When our tools wear out their welcomes

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Chemical structure of Phenacetin.
Many years ago, I set out to write a sort of Dear John letter to the drug phenacetin. Phenacetin had been the P in the ACP tablets liberally dished out for whatever ails you by the navy corpsman second class who ran my ammo ship’s sickbay. (The A and C were aspirin and caffeine.) It was part of the formulas for Coricidin, Excedrin, and a prescription drug I took for headaches. Among the analgesics that kept America on the go, it was the sturdy sidekick—the Gehrig to aspirin’s Ruth, the Pippen to its Jordan.

Then all that ended. Almost overnight, it seemed, phenacetin was branded a silent killer. Research had turned up statistical correlations with increased risk of cancer, heart attacks, and kidney and liver damage. Pharmaceuticals containing phenacetin were reformulated, and the drug was drummed out of the drugstores, out of the labs, and out of the country—it became unavailable in the United States. (In Britain it's used illicitly to cut cocaine.)

But though our relationship was over, I thought it deserved to be sent away with a little love. For as I saw it, the biggest reason phenacetin was kicked offstage was that it became expendable. Paracetamol—a metabolite of phenacetin — had come into its own, and paracetamol (aka acetaminophen, also aka Tylenol) not only did pretty much everything phenacetin did, it did it without the taint of dealing slow death to its beneficiaries. (Though it would turn out that OD’ing on acetaminophen caused devastating liver damage.)

And I wanted to say to phenacetin in exile that there was no reason to bear a grudge. When anything—a drug, a job, a sweetheart, a first baseman—becomes replaceable, its flaws suddenly become terribly clear. "Goodbye" becomes a lot easier to say if you can add "good riddance." Ingratitude is the way of the world.

Despite a week or two of research, I never came close to completing my phenacetin project—which, let’s face it, was one of the dumbest ideas I ever had. But I’ve never had reason to question the behavioral principle underlying it. Life provides one example after another. For instance, the movie Moneyball caught the moment when a better method of evaluating baseball talent—sabermetrics—came along to challenge a method that no one had questioned as long as there was nothing to replace it with. The scene with the Oakland A’s scouts championing the qualities detectable by their eyeballs was played almost for laughs, but that’s because obsolescence is something we’re conditioned to laugh at. Back in the day, all teams had were their scouts, and the ones who traveled further, looked harder, and graded young players’ intangibles with keener intuition were the best scouts. We make fun of Conventional Wisdom (aka “the book”), calling it the insurance mediocrities take out to protect themselves against their own failures, and there’s truth to that. But conventional wisdom is often the only wisdom there is.

I’m thinking along these lines because of an article in the Science section of Tuesday’s New York Times. The headline: “The Certainty of Memory Has Its Day In Court.” The article by Laura Beil begins, “Witness testimony has been the gold standard of the criminal justice system, revered in courtrooms and crime dramas as the evidence that clinches a case.” And sure enough, Beil immediately tells us how unreliable eyewitness testimony actually is (and that the experts have known this all along).

“For scientists, memory has been on trial for decades, and courts and public opinion are only now catching up with the verdict. It has come as little surprise to researchers that about 75 percent of DNA-based exonerations have come in cases where witnesses got it wrong….

“Rather than the centerpiece of prosecution, witness testimony should be viewed more like trace evidence, scientists say, with the same fragility and vulnerability to contamination.”

First reaction: scientists can be a load. Second reaction: let’s cut prosecutors a little slack.

I’m not shocked by what Beil is telling us here because like anyone with any interest in the subject of false convictions (which in Chicago is as topical as architecture), I already knew it. But as we collectively agree that the dignity of the legal process now requires us to regard skeptically anything we think we saw with our own eyes, let’s not forget that this same dignity once required just the opposite. If we were to remain a nation governed by laws, then people had to be tried and convicted, and if we couldn’t put stock in what witnesses said they saw, what could we put stock in? It made no sense to tear down the most impressive evidence the state could put before a jury and tell the jurors to start treating it with a grain of salt. It was, as Beil wrote, the “gold standard.” When the matter at hand is something as precious as justice, we need gold standards.

Now we’re safely rid of the old one because we’ve got a new one, DNA evidence. Prosecutors who try to defend past convictions by questioning DNA results are told they disgrace their office, as some undoubtedly do. But I wonder if some are just slow on the uptake and don’t understand that the eyewitness testimony they used to put away the bad guys — well, we were all just pretending it was unimpeachable. And everyone else has stopped pretending.

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