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Conservatives Say They Hate Moral Relativism. Why Do They Use It To Defend Statues?

Statues are once again in the news — which means, for those of us who work in philosophical ethics, fresh examples of conservative inconsistency on what morality is and how it’s supposed to work.

Here’s the inconsistency: The same conservatives who decry moral relativism as a depraved form of ethical thinking are often the first to embrace relativism in defending historical figures and institutions they like.

Let’s bring into closer focus the issue of statues.

Conservatives view moral relativism — a contemporary position in modern philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and history — as morally and intellectually bankrupt. They think adopting this position leads to an unacceptably permissive public ethic, and to a degenerate society.

Many of these same folks then turn around and apply the relativist framework in moral apologia for the actions of historical figures they like — e.g., Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, etc. (Or, if “like” is too strong, they are least figures whose monuments conservatives don’t want to see torn down.) How do they use it in defense of these figures?

The idea is fairly straightforward: such-and-such behavior is now viewed as morally bad, but in Columbus’s time (or Jefferson’s, or Churchill’s) the behavior was ubiquitous and culturally acceptable. As such, this should soften, or even outright mitigate, our moral repugnance at the historical instances. Imperialism was the default attitude of the British public in the time of Churchill; slavery was a broadly accepted institution in the time of Edward Colston. Therefore, one should consider Churchill or Colston in a softer moral light.

This, fundamentally, is the inconsistency: Conservatives view relativism as a scourge on society when it leads to positions they disapprove of, but it’s the appropriate framework by which to defend historical figures they broadly approve of.

Consider two questions.

(A) Is moral relativism an acceptable position?

(B) Does moral relativism justify keeping certain historical monuments up?

You cannot scream “No!” to (A) and then affirm (B). That’s incoherent. If all instances under (A) are unacceptable, then the particular instances under (B) must also be unacceptable. (That’s how the all-to-some relation works.)

The initial spur for diving into this came from two tweets, one from notorious reactionary Matt Walsh (not the Veep one) and the other from former governor (and famed screamer) Howard Dean. Dean, obviously, isn’t a conservative, but he profiled the argument many conservatives make whenever statues come up.

I admit to being thoroughly baffled by the idea that we shouldn’t critically interrogate the role of racism in history.

To me, it’s obvious we should think seriously about the early American political figures, because the early economic institutions, the three-fifths compromise, the adoption of new states into the union, and so on are all importantly interrelated with the institution of slavery.

History should involve some level of moral recognition, lest it become stenography.

I imagined I could enlist conservatives into thinking the same—after all, here is a group who by and large believe moral relativism is a ruinous position to take when it comes to right and wrong. Matt Walsh has done at least two podcast episodes raging against moral relativism. (They are hereand here, though I can’t recommend them … they’re atrocious.)

But something funny happens when certain historical figures come under the ethical spotlight. It’s as if, for many conservatives who otherwise despise the position, moral relativism comes roaring back into respectability.

Let’s consider Columbus, whom Walsh is referring to in his tweet. Why should our judgments about him be softened by his historical context?

First, it’s worth noting (and then bracketing) the observation that Columbus was an atrocious and brutal human being even by the standards of his own time. So, even by Walsh’s preferred standards, Columbus was morally depraved. But let’s set that aside and zero-in on Walsh’s specific defense here.

Walsh’s argument relies on a distinction between “moral truth” and “moral culpability.” He wants to say that moral culpability is relative to time, social context, etc. — basically, everything that he doesn’t want to say moral truthis relative to.

But judgments of moral culpability are supposed to be judgments about moral truth. At an abstract level, facts about moral responsibility are a subset of the moral facts. Some moral facts aren’t about accountability (x is morally bad, vs. Person A isn’t culpable for doing x), but all facts about accountability are moral facts. Even those who don’t believe anyone is blameworthy recognize that the absence of blameworthiness is itself a moral fact. There’s skepticism about the existence of moral facts, but that’s a different kettle of fish.

Walsh wants to say that Columbus was morally wrong for enacting slavery, facilitating rape, and committing murder, but that he shouldn’t be morally culpable for doing so because of his particular social context.

For starters, the fact that an act is accepted or widely practiced does not reduce culpability. That’s why, when your mother [rhetorically] asks, “If all of your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” the correct answer is “No.”

Similarly, suppose the individual didn’t actually know the act was wrong. Does not knowing that something is wrong reduce or altogether eliminate culpability? Only if one couldn’t (or couldn’t reasonably) have known. But if the individual should have known, then the fact that they didn’t isn’t a saving grace.

Columbus isn’t in a position where the “he didn’t know any better” excuse applies, and Walsh’s apologia falls flat for the same reason it would fall flat in the example of any other systematic rapist and genocidal whack-a-loon. “I didn’t know mass murder was bad” isn’t culpability reducing. “Timmy was doing systematic rape, too” doesn’t cut against blame.

Walsh’s position is very bad, but there are more subtle alternatives in the discussion that are worth considering.

A similar version of the argument is advanced for the imperialism and racism of Winston Churchill.

Churchill played a significant role in English colonial institutions throughout his political career — as an under-secretary of state and later as prime minister during the latter days of the Indian independence movement, though not in office when India became independent. Churchill, like Columbus, is a celebrated historical figure. Unlike Columbus, there are elements of Churchill’s history that clearly deserve some level of moral praise, perhaps his leadership during World War II.

Similarly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt has elements of his political career that are deeply shameful — racism and his legacy on segregation, the internment of the Japanese and other ethnic groups during the war, for starters. (As the descendant of the persecuted Jews Roosevelt kept out of the U.S. during the war, I bumped on Dean’s characterization.)

Still, one of the arguments advanced in defense of monuments to these figures is that, while they had deep moral flaws that were themselves more prevalent in their day and age, they were also great with respect to some historical events we want to memorialize.

For someone like Howard Dean, the recognition of Roosevelt’s accomplishments is enormously important. For a large portion of British political figures, Churchill is similarly significant. These are aspirational figures, people who achieved things while in office that most political figures could only dream of. Their best moments intersect with, and contribute to, high points in recent world history — and not just world history, but the particular historical identities of the nations they led.

But as members of a broader community, a society, we should continually interrogate the inclusion of figures whose track records include doing massively wrong things, even if they also did good. And why should this be so problematic? Revisiting the legacies of figures we’ve memorialized in the past is just part of living in societies that involve democratic, public participation.

Memorializing figures is complicated. People are not perfect, and political figures have ample opportunities to make consequential errors in moral judgment. Most Americans, after all, were not in a position to decide whether to intern Japanese-Americans or bomb Dresden; as such, we don’t hold them accountable for those events the way we do FDR or Churchill.

But if that’s so, then perhaps we would do well to focus our civic identity and sense of moral character on acts rather than people. One can celebrate the passage of the New Deal while criticizing mass internment and perpetuation of American racism (including Jim Crow); one can have a reflection on Roosevelt’s character in recognition of these, but without the need to absolve him of the various failings.

All social movements desire to prop up charismatic figures who can be appealed to as embodiments of moral aspiration. That is hardly unique to conservatism.

The problem is: conservatism tends to pick historical figures in positions of political power who did some work to maintain certain historical institutions on which their political power (or the political power of institutional roles they occupied) was built. For Churchill and Columbus, that meant imperialism. For Jefferson and Washington, that meant slavery.

Contrary to Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr., or figures who might be venerated by radicals, the tradition of big-C Conservatives is one of small-c conservation of institutional power. As such, things those institutional powers did, what they implicated in their creation and sustenance, require exactly that moral apologia.

Conservative veneration of Churchill is predicated (in part) on Churchill’s preservation of British order and national identity; that order and national identity emphatically and explicitly included the idea of “Empire.” To preserve the moral standing of the former (which such conservatives want), some apologia is offered in defense of the latter.

This frequently includes the appeal to mitigating factors of culture, time, and place. But this is incongruous with the moral and philosophical commitments of those same conservatives, the view that what was right is always right, and that being in a particular cultural environment is not blame-mitigating. It is not blame-mitigating for Stalinists; it is not blame-mitigating for the Jacobins. It should not, by extension, be blame-mitigating for Columbus or Jefferson or Churchill, especially when each was (in fact) presented with exactly the moral critiques we recognize now as decisive.

One can adopt the commitment to a robust, attitude-independent moral truth, where moral truth is not relative to indexers like person, time, and social context. One can adopt the view that we should soften our judgments towards historical figures based on those indexers. (We could even adopt neither, which is my own view.) But one cannot adopt both.

Postmodernists Against Free Speech

Those who complain about the current social and intellectual atmosphere in the academy are generally pretty sure of just one thing they’re for and just one thing they’re against: They’re for free speech, and they’re against postmodernism and critical theory.

Now, it’s not always clear what is meant by those things, or why they should be natural opponents. But sometimes the inspiration, if not the underlying logic, shines through — as in the case of two recent books by two academics who could quite fairly be called postmodern theorists. One is Ulrich Baer’s The other is Stanley Fish’s . (That sure is a lot of topics to tell us “how to think” about!)

Baer’s  seems to have been hastily assembled based on a single article (of the same title and in  ’ so-called “philosophy” section, The Stone) that inspired some agent or publisher to tell Baer that a book “expanding on” or “extending” or “elaborating” the article should be forthcoming.

What a terrible idea!

The first typo comes on the second page, and the prose is the vacuous charlatanry typical to the genre. We hear, for instance, that “free speech is woven into the fabric of our society.” But, “by leaving open where the line should be drawn … the Founding Fathers allowed this concept to serve our evolving nation remarkably well,” since free speech “issues cut across legal, political, and cultural considerations.” The writing has the feel of an undergraduate attempting to meet a word count.

Baer’s particular focus is campus speech and campus controversies. Baer notes condescendingly that “many legal experts believe that the First Amendment is not the correct lens through which to view or resolve these conflicts, not even for public institutions.” Baer can’t actually engage these debates; he doesn’t know anything relevant to them. He tells us that “campus controversies are instructive for anyone wishing to defend our personal liberties in a strong democracy based on equality.” Instructive how? That question is left unanswered.

These controversies also “foreground” — yes, as a verb — “the complicated and inextricable link between freedom and equality.” Of course, many people think that freedom and equality are not linked but rather in tension. This is a deep debate in political philosophy (between, say, intellectual descendants of Tocqueville and intellectual descendants of Rousseau), a debate to which Baer adds absolutely nothing. But never mind. This talk of a “lens” and a “link” and what’s “instructive” substitutes for clear language stating some sort of thesis. Virtually nothing is ever said at all.

Baer goes on to tell us what these campus controversies are “about” (and later, talks about how campus controversies are “framed”). “About” — a word whose mushy usage I’ve criticized here at  before — is a term like “lens” and “link.” It doesn’t really make a claim —  — but attempts to push the reader into something — .

So, what are campus controversies supposedly about? They’re “not about the First Amendment, or anyone’s inherent right to free expression. They are about power. … Most significantly, they are not about offense and resilience, or victims and whiners.” It’s funny, and telling. The opponent of free speech, in a book opposing free speech, doesn’t seem to be able to get past that infantile howl: 

But Baer’s book is not just dumb, it’s also a bit troubling. He writes that if you don’t say whether you agree or disagree with someone, then “condoning someone’s right to speak, purely on principle, looks like endorsing the speaker’s message.” Looks that way to whom? And what does “purely” add here? Are principles supposed to be bad now? What precisely is going on in the author’s head?

He goes on to repeat yet another cliche: that free speech is being “weaponized” by those with whom he disagrees. He asks: “Should equality be a debatable principle? Or is Jefferson’s notion an absolute value and non-negotiable precondition of social interactions, in addition to being our nation’s law, to which all Americans must consent?” What exactly do these sentences mean — in particular, what does the phrase “must consent” indicate? Equality is a principle that is constantly debated in the university — not just whether equality is a good in itself (some ethical theories say yes, some say no), but whether equality is possible to achieve or even coherent as an idea. Baer never answers his own rhetorical questions. Again, they are meant to push the reader around, not to persuade them of anything or to present any sort of case.

The view of the academy Baer claims to hew to is ridiculously idealized. And it is, ironically, exactly the view of intellectual life that his critical theory-wielding cohort has entirely dismantled over the past fifty years or so. He writes that “the campus speech controversies center on the role of the university as gatekeepers [sic] to reliable knowledge, and as  in a democracy,” and that academia’s “fundamental principle is not to let  decide what counts as reasonable and what is merely bunk.” (He says this despite citing Foucault approvingly in the same book! I mean, come on!)

This is reminiscent of a book on “conspiracism” I reviewed in the spring. Academics who view their intellectual lives as merely a service to some partisan political project then get all up in arms when anyone outside the academy notices, and they start worrying about the devaluation of their “expertise” and so forth. They think they deserve a public trust they have adamantly refused to earn.

This is all just in the introduction. But don’t worry: the whole book is just the ideas I’ve mentioned so far, repeated in various different ways. Insofar as anything resembling an argument seems to rise from the slop, it’s something like this: The university has a certain , and part of this purpose involves (a) rejecting some ideas and (b) treating all university members as equals. Well, almost nobody denies that a university has a purpose. (Though almost nobody goes on to say, as Baer does, that “speech regulation is the university’s very business.”) It’s just that most people also don’t think Baer and his academic bedfellows do a good job of deciding which ideas ought to be rejected.

Does Baer present any evidence that he or anyone he knows is any good at “vetting ideas,” as he puts it? He’s a professor of comparative literature. Do you think the ordinary American thinks Baer is better or worse than the average person on the street at recognizing and rejecting nonsense? There’s no mention in the book of the replication crisis in social science, including much social science which was explicitly touted as serving progressive political goals. But that crisis is one reason why, far from seeing academics as fighting bunk, plenty critique academia as a place where nonsense is actively fabricated or at least promoted.

The university actually has at least four “purposes.” And they are, like freedom and equality, not “linked” or whatever but in tension. Those purposes include (1) producing academic research and giving a home and community to intellectuals who are trying to figure out the truth, (2) teaching the academic state of the art in various fields to young people, (3) preparing young people for the job market and providing them with a certain kind of credential, and (4) providing young people with a certain kind of atmosphere in which they can develop socially, often experimenting with things like drugs, sex, and politics in a safe environment. It’s easy to see how these purposes come into conflict with each other.

Much of Baer’s argument is based on the notion that the viewpoints he doesn’t like have no evidence for them. But Baer is the one who seems to know nothing about the topics he discusses. He writes things like: “The notion of innate racial and gender inferiority was laid to rest by many scholars, including the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould in .” Actually,  is not accepted as anything close to authoritative by university scholars in the fields it’s about (Baer’s own standard for knowledge). And in any event, it’s a book about intelligence and its measurement, not about group differences .

But I think Baer knows what he’s doing. At times, he’s very clever with his wording, seemingly intentionally narrowing the literal scope of his discussion so he’s technically right — but only technically. He goes on to write: “No science curriculum denies the difference between men and women.” That’s true — . What about the rest of the university? What about furious reactions to claims that , not , might differ between men and women? What about people like Baer himself, a comparative literature scholar, spouting off in an Oxford University Press book, about topics like law and biology? If he’s such a fan of expertise, why is he so concerned to involve himself in these debates, rather than sticking to debates about, say, Rilke, his actual area of specialty?

But even when it comes to topics he ought to know about, Baer seems to write more or less gibberish. He tells us that critical theory can help us understand the debate about free speech in the following way: “The academic fields of critical legal and race studies, as well as feminist theory and other schools of scholarship on free speech, add nuance to the positivist legalistic view on free speech. … Via methodologies such as balancing, perspective-shifting, and sociological approaches, [they] interpret the best ways our laws should let everyone flourish in our democracy.”

What’s so great about “nuance”? (“Fuck nuance,” sociologist Kieran Healy put it.) And what does it mean to “interpret the best ways our laws should let everyone flourish”? Is that even grammatical? Baer never even explains what these methodologies are. He just lists the same scholars, page after page, without even describing their work, let alone making an argument in favor of it.

Again, one gets a vision of a word limit, a deadline, Baer sweating as he types late at night in a dorm room, worried about some professor who’s known as a harsh grader.

Baer writes his second claim in various ways — over and over, like some sort of hypnosis, like every claim he makes in the book. A section of the first chapter is called “free speech is grounded in equality,” but then the third chapter is called “free speech is rooted in equality.” Do “grounded” and “rooted” mean different things, or did nobody edit this book? Anyway, it’s simply not clear why this would be the case. Baer makes no real argument for it. Here are two reasons we might think it’s  the case:

First, in general, freedom and equality often seem  to be in tension. If speech, for instance, is free, then those speakers who are the most eloquent, intelligent, or whatever else will get an unequal share of speaking time and attention.

Second, to mirror Baer’s argument that the university relies on the regulation of speech, the university also obviously relies on inequality. Professorships are tiered, and undergraduates sit and take notes, to then be graded, rather than taking the stage of the lecture hall to expound on subjects with which they have only a passing acquaintance. Students do not grade their professors’ papers. And if they did, nobody would care. Academic conferences have star keynotes, graduate programs and professional journals are ranked, and so on. In what way, then, does equality of expression characterize anything about the university? None. Further, since Baer’s whole idea of the university is founded around expertise, why would we think it makes any sense to treat students as equals? Why would student “equality” be even a remotely appropriate “lens,” to use Baer’s term, through which we would view academic life?

Baer doesn’t really give an argument that freedom and equality are interdependent. As with “lens” and “about” and “framing,” all he seems able to do is attempt to bully or confuse the reader into accepting his opinion: “We should see free speech and equality not in opposition … but as inextricably linked in the functioning of the university. Once we recognize this interdependence of academic freedom and equality in the university, of free and even contentious debate with participation on equal terms, it becomes possible to disentangle the vexing issues found in campus conflicts.” This sort of sentiment, “once you adopt my view, you’ll be able to solve these difficult issues,” occurs about a hundred times with only slight variations in wording in this repetitious slog of a text. But it’s not clear either that any “disentangling” of “vexing issues” is forthcoming. Freedom and equality are two goals. And, at best, Baer has offered the bare assertion that one of them is more foundational and, apparently in virtue of that, more important.

Later, Baer does write that “if a speaker is not regarded by law and public sentiment as equally human, his or her speech, regardless of content, is the  of the event of free speech where free speech does not exist yet in a meaningful sense.” This is the closest he comes to some sort of substance in this regard. But the ridiculous phrase “the production of the event of free speech,” no doubt indicative of Baer’s lit-crit approach, serves to cover for a strange fact: Baer thinks that one has free speech not  but .

Strangely, though, this is precisely the vision of free speech on campus that Baer disdains. One is left with the impression that Baer does not have, or does not want to have, a stable view on any of these matters. The question for him, then, is why he would even consider writing a book about them. For potential readers, anyway, here’s a simple answer: Don’t bother engaging with his ideas on these matters if he won’t bother having any.

I have a lot of negative things to say about Stanley Fish’s book But I’ll try to start with some positives on its third chapter, which covers free speech as an academic value (he thinks it’s not one). Since much of what Fish says on that echoes Baer, I won’t recap it. I will note, however, that Fish agrees with many critics of campus protesters and social justice advocates when he says that “activist students are echoing the words of Herbert Marcuse in his classic essay ‘Repressive Tolerance.’”

“Repressive Tolerance” has been a reference point on my side of the campus speech wars as long as I’ve been involved in them, but when we talk about it we are often accused of proffering some sort of conspiracy theory. Fish admirably comes out against Marcuse and the protesters. Having linked them further to “antifascist” theorist Mark Bray, Fish writes:

This was a very welcome passage!

Fish goes on to defend Ronald Sullivan Jr., the Harvard Law School professor and residential dean who was criticized for working for Harvey Weinstein’s defense. He praises the academic ideal of “the life of disinterested contemplation.” And he even explains the ways in which “the recitation and invocation of a handful of now familiar words and phrases: ‘trigger warnings,’ ‘microaggressions,’ ‘safe spaces,’ ‘nonplatforming [sic],’ [and] ‘cultural appropriation’ … undermine the purpose of higher education: the concern for the advancement of knowledge is replaced with a concern for the emotional equilibrium of students who are to be protected from ideas they might find distressing. … In short, they don’t want to learn anything.”

He said it, not me!

Fish also takes Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s essay “The Coddling of the American Mind” to task, not unkindly and with some merit. He writes that they “have more in common with the students they criticize than they think, for they share with them a concern to foster mental health and emotional resilience.”

If Fish departs from campus protesters and from Baer in this regard (and he mentions Baer explicitly), he also departs from a lot of people on the other side of these disputes in that he doesn’t see them as having a free speech element at all. They are really, Fish thinks, about the purpose of the university, “issues of professional demarcations,” or “issues of management.” Like Baer, Fish is really interested in arguments from “purpose.” For my part, I’m torn on whether such arguments should be so compelling. Either way, I think Fish’s sense of a university’s purpose is based more in theory than in reality, based more in principle (something which, we’ll see, he despises) than in an examination of real-world academic life as it stands today.

So much for the good stuff. The rest is bad.

Despite the pleasant surprise third chapter, Fish’s book shares many surprising and unpleasant commonalities with Baer’s. It, too, begins with a lot of provocative rhetorical questions strung together without much argument. For instance, it asks whether or not Gab CEO Andrew Torba is “a prime example of how the promotion of unregulated free speech, proclaimed by First Amendment apostles as the cornerstone of democracy, can lead to a cascade of words that in time is corrosive of that same democracy.” By questioning whether some person is an example of some phenomenon rather than whether the phenomenon actually occurs, Fish offers, like Baer, rhetorical force rather than reasoned argument. He discusses Cesar Sayoc, a man who sent pipe bombs to CNN, and Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, asking: “Should the authorities have been alert to the danger they posed?” This is a question about surveillance, not censorship — a question I thought had been settled on the left during the Bush administration, but apparently not.

Arguably, censorship and surveillance are conflicting goals: To the extent that censorship stops people from engaging in bad speech, it also makes it impossible for surveillance to uncover instances of bad speech, to whatever purpose.

Like Baer, Fish falls back on all the cliches of free-speech opponents, like “weaponization,” for rhetorical support. And like Baer, Fish uses the word “principle” like an epithet — he thinks that the First Amendment will be more “capable of doing the work we need it to do” (who is “we”?) if it is “freed from the stringent demand of principle.” This is a bit of a confusing claim, since Fish also thinks that “the First Amendment is a participant in the partisan battle, a prize in the political wars, and not an apolitical oasis of principle.” (Whatever that means.)

But if the First Amendment is already  not a matter of principle, it’s hard to see how we could the First Amendment from the “stringent demand” of principle. How could such a demand be “stringent” in the first place? But this is normal critical theory mishmash; you can’t tell whether a claim is descriptive or prescriptive, whether it’s about how the world  or how it  It all just blends together. For Fish, the claim that free speech  and the claim that free speech  are, paradoxically, one and the same.

Fish goes on to write that “First Amendment jurisprudence downgrades freedom of speech to the status of a value” rather than a principle, because “principles are often described as inviolable (that’s what we mean when we say ‘It’s the principle of the thing’); if they are to be infringed, it is only in the most extreme circumstances.”

This is a pretty poor analysis of the word “principle” and an even worse analysis of the phrase “it’s the principle of the thing.” When someone says “it’s the principle of the thing,” it’s usually because they take significant umbrage at an offense with less than enormous consequences because it has some symbolic aspect. This doesn’t indicate at all that the principle is inviolable. It has nothing whatsoever to do with inviolability. What was Fish thinking?

Fish equates  editor Glenn Greenwald’s view that “the doctrine of freedom of speech is intended to foster ‘exactly those political ideas that are the most offensive, most provocative, and most designed to inspire others to act in the name of its [] viewpoints’” with the view that “the worse the speech and the more dangerous its effects, the more it deserves protection. No balancing allowed.” But Greenwald’s point is very obviously not a point about balancing whatsoever. It’s the mundane point that if we want a free speech doctrine at all, it’s because we want to protect unpopular views, not popular ones — the latter are in no need of protection. Fish has done so much creative literary criticism that he’s forgotten how to read.

Fish thinks he’s presented some sort of paradox for those who believe in principles. He writes that “if you have any answer at all to the question ‘What is the First Amendment for?,’ you are logically committed to censorship somewhere down the line because your understanding of the Amendment’s purpose will lead you to regulate or suppress speech which serves to undermine that purpose,” and “if you have no answer to that question … you will then have to explain why we should revere something that doesn’t seem to be good for anything specific.” But even if you can’t answer the question, free speech is good for something specific. It’s good for free speech. All sorts of rights are good for their own sake, and this isn’t at all inconsistent with them also promoting other values. Fish is criticizing his opponents for being right for too many reasons.

Like Baer, Fish only demonstrates that bad speech accompanies bad actions; he doesn’t demonstrate that it causes them, nor does he offer any account of how to balance the harm of bad actions against the harm of censorship. This is probably because Fish does not think censorship is any sort of harm. In fact, Fish’s first chapter is titled “Why Censorship is a Precondition of Free Speech.” What argument does Fish offer for the appropriateness of this word “precondition”? Well, Fish offers a lot of examples of speech that isn’t free — the standard examples: you can’t lie under oath or shout “fire” in a crowded theater. In fact, Fish says, it’s not true that your speech is unrestricted “most of the time.” Places with no speech restrictions are far outnumbered by places that have them.

This is all well and good, but a bit beside the point. First, all it shows is that so-called free-speech “absolutists” are just as flexible as people like Fish, they just draw certain lines in different places. Is this an argument for drawing lines in the places Fish draws them? Of course not.

What about establishing censorship as a “precondition” of free speech? Fish writes: “Speech is always attached and tied down to the pre-known situational context of utterance, and it is only  speech is attached and tied down that it has significance.” Well, first, this is a claim about meaning, not about free speech. (With regards to meaning, it’s standard postmodern stuff: there is no sayable without an unsayable and so on.) And second, it seems like in the free-speech context, precisely the reverse of Fish’s claim is true. It is only  speech that is excluded means something that it is excluded. If I am thrown out of a bar for telling another patron “I’ll punch you in the face,” the reason is not some po-mo gibberish about a context of utterance. It’s because the speech has significance regardless of the context, and in that context the speech is unwanted enough that it is verboten. Fish seems to be saying instead that it is only in virtue of the bar disallowing me from saying “I’ll punch you in the face” that the bartender can understand my order (its “significance”). But he can’t possibly  this, because it’s complete nonsense.

Like Baer, Fish offers some wiggle words that, analyzed sufficiently, might make his position seem a bit more viable. For instance, he writes later: “If there were no censorship in the form of social or institutional purposes or goals that mark out what is appropriate and inappropriate to say, there would be no speech that was meaningful. … One might then say, with only a slight metaphorical stretch, that meaningful speech — speech that says something and not everything — performs an act of censorship, every time.”

Okay, maybe, whatever. But surely that is an equivocation on the word “censorship.” It just isn’t the sort of “censorship” that is under debate between Fish and his opponents. Redefining a word is no way to establish a claim that involves the word under its original definition. Fish, to his credit, acknowledges that he’s done this, but then sort of waves his hands about the whole discussion. What is actually proven? The postmodern literary critic engaging in circular word games: That’s all we really see here.

Anyway, even if censorship were in some substantive sense a precondition of free speech, this wouldn’t necessarily tell us much about any particular instance of censorship. One cannot live without eating, but that doesn’t mean one should never stop eating. If a student raises their hand in class and is called upon, then it is a “precondition” of their response that it occurs instead of another student’s response. But that precondition doesn’t give that student the right to interrupt or talk over other students when it’s their turn. Another example is that people who believe states are founded on violence generally do not think this justifies violence in an arbitrary instance. In general, it’s very easy to distinguish between a necessary condition and something that is desirable. And so even on the most generous reading Fish has established virtually nothing here.

Fish’s book is more coherent than a lot of his earlier work. Perhaps he thinks the postmodern moment has passed, or perhaps with age he’s just become less interested in incomprehensible trolling. But the old Fish still sometimes swims to the surface.

In a section on hate speech, Fish writes that the concept cannot be defined “because hate speech is an unstable category. It is unstable because there is no agreement on which utterances belong to it. Only if there were a set of utterances that would be recognized by everyone as hate speech would the designation name something conceptually coherent.”

Are there any words whose applicability to specific instances agrees on? The existence of one incompetent language user could destroy the meaningfulness of any word whatsoever — and so the postmodernist has, almost reflexively, canceled language out completely. Even an everyday word like “sandwich,” which famously has gray areas — hot dogs? tacos? ice cream “sandwiches” — and therefore does not have a precise socially agreed-upon definition, still admits of some clear-cut cases: A BLT is a sandwich, a ceiling fan is not.

Fish’s statements don’t fit with the way philosophers, linguists, or ordinary people use or think about language. They’re just the standard black-and-white postmodern thinking. Either everyone agrees on every utterance or the word means nothing. Either a principle applies in every single case or it’s nothing. Either everyone can be fit into one of a small number of categories or the categories don’t exist at all. If postmodernism were a mental patient, this would be a symptom of a disorder.

In the book’s fifth chapter, Fish makes some direct statements about postmodernism and truth. He disagrees with Victor Davis Hanson, whom he quotes as saying that postmodernism “derides facts and absolutes and insists that there are only narratives and interpretations.” Fish replies that postmodernism “does not involve a deriding of facts but an alternative account of their emergence.” But this itself is, of course, a kind of deriding: the notion that facts must “emerge” from something — that, in Fish’s words, “facts emerge in the course of interpretation and argument,” and that “fact is not a preexisting entity by whose measure argument can be assessed” — is anti-reality in all the ways postmodernism is always accused of being.

If argument is not measured by fact, what is it measured by? That is to say, what measured by? Of course, in the real world, facts do not always win the day. But that does not make them no longer facts. Fish writes: “Arguments come first; when they are successful, facts follow, at least for a while, until a new round of arguments replaces them with a new set of facts.”

But as we saw earlier with “censorship” this is just an equivocation on the word “fact.” Fish thinks that facts, in the sense most of us think there are facts, don’t exist. He’s come up with a new idea which he calls a “fact” — something emergent, maybe socially constructed or politically contested, whatever. He then says that these new things are facts, so he doesn’t disagree with us. But they aren’t facts except in Fish’s newly manufactured, obscure nonsense-language. (This is almost precisely the example by which Nicholas Shackel evokes his idea of the “motte and bailey doctrine” of truth in his 2005 paper in the academic journal , entitled “The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology.”)

Fish seems to recognize what he’s done, and tries to finagle a little bit: “To question the category of  fact — fact perspicuous to anyone despite differences in politics, philosophy, and morality — is not to question the category of fact; it is to question the picture of fact as something sitting there all by itself and waiting to be discerned by clear-eyed observers.”

This is what in real philosophy we call a confusion of metaphysics and epistemology. Fact is a metaphysical category: it’s a way the world is. Questions of what we limited creatures are able to perceive, and how perspicuously, are epistemological questions, ones about what we know and can know. Facts  sit there all by themselves. That’s the metaphysics. But they don’t . What the heck would that mean? The question of whether we can discern facts is a question about our capacities, not about the facts themselves. This is a truly elementary distinction that Fish messes up.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what Fish really thinks about stuff like facts and truth. He writes that “‘true’ is a compliment paid to propositions that have been validated by a set of rules and procedures that are themselves contingent and revisable.” But then he says on the very next page that “revolutions in the characterization or description of the world do not change the world; what is true about the world remains true after accounts of what that truth is change.” How can both of these statements about the word “true” hold simultaneously? They just can’t — Fish hasn’t thought this through, even though I suspect that people like me have been telling him to for something like 30 years now. It’s that, or he just wants it both ways.

So the postmodernists have taken on free speech. They’ve done so with a virtuosic incomprehensibility, but that’s never stopped them before. On one page they’ll say that there are no absolute principles, then on the next they’ll say that institutions have purposes and considerations outside those purposes simply shouldn’t register inside them. They’ll confuse basic ideas like censorship and surveillance or metaphysics and epistemology. And then when they notice their confusion, they’ll define their way out of it, making all of their crazy-sounding arguments boring tautologies.

Perhaps they feel some responsibility for the decay of the academy, and it’s showing through. Perhaps they feel some guilt about the state of public discourse, and these densely horrible books are the symptom of a bad conscience. But I think what’s most likely is that this stuff sells about as well as anything academics ever write. Maybe someday I’ll understand why.

Expanding the Frontier of Verifiable Knowledge in Computer Science

Imagine someone came along and told you that they had an oracle, and that this oracle could reveal the deep secrets of the universe. While you might be intrigued, you’d have a hard time trusting it. You’d want some way to verify that what the oracle told you was true.

This is the crux of one of the central problems in computer science. Some problems are too hard to solve in any reasonable amount of time. But their solutions are easy to check. Given that, computer scientists want to know: How complicated can a problem be while still having a solution that can be verified?

Turns out, the answer is: Almost unimaginably complicated.

In a paper released in April, two computer scientists dramatically increased the number of problems that fall into the hard-to-solve-but-easy-to-verify category. They describe a method that makes it possible to check answers to problems of almost incomprehensible complexity. “It seems insane,” said Thomas Vidick, a computer scientist at the California Institute of Technology who wasn’t involved in the new work.

The research applies to quantum computers — computers that perform calculations according to the nonintuitive rules of quantum mechanics. Quantum computers barely exist now but have the potential to revolutionize computing in the future.

The new work essentially gives us leverage over that powerful oracle. Even if the oracle promises to tell you answers to problems that are far beyond your own ability to solve, there’s still a way to ensure the oracle is telling the truth.

Until the End of the Universe

When a problem is hard to solve but easy to verify, finding a solution takes a long time, but verifying that a given solution is correct does not.

For example, imagine someone hands you a graph — a collection of dots (vertices) connected by lines (edges). The person asks you if it’s possible to color the vertices of the graph using only three colors, such that no connected vertices have the same color.

FIGURE: 3 color graph

In a three-colored graph, every vertex is one of three colors, and no connected vertexes share the same color.

5W Infographics for Quanta Magazine

This “three-color” problem is hard to solve. In general, the time it takes to find a three-coloring of a graph (or determine that none exists) increases exponentially as the size of the graph increases. If, say, finding a solution for a graph with 20 vertices takes 320nanoseconds — a few seconds total — a graph with 60 vertices would take on the order of 360 nanoseconds, or about 100 times the age of the universe.

But let’s say someone claims to have three-colored a graph. It wouldn’t take long to check whether their claim is true. You’d just go through the vertices one by one, examining their connections. As the graph gets bigger, the time it takes to do this increases slowly, in what’s called polynomial time. As a result, a computer doesn’t take much longer to check a three-coloring of a graph with 60 vertices than it does to check a graph with 20 vertices.

“It’s easy, given a proper three-coloring, to check that it works,” said John Wright, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wrote the new paper along with Anand Natarajan of Caltech.

In the 1970s computer scientists defined a class of problems that are easy to verify, even if some are hard to solve. They called the class “NP,” for nondeterministic polynomial time. Since then, NP has been the most intensively studied class of problems in computer science. In particular, computer scientists would like to know how this class changes as you give the verifier new ways to check the truth of a solution.

The Right Questions

Prior to Natarajan and Wright’s work, verification power had increased in two big leaps.

To understand the first leap, imagine that you’re colorblind. Someone places two blocks on the table in front of you and asks whether the blocks are the same or different colors. This is an impossible task for you. Moreover, you can’t verify someone else’s solution.

But you’re allowed to interrogate this person, whom we’ll call the prover. Let’s say the prover tells you that the two blocks are different colors. You designate one block as “Block A” and the other as “Block B.” Then you place the blocks behind your back and randomly switch which hand holds which block. Then you reveal the blocks and ask the prover to identify Block A.

If the blocks are different colors, this couldn’t be a simpler quiz. The prover will know that Block A is, say, the red block and will correctly identify it every single time.

But if the blocks are actually the same color — meaning the prover erred in saying that they were different colors — the prover can only guess which block is which. Because of this, it will only be possible for the prover to identify Block A 50 percent of the time. By repeatedly probing the prover about the solution, you will be able to verify whether it’s correct.

“The verifier can send the prover questions,” Wright said, “and maybe at the end of the conversation the verifier can become more convinced.”

In 1985 a trio of computer scientists proved that such interactive proofs can be used to verify solutions to problems that are more complicated than the problems in NP. Their work created a new class of problems called IP, for “interactive polynomial” time. The same method used to verify the coloring of two blocks can be used to verify solutions to much more complicated questions.

The second major advance took place in the same decade. It follows the logic of a police investigation. If you have two suspects you believe committed a crime, you’re not going to question them together. Instead, you’ll interrogate them in separate rooms and check each person’s answers against the other’s. By questioning them separately, you’ll be able to reveal more of the truth than if you had only one suspect to interrogate.

“It’s impossible for [two suspects] to form some sort of distributed, consistent story because they simply don’t know what answers the other is giving,” Wright said.

In 1988 four computer scientists proved that if you ask two computers to separately solve the same problem — and you interrogate them separately about their answers — you can verify a class of problems that’s even larger than IP: a class called MIP, for multi-prover interactive proofs.

With a multi-prover interactive approach, for example, it’s possible to verify three-colorings for a sequence of graphs that increase in size much faster than the graphs in NP. In NP, graph sizes increase at a linear rate — the number of vertices might grow from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 and so on — so that the size of a graph is never hugely disproportionate to the amount of time needed to verify its three-coloring. But in MIP, the number of vertices in a graph grows exponentially — from 21 to 22 to 23 to 24 and so on.

As a result, the graphs are too big even to fit in the verifying computer’s memory, so it can’t check three-colorings by running through the list of vertices. But it’s still possible to verify a three-coloring by asking the two provers separate but related questions.

In MIP, the verifier has enough memory to run a program that allows it to determine whether two vertices in the graph are connected by an edge. The verifier can then ask each prover to state the color of one of the two connected vertices — and it can cross-reference the provers’ answers to make sure the three-coloring works.

The expansion of hard-to-solve-but-easy-to-verify problems from NP to IP to MIP involved classical computers. Quantum computers work very differently. For decades it’s been unclear how they change the picture — do they make it harder or easier to verify solutions?

The new work by Natarajan and Wright provides the answer.

Quantum Cheats

Quantum computers perform calculations by manipulating quantum bits, or “qubits.” These have the strange property that they can be entangled with one another. When two qubits — or even large systems of qubits — are entangled, it means that their physical properties play off each other in a certain way.

In their new work, Natarajan and Wright consider a scenario involving two separate quantum computers that share entangled qubits.

This kind of setup would seem to work against verification. The power of a multi-prover interactive proof comes precisely from the fact that you can question two provers separately and cross-check their answers. If the provers’ answers are consistent, then it’s likely they’re correct. But two provers sharing an entangled state would seem to have more power to consistently assert incorrect answers.

And indeed, when the scenario of two entangled quantum computers was first put forward in 2003, computer scientists assumed entanglement would reduce verification power. “The obvious reaction of everyone, including me, is that now you’re giving more power to the provers,” Vidick said. “They can use entanglement to correlate their answers.”

Despite that initial pessimism, Vidick spent several years trying to prove the opposite. In 2012, he and Tsuyoshi Ito proved that it’s still possible to verify all the problems in MIP with entangled quantum computers.

Natarajan and Wright have now proved that the situation is even better than that: A wider class of problems can be verified with entanglement than without it. It’s possible to turn the connections between entangled quantum computers to the verifier’s advantage.

To see how, remember the procedure in MIP for verifying three-colorings of graphs whose sizes grow exponentially. The verifier doesn’t have enough memory to store the whole graph, but it does have enough memory to identify two connected vertices, and to ask the provers the colors of those vertices.

With the class of problems Natarajan and Wright consider — called NEEXP for nondeterministic doubly exponential time — the graph sizes grow even faster than they do in MIP. Graphs in NEEXP grow at a “doubly exponential” rate. Instead of increasing at a rate of powers of 2 — 21, 22, 23, 24 and so on — the number of vertices in the graph increases at a rate of powers of powers of 2 — 221,222,223,224  and so on. As a result, the graphs quickly become so big that the verifier can’t even identify a single pair of connected vertices.


5W Infographics for Quanta Magazine

“To label a vertex would take 2n bits, which is exponentially more bits than the verifier has in its working memory,” Natarajan said.

But Natarajan and Wright prove that it’s possible to verify a three-coloring of a doubly-exponential-size graph even without being able to identify which vertices to ask the provers about. This is because you can make the provers come up with the questions themselves.

The idea of asking computers to interrogate their own solutions sounds, to computer scientists, as advisable as asking suspects in a crime to interrogate themselves — surely a foolish proposition. Except Natarajan and Wright prove that it’s not. The reason is entanglement.

“Entangled states are a shared resource,” Wright said. “Our entire protocol is figuring out how to use this shared resource to generate connected questions.”

If the quantum computers are entangled, then their choices of vertices will be correlated, producing just the right set of questions to verify a three-coloring.

At the same time, the verifier doesn’t want the two quantum computers to be so intertwined that their answers to those questions are correlated (which would be the equivalent of two suspects in a crime coordinating their false alibis). Another strange quantum feature handles this concern. In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle prevents us from knowing a particle’s position and momentum simultaneously — if you measure one property, you destroy information about the other. The uncertainty principle strictly limits what you can know about any two “complementary” properties of a quantum system.

Natarajan and Wright take advantage of this in their work. To compute the color of a vertex, they have the two quantum computers make complementary measurements. Each computer computes the color of its own vertex, and in doing so, it destroys any information about the other’s vertex. In other words, entanglement allows the computers to generate correlated questions, but the uncertainty principle prevents them from colluding when answering them.

“You have to force the provers to forget, and that’s the main thing [Natarajan and Wright] do in their paper,” Vidick said. “They force the prover to erase information by making a measurement.”

Their work has almost existential implications. Before this new paper, there was a much lower limit on the amount of knowledge we could possess with complete confidence. If we were presented with an answer to a problem in NEEXP, we’d have no choice but to take it on faith. But Natarajan and Wright have burst past that limit, making it possible to verify answers to a far more expansive universe of computational problems.

And now that they have, it’s unclear where the limit of verification power lies.

“It could go much further,” said Lance Fortnow, a computer scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “They leave open the possibility that you could take another step.”

Explaining : What is the deadly 2020 India-China border dispute about?

What has happened?

At least 20 people have died in clashes between Indian and Chinese troops along the disputed Himalayan border running along the Ladakh area of Kashmir. It is the first fatal clash since 1975 and the most serious since 1967.

Fighting broke out on Monday evening when an Indian patrol came across Chinese forces on a narrow ridge. During the confrontation an Indian commanding officer was pushed and fell into the river gorge, sources told the Guardian. Hundreds of troops from both sides were called in and fought with rocks and clubs. Several fell to their deaths.

The Indian Army said there were casualties on both sides, and confirmed three of its soldiers were killed during the clashes, with another 17 later succumbing to injuries.

Beijing has refused to confirm any deaths on its side, but accused India of crossing the border twice and “provoking and attacking Chinese personnel”. The editor in chief of state-run the Global Times, said he understood there had been Chinese casualties, but the People’s Liberation Army wanted to avoid “stoking public mood” by comparing numbers.

Why now?

Tensions have been escalating since late April, when China sent thousands of troops into the disputed territory along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), bringing artillery and vehicles.

Analysts say the Chinese government, which has been more assertive in building infrastructure in the area, is anxious to frustrate any effort by Indiato upgrade its own military installations.

Their refusal to leave disputed areas, including the Galwan Valley inside Indian territory, has triggered shouting matches, stone-throwing and fistfights in key border areas. Last month, there was a massive brawl between patrols, but no deaths.

Earlier this month senior military leaders from both sides met and made a commitment to disengagement.

What is the history of the dispute?

India and China fought a war in 1962 over their contested border in the Himalayas. The war ended with a truce and the formation of a de facto boundary, known as the Line of Actual Control.

There has been an uneasy and fragile peace since, punctuated by skirmishes on the border, including in 2013 and 2017.

No official border has ever been negotiated, the region where the clashes occurred is hostile terrain, at high altitude and sparsely populated, running through the Ladakh region bordering Tibet, home to a Buddhist-majority population. It is a popular tourist destination.

What is the Line of Actual Control?

The LAC is a rough demarcation line separating Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory. The exact location of sections of the line, particularly in the western Ladakh region, have remained in dispute. Efforts between the two countries to clarify the LAC have stalled in the past two decades, according to Indian media.

What do the two sides want?

Both countries have sought to establish their claims to territory, by heavily militarising the region. Both have built roads, airstrips, outpost stations, and other infrastructure, such as telephone lines. Troops conduct regular patrols along the disputed border. China claims more than 90,000sq km in the eastern Himalayas and another 38,000sq km in the west, both of which are disputed by India.

What next?

The conflict has enormous geopolitical consequences for the world. China and India are the two most populous nations on earth, and both are nuclear powers. They are led by governments run strongly along nationalist lines, and whose militaries are seen as markers of national status and pride.

Both parties have been working towards de-escalation in recent weeks but the loss of life makes the situation even more complicated and precarious.

Chinese state media has reported the PLA is conducting joint military exercises “aimed at the destruction of key hostile hubs in a high-elevation mountainous region”. The PLA Tibet Military Command conducted live fire drills with heavy artillery on Tuesday, with reports linking the PLA’s preparedness for high elevation combat to the clashes with India.

Galwan Valley confrontation between China and India could spiral out of control as India and China face-off

The forces of two nuclear weapons states have set about each other with clubs and rocks at one of the most forbidding flashpoints in the world, in a bloody incident that highlights the constant dangers posed by expansionist nationalism.

India has confirmed that it lost at least 20 of its men in a clash with Chinese soldiers near the disputed mountain border running along the Ladakh area of Kashmir. It is the first fatal confrontation since 1975 and the most serious since 1967, and so can be expected to have a powerful galvanising effect on the populations of both countries, already primed by a constant stream of nationalist rhetoric.

There is a long history of such encounters ever since the two nations fought a short war there in 1962. After that conflict a Line of Actual Control (LAC) was declared, but there is no agreed line and limited control, as the events of recent weeks have confirmed. Thus far at least, both Indian and Chinese forces have stuck to an agreement not to carry firearms on patrol near the LAC.

Beijing has put out a string of statements blaming India but giving no hint of Chinese casualties, estimated in the Indian press to total 43, including some deaths. In the past, such accounting has come decades later, if at all, from a regime that tightly controls information. For that reason, the only detailed accounts to have emerged so far have come from the Indian press.

What is clear is that there will be more of these clashes without a clear change of direction and an attempt to agree on where the LAC should be, and how both sides should behave around it. Both Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping have built their images as warriors for national greatness.

In his remarks on Wednesday, Modi warned the sacrifice of the soldiers would not be in vain and that India is capable of giving a “befitting reply” if provoked.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, after speaking to his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Wednesday, issued his own warning, that India should not underestimate “China’s firm will to safeguard territorial sovereignty”.

In the broadest terms the deadly brawl in the Galwan valley was the latest symptom of an increasingly aggressive Chinese policy on territory and borders, of the sort that has been playing out among the rocks and reefs of the South China Sea.

Over the decades China has been more assertive than India in building infrastructure around the LAC, with roads and bunkers. In recent years, India has been trying to catch up, in particular with a road to the Daulat Beg Oldie(DBO), the highest airstrip in the world, with feeder roads leading off it. China has been trying to push back against that Indian construction work, so that its creeping occupation of the Galwan valley goes unchallenged.

Since May, Chinese troops appear to have stopped their Indian counterparts from approaching areas where both sides have patrolled over the years. And Beijing has sent in reinforcements. What distinguishes the current confrontation from previous incidents is not just the death toll but the fact that there have been standoffs in multiple locations.

“This kind of territory is incredibly hard to hold, but also to move multiple troops over,” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India project at the Brookings Institution. “So it’s not considered to be something that just happened on the ground. It’s clearly a decision made by the Chinese at a more senior level.”

It is not just about bragging rights over crags. China has built a road, Highway 219, linking Tibet and Xinjiang, that passes through territory near the LAC that India considers its own. India’s foothold at the DBO airfield, on the other hand, allows its forces to look down at the Karakoram highway linking China and Pakistan.

The timing of the incident may be connected to the weather. The melting snows of spring provide an opportunity for aggressive moves. The pandemic may also have played a role. It led to India putting off military exercises, and an extra motive for Beijing to look for distractions from its own failures in governance.

The deadly clash happened at a time and a place where officers from both sides were trying to negotiate a disengagement of forces. Neither government wants this to escalate, and the foreign ministers on Wednesday agreed on resuming the disengagement process. But the fact that there has been significant loss of life, at least on the Indian side, makes the situation much harder to defuse.

“Now domestic politics and public opinion, especially nationalist pressure to avenge their deaths and escalate, becomes a dangerous force,” Vipin Narang, a security studies professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said. “It will be hard for India at least, with a relatively open media, to de-escalate as easily now.”

Soldiers fell to their deaths as India and China’s troops fought with rocks in Galwan Valley

The hand-to-hand combat lasted hours, on steep, jagged terrain, with iron bars, rocks and fists. Neither side carried guns. Most of the soldiers killed in the worst fighting between India and China in 60 years lost their footing or were knocked from the narrow Himalayan ridge, plunging to their deaths.

India has reacted with shock and caution to the loss of at least 20 soldiers on its disputed border with China, with images of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, burned in Indian cities.

In his first public comments on the dispute, prime minister Narendra Modi led a two-minute silence for the killed soldiers and said India would “defend every stone, every inch of its territory.”

“I would like to assure the nation that the sacrifice of our jawans [troops] will not be in vain,” said Modi, speaking at a televised meeting of India’s chief ministers. “For us, the unity and sovereignty of the country is the most important.”

A day after reports of the “violent face-off” in the western Himalayas emerged, Indian news outlets began naming some of the dead and a clearer picture started to build of what transpired on Monday night on the high, steep ridge lines above the fast-flowing Galwan River.

The killings were sparked when a patrol of Indian soldiers encountered Chinese troops in a steep section of the mountainous region they believed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had retreated from, in line with a 6 June disengagement agreement, sources in Delhi said. The Indian government have alleged that what followed was a “premeditated” ambush on their troops by PLA forces.

The two armies jostled and hand-to-hand fighting broke out – neither side armed in line with decades of tradition supposed to ward off the possibility of escalation between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

Then an Indian commanding officer was pushed from the narrow ridge and fell to his death in the gorge below.

Reinforcements from the Indian side were summoned from a post about 2 miles away and eventually about 600 men were fighting with stones, iron rods and other makeshift weapons in near-total darkness for up to six hours, Indian government sources said, with most deaths on both sides occurring from soldiers falling or being knocked from mountain terrain.

At least four more Indian soldiers were said to be in critical condition. Indian media outlets cited intelligence sources claiming up to 50 Chinese soldiers may have been killed in the melee but did not present the evidence. Chinese CCTV’s widely watched evening news broadcast made no mention of the border confrontation on Tuesday.

Following a phonecall on Wednesday night between India’s minister for external affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, and the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, the two sides issued statements agreeing to de-escalation and resolving the conflict “in a responsible manner”.

However, there were also significant discrepancies between the Indian and Chinese version of events. India accused the Chinese troops of violating the disengagement agreement and carrying out a “pre-meditated and planned action” against Indian troops that was “directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties.”

Wang Yi claimed India was solely responsible for the conflict, saying its forces had on three occasions illegally crossed over into the Chinese side of the LAC and demanded Indian punish their forces responsible.

As photos and details of some of the Indian soldiers who died were circulated on Tuesday there were small demonstrations including in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh state and in the Gujarati city Ahmedabad, where protesters burned pictures of Xi Jinping.

Former Indian army officers argued in fiery television debates that China had unilaterally changed both the status quo on the border and the rules of engagement. “Somebody has to answer for 20 lives,” said retired air vice-marshal Manmohan Bahadur.

But whereas violence in recent years linked to Pakistan has led to aggressive rhetoric and promises of swift retaliation from Indian leaders, Monday’s violence has so far drawn a much more muted response including from Modi.

Analysts said the caution reflected both shock at the scale of the killing and the complexity of the relationship between the two Asian giants. “There is the larger picture of the asymmetries of power,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “China’s GDP is $14tn, India’s is less than $3tn. China spends nearly $220bn on the military but India spends $52bn.”

He said Delhi would be considering whether to ask commanders on the ground to sort out the conflict with their Chinese counterparts, but would also be under pressure to escalate.

The United Nations, EU and US government have expressed concern over the violence and urged restraint.

Beijing has refused to confirm any deaths on its side. However, the editor-in-chief of the state-run the Global Times said he understood there had been Chinese casualties, but the PLA wanted to avoid “stoking public mood” by comparing numbers.

Both parties have been working towards de-escalation in recent weeks but the loss of life makes the situation even more complicated and precarious.

Chinese state media have reported the PLA is conducting joint military exercises “aimed at the destruction of key hostile hubs in a high-elevation mountainous region”. The PLA Tibet Military Command conducted live fire drills with heavy artillery on Tuesday, with reports linking the PLA’s preparedness for high-elevation combat to the clashes with India.

India accuses China of preparing attack on border troops

India has accused Chinese troops of meticulously preparing an attack on its soldiers on the treacherous Himalayan border, claiming they erected a tent on the Indian side, dammed a river, brought in machinery and then lay in wait with stones and batons wrapped in barbed wire.

The incident on Monday night, in which 20 Indian soldiers died and 76 were injured, was the worst violence between India and China for 45 years. China has not said whether it sustained any casualties.

Ten Indian soldiers who were reportedly captured by Chinese troops during the attack were back in India on Thursday night. China said it had not seized any Indian personnel.

Both sides continue to blame the other for the clash. China is now claiming sovereignty over the Galwan valley in Ladakh, where the attack happened, and has accused Indian troops of three times crossing into its territory. “The responsibility entirely lies with Indian side,” said Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs.

India accused China of carrying out a “premeditated and planned action” on its side of the border. Satellite images of the Galwan valley taken by Planet Labs, an imaging company, in the days before the clash appear to show increased activity on the Chinese side, including the damming of a river and the movement of troops and machinery close to the disputed and poorly defined border.

A satellite image of the Galwan valley taken on 9 June
A satellite image of the Galwan valley taken on 9 June. Photograph: Planet Labs Inc/Reuters

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute said its analysis of satellite images found there was “evidence that strongly suggests People’s Liberation Army forces have been regularly crossing into Indian territory temporarily on routine patrol routes”.

Indian officials said commanders from the Indian and Chinese sides had met on 13 June and agreed to each retreat back two kilometres in the Galwan valley and Pangong Lake area.

But rather than retreating, the officials said, Chinese troops erected a tent in disputed territory close to what is known as Patrolling Point 14. They said India’s 16 Bihar Regiment, led by Col Santosh Babu, dismantled the structure in an attempt to push back the PLA troops.

According to accounts given to the Hindu newspaper, when Babu and his troops later approached the Chinese side to challenge the refusal to retreat, they were ambushed by PLA forces on the steep mountain precipice. The Chinese allegedly unblocked the dammed river, releasing a rush of water to destabilise Indian soldiers, and they attacked with stones and makeshift spiked weapons.

Indian troops retaliated, it was reported, and reinforcements were summoned on both sides until there were upwards of 600 soldiers in hand-to-hand combat in the dark and icy conditions. No shots were fired.

There were reports that the Indian soldiers were unarmed, but India’s external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, said: “Let us get the facts straight. All troops on border duty always carry arms, especially when leaving post. Those at Galwan on 15 June did so.”

Due to the treacherous conditions, many of the bodies of the Indian soldiers could not be retrieved until the next morning, by helicopters working with troops and border police. The injured were taken to hospitals in the Ladakh city of Leh.

India and China have agreed to continue the process of disengagement that was first agreed on 6 June, and discussions are ongoing through political and diplomatic channels. Army generals from both sides have also had three days of talks at Patrolling Point 14. However, the Indian army and air force in Ladakh remain on high alert.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, held a meeting with all political party leaders on Friday evening to discuss the situation.

China has doubled down on its claim over the Galwan valley. “Based on the principle of historic rights, China has jurisdiction over the valley area,” Zhang Yongpan, a research fellow of the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies, told the Global Times, a government mouthpiece, on Thursday.

In an editorial published on Friday, the Global Times claimed the Indian soldiers died because they were exposed to freezing temperatures, not because they were beaten or pushed off the ridge.

“China and India have always had different understandings of the LAC, but to control the situation on the border, neither country should act first,” the editorial said. “Indian troops broke the deal. Then, 17 Indian troops died because they were exposed to freezing temperatures in the high altitude after being injured.”

India cautions China against ‘exaggerated and flawed claims’ in border standoff – June 2020

India on Thursday cautioned China against making “exaggerated and untenable claims” to the Galvan valley area even as both nations tried to end a standoff in the high Himalayan region after their armies engaged in a deadly clash.

Twenty Indian troops were killed in the clash on Monday night that was the deadliest conflict between the sides in 45 years. China has not disclosed whether its forces suffered any casualties.

Responding to China’s claim to the valley, India’s external affairs ministry spokesman, Anurag Srivastava, said both sides had agreed to handle the situation responsibly. “Making exaggerated and untenable claims is contrary to this understanding,” he said in a statement.

Both sides have accused each other of instigating the clash between their forces in the valley, part of the disputed Ladakh region along the Himalayan frontier.

Media reports said senior army officers of the two sides met on Wednesday to defuse the situation, but there was no confirmation from either side.

Indian security forces said neither side fired any shots, instead throwing rocks and trading blows. The Indian soldiers, including a colonel, died of severe injuries and exposure in the area’s sub-zero temperatures, the officials said.

The clash escalated a standoff in the disputed region that began in early May, when Indian officials said Chinese soldiers crossed the boundary at three different points, erecting tents and guard posts and ignoring warnings to leave. That triggered shouting matches, stone-throwing and fistfights, much of it replayed on television news channels and social media.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, warned New Delhi not to underestimate Beijing’s determination to safeguard what it considers its sovereign territory. His comments came in a phone call on Wednesday with his Indian counterpart, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Wang said China demanded that India conduct a thorough investigation and “harshly punish” those responsible.

“The Indian side would best not make an incorrect judgment of the situation, would best not underestimate China’s strong determination to safety its sovereign territory,” Wang said in a statement issued by the foreign ministry.

He repeated China’s claims that India was solely responsible for the conflict, saying Indian forces had crossed the Line of Actual Control that divides the thousands of troops from both sides deployed in the area.

Jaishankar, in turn, accused China of erecting a structure in the Galvan valley, which he called a “premeditated and planned action that was directly responsible for the resulting violence and casualties,” according to a statement.

He added that the incident would have “serious repercussions” on India’s relationship with China, but that both sides were committed to further disengaging on the remote plateau of the Himalayan terrain.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi hailed the soldiers killed in the clashes. “Their sacrifices won’t go to waste,” he said. “For us, the unity and sovereignty of the country is the most important thing. India wants peace, but when provoked, it is capable of giving a fitting reply, be it any kind of situation.”

While experts said the two nations were unlikely to head to war, they also believe easing tensions quickly will be difficult.

Josep Borrell, a European Union vice president, urged both sides to show restraint and engage in military deescalation.

“We express our deep regrets for the casualties incurred and offer our condolences to their loved ones,” the statement said. It called India and China both important partners of the EU and “crucial actors for regional and global stability.”

China claims about 90,000 sq km (35,000 square miles) of territory in India’s northeast, while India says China occupies 38,000 sq km (15,000 square miles) of its territory in the Aksai Chin plateau in the Himalayas, a contiguous part of the Ladakh region.

India unilaterally declared Ladakh a federal territory while separating it from disputed Kashmir in August 2019. China was among the handful of countries to strongly condemn the move, raising it at international forums including the U.N. Security Council.

Thousands of soldiers on both sides have faced off over a month along a remote stretch of the 3,380km (2,100-mile) Line of Actual Control, the border established following a war between India and China in 1962 that resulted in an uneasy truce.

Read India-China border standoff in 2017

India-China border standoff

Building a Resilient Tomorrow

This book examines ways that communities can reduce, absorb, and recover from climate change impacts. It offers behind-the-scenes stories from the authors’ experiences working at the highest levels of the U.S. government. It also presents real-world analysis of what is and isn’t likely to work in the policymaking realm as well as concrete, actionable policy recommendations. Drawing on international and national examples and stories, the book offers an interdisciplinary narrative covering a range of climate resilience solutions.

The book examines systems that can drive resilience including the rules and practices that govern how and where we build, the courts, and the financial system. Turning to the tools that leaders in business and government can deploy to build resilience, it delves into money, climate data and information, and improved approaches to decision-making. The hardest challenges that climate change will hurl at us—emerging threats to human health, increasing economic and social inequality, unprecedented levels of migration, and increased risks to geopolitical stability and national security—present lessons to better prepare for associated risks and to strengthen climate resilience.

The book is suitable for high-school seniors and undergraduate and graduate students in the disciplines below:

  • Architecture, design, and planning
  • Business administration (Management, Governance, Risk management)
  • Civil engineering
  • Environmental studies
  • Medicine and public health
  • Social Sciences
    • Economics and finance
    • Geography
    • Law
    • Politics / Political Science
      • International relations
      • Political economy
      • Public administration
      • Public policy

Discussion and Essay Questions

Chapter 1

  • What does the term “resilience” mean as applied to climate change?
  • Why is the term important in addressing climate change?
  • What is its relationship to climate mitigation (cutting greenhouse gas emissions)?

Chapter  2

  • What exactly is a “no-more” moment and how does it apply to the Netherlands and Florida?
  • Why has it been difficult in the past to build resilience in the absence of “no more” moments?
  • How can we overcome those barriers?

Chapter 3

  • Why are markets important to promoting resilience at a system-wide level?
  • What is preventing stock, bond, real estate, and insurance markets from reflecting climate risk?
  • What market transformations would better address climate resilience?

Chapter  4

  • What are “climate bailouts,” and why are they a threat to a country’s fiscal health?
  • What are traditional ways governments pay for resilience investments?
  • What are innovative ways to raise funding for resilience? Why are these methods considered untraditional?

Chapter  5

  • What does “climate data revolution” refer to?
  • What are ways that climate scientists and researchers can better connect data and instigate its use for policymakers?
  • Who should provide weather and climate data, and what are the associated costs? Explain your answer.

Chapter  6

  • How are availability bias, optimism bias, and loss aversion bias obstacles to building resilience against climate change?
  • How can “nudging” techniques help promote climate resilience?
  • What are the limitations of “nudging” techniques?

Chapter  7

  • What threats to human health will climate change bring?
  • What can the Zika virus tell us about health threats?
  • How can the U.S. health care system better identify, cope, and respond to future risks?

Chapter 8

  • How will climate change impacts affect poor and vulnerable communities?
  • What role do savings, insurance, and mobility have in ensuring financial resiliency toward climate impacts?
  • What concrete steps can governments take to ensure that resilience solutions are inclusive and do not exacerbate inequality?

Chapter  9

  • What are drawbacks to the United States’ buyout approach?
  • What are “receiver communities,” and why is it important to invest in them?
  • How can can we create fruitful discussions of managed retreat in ways more likely to be well received by the public?

Chapter 10

  • How are climate change impacts jeopardizing U.S. military readiness?
  • What national security threats are emerging as a result of climate change?
  • What steps can help U.S. policymakers take to make climate-informed decisions based on the best scientific evidence?


Further Projects

  • Draft a policy brief describing the top three policy actions the U.S. government should take to address the displacement of people within the United States due to climate change.
  • Hold a debate about the Green New Deal’s proposals on resilience.
  • Draft a policy brief outlining the top three policy actions the United Nations should take to address climate refugees in the next two decades.
  • Write an op-ed for your local newspaper advocating for stricter zoning regulations and building codes to protect against future climate impacts.
  • You work for a largescale corporation. Write a memorandum for your boss explaining why they should incorporate climate risk into future decision-making on projects that will last five years or longer.
  • Hold a debate about whether fossil fuel companies should be liable for damage caused by climate change.

Supplementary Reading Materials


Global Commission on Adaptation, Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience (Washington, DC: Global Commission on Adaptation, 2019).

Alice Hill et al., Ready for Tomorrow: Seven Strategies for Climate-Resilient Infrastructure, Hoover Institution, 2019.

IPCC, Global Warming of 1.5°C, [Masson-Delmotte et al. (eds.)], In Press, 2018.

McKinsey Global Institute, Climate Risk and Response: Physical hazards and socioeconomic impacts (New York, NY: McKinsey & Company, 2020).

Robert Meyer and Howard Kunreuther, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters (Philadelphia, PA: Wharton School Press, 2017).

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change” (Washington, DC: National Intelligence Council, 2016).

Chapter 1

Michael Kimmelman, “The Dutch Have Solutions to Rising Seas. The World Is Watching,”, June 15, 2017.

Christina Nunez, “As Sea Levels Rise, Are Coastal Nuclear Plants Ready?,”, December 16, 2015.

Helen Roxburgh, “China’s ‘Sponge Cities’ Are Turning Streets Green to Combat Flooding,”, December 27, 2017.

Kerry Sanders, “‘Dome Home’ Weathers Storm,”, September 16, 2004.

Lauren Sommer, “As California’s Population Grows, People Are Moving into More Fire-Prone Areas,” All Things Considered, NPR, October 27, 2017.

Chapter 2

Meagan Flynn, “Federal Judge Rules Extreme Texas Prison Heat Is Cruel and Unusual Punishment,”, July 20, 2017.

Jennifer Klein, “Potential Liability of Governments for Failure to Prepare for Climate Change” (New York: Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, 2015).

Robert McCoppin, Lisa Black, and Dan Hinkel, “Insurers Sue Chicago-Area Towns in Bid to Get Flood Money,”, May 14, 2014.

Jessica Wentz, “Government Officials’ Liability after Extreme Weather Events: Recent Developments in Domestic and International Case Law,” Climate Law Blog, Columbia Law, April 9, 2015.

Chapter 3

Jenny Anderson, “Outrage as Homeowners Prepare for Substantially Higher Flood Insurance Rates,”, July 28, 2013.

Lael Brainard, “Why Climate Change Matters for Monetary Policy and Financial Stability,” (speech, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, November 8, 2019).

Christopher Flavelle, “Rising Seas May Wipe Out Jersey Towns and Millions in AAA Bonds,”, May 25, 2017.

Mary Williams Walsh, “How Wildfires Are Making Some California Homes Uninsurable,”, November 20, 2018.

Chapter 4

Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, “Investing in Resilience Today to Prepare for Tomorrow’s Climate Change,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 74, no. 2 (2018): 66–72.

Kathleen McGrory, “Despite Criticism, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado Maintains Support,”, January 20, 2013.

Robinson Meyer, “Will Washington State Voters Make History on Climate Change?,”, August 18, 2018.

Chapter 5

“Software Can Model How a Wildfire Will Spread,” The Economist, August 4, 2018.

Paul Reig, Tien Shiao, Roy Owens, and David Palochko, “Case Study: Aqueduct Informs Owens Corning Corporate Water Strategy” (Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 2013).

Ashlee Vance, “The Tiny Satellites Ushering in the New Space Revolution,”, June 29, 2017.

Maria Eliza Villarino, “Climate Services for Smarter Farming—What’s It All About?,” CIAT Blog, October 5, 2017.

Chapter  6

Zeina Afif, “‘Nudge Units’—Where They Came from and What They Can Do,” Let’s Talk Development, World Bank, October 25, 2017.

Robyn Dixon, “How Cape Town Found Water Savings California Never Dreamed Of,”, April 1, 2018.

Exec. Order No. 13707, “Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People,” 3 C.F.R. 56365 (2015).

Chapter 7

“Lessons Learned From Hurricane Sandy and Recommendations for Improved Healthcare and Public Health Response and Recovery for Future Catastrophic Events,” American College of Emergency Physicians, December 22, 2015.

Alan Boyle, “How Microsoft’s Project Premonition Uses Robotic Traps to Zero in on Zika Mosquitoes,”, February 16, 2017.

Margaret Chan, “WHO Director-General Addresses Event on Climate Change and Health” (speech, 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Paris, France, December 8, 2015).

EU Science Hub, “Climate Change Promotes the Spread of Mosquito- and Tick- Borne Viruses,” news release, March 16, 2018.

Anemona Hartcollis and Nina Bernstein, “At Bellevue, a Desperate Fight to Ensure the Patients’ Safety,”, November 1, 2012.

Chapter 8

Zack Coleman and Daniel Cusick, “2 Towns, 2 Storms, and America’s Imperiled Poor,”, October 1, 2018.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2015), chap. 1.

Mary Jo Gibson and Michele Hayunga, “We Can Do Better: Lessons Learned for Protecting Older Persons in Disasters” (Washington, DC: AARP Public Policy Institute, 2006).

Eric Klinenberg, “Adaptation: How Can Cities Be ‘Climate-Proofed’?,” New Yorker, January 7, 2013.

Nicholas Kusnetz, “Norfolk Wants to Remake Itself as Sea Level Rises, but Who Will Be Left Behind?,”, May 21, 2018.

David M. Perry, “America Isn’t Ready for Disability Disaster Response This Hurricane Season,” CityLab, June 1, 2018.

Chapter 9

Peter Grier, “The Great Katrina Migration,” Christian Science Monitor, September 12, 2005.

Mathew E. Hauer, “Migration Induced by Sea-Level Rise Could Reshape the US Population Landscape,” Nature Climate Change 7 (2017): 321, 324.

Jonathan Pearlman, “New Zealand Creates Special Refugee Visa for Pacific Islanders Affected by Climate Change,”, December 9, 2017.

Alice R. Thomas, “Resettlement in the Wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines: A Strategy to Mitigate Risk or a Risky Strategy?” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2015).

Lisa Song, Al Shaw, and Neena Satija, “After Harvey, Buyouts Won’t Be the Answer for Frequent Flood Victims in Texas,”, November 2, 2017.

Chapter  10

Sualiha Nazar, “Pakistan’s Big Threat Isn’t Terrorism—It’s Climate Change,”, March 4, 2016.

Justin Nobel, “What Happens When a Superstorm Hits D.C.?,”, September 21, 2017.

Barack Obama, “Memorandum on Climate Change and National Security” (Washington, DC: US Government Publishing Office, 2016).

Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change” (Washington, DC: National Intelligence Council, 2016).

Dave Philipps, “Exposed by Michael: Climate Threat to Warplanes at Coastal Bases,”, October 17, 2018.

Supplementary Audiovisual Material

Roger Sorkin, Tidewater (2017; Norfolk, VA: American Resilience Project).

Judith Helfand, Cooked: Survival by Zip Code (2019; Chicago, IL: Kartemquin Films).

Rick Young, Business of Disaster (2016; Boston, MA: Frontline).

Jared P. Scott, The Age of Consequences (2016).

Sleep Deprivation Kills

Inside a series of tubes in a bright, warm room at Harvard Medical School, hundreds of fruit flies are staying up late. It has been days since any of them have slept: The constant vibrations that shake their homes preclude rest, cling as they might to the caps of the tubes for respite. Not too far away in their own tubes live other sleepless flies, animated with the calm persistence of those consigned to eternal day. A genetic tweak to certain neurons in their brains keeps them awake for as long as they live.

They do not live long. The shaken flies and the engineered flies both die swiftly — in fact, the engineered ones survive only half as long as well-rested controls. After days of sleeplessness, the flies’ numbers tumble, then crash. The tubes empty out. The lights shine on.

We all know that we need sleep to be at our best. But profound sleep loss has more serious and immediate effects: Animals completely deprived of sleep die. Yet scientists have found it oddly hard to say exactly why sleep loss is lethal.

Sleep is primarily seen as a neurological phenomenon, and yet when deprived creatures die, they have a puzzlingly diverse set of failures in the body outside the nervous system. Insufficient sleep in humans and lab animals, if chronic, sets up health problems that surface over time, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. But those conditions are not what slays creatures that are 100% sleep deprived within days or weeks.

What does sleep do that makes it deadly to go without? Could answering that question explain why we need sleep in the first place? Under the pale light of the incubators in Dragana Rogulja’s lab at Harvard Medical School, sleepless flies have been living and dying as she pursues the answers.

On a cold morning this winter, Rogulja leaned over a tablet in her office, her close-cropped dark hair framing a face of elfin intensity, and flicked through figures to explain some of her conclusions. Rogulja is a neuroscientist and a developmental biologist by training, but she is not convinced that the most fundamental effect of sleep deprivation starts in the brain. “It could come from anywhere,” she said, and it might not look like what most people expect.

She has findings to back up that intuition. Publishing today in the journal Cell, she and her colleagues offer evidence that when flies die of sleeplessness, lethal changes occur not in the brain but in the gut. The indigo labyrinths of the flies’ small intestines light up with fiery fuchsia in micrographs, betraying an ominous buildup of molecules that destroy DNA and cause cellular damage. The molecules appear soon after sleep deprivation starts, before any other warning signs; if the flies are allowed to sleep again, the rosy bloom fades away. Strikingly, if the flies are fed antioxidants that neutralize these molecules, it does not matter if they never sleep again. They live as long as their rested brethren.

The results suggest that one very fundamental job of sleep — perhaps underlying a network of other effects — is to regulate the ancient biochemical process of oxidation, by which individual electrons are snapped on and off molecules in service to everything from respiration to metabolism. Sleep, the researchers imply, is not solely the province of neuroscience, but something more deeply threaded into the biochemistry that knits together the animal kingdom.

More Fatal Than Starvation

The first studies to investigate total sleep deprivation had a maniacal quality to them. In Rome in 1894, Maria Mikhailovna Manaseina, a Russian biochemist, made a presentation at the International Congress of Medicine about her experiments on 10 puppies. She and her lab assistants had kept the dogs awake and in constant motion 24 hours a day; within about five days, all the puppies had died. Sleep deprivation seemed to kill puppies much more quickly than starvation, she reported: “The total absence of sleep is more fatal for the animals than the total absence of food.”

Autopsies revealed that the puppies’ tissues were in bad repair, particularly in the brain, which was rife with hemorrhages, damaged blood vessels and other gruesome features. Sleep, Manaseina concluded, is not a useless habit. It does something profound for brain health.

More all-day, all-night dog walking followed. In 1898 Lamberto Daddi, an Italian researcher, published detailed drawings of the brains of dogs that had been sleep-deprived; he reported apparent degenerative damage in the brain, similar to that seen in dogs that had faced other stressors. Around the same time, the psychiatrist Cesar Agostini kept dogs in cages rigged with bells that jangled horribly whenever they tried to lie down and sleep, and in the 1920s researchers in Japan did something similar with cages studded with nails.

The studies, aside from their consistent cruelty, had a similar weakness: They had no valid controls. The dogs had died and their tissues looked abnormal — but was that truly because they had not slept? Or was it because nonstop walks and stimulation are inherently stressful? Separating the effects of sleeplessness from being kept on your feet until it killed you seemed impossible.

The Turntable Cage

It took decades for scientists to return to the question in a serious way. In the 1980s, Allan Rechtschaffen, a sleep researcher at the University of Chicago celebrated for his pioneering work on narcolepsy, began to design experiments that could separate the effects of overstimulation from those of sleeplessness. He devised a rat cage in the form of a turntable suspended over water. A divider ran down the middle, so animals could live on either side while the turntable floor beneath them spun freely. Into the device the experimenters put pairs of rats, one of which was destined to be denied sleep. Whenever that rat tried to rest, the scientists spun the table, nudging both rats awake and sometimes pushing them into the water.

This setup ensured that although both rats fell into the water equally often, the control rat could still catch some winks whenever the rat denied sleep was active. In fact, control rats managed to sleep about 70% as much as they normally would, suffering only mild sleep deprivation. The unluckier experimental rats got less than 9%, almost total sleep loss.

Both sets of rats were disturbed the same number of times. Both suffered the stress of falling into the water and having to clamber back out, dripping. But only the severely sleep-deprived rats began to decline. Their fur grew rough and disheveled, and it went from white to a mangy yellow. They developed lesions on their skin. They lost weight. After around 15 days on average, they died. Rechtschaffen had discovered a way to show that sleep loss itself really did kill.

For the graduate students running these experiments, the days were long. “The lab was in an apartment building, so you’d have a bedroom next to an animal testing room,” said Ruth Benca, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Irvine who worked with Rechtschaffen for some years. “They had bedrooms next to the rooms where their animals were being deprived so they could monitor around the clock.”