Mar 27, 2007

the rise and fall of fred a leuchter, jr.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is a documentary about an American inventor who consulted on and built execution devices for state prisons. There are really two stories in this documentary: one detailing his work as a technician for the penal system and one regarding his 'scientific' work for a holocaust denier being tried in Canada.

On the face of it Fred comes off as an odd combination of a humanitarian and unemotional advisor during the first part of this story. His work on execution devices, as stated by himself, being driven by a desire to see death row inmates kill humanely. Fred then comes off as either a deluded scientist or an active holocaust denier himself when conducting experiments to determine if the holocaust really happened in the second part.

Underneath these two stories is a far more interesting story of hubris. As Errol Morris the director of the documentary said, Shindler's List was a story about a man who was a hero and this movie is about a man who thinks he is a hero.

Fred is weird but not because of his execution or holocaust work. In general he comes off as unemotional about his work and methodical. Basically a hardworking guy who goes about his work. The weirdness comes from his 40 cups of coffee and 6 packs of cigarettes a day habit. From his obliviousness of the effect his work has on other people. From a deep seated belief he is doing good when maybe he isn't. From thinking he is an expert and objective and smart when he clearly isn't.

Ultimately Fred is an enigma. It's very hard to really determine where his feelings lie on both topics. I've met Fred Leuchters in my life. In high school and college I've crossed paths with people who clearly align themselves with what they believe to be a scientific view of the world and believe that a scientific approach to solving problems is the only way to go. That isn't their fault. Their fault is that they just plain aren't good at science. They mistake precise measurements and anal retentiveness with science. These in themselves aren't bad qualities but when you don't couple them with good logic and a non-exhaustive understanding of all the information around a particular topic then you get disaster.

It is painful watching Fred meticulously measure and diagram holocaust gas chambers and carefully chisel the concrete off the wall (to be later tested for cyanide) because he thinks he's doing good scientific work. He doesn't bother to check any historical documents about what buildings he's taking samples from. He doesn't both to verify that concrete chippings should show cyanide contamination. He doesn't bother to get anyone else's advice on how to go about this business. He's painfully oblivious to the shortcomings of his approach.

Or maybe I should say I assume he's painfully oblivious. Because at the end you just can't tell if he really is a bumbling scientist or underneath he knows what he is doing and driven by some other motive; fame or ego. Something about him suggests bumbling is the correct answer. He's really quite dumb. But then towards the end you seem him glow at holocaust denial conferences after his speeches attract rapturous applause. You see how he also paints himself as the leading expert on execution devices when he also admits he really is nothing more than an unqualified engineer with no expertise. You see how the subtext of the visit to Auschwitz seems tainted by his disbelief that the Nazi's could create more effective killing machines than he could.

If there's one criticism of this documentary it is that there isn't more information brought to bear on the presentation of Fred. What was his response to scientists pointing out how horribly flawed his research was? Did he still stick his head in the sand? What sort of things did he say at these denial conferences? Does he use inciteful language or is he just completely obvlivious to where he is and who he is talking to? But this is how Errol works (or rather doesn't work).

I'll go on record saying that I love Errol Morris documentaries but I hate Errol Morris' work. Morris' talent stems from his ability to pick good documentary topics that are very interesting and to pull out some amazing 'confessions' from the participants (see The Fog of War). What drives me crazy is his stylistic video work and attempt to make everything overly dramatic. He refuses to put any context on his speakers or to include other data sources besides the main players. I almost feel his work would be better as a radio show. At any rate, a movie worth picking up.


Anonymous said...

Actually, the guy who supposedly refuted Fred's chemical findings was the very Chemist who stood up in a Canadian Court in 1988 and testified that Leuchter's approach and methodology were correct. He also went on to declare that the trace amounts of cyanide recovered from Fred's samples was "negligible". (i.e. near Nil)

It was only AFTER this Chemist became aware that the samples actually came from German concentration camps, that he RECANTED his former courtroom testimony.

And that is a fact.

Besides, what James Roth says in the documentary on how cyanide is a purely "surface" reaction affecting only the top 10 microns, is an absolute falsehood by his own admission!

And if you don't believe me then google "Prussian Blue"... This is the chemical reaction which occurred in the Nazi Delousing Facilities when Cyanide came into contact with the iron contained in the brickwork.

Was this effect only on the surface? No. Not by a long shot... It seeped through from the inside wall, right to the outside of the structure. And 60 years later, it can still be clearly seen.

It tests absolutely positive for strong Cyanide content.

10 microns only? Bah! He sold his credentials down the toilet out of a fear of the Holocaust lobby.

C. Fuzzbang said...

Why does it matter one way or the other? None of these people are well trained scientists. I don't care what any of them say.

What reaction are they talking about? I can't find a single reaction that would occur between the two substances. And if the gas can seep into 1 micron or completely through the building foundation it can seep out just as quickly. It's just a ridiculous test in the first place.