The Paradoxical Response

Somewhere in Gravity’s Rainbow, in an attempt either to explain or to further mystify the correlation between the hero’s erections and the firing of German rockets, Thomas Pynchon presents a lesser-known finding of Pavlov’s called the paradoxical response (or maybe it’s called the zero effect; I can’t find the page).

Pavlov, as everyone knows, is the fellow who discovered the dogs will learn to salivate when they hear bells, if the bells are accompanied for a while by steaks. Pynchon consulted Pavlov’s published results and discovered that his findings were actually somewhat stranger than the steak-bell link that everyone remembers. Apparently, once dogs have been taught to salivate to bells, their salivary response will increase if the dogs aren’t rewarded by steaks consistently. Intrigued, Pavlov pushed his experiment further. He continued to ring bells in the absence of steaks. And he discovered something he called the paradoxical response (or zero effect): If dogs have been trained to associate bells with steaks, and then pass through a long period of hearing bells without steaks, their responsiveness will for a long time attenuate, as one would expect. But then it will suddenly, inexplicably spike upward, in defiance of the laws of operant conditioning.

Eons ago, when I was an bright-eyed undergraduate, I actually found this paper of Pavlov’s in the college library, just to establish that Pynchon hadn’t made it up. It’s there. Whether or not it’s a result that can be experimentally reproduced is beyond the scope of this blog. But it popped into my head this morning as I was trying to understand why I have become so anxious about the news.

Not long after the last “orange alert,” the New York Times published a timeline, showing when Ashcroft had called for alerts in the last few years and when terrorists had actually struck. There was no correlation. And yet one doesn’t cease to be anxious. In fact, you could say that the lack of correlation is the worst thing about it.

My anxiety about terrorist attacks is now fused with my anxiety that Bush will be reelected, because it is clear that he has squandered the political capital that could have been used for an effective response. I think I’m near to overload, and we don’t even have a television. I can’t say any more whether I want or don’t want to read, say, “Bush’s Lost Year,” James Fallow’s umpteen-thousand-word essay in The Atlantic about all the counterterrorism activities that Bush neglected by choosing to go to war in Iraq. It isn’t up to me. It arrived in the mail yesterday, and it has sentences like these:

…among national-security professionals there is surprisingly little controversy. Except for those in government and in the opinion industries whose job it is to defend the Administration’s record, they tend to see America’s response to 9/11 as a catastrophe. I have sat through arguments among soldiers and scholars about whether the invasion of Iraq should be considered the worst strategic error in American history—or only the worst since Vietnam. . . .

“Are we better off in basic security than before we invaded Iraq?” asks Jeffrey Record, a professor of strategy at the Air War College and the author of the recent Dark Victory, a book about the Iraq War. “The answer is no. An unnecessary war has consumed American Army and other ground resources, to the point where we have nothing left in the cupboard for another contingency—for instance, should the North Koreans decide that with the Americans completely absorbed in Iraq, now is the time to do something.”

So it had to be read, though it didn’t exactly bring consolation.