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The Alpinists of Evil

Nazis did not just blindly follow orders
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IN LAST MONTH’S COLUMN I recounted how my replication of Stanley Milgram’s shock experiments revealed that although most people can be inveigled to obey authorities if they are asked to hurt others, they do so reluctantly and with much moral conflict. Milgram’s explanation was an “agentic state,” or “the condition a person is in when he sees himself as an agent for carrying out another person’s wishes.” As agents in an experiment, subjects shift from being moral agents in society to obedient agents in a hierarchy. “I am forever astonished that when lecturing on the obedience experiments in colleges across the country, I faced young men who were aghast at the behavior of experimental subjects and proclaimed they would never behave in such a way but who, in a matter of months, were brought into the military and performed without compunction actions that made shocking the victim seem pallid.” (continue reading…)

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What is Seen and What is Unseen

The Hidden Price of Immoral Acts

I’ve been reading Tyler Hamilton’s new book, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-authored by Daniel Coyle, a journalist and author with considerable literary talent. It’s a gripping story about how Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong, and all the other top cyclists have been doping for decades, using such advanced scientific programs of performance enhancement that estimates show the benefit could be as much as 10%, in races won by fractions of 1%. After nearly two decades of racing with both dope and no dope, Hamilton concludes that although a clean rider might be able to win a one-day race, it is not possible to compete in, much less win, a 3-week event like the Tour de France.

The lengths these guys go to win are almost beyond comprehension. All you do is train, eat, and sleep. And dope. The drug of choice is (or was—now that the drug testers have caught up riders use other drugs that have similar effects) EPO, or erythropoietin, a genetically modified hormone invented by Amgen that stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells, a life-saver for anemic patients undergoing chemo or suffering from other long-term ailments. Also on the menu is testosterone, human growth hormone, steroids (for injuries, not bulk, since cyclists get as skinny as they can), and others. Tyler nicknamed his EPO Edgar, as in Allen Poe. The drugs worked, he says, but only if you do everything else necessary, including logging in 5–6 hour daily training rides, reduce your body fat down to 5% or less, and program your entire life to doing nothing but racing bikes. If you are not riding, rest. Don’t walk when you can sit. Don’t sit when you can lie down. And don’t ever climb stairs. You are either a bike rider or a couch potato. If you are genetically gifted, train your ass off, starve yourself down to a skeletal frame with bird-like arms and Schwarzenegger-size legs, can ride as fast as the wind, and get on a professional team invited to the Tour de France, then and only then will the drugs give you the edge to boost yourself from barely finishing stages to contending for a top finishing spot. From what Hamilton (and others) write on this topic, I estimate that doping is worth somewhere between 50 and 100 places in the Tour de France. Yes, you might survive the race on “pan y agua” (bred and water—the riders’ euphemism for non-doping diets), but if you want to feel better than death you have to take the drugs.

Okay, so everyone does it and the playing field is level, right? Wrong. First, there’s a serious science behind proper doping, and if you don’t have the dough to hire the best dope—and doping doctors—you’re left fumbling around with dosages and frequencies and wondering if the needle or bag of blood is contaminated, or if you screwed up and overdosed and thus are still “glowing” when the drug tester pops in for an out-of-competition surprise drug test. The top pros pass hundreds of drug tests because they have the top doping docs to show them how to do it properly. According to Hamilton, the top doping doctor in the world, Michele Ferrari, was at one point paid by Lance for exclusive services. Hamilton says he spent anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 a year for doping products and services. Most riders in the peloton cannot afford anything like such a specialized and professional doping program. So, I estimate that at most 25% of the peloton are doping professionally. Another 50% or so are doping unprofessionally; that is, procuring their doping products catch as catch can, guessing at the proper dosages and frequencies, and hoping they got it right, which they often did not. The rest of the cyclists are riding pan y agua, and suffering beyond belief. Not a level playing field. The moral equivalency argument on Lance’s behalf that, “the best guy won anyway because they were all doping” (an argument I’ve made myself) is bullshit. We have no idea who the best riders were in those seven tours (or the equally doped up tours before and after). What is seen are the champion dopers. What is unseen and forever unknown is whoever the best athletes might have been.

This is the real harm to those athletes who did not want to dope, who were given the choice to dope and opted out, who pulled over to the curb on the boulevard of broken dreams, stripped off their race number, and packed it in to go home, in most cases back to menial jobs or to finish high school or start college. Who are these cyclists? Tyler names a few in his book, but in most cases we have no idea who they are because they are the unseen ones, those whose potential was never realized because they never had the chance to compete cleanly against their peers. We’ll never know how they might have done against the very best in the business because the best cheated to get there. Could Cyclist Joe from Hannibal, MO beat Lance Armstrong from Austin, TX? We’ll never know. Cyclist Joe is now Joe the Plumber, Mr. Everyman, while Lance is still glowing.

It’s so easy to be the hero when you’re the champ. All the accolades flow to you, along with media coverage, paid endorsements and speaking engagements, private jets and celebrity dinners, and lots and lots of money. It is so easy to be generous to others when you’re on top, funding your own and others charities, becoming the good guy who is going to defeat cancer. It’s all so glamorous when you’re on top. This is what is seen. What is unseen are the non-dopers, the moral ones who were robbed of the possibility of being champ, of starting their own charities, of being generous and inspirational to others, of basking in the glory, of being the hero. They will never have the possibility of that experience because it was taken away from them by the cheaters.

This is the problem with cheating across the moral landscape: it’s robs others of their possibilities. The Wall Street inside trader who drives in limos and flies in private jets is what is seen. What is unseen are the little investors who play by the rules and as a consequence of the cheater drive crappy cars, fly commercial coach, and watch their 401K’s shrink. We can see the deceptive co-worker who pinches the company here and there; what we don’t see is how those limited resources might have been allocated toward the benefit of honest employees. The cheating spouse is seen, the possibly unfulfilled dreams of the children of broken homes is unseen. The corrupt politician who wrangles a deal to extract taxes from a general fund to build a bridge to nowhere in his district stands for photo ops and basks in the glory. He gets to be the hero. What is unseen is where our money might have been spent otherwise, as we see fit. And, finally, on the grandest scale of all, wars and terrorism steal the possibilities of what might have been for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. What is seen are flag-draped coffins and flower-strewn graves. What is unseen are unfulfilled relationships and the unborn children of the soldiers and victims, those who, with a nod to Neil Young, “will never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.”

What is seen are immoral acts. What is unseen is the hidden price of those acts. What is seen are the champions and the cheaters. What is unseen are the honest ones who had the courage and the character to walk away with their morality. This is the larger lesson of cheating. It robs everyone of what might have been. With cheating, what might have been is now what never was. It erases history. What is prologue is past.

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Are Religious People Healthier?

Michael Shermer on MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan Show on religion, health, happiness, longevity, & self control…

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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Lies We Tell Ourselves

How deception leads to self-deception
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In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, a skeptical Judas Iscariot questions with faux innocence (“Don’t you get me wrong/I only want to know”) the messiah’s deific nature: “Jesus Christ Superstar/Do you think you’re what they say you are?”

Although I am skeptical of Jesus’ divine parentage, I believe he would have answered Judas’s query in the affrmative. Why? Because of what the legendary evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers calls “the logic of deceit and self-deception” in his new book The Folly of Fools (Basic Books, 2011). Here’s how it works: A selfish-gene model of evolution dictates that we should maximize our reproductive success through cunning and deceit. Yet the dynamics of game theory shows that if you are aware that other contestants in the game will also be employing similar strategies, it behooves you to feign transparency and honesty and lure them into complacency before you defect and grab the spoils. But if they are like you in anticipating such a shift in strategy, they might pull the same trick, which means you must be keenly sensitive to their deceptions and they of yours. Thus, we evolved the capacity for deception detection, which led to an arms race between deception and deception detection. (continue reading…)

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The Science of Right and Wrong

Can Data Determine Moral Values?
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Ever since the rise of modern science, an almost impregnable wall separating it from religion, morality and human values has been raised to the heights. The “naturalistic fallacy,” sometimes rendered as the “is-ought problem”—the way something “is” does not mean that is the way it “ought” to be—has for centuries been piously parroted from its leading proponents, philosophers David Hume and G. E. Moore, as if pronouncing it closes the door to further scientific inquiry. (continue reading…)

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