May 18, 2004

What We Can Learn from the War on Cancer

The war on cancer was started by Nixon in 1971. It is still ongoing, but the NIH is optimistic that we will see a victory of sorts around 2015. The War on Drugs was started in 1981 by Reagan. It is still ongoing, with doubtful success. The War on Terror was started in 2001 and it is just as broad, just as unbounded as the others. If we assume the NIH is actually right, and that a 45 year span is normal for a “War on XXX”, then we might see the last detainees at Guantanamo released in 2055 or so.

What can we learn from the successes and failures 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 fairly 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 is caused by many complex factors among different people. 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 centralist way of waging a war does not work. A huge “Manhattan project” is unlikely to handle ill-defined, shifting problems requiring a multitude of solution attempts. Building the atomic bomb – the original Manhattan project - was a well-defined finite problem, finding a cure for cancer was not. A centralist approach has a narrow range of approved solutions that get enormous resources, but it cannot explore a wide array of possibilities (even if it officially wants to, there is usually only so much room for dissenting voices and radical ideas within the same organisation). Usually the result is that old methods are re-used, 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 all 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.

I personally think the NIH is right and cancer will become just a chronic disease and not a killer within a foreseeable future. It is a problem that can be solved thanks to the broad reach of biomedicine. Cancer research has been going along 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. 1971 the biochemistry of DNA and computers were unrelated fields 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 the other broad “wars” are unlikely to be winnable thanks to a directed effort at the apparent problem. Drug-use is exists in the animal world, and addiction is deep down an issue of mislearning 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 cut drug supply, since people will invent new drugs and new ways of supplying them. Maybe the mistake is to assume that it is drugs that are the problem. Maybe a “War against Addiction” is more useful: finding ways of preventing life-destroying addictions instead of going after the symptom (drugs and drug trade). 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 destroying coca farming. The neuropsychology of motivation is not actively and intelligently fighting back and trying to retain its grasp of our brains.

The war on terror is similarly a war on a symptom. Terrorism is to a large extent caused by hopelessness, poverty, lack of ways to change society peacefully, deep resentment and institutions that have formed to aim these dark sentiments 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. It is like resecting metastasising tumours.

Attempts to detect and prevent terrorist acts is like early detection of cancer: 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 strike out. And given the exponential growth of technology the destructive power of individuals is getting very worrying.

So what would be needed to win the war on terror? Just like the war on cancer and war on drugs, the solution is likely something entirely out of the blue. And it will not be a single “cure for cancer” but a large toolkit of methods. Blunt force is probably in there, just as 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 “either you’re with us or against us” attack against the apparent problem, that is likely to finally find the keys we need.

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

Posted by Anders at May 18, 2004 11:47 PM

Off course you are right. Another good reason for terrorism is that the we in the west have a blind spot for our own double standards.

Noam Chomsky has a lot of interresting points to say about this.

More info at:

Posted by: Max M at May 19, 2004 12:42 PM

Of course, arab culture holds plenty of self-ignored double standards too. But most islamic governments are not really fighting a broad "war on terror" but rather internal anti-terrorism suppression, and hence the inconsistencies usually don't cause too much problems. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan though, seem to run into problems in this respect as the double standards of their governments in respect to both being west-friendly *and* relatively hardline islamist friendly collide.

Chomsky is interesting as an example of the use of having internal criticism and a broad approach to problem-solving. Without people like him the US would likely have been far less able to project power - the open society weeds out the most stupid plans and practices (mostly after they have been implemented, of course) and makes sure the mistakes are not repeated. The internal criticisms after Vietnam helped shape new military and political strategies. Which of course can be misused, but only once. Then it is time to try new mistakes.

Posted by: Anders at May 19, 2004 07:06 PM

"Then it is time to try new mistakes"

Well the war on Terrorism should end and so should Terrorism in the first place

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