In The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp travels up the mountain to visit his cousin, Joachim, who is recuperating in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Joachim’s doctor tells Hans that — with its crisp, thin, dry air — the mountain is good for tuberculosis.
Hans enjoys the cosmopolitan crowd that inhabits the sanatorium and dallies a bit too long. He contracts tuberculosis himself. Dismayed, he consults with the doctor again. The doctor is nonplussed. “But I told you”, he says, “that the mountain is good for tuberculosis”.
Slice an apple in half and you’ll see the results of oxidation. The newly exposed flesh turns brown and dries out quickly as it oxidizes. If you rub lemon juice on the apple, however, the flesh stays moist and firm. The juice prevents oxidation.
Oxidation is essentially rust. Just as I don’t like rust on my bicycle, I don’t like it in my body either. I keep my bike well lubricated and I try to do the same for my body. Antioxidants help prevent rust in my body. That’s a good thing, right?
Like the magic mountain, however, antioxidants can be good for bad things as well. Science reports on a Swedish study that finds that “moderate doses of two widely used antioxidants spur the growth of early lung tumors in mice.” I’ve always viewed antioxidants as good for good things. It may be that they’re good for bad things as well. Cancer may not like rust any more than the rest of us do.
Recently we’ve seen a furor in the United States about the government spying on citizens. I believe that restricting the government’s ability to spy on us is a good program. Privacy is a valuable right and we should protect it. Those same restrictions, however, could be good for terrorists who want to attack us. In other words, restrictions of government spying could be good for bad things as well.
When the cure causes the disease, medical researchers call it iatrogenic. When a good program causes bad things to happen, we may refer to them as unintended consequences or, more recently, collateral damage.
I suspect that good programs promote bad things (as well as good things) more often than we think. The trick is to get the balance right, to create remedies and cures that promote maximal goodness and minimal badness. As we make our decisions, however, we need to remember that no program, no matter how well conceived, will promote only good. Unintended consequences will always be with us. We need to account for them. As Neil Young taught us, rust never sleeps.