after the sleeping comes the waking up.

Posts Tagged ‘crime’

Zombies, drugs, and loneliness

Posted by c. wagner on November 12, 2009

The last post was about a book I spotted by chance in a documentary about a completely unrelated subject. I came across Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie by Wade Davis by a more circuitous route. It started with a Twitter post and through a bunch of intermediate steps I wound up with a battered library copy of it.

The central argument is that zombies, at least in Haiti, are real. They don’t eat brains or otherwise threaten the living, but they exist. But they’re not created randomly or just for cheap labor. Secret societies are responsible for allowing sorcerers to turn someone judged a criminal into a zombie. Zombification is the ultimate punishment for those who wrong others in the community. And this is a punishment that actually seems to have some deterrent effect.

Instead, the concept of slavery implies that the victim of zombification suffers a fate worse than death–the loss of individual freedom implied by enslavement, and the sacrifice of individual identity and autonomy implied by the loss of the ti bon ange [soul; personality, character, willpower]. It must be emphasized that the fear in Haiti is not of zombies, but rather of becoming a zombie. This fear is pervasive and has given rise to a complex body of folklore that continues to influence behavior. [page 9]

Every aspect of culture in rural Haiti fits together to reinforce the power of the secret societies, the reality of sorcerers’ powers, and the horror of becoming a zombie.

In other words, a world of few alternatives makes for an absolute acceptance of established tenets of belief, and those beliefs, in turn, have an absolute and exclusive validity. Within these confines the believer can maneuver with some intellectual ingenuity, but beyond the limits of the beliefs there is only chaos. Within such a system of belief there are no accidents, and no event has a life of its own. [page 55]

Davis does slightly underemphasize the importance of the psychological factors in zombification. Zombies are first exposed to a powder that includes the same toxin that makes fugu a sushi to die for. Then they’re buried alive while fully conscious (courtesy of the poison), which is enough to break anyone. Then they’re unburied and have the crap beaten out of them. Then they’re fed a hallucinogen and taken far from home. If they ever manage to get back to their family and friends, they are shunned. Isolated. The stress of these experiences is what really makes the zombie. The drugs that Davis spends most of the book talking about are only there to cause the apparent death of the soon-to-be-zombie and make it possible to bury him or her.

Seems like zombies are sufferers of an extreme form of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and also must deal with the powerful stress of social isolation. (Note: I’m not a psychologist, so take my diagnosis here with a shaker of salt. Or a box.)

There’s been a lot of discussion lately, what with Halloween and the rebirth of the zombie movie, about what zombies symbolize. The usual theory is that they represent the dehumanization and de-individualization of people by consumer culture (modern zombies) or Communism (older zombies). To me, the cause of Haitian zombies is even more frightening.To think that real zombies are people damaged through the application of psychology is more horrific than images of movie zombies eating brains.

And it’s yet another reason to remember the humanity of all of those we encounter every day. Smile. Greet. Listen. Admire the wonder that is each individual.

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Is it all in the genes?

Posted by c. wagner on November 9, 2009

Increasingly, a person’s genetics are playing a role in court cases. You watch CSI and CourtTV. It’s all about DNA evidence.

But are we interpreting the information provided by the tests properly? Some statisticians and lawyers don’t think so.

Mathematics might seem a logical fit for the courts, then. Judges and juries, though, all too often rely on gut feeling. A startling example was the rape trial in 1996 of a British man, Dennis John Adams. Adams hadn’t been identified in a line-up and his girlfriend had provided an alibi. But his DNA was a 1 in 200 million match to semen from the crime scene – evidence seemingly so damning that any jury would be likely to convict him.

But what did that figure actually mean? Not, as courts and the press often assume, that there was only a 1 in 200 million chance that the semen belonged to someone other than Adams, making his innocence implausible.

It actually means there is a 1 in 200 million chance that the DNA of any random member of the public will match that found at the crime scene (see “The prosecutor’s fallacy”). The difference is subtle, but significant. In a population, say, of 10,000 men who could have committed the crime, there would be a 10,000 in 200 million, or 1 in 20,000, chance that someone else is a match too. That still doesn’t look good for Adams, but it’s not nearly as damning.

If all of my reading on rationality is teaching me something, it’s that in a lot of situations, human nature is all about jumping to conclusions. And when someone’s life or liberty is on the line, jumping to conclusions is a dangerous thing to do. I can’t think of a better time to sit back and analyze carefully and rationally what is going on. Go ahead and go with your gut on standardized tests, but turn on those higher functions when it comes to others’ futures or your own.

And then there’s the question of how much at person’s genetics influence his or her actions.

In 2007, Abdelmalek Bayout admitted to stabbing and killing a man and received a sentenced of 9 years and 2 months. Last week, Nature reported that Pier Valerio Reinotti, an appeal court judge in Trieste, Italy, cut Bayout’s sentence by a year after finding out he has gene variants linked to aggression.

Do genes remove or mediate personal responsibility? Where do arguments like this leave free will?

Read the article about Bayesian interpretation of statistics at New Scientist.

Read the article about genetic profiling at New Scientist.

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Did she have a key?

Posted by c. wagner on November 9, 2009

Some folks are determined not to go to jail.

A drunk woman in Ohio managed to get out of handcuffs three times after cops picked her up playing in traffic. They finally had to tase her to get her to the police station.

She could start an act as an escape artist. And earn some beer money.

Read the (very short) article from the local TV station.

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How well can you forget?

Posted by c. wagner on October 27, 2009

I’ve been debating posting on this for a couple of days now. On one hand, the question of the reality and validity of repressed memories is interesting. On the other hand, we are talking about a man convicted of an awful crime that is related to a perhaps even more evil cover-up.

Remember Paul Shanley? The now-former priest who became the poster molester of the sex abuse in the Catholic church a few years ago? He’s now appealing his conviction. And he may have a good argument.

There were dozens of priests and hundreds of victims involved, but Shanley’s case is unusual in that there is no corroborating evidence of his crimes. Often in cases of accusations of sexual abuse — even ones that occurred years earlier — there is some other supporting proof. But the only evidence against Shanley was the memory of a now-grown man who said he didn’t recall the abuse until 2002 when he heard about a newspaper article on the clergy abuse scandal. That, he claimed, triggered a flood of memories of abuse that had occurred decades earlier at Shanley’s hand.

The problem? What the victim claims is unheard of in science.

Shanley’s lawyer argued that the former priest deserves a new trial because the jury relied on misleading “junk science” testimony about repressed memories, wrongly suggesting that such memories were considered valid by the psychological and scientific community. (Indeed, a judge concluded that repressed memories are “generally accepted by the relevant scientific community of mental health professionals.”)

Shanley’s lawyer is correct: There is no scientific consensus (and little research suggesting) that people can completely forget about traumatic events, only to recall them in detail years or decades later.

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, for one, has spent her career studying the mechanisms of memory and how easily memories can be corrupted. Here’s her overview of the literature on creating memory, repressed memories, and the power of suggestion as of 2003.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Even if this conviction is overturned, Shanley was accused of abuse by three others, who were dropped from the original suit.

Read the column by Benjamin Radford.

Read the story at

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You shouldn’t trust charming people.

Posted by c. wagner on October 26, 2009

Don’t think I’ve ever heard of a pickpocket making off with a tie before. But I guess there’s a first time for everything.

There seems to be a life lesson, here. You need to pay attention to what folks are doing, no matter what they’re saying and how nice they seem.

Or maybe just that you should stay the heck away from Derren Brown.

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