TCS Daily

Causalities of War

By Waldemar Ingdahl - April 21, 2005 12:00 AM

President Richard Nixon launched the war on cancer in 1971. Obviously, that war is still ongoing, but the National Institutes of Health is optimistic that we will see a victory of sorts around 2015. The War on Drugs was started in 1981 by Ronald Reagan. It is still ongoing, but even its long-term success is doubtful. The War on Terror was started in 2001 and it is just as broad, just as unbounded as these others.

What can we learn from the fates of these three "wars"?

The problem with declaring this kind of "war" against something is that it is not really a war. Wars usually have clear objectives and well-defined foes. But cancer turned out to be a multitude of causes leading to runaway cell growth; drugs are produced, distributed and used in an adaptable black economy; and terrorism arises from many complex factors among different groups.

In the first case the "foe" turned out to be the regulatory weaknesses of our genome, and in the third the human foes are constantly generated by other conditions. This is why the traditional, centralized way of waging a war does not work. A "big science" project cannot handle ill-defined, shifting problems requiring a multitude of solutions. A centralist approach has a narrow range of approved solutions that attract enormous resources, but it cannot explore a wide array of possibilities. Usually the result is that old methods are re-used, even in a different context, and if they do not work it is believed that they will work if more resources and effort is put into them.

This is very similar to the War on Terror: traditional military and intelligence methods have shown themselves adequate for solving traditional military and intelligence problems. Unfortunately, they do not seem to be very effective against non-traditional problems like widespread suicide-bombings, networked foes within third-party countries or the troublesome feedback loops of ethnicity, media and inter-cultural politics.

There is a good chance that NIH is right and someday soon cancer will become just a chronic disease. Cancer research has progressed on a broad front, ranging from studies of the causes to palliative medicine in hospices. This has enabled a huge range of solutions to be explored, and thanks to the cumulative nature of science the experience has been passed on to the benefit of further experiments. In 1971 the biochemistry of DNA and computers were fields unrelated to cancer research; today genomics is a key weapon. Nanotechnology was not on the horizon even ten years ago; today many see it as another key weapon. But these weapons in the war against cancer were not discovered thanks to the huge effort aimed at the goal itself. They emerged organically from other fields.

In the same way these other broad "wars" are unlikely to be won by a directed effort at the apparent problem. Drug-use is exists in the animal world, and addiction is deep down an issue of mis-learning and lack of control in our motivation systems. It is likely fundamentally related to other kinds of addictions, from overeating to religious cults. It will not go away because of a restricted drug supply, since new drugs and new ways of supplying them will be invented. Maybe a "War against Addiction" would be more useful: finding ways of preventing life-destroying addictions instead of going after the symptoms. This is like going after the gene network causes of cancer. It is likely a very complex problem requiring input from other fields, but it probably has greater chances of success than ending coca farming.

The war on terror is similarly a war on a symptom. Terrorism is to a large extent caused by lack of ways to change society peacefully, deep resentment and institutions that have formed dark ideologies into action. Even wiping out these spontaneously forming institutions would not solve the problem since they would re-form if the other social fuels were present.

Attempting to detect and prevent terrorist acts is like early detection of cancer: it is useful and saves many lives but does not get rid of the underlying cause. One can do preventative medicine, too, by supporting the formation of open societies with possibilities for advancement in poor and oppressed regions. Again, this is important and cost-effective, but it will just reduce the incidence. Even if the entire world was open, democratic and wealthy there would be people carrying grudges and using available means to lash out. And given the exponential growth of technology the destructive power of individuals is getting very worrying.

There will not be a single "cure for cancer" but a large toolkit of methods. Just like the war on cancer and war on drugs, the solutions are likely unexpected. Blunt force is probably in there, just as are preventative methods. But the key weapons will be different. What they are we can't tell right now and this is why centralist attempts to win the war will fail. But a broad research front trying many approaches rather than a single attack against the apparent problem is likely to finally find the keys we need.

It might take until 2055 before we get there, but better late than never.


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