. State Department with Hamas, Hizballah, Islamic Jihad, FARC and many others. Now, what really was the role John Arrillaga, ’60, the real estate magnate of Basque ancestry and one of the University’s top donors, played in this unfortunate decision?

Javier Gómez-Angulo, MS ’83
Madrid, Spain

Open-Door Policy

Keeping Stanford’s Doors Open to All”—President’s Column, Stanford, May/June 2007.

“Another impostor found at Stanford”—San Francisco Chronicle, May 26, 2007.

Consistency or coincidence?

Christine Helbling, ’68
Belvedere, California

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In the story on neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (“With a Song in His Head,” Showcase, May/June), psychology professor Roger Shepard was misidentified as a professor of psychiatry.

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