How do you solve an intellectual problem like vampire-hunting? The problem inherently combines three subproblems:
- Obtain and use knowledge about something poorly understood, difficult to investigate, and lacking in clear “lanes” of expertise.
- Responsibly control the study of something intrinsically dangerous and capable of harming investigators and/or leaking into the outside world.
- Obtain decision advantage over a clever adversary capable of deception and adaptation, in this case a supernatural and superhuman creature.
For Dracula author Bram Stoker, the ideal solution looks something like Abraham Van Helsing.
The famous Van Helsing is brought onto the case due to his renown as a specialist in strange diseases and his “iron nerve,” “indomitable resolution,” and other personal qualities. Van Helsing almost solely relies on his formidable mental powers and force of will in handling the Dracula affair. He does so without the aid of any systematized external knowledge of vampirology (there is no Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Vampirological Disorders) or group of fellow investigators (there is no Vampirological Association for studying vampiric behavior). But what if there were? What would it look like?
It would, obviously, borrow somewhat from the practices of the Church. Not so much because the subject matter is the supernatural, but because the Church had developed sophisticated protocols for how to investigate, analyze, and debate heretical ideas in controlled settings. Church authorities knew that heretical ideas threatened the soul, but also conceded that preaching orthodoxy required understanding those ideas in order to defeat them. Hence heresy was intimately studied – but only by those who could be trusted to know a priori that they were heretical.
Over time, secular communities have emulated older religious practices and protocols for controlled study and experimentation on inherently dangerous forms of esoteric knowledge. While the original motivation of combating heresy has long since disappeared, the functional mechanism of creating a self-contained environment for dangerous knowledge to be dissected by trained and trusted investigators has been retained. The pursuit of knowledge is balanced against its inherent risk by limiting access to a guild and closing off the knowledge-making sites to outsiders.
Our notional vampirological league would also likely borrow from the parallel epistemic practices of defense and security organizations. Adversarial epistemology in defense and security organizations seeks to develop (temporary) advantage over an powerful and implacable opponent capable of deception and adaptation. Advantage-granting knowledge is preferred even when it cannot be validated. Normal intellectual expectations of cumulative knowledge or reliance on general or abstract laws are often violated. Anomalies are preferred over regularities.
As with the Church, the intrinsically dangerous nature of the task requires careful control of who is allowed to develop knowledge and what conditions knowledge can be developed within. This results not only in secrecy, but also hostility to external oversight and a willingness to deceive to preserve organizational autonomy. Organizational members bond due to their shared duty of isolation from a potentially hostile external world and their shared willingness to be instruments of superiors that may find it necessary to deceive them for the greater good.
Lastly, our vampirologists would take after the norms of normal expert research and policy communities. In the prior two examples the adversary in question was rather obvious, here it requires more elaboration. Consider the sprawling community of biomedical researchers currently studying COVID-19 (note Van Helsing is introduced in the novel as nothing more than a specialist on rare and dangerous diseases). They are seeking to understand the behavior of a dangerous virus and acquire knowledge about how to counteract it. But unlike the prior two communities, the barrier to entry is far lower.
Instead of debate only taking place in clearly controlled closed venues, experts do so in the open. They post early drafts to preprint servers, allow interested parties to download virus genome and protein datasets, and generally strive to abide by the norms of open and reproducible scientific inquiry. Not just anyone can credibly participate, of course, but certainly far more than the prior two examples. This is because the adversary is more abstract – the complexity of understanding an inert thing incapable of eavesdropping on them – and mitigating risk means mitigating error.
An in-universe solution to the problem Van Helsing faced would therefore consist of all three influences, even if they obviously contradict each other.
Like the Church, a vampirology community would need a controlled environment in which vampiric knowledge could be safely investigated while minimizing harm to investigators or the risk of leakage to the outside world. Perhaps learning too much about vampires might tempt an investigator to seek out vampiric powers or do something rash (with unpredictable consequences) in the course of trying to better understand and combat them. Hence, fiction about organizations of this nature often emphasizes the importance of containment and an obsession with the proper selection of personnel.
Like defense and security organizations, the vampirology community would prefer decision advantage over rigor and conceal itself in layers of secrecy and obfuscation. Given that every hour spent in contemplation of vampiric activity is an hour in which vampires can claim more victims, the community would relax evidentiary standards in favor of knowledge that granted potential for decisive action. It would, out of paranoia about vampiric infiltration, welcome isolation from the outside world and accept stratified knowledge granted only to those with proper “need to know.”
And like many scientific communities, it would also strive to enable collaboration in the hope that many eyes looking at the problem would produce better answers than a few. If, say, an investigator in China or Africa had some insight that could lead to progress on the vampire problem in Europe, that information should be shared as quickly and painlessly as possible. Common intellectual resources should be available to all capable of productively interpreting and applying them. Different sources of theoretical and practical expertise should combined whenever possible.
How would the contradictions between these differing imperatives be realistically managed? It is very difficult for knowledge communities to balance competing needs of control, advantage, and collaboration. Control sacrifices potential advantages gained through-risk taking and often mitigates against the expansion of collaboration. Advantage sacrifices cumulative knowledge and takes on risk of internal and external harm for actionable knowledge. And collaboration exposes knowledge to the prying eyes of adversaries and, in emphasizing inclusion, plays down risk of knowledge producing internal and external harms.
One possibility left out of the post is, perhaps, that the optimal solution is the one that Stoker implicitly arrived at in his description of Van Helsing and his activities. Professional communities simply may not be able to successfully balance these competing needs. But an informal collection of people with Van Helsing’s vague interest in the abnormal and his strong constitution might be the answer. This community would not really interact with each other beyond informal interpersonal connections and leave nothing behind beyond simple rules of thumb that only experienced investigators could properly utilize.
A worldly person would know of a Van Helsing-esque figure that could be consulted concerning any number of strange and hazardous maladies, but not necessarily because they were formally listed in an registry. In the context of fictional universes, the overarching question this post has explored is something for fiction writers to “flesh out” (pun intended) – and many have in some shape or form. But as an intellectual exercise, the question has relevance to many real-world scenarios featuring real or abstract adversarial problems with the features listed at the top of the post.
We can see many examples of organizations and communities that error in a particular direction. Some are loathe to give up control to those outside the guild. Others too readily focus on temporary advantage above all other professional and moral considerations. And others still downplay the risk of harm to community members or the outside world because mitigating risk would mean sacrificing core values of open investigation and decentralized collaboration. There are no “right” answers, and sometimes the answer is to simply abandon the idea of having a community altogether because it imposes too many burdens.
I believe the 21st century will have more, rather than less, problems of this nature. Not necessarily bloodsucking immortal terrors. But then again given everything that has happened over the last year alone one can never be too sure about it.