Intelligence, moral wisdom, and reactions to the University of Alabama-Huntsville shootings.

From a recent article in the New York Times considering University of Alabama-Huntsville shooter Amy Bishop's scientific stature and finding it lacking, this comment on why so many denizens of the internet think they can understand why she did what she did:

Why did people who knew Dr. Bishop only through reading about her crime make excuses for her?

Joanathan D. Moreno, a professor of medical ethics and the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks reactions have to do with a long tradition that goes back to Plato. The idea, he said, is that someone who is very intelligent is assumed to be "morally wise." And that makes it hard to reconcile the actions of Amy Bishop, with her Harvard Ph.D., her mantle of scientific brilliance.

"There's a common-folk psychology," Dr. Moreno said. "If you are that smart, you know the difference between right and wrong."

"That is what's going on," Dr. Moreno said. "In cases like hers that contradict the framework, we look for excuses."

First question: Do people really assume that knowing the difference between right and wrong is enough to assure that one will do no wrong? Or is it just that murder is such a mind-bendingly awful crime that we can't imagine someone who knew that it was wrong would still do it?

Second question: Is this really about granting Amy Bishop the benefit of the doubt on account of her intelligence, or is it more about granting no benefit of the doubt to a university that has denied a tenure petition?

In other words, is it that the public really respects smart people, or really distrusts universities?

More like this

Was just checking the old SiteMeter stats before foraging for dinner and saw a surge in search hits for "Amy Bishop." Yup. Lo and behold she has been charged with murder - for the 1986 death of her brother. From an article an hour ago by Donovan Slack and Shelley Murphy at the Boston Globe: The…
Valued commenter wc just left us a link to one of the most insightful articles to date on Dr. Amy Bishop, the University of Alabama in Huntsville biology professor charged in the shooting deaths of three colleagues where two other professors and an administrative assistant were injured. In today's…
Abel has a thoughtful post on the horrific faculty meeting shooting at University of Alabama Huntsville this past Friday. New information seems to come out every few hours on the shooter, Dr. Amy Bishop, a biologist at the university who had been denied tenure, and I'm nowhere near ready to weigh…
First and foremost our condolences go to all our our colleagues at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and others in the Huntsville science community such as Twitter friend, @girlscientist, Dr. Chris Gunter. As we are learning, yesterday's shooting occurred after UAH Assistant Professor of…

"In other words, is it that the public really respects smart people, or really distrusts universities?"

Yes. Next question?

To be honest, though, I've seen many more comments, blogs, and columnists trying to link this atrocity to President Obama than all other comments combined. However, this post marks the first time I've seen any evidence of anyone making excuses for the act.

[Off-topic... way off-topic! Excuse me for borrowing this space.]

I've always liked your posts on ethics. I've just put up a blog post (linked on my name) on the British Select Committee's report on homeopathy. In it they present an argument that doctors shouldn't offer placebos, which they ground in an ethics argument. I'd love to see you take do a ethics dissection on thisâif it interests you, of course.

(I've made a quick mention of this in my article, the report itself is here:…).

Apart from speculation that Dr. Bishop may be mentally ill, I haven't actually seen anybody try to defend her actions. Her case stands in contrast to Joe Stack, the guy who flew his airplane into the IRS offices in Austin last week: I have seen a few people actually defend what he did as the final act of a sane man driven to the edge.

To answer your questions:

1. Perhaps some people do, but they are in the minority. Most people avoid unethical behavior because (a) they will suffer social consequences, (b) they will suffer legal consequences, or (c) they will suffer consequences in the afterlife. Most religions focus on the last point--I've seen many conservatives of a religious bent claim that people cannot act ethically without a belief in the speaker's god. And of course some people behave unethically anyway, either because they think the penalties won't apply to them or because they believe the rewards outweigh the penalties.

2. I have seen no evidence that the American public respects smart people. On the contrary, there is a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in this country. So I think much of this reaction is against the university rather than for Dr. Bishop.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Eric, excellent points, I just might add that a lot of people right now are probably more sympathetic to people who lose their jobs (or at least tenure in this case). Perhaps there'd be less sympathy for her at a time when everyone didn't know somebody who is unemployed through no fault of their own. Or perhaps too much of this country is obsessed with guns, violence, and the idea of getting sweet revenge on those who wronged us. I imagine if a family member of those she killed got revenge on Ms. Bishop, there'd be a fair groundswell of support (not that I'm advocating vigilante justice, just pointing out that there would be sympathy/support for such actions).

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

First question: Do people really assume that knowing the difference between right and wrong is enough to assure that one will do no wrong? Or is it just that murder is such a mind-bendingly awful crime that we can't imagine someone who knew that it was wrong would still do it?

As has been pointed out by many people for a long time, there is a deep gulf between âisâ and âought.â Since morality is a shared system of beliefs among a group of individuals, it is assumed that all the individuals have (some) awareness of the existence of this system, and the rewards /sanctions associated with it. Many individuals who commit murder therefore know that it is wrong, but do it anyways, usually for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to momentary fits of emotion, acute mental episodes, or longer chronic conditions.

Second question: Is this really about granting Amy Bishop the benefit of the doubt on account of her intelligence, or is it more about granting no benefit of the doubt to a university that has denied a tenure petition?

Iâm not sure anyone credible is giving Amy Bishop any kind of âbenefit.â Itâs becoming clearer that she has had a meticulously-kept secret history of aggression and violence. As the details of the shooting incident become clearer, itâs apparent this was a calculated event. Amy is smart enough to know her only way to avoid the gas chamber is mental illness, fabricated or not.

Interesting use of "benefit of the doubt." I'm not sure exactly how it is intended here.

There are many publics. Who the internet public is may surprise us. Yahoo news has the most commonly searched terms at the top of its splash page. Google video has the most commonly watched videos in order. Result, pop culture is the most common interest, such as Lady Gaga, etc., along with tabloid false news such as Tiger apologizing.

The public that is a college graduate is only 15%, according to Greg Laden. Even if that figure were off by 5 or 10% it is still not very large. That public knows close to nothing about universities, except college sports, and most fans did not themselves attend university -- - they don't say so.

david, if what Greg Laden is saying is true (the figure I'm aware of is somewhat larger), then this country can suck it. It doesn't deserve the nuclear arsenal it controls if smart people don't control it.

By Katharine (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

I think that it is neither.

I think that most commentators are either operating from pure projection or are using this to further their agenda. Unless one understands the science that Dr Bishop was doing, one is incapable of evaluating it. When one is incapable of evaluating something, a common default position is to denigrate it, or dismiss it as of no value. What Dr Bishop was working on was nitric oxide, a field which I have considerable expertise in.

She has a patent application on file.

I happen to know a great deal about the specifics of this because I filed this patent application

Which will do exactly what she was trying to do using ammonia oxidizing bacteria as the nitric oxide source.

If her patent would have issued, it would have been a hyper-valuable patent, many tens of billions of dollars per year. It won't issue because my patent has priority.

This technique, using nitric oxide to prevent and treat neurodegenerative diseases will be successful. It will stop the neurodegeneration of Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases. This would save millions of lives per year. This would be the boon to mankind that she was trying to achieve to make amends for killing her brother.

The statements and attitudes of the scientists quoted in the NYT article are, I think, symptomatic of the destructive nature of the hyper-competition in how science is now funded, and the need to posture and position that all research other than your own is not worth very much. What does the article say?

âMost of her work was on nitric oxide, a gas that can transmit signals between nerves. High levels of nitric oxide, she proposed, might set off degenerative diseases like A.L.S., and cells treated with low levels of the gas might build resistance. But that is far from proven, scientists said, and the idea was not original with Dr. Bishop.â

It is not proven that nitric oxide will prevent the neurodegenerative diseases. The only reason it isn't proven is because the people who can prove it can't get the funding to prove it. It becomes a self-fulfilling and circular. The idea isn't any good because it isn't proven, the idea can't be proven because it can't be funded, the idea can't be funded because it isn't any good.

The statements about âfolk psychologyâ don't make any sense. How could anyone who is rational decide that shooting multiple faculty members at a meeting would somehow lead to a resolution of the issues that would be satisfactory? Could anyone rationally believe that the school would then say âoops, my bad, you can have tenure nowâ? How could anyone believe that what Dr Bishop did was a rational plan adopted by a rational person that could rationally be expected to achieve a satisfactory endpoint?

I think the real folk psychology in this case doesn't have to do with people assuming intelligent people are morally wise, it has to do with assuming that people in authority have done and will do âthe right thingâ. It is this folk psychology that the commentator is using to now assume that the UAH administration was correct to not give her tenure, and that the âright thingâ was to not give her tenure, even though if she had been given tenure none of this would have happened.

The real folk psychology is deference to authority, even when that authority is demonstrably wrong. This was the mindset that led the villagers to âseeâ the Emperor's new clothes. This is the mindset that gives deference to the king, to civil authorities, to religious authorities, to peer review, the mindset that causes Stockholm syndrome. This is why people believe what they see on Fox news. If it is on TV, it must be right. If someone I trust says it, it must be correct, even if the only reason I trust them is because they have the power of life and death over me.

It is this mindset that is now trying to âpile-onâ to Dr Bishop, to demonstrate to everyone else that Dr Bishop is âthe otherâ, that she is not like us, that we are âdifferentâ, we are allied with the authority which is always right, and not allied against the authority the way that Dr Bishop was. What was done 25 years ago is now being second guessed and used to impugn the abilities and motives of those involved 25 years ago. It is being used by those not involved 25 years ago to pull down those who were involved 25 years ago so that those not involved can move up the social hierarchy by pulling others down.

What is going on, is a public âframingâ of Dr Bishop as the âotherâ, someone who is not âlike usâ, someone who cannot be understood or trusted, and someone who deserves any and all bad things that we as a society can do to her.

This is analogous to the GOP reaction to the underwear bomber. They are gravely distressed that he is not being tortured to extract information. Never mind that torture is an ineffective method for getting information, that cooperation is much more effective and that he is cooperating without being tortured, they want him tortured. They don't want useful information, they want to âotherâ him. To use him as a prop to assert the authority to torture.


Don't forget that from 2000 until 2008, this country willingly gave control of it's nucelear arsenal to George W. Bush, who consulted God about his decision to go to war in Iraq.

By Solomon Rivlin (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

#4 mentioned people defending Joe Stack. Is the difference in reaction because he died and she didn't? Or is it a difference based on gender?

By anonymous (not verified) on 25 Feb 2010 #permalink

A third possible source for the difference is that Stack attacked the IRS, a much-hated branch of the much-hated federal government. (I do not agree with or condone the hate. I'm just noting it exists.) In contrast, until this happened not many people had even stopped to think the UAH biology faculty existed.