Ever hear the quip that a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into proofs? Well, maybe if you up the input, you up output….
After my last post on statistical estimation of the effects of doping on baseball players, I was thinking something righteous like “People don’t need steroids to compete, they should do it on determination alone.” Sounds reasonable, but what if its not a game? What if giving soldiers alertness drugs could raise the likelihood they survive combat? What if those drugs could promise to keep them awake for weeks at a time? DARPA is constantly testing alertness drugs for just that purpose. Anyone who’s driven across US Interstate 10 has seen the variety of ephedrine-based products for truck drivers on overnight hauls, but this is arguably for their safety, unless you argue that they shouldn’t be allowed to drive unsafe hours in the first place. Use of these types of stimulants for video games seems like an unneccessary physical risk, of course, and I think most people would be disgusted with the accounts of crank pushing by managers of slaughterhouses in “Fast Food Nation,” but what if altering the body with drugs isn’t just for curing diseases, disorders, or meeting safety needs anymore? What if society starts to view this as a means of self improvement?
Here’s where the academic angle comes in: “1 in 5 ‘Nature’ readers … say they up their mental performance with drugs such as Ritalin, Provigil, and Inderal.” This came from an online poll with 1,400 respondents. Cheers to Tim for pointing this article out to me. The numbers are new, but the act certainly isn’t. Many respected contributors to civilization have used stimulants to increase concentration and creativity. I’m not just talking Paul Erdös and Phillip K. Dick. Lots of people use caffiene, specifically for work purposes. I find caffeine is the easiest way to start small talk at conferences and meetings. It seems just about everyone in academia likes to talk about caffeine like Ken Kesey talked about DMT. But what about Ritalin/Adderall?
The use of amphetamines was Erdös’ personal choice, but the real problem is that when drugs and careers mix, some of the indipendant choice is lost. A truck driver may feel the pressure to take stimulants because of competition with drivers who are willing to take on extended hours. If one military confronts another who doesn’t sleep, all soldiers may be compelled to take the same chemicals or suffer a disadvantage. Could a “free” government ever demand that soldiers take drugs? With 1/5 of scientists potentially on speed, will I ever be pressured into using stimulants simply because my colleagues and competitors are? What happens when human ability is no longer considored good enough to drive human achievement?