Sit & Do Nothing?

“Q: Do you mean to imply that we don’t know enough to fight an intelligent war against cancer?”

“A: Well, wars are never intelligent; but you are correct. The present idea seems to be that we shall select some huge forest and we shall declare that cancer is hidden in there somehow. We shall surround this forest with a huge force of hired beaters who will make a terrific racket to rouse and drive the hidden enemy. Whatever little animal comes running out will be given no quarter; it will be killed, and we shall declare that we have killed cancer. Then the chase will be called off. In the meantime, we shall never be sure that we have picked the right forest and that we have killed the right animal. In other words, we propose to attack cancer as if it were North Vietnam, carpet bombing and so on. The brutish totemistic spirit of Dr. Fix-it is particularly unsuited for this sort of operation. ‘Crash programs’ are more likely to crash the programmers than their objects.”

“Q: Do you wish to say that we should sit and do nothing, and this with all the scientific unemployment?”

“A: Not at all. But more than anything else, we ought to beware of think tanks. For think tanks produce tank thoughts, and this is not the kind of thinking that will ‘conquer’ cancer, if conquest is the right word. I have often wondered whether, behind the much advertised fight against cancer, there does not hide the real motive, namely, to abolish death (of course, for the right kind of people). Are we ready for this? Well, I believe we are ready for anything. How about the abolition of death as a so-called national goal? But what a mess we shall be making! If we preserve the old, we shall have to kill the young. In fact, we have made a beginning in this direction.”

“Q: I can’t say that I understand you; but I seem to hear a senile death wish.”

“A: This may be so. But in my life. I have seen too many ill-considered, harebrained schemes end in misery and total chaos to feel optimistic about our medical do-gooders who are ready anytime to apply the techniques for selling snake oil to the most profound, most unfathomable problems of life and death.” (Erwin Chargaff, 1977, Voices in the Labyrinth)