Heisenberg Uncertainty and the Baltimore Riots

Yesterday I encountered a colleague outside the elevator. He was profoundly troubled, as are many, anguished by the violence in Baltimore this week. The looting, burning, and scores of injured from angry youths hurling bricks at police were sparked by the violent death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody.


“I was there yesterday,” I told my concerned colleague.

“What? Where?”

“I went to the CVS Drugstore that was looted and burned,” I replied.

In disbelief he asked, “What was it like?”

“I was too late. All of the DVR’s and other good stuff were already gone,” I said.

 

My reply can be taken as a crass, inappropriate outburst of dark humor, but there is a deeper message. It is a message that every scientist knows well and grapples with every day–the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Fundamentally, reporters and scientists are driven by the same passion. Both are engaged in the challenging process of trying to find truth from primary evidence. Thus science and reporting, subject to the same types of errors, sometimes fail for similar reasons.

 

The facts are that a young black man died a violent cruel death while in police custody. His spine was snapped. He was restrained by handcuffs and leg irons and mortally injured while being transported inside a police wagon in the custody of six police officers. Angry riots erupted in rage against police brutality.

We watched it all live on TV. Hordes of angry black men armed with clubs and stones, facing off against a phalanx of police in black riot gear, wearing modern armor, helmets and shields that harken back to medieval battles between knights of the kingdom and oppressed peasants. We have seen this angry scene thousands of times through thousands of years of human history. As the city of Baltimore burned those of us who remember the horror of the summer of violence that plunged the country into chaos in 1968, were sickened.

“Can’t we all get along?” Rodney King pleaded during riots in Los Angeles in 1992. The black taxi driver was brutally beaten by Los Angeles Police officers after a high-speed chase in 1991. That beating by police was videotaped by a citizen appalled by the brutality erupting on the street beneath his balcony. After a trial that acquitted the police of serious charges, Los Angeles was consumed by riots in which 53 people were killed, 2000 were injured, and the neighborhoods were looted and burned. The military was dispatched to restore order, but many neighborhoods never fully recovered and the violence spread to other cities.

Rodney King’s plea echoed the bewilderment of everyone, and unfortunately the answer to his vexing question cannot be more obvious or more disheartening. Such turmoil and brutality are a deadly consequence of the human mind that within milliseconds of observing another person categorizes the individual into either “us or them.” It happens as quickly and as automatically as the brain attaches the color red or green to an apple. Paradoxically, those automated brain circuits are the essence of human success. They enabled our species to coalesce spontaneously into groups for mutual protection and common purpose, and often to do so through violence. This is the double-edged sword of the human brain. There can be no patriotism without a foreign adversary; no maternal bonding without seeing other babies differently.

The heavy thumping of helicopter blades circling overhead, the smell of charred wood, sirens squealing from every direction, echoing hysterically through the alleyways and streets it is impossible for me to tell where they originate. In a flash a fire truck, police car, or ambulance streaks past, ablaze with flashing red lights, racing toward the violence or away from it to hospitals or police stations.

Stepping into the neighborhood surrounding the CVS drugstore triggers screeching alarms in your brain that raise hair on the back of your neck and make your spine shiver. Groups of men loiter on street corners, drinking oversized cans of malt liquor from rumpled paper bags and smoking. Others pass the day sitting on the stoops of red brick row houses as if discarded. The windows of buildings are boarded with plywood weathered into a furry gray, warped and pealing, the homes and businesses have been abandoned for ages. It is a neighborhood of pawn shops, discount liquor stores, mom and pop corner markets with bars on the doors and windows, of bail bonds and check cashing establishments. Faded tent cities rot under an overpass, cluttered with shopping carts and scavenged junk. It is a perilous place of danger, crime, and drugs. 25 percent of the men are unemployed. They have nothing to do. Nowhere to go. Trapped, they have no way out. Children grow up in squalor and poverty.

All eyes follow me. They are the eyes of black men. I am white. There is not a thing in the world that either of us can do about that. Ours is the biological legacy of genetics; mine following a line of descent from northern Europe, theirs from Africa. It shouldn’t make much difference, but it does.

The violence, though, is not exactly the result of racism; it is the result of tribalism, a human trait that divides the world into us vs them. I suspected as much when I visited the boarded up drugstore, but today we learned that three of the six police officers charged with assaulting Freddie Gray are black. The driver of the police wagon now facing murder charges was a black officer. An unfortunate result of tribalism can be festering pockets of poverty, neglect, hopelessness, divisions between the haves and the have not’s, and instantaneous violence unleashed by brain circuits designed for herding, defense, and mutual cooperation in groups.

But this is not what I wish to explore in this article, which is targeted to those with an interest in science. As we watched the looting streamed live into our homes on TV, what we did not see was the view from the opposite direction. When I visited the burned and boarded up CVS store this week, in the midst of the protests and before the police were charged with the crime, I saw the streets lined with TV vans, satellite dishes, cameramen, soundmen, reporters interviewing men in suits and residents gathered around ogling and curious. Reporters, some of them from foreign countries, positioned carefully so that the camera angle would capture the person being interviewed with a snippet of boarded storefront in frame as the backdrop, carefully avoiding the throngs of other reporters and gawkers loitering around.

A good example is the large photograph on the front page of today’s Washington Post (May 2, 2015). It shows a black woman with orange blond hair standing up through the moon roof of her vehicle jubilantly cheering with her arms outstretched in the air. In her hand, partially cropped from the frame she holds not stones, but rather a cell phone. She is surrounded by others mugging for the camera. I was at that same spot on Wednesday. Look past her and you see not a crowd, but rather people milling about, eyes fixed on their cell phones, and two other cameramen caught in the frame trying to snap the same image that would carry the day’s narrative.

People do not behave the same in private and in public. If a reporter does not block them off, people will jump into the scene and clown for the camera. Morning news shows exploit this human phenomenon by shooting live weather reports on the streets outside the TV studio in Manhattan so people will mug for the camera and liven up the otherwise boring announcement of temperature and rain fall.

What effect did the media circus have on the youths watching the looting of stores or of protestors assembling, or of youthful gangs collecting into peer groups intent on confrontation with police? The situation sets up a sort of street theater in which people assume roles and act out in the way they see others doing or in the way that aligns them with others to which they aspire to be. The act capture the events runs the risk of altering them–the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Freedom of the press is essential. It is the only real means to find truth in public affairs. It is the only way to shed light on shady dealings, and to counter the inevitable corruption and abuses of power that otherwise overtake government and industry. Without the videos broadcast by the media of Rodney King being beaten and of the violent protests this week in Baltimore, there is no question that injustice and abuse of power would have gone unchecked. But the same conundrum that perplexes scientists applies to reporters.

Heisenberg’s principle cannot be overcome. It can only be recognized. The laser scanning confocal microscope in my laboratory has revealed wonderful insights for me into how living brain cells operate and communicate, but I know and must always be mindful of the fact that the laser beam that illuminates the cell is also stimulating it and changing it. The light illuminating the cell also heats it, blanches it, drives chemical reactions that generate toxic products, and so do the lights of TV cameras on a crowd.

 

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Douglas Fields

About Douglas Fields

R. Douglas Fields is Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institutes of Health, NICHD, in Bethesda, Maryland, and author of the new book about sudden anger and aggression “Why We Snap,” published by Dutton, and a popular book about glia “The Other Brain” published by Simon and Schuster. Dr. Fields is a developmental neurobiologist with a long-standing interest in brain development and plasticity, neuron-glia interactions, and the cellular mechanism of memory. He received degrees from UC Berkeley, San Jose State University, and UC San Diego. After postdoctoral fellowships at Stanford and Yale Universities he joined the NIH in 1987. Dr. Fields also enjoys writing about neuroscience for the general public. In addition to serving on editorial boards of several neuroscience journals, he serves as scientific advisor for Odyssey and Scientific American Mind magazines. He has written for Outside Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Scientific American and Scientific American Mind, and he publishes regularly for The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and Scientific American on-line. Outside the lab he enjoys building guitars and rock climbing.

The opinions stated in the blog are the personal opinion of the author and not those of the federal government.

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