The Game Boy President

Each Tuesday, Barack Obama holds a counterterrorism meeting in the White House situation room. At these meetings, Mr. Obama personally decides who will be killed in a drone strike. Knowing how fond the President is of electronic gadgets, it occurred to me (uncharitably I’ll admit) that this must seem to him something like playing a Game Boy.

This led me to wonder about how the selection process Mr. Obama uses detaches him from the consequences of his actions. Some, but not all, of the targets are presented with a photo and biography in what the New York Times said “resembled a high school yearbook layout.” I also wondered about the detachment of the drone pilots who are in fact seated in an air-conditioned roomed in someplace like Southern California operating airplanes thousands of miles away using what is in essence a Game Boy on steroids.

Mr. Obama is reported to have said that deciding to put one man, an American citizen, and the man’s 15-year old son on the kill list was “an easy one.” Had the man and his son been brought to the Oval Office and Mr. Obama handed a loaded 45, would the President have shot them? Would the pilots?

I think they would—not because Mr. Obama and the Game Boy pilots are monsters, but because they’re doing what they think they’re supposed to do.

This situation is common, everywhere, as old as civilization, and goes well beyond the life and death decisions of the Game Boy President. I’ll give you an example.

A great cry went up last week when the US Preventive Services Task Force released its final recommendations on screening for prostate cancer using the PSA test. The PSA test has been a mainstay of men’s health for decades. After a review of available research, the Task Force concluded that the risks of adverse effects from the PSA test far outweighed the potential benefit from discovering prostate cancer. Urologists and others committed to the PSA objected loudly.

There are many things to say about this controversy. But in the context of making life and death decisions at a distance, the obvious and critical thing to point out is that somebody’s wrong: either the US Preventive Services Task Force or the urologists and their allies. If the Task Force is right, then the urologists have been subjecting men to unnecessary suffering for decades.

The key point is: what are the consequences of being wrong? Although not quite on the scale of a kill list, being wrong about PSA screening (if true) has killed people. I’m confident that both sides in the controversy believe they are doing the right thing and that the science is on their side just as Mr. Obama and his national security advisers and the Game Boy pilots are confident that what they are doing is what needs to be done and that the facts are on their side.

Here’s another example.

Recently, Christopher Ketcham wrote an article in the Earth Island Journal about electrosensitivity. In it he describes the self-reported suffering endured by people who are affected by electromagnetic fields from wireless gadgets, the electrical grid, and related technologies. He describes skeptics who either don’t believe electrosensitives are suffering or believe that what suffering they bear is not the result of electromagnetic exposures. And he also describes the work of scientists on the issue, both for and against.

One of the electrosensitives Ketcham interviewed recalled conversations with telecomm representatives with whom she fought over putting cell antennas on a school. “They kept saying, ‘We’re one hundred percent sure the antennas are safe. One hundred percent sure! These are children! We would never hurt children.’”

Someone’s right and someone’s wrong. There’s science to support both views. Ketcham concludes his article by saying, “Perhaps the gadgets are slowly killing us—we do not know. Perhaps they are perfectly safe—we do not know. Perhaps they are making us sick in ways we barely understand—we do not know.”

Again, what are the consequences of being wrong?

As a final example, I’d like to draw your attention to the growing use of nanomaterials and their potential effects. The growth in their use is exploding. There’s huge enthusiasm for nanotechnology. Yet it was only last week that researchers in Australia announced a method for measuring the presence of nanomaterials in the environment. In other words, nanomaterials have been introduced into our environment for some time with no way to tell how much or where. Their creators are no doubt certain that nanomaterials are safe. They would never hurt children.

Known environmental and health effects of nanomaterials include DNA damage, blood vessel disruption, damage to cell communication, and on and on. But not to worry, the FDA is on the job, calling for stricter controls—some day.

Virtually every article I read says something to the effect that nanotechnology is inevitable. And again I ask: what are the consequences of being wrong? Is this an easy one too?