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Entries for August 2005

August 31, 2005

The problem with rankings

In a previous post, I spoke about how the college rankings put out by the magazine its Washington Monthly differed considerably from those put out by US News & World Report.

There is a fundamental problem involved in ranking things in some order. In order to do so, it becomes necessary to reduce all the quality measures used to a single number so that they can be compared along a single scale.

This raises three issues that have to be decided. What are the criteria to be used? How can the selected criteria be translated into quantifiable measures? How are the different measures to be weighted in the mix in order to arrive at the final number?

All these questions rarely have unique answers and there is seldom consensus on how to answer any of these questions, and the two college rankings mentioned above are examples of disagreements in answering just the first question alone.

The Washington Monthly said that they felt that, "Universities should be engines of social mobility, they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth; and they should inculcate and encourage an ethic of service" and they devised measures accordingly.

US News & World Report mainly looks instead at the resources that universities have and their prestige among their peers. For example, I think that 25% of their final score is based on the "peer assessment score," which is how people rate the universities. Such a measure is going to guarantee a high ranking for those universities that are already well known and regarded. The ratings also look at the scores of entering students, graduation and retention rates, the size of the endowment, the amount of money the schools have, the amount that alumni give to the schools, etc. All these things are also related to the prestige perception (high scoring students are likely to apply to high prestige institutions, and are more likely to graduate, get well-paying jobs, and earn more money, and so forth.) There is very little that an institution can do in the short term to change any of these things, which is why the USN&WR ratings tend to be quite stable from year to year.

The problem with both sets of ratings is that they do not really measure how well students are taught or how well they learned and grew intellectually, socially, and emotionally. In other words, neither survey tells us how much and what kind of growth the students experience during their school years. To me, that is a really important thing to know about a school.

There is one survey that I think does give useful information about some of these things and that is the NSSE, which stands for National Survey of Student Engagement. This is a research-based study that looks at how much students experience good educational practices during their college years. It does this by surveying students in their first and final years of school. Many schools (including Case) do these surveys in their first and fourth years and they provide each school with important information on their strengths and weaknesses in various areas. The results of the surveys are provided confidentially to schools for internal diagnostic purposes and are not compiled into a single overall school score for ranking purposes.

Should NSSE also produce a single quality score to enable schools to be compared? In a future posting, I will argue why such rankings may actually do more harm than good, even if the measures used to arrive at them are valid.

August 30, 2005

Swearing oaths on the Koran

Two years ago, I was called for jury duty. I was placed in a pool of about sixty jurors for a homicide case and we had to go through a voir dire process which involves filling in a detailed and lengthy questionnaire that asked all kinds of things that the lawyers and judge could use to see if we had any factors in our background that might cause them to want to disqualify us as jurors. Before filling the forms the judge asked everyone to swear on the Bible that they would tell the truth. But she said that those of us who wanted to could swear a non-religious oath, which I think involved promising to tell the truth on pain of perjury. Only about five of us took this other oath.

This whole thing struck me as odd at that time. If we atheists (I assume that the five of us were atheists although some may have been religious but not Christian) could be trusted to tell the truth by taking a secular oath, why was it necessary to have the Christians take a religious oath? Didn't this necessarily imply that Christians were somehow less trustworthy than non-Christians, since they had to be made fearful of everlasting hell in order to compel them to tell the truth, whereas the mere threat of secular perjury charges was enough for atheists?

I was reminded of this when I saw the article in the Christian Science Monitor that said that a North Carolina judge had ruled that Muslim jurors could not swear an oath on the Koran. Needless to say, this decision is problematic.

On one hand, if you deny Muslims the right to swear on their own religious book, then you are clearly setting up a hierarchy of religious beliefs, with Christian oaths being 'better' than those based on other religions.

On the other hand, if you allow Muslims to swear on the Koran, then you may also have to allow people to swear on the holy icons of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Wiccanism, all the native American religions, and any other religion. Some scholars have advocated just that, with the Monitor article saying "according to law scholars, allowing a range of holy books in oaths of justice may not only lead to a greater feeling of inclusion among religious minorities but also encourage them to tell the truth."

But where does one draw the line about what is a religion and what is not? What if, for example, devotees of the Flying Spaghetti Monster demand the same privilege? They have already asked the Kansas School Board for equal time if Intelligent Design is included in their science standards. Deciding which religious oath to allow and which not is likely to generate a massive collective headache.

This is another example of the kind of frustrations that arise when we have religious dogmas vying for inclusion and acceptance in the public sphere. All this could be avoided if everyone was simply required to take the secular oath and be done with it, and we had a secular state where nothing in the public sphere referred to any specific religious beliefs. Then people of all faiths could practice their religion freely in their private sphere without causing friction with each other or with the state.

But this is not likely to happen in the near future because of the political influence of those groups who are determined to make the USA into an explicitly Christian nation and believe that the absence of the Christian god in the public sphere is the cause of all the evils in society. But the more they seek to have religion in the public sphere, the more likely it is that other religions will seek similar accommodations. If they are successful, the net result, paradoxically, might be that Christian symbols get surrounded by those of other religions. Once you allow Christian religious symbolism into the public sphere, I cannot see how you can reject those of other religions, unless the country gives up even the pretence of being a secular state and declares itself to be an explicitly Christian nation, amending the First Amendment in the process.

August 29, 2005

Science and trust – 3: The Sokal affair

In 1996, NYU physicist Alan Sokal published an article titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity in the journal Social Text, a publication that deals with the sociology of science. The same day that the journal appeared, Sokal published another article in the magazine Lingua Franca (which stopped publishing in 2001) exposing his other article as a hoax. He said that he had mimicked the dense and obscure style of some branches of the arts and humanities (especially the post-modernist philosophers and the area known as cultural studies), but had loaded the paper with citations to well-known people in that field and had asserted conclusions he thought would be pleasing to the editors.

A nice wikipedia article on this hoax explains Sokal's rationale for it and the response by the embarrassed editors of Social Text:

In their defense, the editors of Social Text stated that they believed that the article "was the earnest attempt of a professional scientist to seek some kind of affirmation from postmodern philosophy for developments in his field" and that "its status as parody does not alter substantially our interest in the piece itself as a symptomatic document." They charged Sokal with unethical behavior and suggested they only published the article as it was because Sokal refused to make changes they suggested and it was of relevance to a special issue they happened to be preparing.

Sokal argued that this was the whole point: the journal published articles not on the basis of whether they were correct or made sense, but simply because of who wrote them and how they sounded. [He said] "Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless or even counterproductive."…..The controversy also had implications for peer review. Social Text had dispensed with peer review, hoping that this would promote more original, less conventional research, and trusted authors of prospective articles to guarantee the academic integrity of their work. Social Text's editors argue that, in this context, Sokal's work constituted a deliberate fraud and betrayal of that trust.

To my mind, this episode does not reflect well on any of the parties involved. First, if the editors of Social Text decided to dispense with peer review for the (perfectly acceptable) reasons given, then they should have on their editorial board a diverse enough group of people to make judgments about papers. They clearly did not in this case. Either the editors did not have the competence to judge the quality of the paper or they did not give it enough scrutiny.

It also is the case that in academia there is an undesirable element of 'physics envy', and the editors were clearly thrilled that a real physicist from a reputable department was publishing in their social science journal, presumably giving their journal greater credibility. It was probably this reason that enabled Sokal to persuade them to publish his paper despite some initial reservations they had about it.

On the other hand, it was not good of Sokal to take advantage of the absence of peer review to get his article published. The elimination of peer review imposes a greater obligation on authors to be more self-critical and scrupulous and to not to take advantage of those journals, because the journal editors are deliberately making themselves more vulnerable.

It is said that if you are invited into the home of a friend and steal a small amount of money that is lying around, you are committing a worse moral offense than if you break into your friend's safe and steal a very much larger amount from their safe. Because it is not the magnitude of the amount stolen that is a measure of the crime, it is the degree of violation of the trust.

If Sokal had not exposed his own hoax, what would have most likely happened is that the article would have either been ignored (since it had no content most readers would have been simply baffled by it) or at some time later, a more discerning reader would have exposed it as a fraud. It would not have done any harm to the field itself, just like most scientific errors or fraud.

So what did the Sokal hoax accomplish? Unlike 'hoaxes' that are part of a research study to study the processes of research and publication (see my earlier post for examples of this), the main result of this was to make the editors of Social Text look foolish and incompetent. There was no other benefit that I can see. Sokal himself is aware ethical issues involved because he says: "Of course, I'm not oblivious to the ethical issues involved in my rather unorthodox experiment. Professional communities operate largely on trust; deception undercuts that trust" and tries to explain why it was justified.

I don't think that that his reasons were enough to justify playing the trick. I believe that trust among researchers is a valuable quality and I would hate to see researchers squandering it away.

POST SCRIPT: Tracy Kidder to speak at Case

Tracy Kidder, the author of the biography Mountains Beyond Mountains: The quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world which I wrote about earlier is the speaker at the Fall Convocation on Thursday, September 1 at 4:30 pm in Severance Hall.

The event is free and open to the public but prior registration is required. For more information and registration, go here.

August 26, 2005

Reflections on "Mountains Beyond Mountains"

Yesterday (Thursday) was the Share the Vision part of the orientation program for the new Case students. This year's theme was based on the biography Mountains Beyond Mountains: The quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world by Tracy Kidder, which the incoming class had read over the summer. This is a truly inspiring book about a man who is driven to bring quality health care to the poorest of the poor, mainly in remote regions of Haiti. Severance Hall was almost full with students and faculty and I was one of the panel of speakers. Below is the text of the talk I gave to the group.

I was reading Mountains Beyond Mountains and enjoying it when I came across something that made me sad and melancholy. It occurred when I read that Paul Farmer was nine years younger than me. I was immediately reminded of satirist Tom Lehrer who said in the introduction to one of his songs, "It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished." Lehrer was just 37 years old at the time, and he added: "It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years."

I had pretty much that same feeling when reading this book.

Of course, you are much younger than Paul Farmer and so have many years to achieve as much or more than him, if you desire to do so.

But there are still some aspects of reading inspiring biographies of people like Farmer or Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks that can be discouraging, and it is that question that I want to address.

Such people are often portrayed as having confronted some great challenge in their lives that they rose to meet, and so achieved greatness. Unfortunately this portrayal of such people as unusual heroes and saints confronting extraordinary challenges breeds the feeling that these were somehow rare people with special qualities, and that the rest of us either do not have these unusual qualities or that we may not be fortunate enough to be confronted with a great challenge that will enable us to show our mettle.

I remember the high school I went to in Sri Lanka. It was a Christian school and at the beginning and end of each year we would sing a hymn that had the words (not quite in this order):

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide
In the strife of truth with falsehood
For the good or evil side
Some great cause, some great decision,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside

It was a very inspiring hymn, so much so that I still remember nearly all the words decades later. When we sang it we hoped that one day we too would be confronted with that once-in-a-lifetime moment, with a stark choice between good and evil, right and wrong, because then we too would bravely choose the side of right and, like Gandhi and King and our other heroes of that time, we would show the world what we were made of.

So we wait for this major choice to occur. And we wait. And we wait. And we wait. And then, one day we find that life has almost passed us by and we have that Tom Lehrer moment of sad realization that we have not really done anything.

I now feel that the sentiment expressed in that hymn is profoundly wrong. In fact, if you look more closely at the lives of the people I mentioned, they did not wait for the great moment of choice, that big decision that changed their lives. What really happened is that these people, throughout their lives, kept making small but important decisions.

To get a visual sense of what I am saying imagine that you are going along some road and waiting for some major fork to appear so that you can choose between two very divergent directions. What the lives of these great people really teach us is that often the road we travel actually has a large number of little forks that each diverge slightly. Each choice does not change our direction by that much. But when we consistently choose to go in a particular direction, we end up going in a much different direction than if we had chosen randomly.

What people like Farmer and the others did was to make deliberate choices in the small things in life. Then when some major decision did come along, they almost did not have to think about what to do. Their instincts, developed by years of small choices, kicked in and they knew what they must do. What I have learned is that it is the little decisions and challenges that we are confronted with every day that matter, Those are the decisions that shape our instincts, that make us who we are.

I remember Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT who has also been a prolific and sharp analyst of US foreign and domestic policies, talking about an incident in his life when he was in elementary or middle school. He said that a fat classmate of his was having his life made miserable by class bullies. Chomsky said that he felt sorry for that poor boy but did nothing to help him. He said that his inaction haunted him afterwards and made him feel guilty and he vowed that henceforth he would always take the side of the underdog. And I believe that that is what made him what he is today. I think all great people, when you look closely at their lives, made small but critical choices all along the way.

So the lesson of Paul Farmer's story is not only to think of grand goals of changing the world, although we should have such goals. It is also to look around us right now, to see who are the people who are the underdogs, who are the people left out, who are the people discriminated against, victimized and picked on, and consistently take their side.

On page 244 of the book, Kidder describes Farmer "stewing over an email from a student who had written that he believed in Farmer's cause but didn't think he could do what Paul did. Farmer said aloud to his computer screen, "I didn't say you should do what I do. I just said these things should be done!""

That's the take home message for me from this book. We should look around and see what should be done, however small, and set about doing it. Paul Rogat Loeb in his excellent book Soul of a Citizen says, "[T]here is no perfect time to get involved in social causes, no ideal circumstances for voicing our convictions. What each of us faces instead is a lifelong series of imperfect moments in which we must decide what we stand for."

I remember the news report of a British soldier who performed an act of heroism. The Queen of England, when giving him an honor, asked him how he made his decision so quickly to risk his life to save others. The soldier played down his heroism saying, "It was nothing. It's just the training."

Training builds instincts. When you consistently take the honorable side, the side of the weaker against the strong, the side of those who have not against those who have, the side of the powerless against the powerful, you find that without even realizing it, you have already made the major decisions of your life. That is the true lesson of biographies like these.

POST SCRIPT

I have been asked by Micah Waldstein and Jim Eastman to appear on their radio show 'Saturday Science' where they discuss current events in the intersection between science, technology and politics. They say the primary topic of discussion will be this blog (Jim has commented on some topics in the past) but I am sure the topics will range further afield.

The show is on Saturday, August 27 from 1:30-2:00 pm on WRUW FM 91.1. You can listen over the internet too.

It should be fun (for me at least!).

August 25, 2005

The ethical dilemma of faith healing - 2

There were some very thought provoking comments (some of them sent privately) in response to my posting on the ethics of faith healing. In one of the comments, Erin made a very telling observation that I've been thinking about and which prompted me to revisit the topic.

Those of us who do not believe in a god who intervenes in daily life tend to think of faith healing (if it works at all) as purely a placebo effect whose success depends on people believing that there is something real going on. As I said before, I have a real problem with how to deal with this.

On the one hand, the rationalist/skeptic in me wants to actively debunk all faith healers as, at worst, cynical con artists who are preying on the gullible for monetary gain or for fame and glory, or at best as self-deluding people who genuinely believe that they have some sort of gift. Even if a few people are of the latter kind, allowing them to propagate the belief that faith can heal allows the charlatans amongst them a greater chance of swindling others.

On the other hand, the humanist in me wants to keep out of the issue since I don't want to jeopardize the chances of a "cure" for a few people, even if it is placebo induced.

In these types of discussions, we tend to contrast the placebo effect (which is based on an illusion) with the effects produce by modern medicine, which is assumed to be based on science and is thus real. But Erin points out that the medicine-as-science versus placebo-as-quackery distinction isn't as clear-cut as one might imagine.

On the third floor of Allen building (where my office is) is the Dittrick Medical History Museum. It consists of just two rooms but contains enough devices and descriptions of past treatments to make me glad that we live in the current age. If one goes back in medical history, one finds all kinds of treatments that were once fully endorsed by the medical establishment and are now discredited. Some of them (such as bleeding using leeches) are pretty bizarre. The museum is free and open 10:00 am-4:30 pm Monday through Friday, and well worth a quick visit.

So what are we to make of these past treatments? Based on current science, we have no reason now to think that they should work, so any success they had must have been due to the placebo effect. But since the medical establishment believed in those treatments then, they must also have been considered science at that time. One assumes that the physicians of that time recommended these treatments with complete sincerity and achieved some "cures". What distinguishes them from the sincere faith healers of the current times?

Can we maintain the distinction between science and the placebo? Some argue that we cannot. I have heard it said that: "The history of medicine is the history of the placebo." This may be a little strong but it has enough truth in it to be disquieting. What if current medical treatments are also placebos? It could be that a few generations from now, people will marvel that bodies were once cut open with sharp knives or that strong chemicals were introduced into the bloodstream, all in the name of medicine-as-science.

One way to get around the problem is to think that past generations of medical scientists were simply wrong and that we are fortunate to happen to live in an era when science has come into its own, producing real cures, and that our current successful treatments are permanent. Some science triumphalists extend this argument across the board, arguing that current scientific knowledge, unlike that of its predecessors, is right in its essentials and that all that awaits us in the future are minor improvements, tinkering at the boundaries.

I am always a little wary of assuming that we live in a special time in history, whether it is a high point (as asserted by the science triumphalists) or an especially low point (as asserted by those Christian fundamentalists who think the country has gone to the dogs and want to return it to a previous era by putting religious symbols in the public sphere and overthrowing evolutionary theory). While changes have undoubtedly occurred and in some cases for the better, we may not be too different from our predecessors in our ability to distinguish good science from bad, or science from non-science.

One thing that has definitely improved is our research protocol methods. At least with double-blind clinical trials, we can have some confidence that some of the medical treatments we use are truly beneficial. But that still does not solve our problem of the ethics of faith healing and whether we should try and debunk them, whether the practitioners are sincere or not.

That's the trouble with true ethical dilemmas. There is no obvious right answer.

POST SCRIPT 1

Tom Tomorrow spells out how supporters of the Iraq war avoid reality.

POST SCRIPT 2

As usual, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show has the best take on Pat Robertson's latest idiocy and the coverage of it (via onegoodmove).

August 24, 2005

Science and trust – 2

As I discussed in an earlier posting, trust plays an important role in science. It is hard to imagine science functioning as well as it does if everyone started being suspicious of each other. I see disturbing signs of this recently in the field of medicine. Increasingly, academic research on new drugs is being funded by private pharmaceutical companies that have a vested interest in the results coming out in favor of whatever drugs they are trying to market. Thus they can exert subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on the researchers to manipulate the results, since they are controlling the flow of money. This can raise suspicions about the credibility of the scientists who do this kind of sponsored research.

(This is why I tend to prefer funding research through government agencies (such as the National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health) or at least have private funds channeled through an intermediate agent such as not-for-profit foundations. Then peer review can be used in the award of funds and there is no direct link between the private source of funding and the researcher.)

But there are other, seemingly worthwhile, reasons for not being completely honest. One of these is when research is done on the scientific process itself. For example, in 1982, researchers looked into the question of whether institutional prestige played a role in how papers were reviewed. A report on this general question said: "[T]he favoring by editors and reviewers of papers by top people from top institutions seemed to be confirmed by the much-cited study by Peters and Ceci. They took previously published articles, disguised their origins, and then resubmitted these to the journals that had originally published them; largely unrecognized, these were then mostly rejected on scientific grounds."

Although the methods used in this study have been challenged, this research does shed some interesting light on the prejudices of scientists and may have had positive long-term results in making scientists more cautious about how they make judgments. But there was no question that putting false institution affiliations introduced an element of deceit in the process that goes counter to the general practice of science to trust that what you see is what you get.

One can imagine other kinds of valuable research that might involve the same kind of subterfuge, say to investigate gender bias in publications. I do not know if such studies have been done, although other studies that do not involve this type of methodology indicate that gender bias does exist in science when it comes to evaluating the effectiveness of scientists.

I want to emphasize that I am not saying that scientists are more trusting or trustworthy in general than other people. Errors can creep in. This can happen because it is the natural tendency of people to scrutinize more carefully results that surprise them than those they expected to see. This can often lead to unconscious biases, although good scientists are aware of this danger and try to corroborate results as much as possible by other means.

But the point is that the scientific enterprise thrives because of trust that people are being reasonably honest. Scientists know that and try to uphold that tradition because it is in their own best interest. But what happens when scientists deliberately set out to pull a hoax on others, not for the purposes of research on the processes of science, but just to make them look foolish? Can that be justified?

This is what happened with the famous Sokal hoax, which I will examine in a subsequent posting.

POST SCRIPT

I received the following email which might be of interest to those students concerned about civil liberties and want to play a more vigorous leadership role:

The ACLU of Ohio is offering its 2nd annual Students as Citizens: The rights of students on and off campus conference for all undergraduate student activists on Saturday, October 1, 2005 at the Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.

· If you want to mobilize ideas into action
· If you want to stand up and be heard on your campus
· If you are a leader at heart and want to organize others around important issues

This conference is for you!

Join other students like you in a discussion on topics like Profiling, Privacy Rights on Campus, Censorship, Homophobia, Voting Rights, Reproductive Rights, Campus Organizing, and Lobbying. Be there as students from across the Ohio unite to be empowered, take action, and defend liberty.

The conference is free, breakfast and lunch will be provided, and parking will be available. The Mortiz College of Law ACLU Campus Club at The Ohio State University is hosting the conference.

Please RSVP by clicking or calling (216) 472-2200.

August 23, 2005

The college rankings game

I was walking around the campus yesterday and it was wonderful. The day was cool and sunny and the campus was green and inviting, reinforcing my feeling that over the last fifteen years Case has transformed itself from an ugly-building and surface-parking-lot dominated landscape to one of the most attractive urban campuses in the nation. This is especially so this year with the new dorms that have opened up (I went on the tour last week and was really impressed by their spaciousness and tastefulness) and the new playing fields.

But the best thing was to see all the new and returning students wandering around, many with their parents. Summer is a nice time to be here but nothing beats the sense of liveliness and eager anticipation that I associate with the beginning of a new school year. And to top it all, we have the large incoming class (last I heard it was around 1180) and the SAGES program going full throttle. I am eager to get back in the classroom again.

I got back in my office and discovered that the magazine Washington Monthly announced that it has devised a new method for ranking colleges, using a different set of criteria from those used by the better known US News & World Report. As you may know, the latter magazine revealed its latest rankings just a couple of days ago and Case dropped from 35 last year to 37 this year. This is the season for the rankings to come out and Princeton Review releases its rankings today.

Washington Monthly explains that its criteria are based on what they perceived should be the function of universities: "Universities should be engines of social mobility, they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth; and they should inculcate and encourage an ethic of service." The accompanying article explains how these criteria were translated into quantifiable measures for each school.

Since these criteria seemed worthwhile, I decided to check out the rankings. Of course, the first thing I looked for was Case's ranking and was pleasantly surprised that Case ranked at #24. When you compare private universities alone, Case came out at #12 compared with #29 for US News & World Report. Case came ahead of a lot of private universities who regularly rank above us in the other ratings, such as Georgetown, Washington University in St. Louis, Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, and Rochester.

It seems like it is the "engines of social mobility" and "ethic of service" criteria that caused a lot of shifting of rankings. The former criterion was measured using the number of Pell grants, and this helped the top-tier state universities rise in the rankings since they offer more poor people the chance for education and advancement. The latter criterion was measured by "whether a school devotes a significant part of its federal work study funding to placing students in community service jobs (as the original work study law intended); the percentage of students enrolled in ROTC; and the percentage of graduates currently enrolled in the Peace Corps." As a result, a lot of state universities rose and private universities dropped. Harvard, for example, was #75 on the service criterion.

So what is one to make of this variability in rankings from magazine to magazine? Does this mean that we should not take them seriously? Not quite. The measures used are useful pieces of information. The fundamental problem arises when multifaceted measures, each possibly worthwhile in itself, are combined to produce a single score for ranking purposes.

I’ll explore this question in subsequent postings.

POST SCRIPT

The British newspaper The Independent finally tallies up the official lies told about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes in a London tube station, which I have been writing about. Here is the key section:

What police said - and what really happened

The police claim: A man of "Asian appearance", behaving suspiciously, is shot dead by police on a Tube train in Stockwell.
The truth: The dead man, Jean Charles de Menezes, 27, was Brazilian.

The police claim: His shooting was "directly linked" to the investigation into the London bombings.
The truth: Mr de Menezes was an electrician and had nothing to do with the London bombings.

The police claim: Witnesses described him running into the Tube station, vaulting the barriers.
The truth: He walked into the station and picked up a free newspaper before entering with a travel pass. He made his way to the platform. He started to run only when the train arrived.

The police claim: Witnesses said he was wearing an "unseasonable" heavy coat, and Scotland Yard said his clothing had "added to suspicions".
The truth: Photographs of the body show Mr de Menezes wearing a blue denim jacket.

The police claim: "As I understand the situation the man was challenged and refused to obey police instructions" - Sir Ian Blair.
The truth: There was no police challenge.

The police claim: Mr de Menezes ran on to the Tube train, tripped and was shot five times by police as he lay on the floor.
The truth: CCTV footage is said to show Mr de Menezes pausing, looking left and right, and sitting on a seat facing the platform. A police witness says Mr de Menezes stood up when the police arrived. The policeman then pinned his arms to his sides and pushed him back in the seat. Mr de Menezes was then shot 10 times - three of the bullets missed.

August 22, 2005

Science and trust

My first scientific paper involved correcting an error made by others in an earlier paper published on the same topic. The error was a very simple one (a plus sign had been replaced by a minus sign) but had been buried in a complicated calculation that made it hard to detect. However, the consequences of the error were quite significant and had caused some puzzlement amongst the physicists in that subfield.

Ironically, some years later I too made a sign error in a published paper and my error was pointed out by someone else.

This kind of mistake and correction happens in science. Scientists are generally cautious and careful (otherwise they cease to be taken seriously by their peers) but are not infallible. And when they make a mistake, they are corrected by their peers, either in print or in private, and they move on. It is almost invariably assumed that the error was an honest mistake, not an attempt to cheat. Scientists trust each other.

In fact, the whole enterprise of science is based on trust and could not function otherwise. This does not mean that there are no checks in the process but those checks are not designed to catch fraud.

The process of peer review is one such measure. In this process, once the editors of a journal receive a submission, they send it out to (usually) two or more scientists who work in the same field to review the paper and recommend one of three actions to the editors – accept, reject, or make revisions.

I have had my papers reviewed by anonymous peers and have reviewed the papers of others. The point of the review is to check for clarity and completeness and proper methodology. The reviewer does not usually try to reproduce the paper's results but instead tries to get a feel for whether the paper's conclusions make sense and are consistent with other information. The reviewer assumes that the authors are honest, that the data given is correct, and that the calculations the authors say they made using the data have been done with due care.

So how do errors and fraud get caught? The way this usually happens is when another scientist wants to build on the previous published work and extend it or take it in a new direction. Then that scientist usually begins by trying to reproduce the results of the earlier work, and it is because of this that errors usually get detected. This is why reviewers try to make sure that all the information necessary to reproduce the results is present in a paper, even if they do not actually check the results themselves, so that future work can be built on it. (This is how the two errors that I was personally involved in got detected.) Clearly the chances of errors being detected become greater if the original work has major significance since then many people want to take advantage of that work and try to reproduce the results.

An example of this process at work occurred just this month with the important issue of global warming. While there is an emerging scientific consensus that it is occurring, there are disagreements over details. As the website What's New reports: "One detail was records that were interpreted by a group at the U. Alabama in Huntsville as showing that the troposphere had not warmed in two decades and the tropics had cooled. However, three papers in Science this week report errors in the Alabama-Huntsville calculations. It seems that warming of the troposphere agrees with surface measurements and recent computer predictions. The group at Alabama-Huntsville concedes the error, but says the effect is not that large. That's the way it's supposed to work.''

If no one else cares about the work or is unaware of it, errors can remain undetected. Since trust is assumed, it is possible for an unscrupulous author to abuse that trust and to falsify and fabricate data and results and get their work published. But to remain undetected over an extended period of time usually means that the work was not considered of much use to begin with and was ignored by the scientific community.

Another way in which trust manifests itself in science is that unless there is some reason to suspect otherwise, scientists assume that whatever gets published in a journal (especially one that is peer-reviewed) is correct, even if they do not know the authors personally or even know the field. So scientists quote each other's work freely, and often base their own papers on the work of others without knowing for sure whether that work is correct or not.

This might seem to be a risky thing to do but it is this very interconnected nature of science that keeps the system functioning. If at some point a result shows up that is plainly wrong or does not make sense, people can sometimes trace through the network of connections and find the original error that triggered the problem. Thus even errors that have remained undetected for a long time can suddenly surface because of research done in a seemingly distant area.

Given this feeling of openness and trust, it is possible to manipulate the system and get fraudulent results published. This can be for bad reasons such a deliberate fraud for personal gain (say because the authors are trying to pad their resumes or are trying for fame and hoping not to get caught). These are clearly wrong. But there are reasons for faking that, at least on the surface, may be good and these raise ethical issues that I will examine in a the next few postings.

August 19, 2005

The ethical dilemma of faith healing

Those people who read the Plain Dealer would be aware of the sudden rise to fame as a faith healer of Dr. Issam Nemeh, a general practitioner (and Catholic) in the Cleveland area who also practices faith healing, in the form of using heated acupuncture-type needles, the passing of hands, and prayer.

The Plain Dealer has given him considerable coverage in the past, leading up to well-attended faith healing services held earlier this year in a Catholic Church and at the HealthSpace Cleveland Museum. He is now said to be the area's most sought after physician, booked through 2006, and patients often wait until midnight to get to see him, paying $250 for appointments.

But not everyone is happy and a recent article reports on those who feel they have been had. They say that he made claims about their cures that were not substantiated, and that his assistants seemed to be overly concerned with getting their money and made outlandish claims that angels visited him regularly.

Is Nemeh a fraud? It is tempting for those of us who are not religious to think so, since we do not believe that supernatural forces exist. After all, a recent study in the medical journal The Lancet (free registration required) finds that prayer and touch have no effect and Bob Harris argues on other grounds why such claims are unlikely to be true.

This is not the first time that claims that prayer leads to successful healing have been found to be wanting. The December 3, 2004 issue of the newsletter What's New said:

PRAYER STUDY: COLUMBIA PROFESSOR REMOVES HIS NAME FROM PAPER. We have been tracking the sordid story of the Columbia prayer study for three years (WN 05 Oct 01). It claimed that women for whom total strangers prayed were twice as likely to become pregnant from in-vitro fertilization as others; it was published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine. At the time we were unaware of the background of the study, but knew it had to be wrong; the first assumption of science is that events result from natural causes. The lead author, Rugerio Lobo, who at the time was Chair of Obstetrics, now says he had no role in the study. The author who set up the study is doing five years for fraud in a separate case, and his partner hanged himself in jail. Another author left Columbia and isn't talking. The Journal has never acknowledged any responsibility, and after withdrawing the paper for "scrutiny," has put it back on the web. Nor has the Journal published letters critical of the study. Columbia has never acknowledged any responsibility. All of this has come out due to the persistence of Bruce Flamm, MD. The science community should flatly refuse all proposals or papers that invoke any supernatural explanation for physical phenomena.

While it is natural for religious believers to think there could be some healing effect of prayer, it is possible for non-believers in a supernatural power to accept it too. Even if there is no god, the mind-body connection makes it possible that a person's will and attitude can influence the biochemical processes in the brain and body and produce actual physical effects. As the Plain Dealer article on Nemeh states "Even skeptics agree that faith and prayer can improve one's mental state, which can in turn promote physical health. Some also suggest that people who report being cured by faith healers are probably experiencing a placebo effect, a powerful phenomenon in which symptoms improve on the mere belief that a remedy is at hand."

And it is this possibility that causes the ethical problem. Here is a hypothetical situation. Suppose that a small number of people (say about 1% of those who are sick) respond favorably to "faith healing" this way via the mind-body connection or placebo effect. The catch is that we do not know a priori which ones will do so. Since it seems essential that people have faith in order for this method to work on them, everyone has to maintain the illusion that god is acting through prayer.

So here is the dilemma. If someone believed that there was no god but still wanted to help people, is it unethical for them to pretend to be a faith healer and treat people? After all, even if just 1% get better and nothing bad happens to the rest, isn't that still a positive result? I am assuming that everyone is acting on the best of motives and that the "faith healers" are not con artists preying on desperate and gullible people and swindling them out of their money. Let us assume they are pretending to be faith healers for purely altruistic reasons.

And as for the rest of us who have no ambitions to be faith healers but are simply skeptical observers, should we go all out to debunk faith healers in the name of truth and because we feel it is bogus or should we just stay out of the whole thing because of the benefits it might be having on a few people? If you were the faith healer's friend and knew that he/she was faking belief, would you feel obliged to expose him/her in the cause of truth?

One negative that immediately comes to mind is that people who believe in faith healers might neglect taking conventional treatments that might help them. Another is that the disillusionment that comes with failed faith healing efforts might make these people despair and think that god either does not care for them or wants them to die, creating a negative mindset that surely cannot be helpful.

I think this question illustrates the dilemmas that often occur when abstract principles of truth and honesty come into collision with the needs of real people in desperate need.

August 18, 2005

How governments lie-2: The London killing

In a previous post titled How governments lie, I warned about how early accounts that official sources put out in the wake of some major event often have only the remotest connection to the facts and are usually designed to imprint in the public mind what the governments want the public to believe.

It looks like the killing on July 22 of an innocent Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes man in a London subway station is following the same pattern. If you recall, in that case the official story put out was that the man was directly linked to a terrorist investigation and had been under surveillance, was wearing a bulky jacket on a very hot day, refused to obey a police order to stop, ran away from the police, vaulted over the ticket barrier, and was shot when he tripped and fell. His highly suspicious behavior seemed to make the shooting excusable.

Now on August 14 the London Observer newspaper has a long story that says that all these assertions were false. Here are items from the story:

Initial claims that de Menezes was targeted because he was wearing a bulky coat, refused to stop when challenged and then vaulted the ticket barriers have all turned out to be false. He was wearing a denim jacket, used a standard Oyster electronic card to get into the station and simply walked towards the platform unchallenged.….

One witness, Chris Wells, 28, a company manager, said he saw about 20 police officers, some armed, rushing into the station before a man jumped over the barriers with police giving chase.

In fact, by the time the armed officers arrived de Menezes was already heading down towards the train. It now seems certain that the man seen vaulting the barrier was one of the armed officers in hot pursuit. (my emphasis)

Some events in de Menezes' life shed further light on his behavior.

For de Menezes life in London was for the most part uneventful. He had been stopped by police a few times as part of routine stop and search inquiries, once having his bag examined by officers outside Brixton tube station.

On each occasion the police had asked him to stop and he did so. However, on each occasion the officers concerned were in full uniform.

Two weeks before he was killed, de Menezes had been attacked by a gang of white youths, seemingly at random. According to friends this experience left him shaken and nervous.…

No one knows what went through the young man's mind in the last moments of his life. Having been attacked just weeks earlier, he may have believed the casually dressed white men chasing him were part of the same gang. He may have been thinking of the experience of his cousin who was caught by immigration officers in America and deported before he had the chance to finish saving for his dream home. Now de Menezes is dead and no one will ever know.

A subsequent Guardian story on August 17 says that secret leaked reports say that he had been seated in the train and was not even running when he was shot, and had been overpowered by the security forces and in their grip when he was shot.

The young Brazilian shot dead by police on a London tube train in mistake for a suicide bomber had already been overpowered by a surveillance officer before he was killed, according to secret documents revealed last night.

It also emerged in the leaked documents that early allegations that he was running away from police at the time of the shooting were untrue and that he appeared unaware that he was being followed.…

CCTV footage shows Mr de Menezes was not wearing a padded jacket, as originally claimed, and that he walked calmly through the barriers at Stockwell station, collecting a free newspaper before going down the escalator. Only then did he run to catch the train.

A man sitting opposite him is quoted as saying: "Within a few seconds I saw a man coming into the double doors to my left. He was pointing a small black handgun towards a person sitting opposite me. He pointed the gun at the right hand side of the man's head. The gun was within 12 inches of the man's head when the first shot was fired.".…

The documents reveal that a member of the surveillance team, who sat nearby, grabbed Mr de Menezes before he was shot: "I heard shouting which included the word 'police' and turned to face the male in the denim jacket. He immediately stood up and advanced towards me and the CO19 [firearms squad] officers ... I grabbed the male in the denim jacket by wrapping both my arms around his torso, pinning his arms to his side. I then pushed him back on to the seat where he had been previously sitting ... I then heard a gun shot very close to my left ear and was dragged away on to the floor of the carriage."

There is an interesting sidelight about the closed circuit televisions (CCTV) that are everywhere on the London underground system and would have provided footage from dozens of cameras covering the Stockwell ticket hall, escalators, platforms and train carriages. Pictures from those cameras were widely shown by the police in their investigation of the earlier (July 7) bombings.

But in the initial report, police said most of the cameras were not working. The secret report revealed, however, that it was the CCTV that showed de Menezes walking slowly and not vaulting the turnstile. It is always interesting how evidence seems to "disappear" when the information it could provide might be embarrassing for the government. Could it be possible that the official authorities put out the story that the CCTV was not working hoping that they thus would not have to show them to the public and reveal that they contradicted the official story?

I ended my earlier post by saying that this is why I always take initial news reports of such events with a grain of salt. I believe that all governments, without exception, lie to their people, routinely and without shame. This event only confirms my view.

POST SCRIPT

If "Intelligent Design" is to be put on a par with evolution, surely the theory of "Intelligent Falling" (IF) as a competitor to gravity must be close behind? The editors of The Onion think so. (Thanks to Nicole for the link.)

The article quotes IF spokespersons who say: "Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, 'God' if you will, is pushing them down….Gravity - which is taught to our children as a law - is founded on great gaps in understanding. The laws predict the mutual force between all bodies of mass, but they cannot explain that force."

IF advocates "insist they are not asking that the theory of gravity be banned from schools, but only that students be offered both sides of the issue so they can make an informed decision."

The article also points out that scientists admit that "Einstein's ideas about gravity are mathematically irreconcilable with quantum mechanics. This fact, Intelligent Falling proponents say, proves that gravity is a theory in crisis."

Sounds convincing to me. I never liked gravity anyway. It was always bringing me down.

August 17, 2005

Should atheists "come out"?

In a previous essay, I suggested that people tend to have a negative view of atheism. In his blog essay Sam Harris provides support for this view, saying that "More than 50 percent of Americans have a "negative" or "highly negative" view of people who do not believe in God."

Possible reasons for this dislike were discussed earlier but here I want to focus on what, if anything, should be done about it.

One option is to just ignore it. After all, why should atheists care what other people think of them? But this ignores the fact that if atheists allow themselves to be defined by others in negative terms and do nothing about it, they allow the negative portrayals of them to dominate public consciousness.

Another option is for atheists to learn from the steady way that gay people have won increasing acceptance. This has partly come about because gays are "coming out" more to their families and friends and co-workers. They are becoming more visible in everyday life and are being seen as ordinary people. Famous actors are revealing themselves as gay without it being career suicide and gay characters are appearing in films and plays and on television, without their gayness being necessary to the storyline. The fact that they are gay is just incidental.

Richard Dawkins suggests that atheists should also "come out", so that others can see that we are in fact numerous and everywhere and that life goes on nonetheless. Of course, no one would dream of suggesting that atheists encounter discrimination and vilification on the scale that gay people still face. I suspect that most atheists don't "come out" because they don't give much thought to religious matters and when they do, view religion as a private matter and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Atheists may think that "coming out" in any self-conscious way is a silly thing to do and so "coming out" in the way Dawkins suggests will be awkward.

But perhaps if the opportunity arises where one can make it known in a natural way, then one should do so. I, for example, have been an atheist for over ten years but felt no compunction to make it publicly known. It is only with this blog that I have really publicly stated it, and that was because it seemed relevant to some of the postings. As a general rule, I feel religion is not something that one should make a big deal out of, one way or the other.

"Coming out" might also be a source of encouragement to those who are toying with the idea that they are atheists but hesitate to say so publicly because they feel that being an atheist is somehow reprehensible.

What is interesting is that I am seeing more and more public statements questioning the fundamentals of religion, so what Dawkins is advocating may be already happening organically. For example, take this article by Justin Cartwright in the British newspaper Guardian (which I got via onegoodmove). I am quoting it at length because it articulates the atheistic point well but you should read the full article for yourself.

Near the end of his life, [philosopher and historian] Isaiah Berlin wrote these words to a correspondent who had asked the great imponderable: "As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect that it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some cosmic all-embracing libretto or God are, believe me, pathetically mistaken."
It's time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense. I do not deny the good work of religious people, nor the cultural effects of religion, nor its deep penetration into our consciousness, but what I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight. As AJ Ayer said, if God has constituted the world in such a way that he cannot resolve the phenomenon of evil, logically it makes no difference whether we are believers or unbelievers. The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim "scholars", people who believe that the Qur'an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point. …...
It follows that I believe we have to acknowledge happily that ethics has no rational content, that we behave morally and responsibly not because God commands us to do so, but because it is in our nature and because it makes profound common sense to do so. I am not in any sense advocating active hostility to religion, merely that we should as a nation distance ourselves from religious explanations. ....
What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing scrupulously the principles of that society.
And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life has "some cosmic, all-embracing libretto", the better.

The next frontier will be popular culture. Since I do not watch much television, I am not sure to what extent programs that have religious themes have atheist characters. But if we do reach the stage where atheists are portrayed as just regular people whose lack of religious belief is incidental to who they are, then we would have reached a significant milestone.

POST SCRIPT 1

In a previous post, I wrote about Ockham's razor. Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has an example of how the razor currently is being used by some political observers.


POST SCRIPT 2

This is too late for action but I just heard that the Secular Students Alliance had a conference at OSU last weekend. The group's website says that they are:

an educational nonprofit whose purpose is to educate high school and college students around the country about the value of scientific reason and the intellectual basis of secularism in its atheistic and humanistic manifestations….While some students are comfortable with an atheistic outlook, others identify as secular or religious humanists, and yet others prefer the emphasis of skepticism. The SSA acknowledges these differences and seeks to provide channels through which all of these students can explore their particular interests and inclinations through involvement with similar organizations once they graduate.

To any minimally astute observer of the free thought movement, it is apparent that our lack of numbers inhibits our ability to educate the public about atheism, free inquiry, critical thinking and scientific reasoning.

Some time ago, a student at Case approached me about setting up an affiliate group at Case and asked me to be its advisor. I agreed but did not hear anything about it afterwards.

August 16, 2005

Should all scientists try to accommodate religion?

Within the scientific community, there are two groups, those who are religious and who hold to the minimal scientific requirement of methodological naturalism, and those who go beyond that and are also philosophical naturalists, and thus atheists/agnostics or more generally "shafars". (For definitions of the two kinds of naturalism, see here).

As I have said earlier, as far as the scientific community goes, no one really cares whether their colleagues are religious or not when it comes to evaluating their science. But clearly this question matters when science spills into the political-religious arena, as is the case with the teaching of so-called intelligent design (ID).

Some well-known religious scientists are biologists Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, and Francisco Ayala. Since they are also opponents of ID, they are frequently brought forward to counter ID arguments since they can simultaneously debunk ID advocate charges that supporters of evolution are necessarily atheists.

Scientists who are also philosophical naturalists have generally not been prominent in the ID debate, or have had their atheistic/agnostic views downplayed. This may be because of the political-religious climate in the US that has led to a strategy of not alienating those religious people who also oppose ID. As Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, says: "Because it is taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs, political debate over questions of public policy (stem-cell research, the ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia, obscenity and free speech, gay marriage, etc.) generally gets framed in terms appropriate to a theocracy."

Harris argues that this is not a good strategy. "While understandable, I believe that such scruples are now misplaced. The Trojan Horse has passed the innermost gates of the city, and scary religious imbeciles are now spilling out." As I said in the previous post, an awareness that this is what is happening is sinking in. He goes on:

The issue is not, as ID advocates allege, whether science can "rule out" the existence of the biblical God. There are an infinite number of ludicrous ideas that science could not "rule out," but which no sensible person would entertain. The issue is whether there is any good reason to believe the sorts of things that religious dogmatists believe -- that God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings; that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception (and, therefore, that blastocysts are the moral equivalents of persons); etc. There simply is no good reason to believe such things, and scientists should stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone."

Harris' views have received enthusiastic support from Richard Dawkins, a prominent neo-Darwinian and atheist who has long criticized what he sees as the attempts by the late Stephen Jay Gould and others to accommodate religious sensibilities and downplay the irrationality of religious beliefs for fear of causing offense and creating an anti-science backlash. He thinks that tiptoeing around religious beliefs simply strengthens the hand of those who wish to undermine science.

As I said earlier, in pursuing scientific questions scientists do not care about the religious views of scientists. But when confronting the challenge of ID and its young Earth adherents, should scientists who are philosophical naturalists stay out of the picture and leave it to only the religious methodological naturalists to combat ID, since the ID people love to portray all scientists as atheists? Or should philosophical naturalists not feel hesitant to also challenge ID, but from an atheistic position, and thus risk confusing the picture?

More on this in the next posting.

POST SCRIPT
If you are in the mood for being disgusted about how unbelievably corrupted the democratic process has become in Congress in general, see this article titled Four Amendments & a Funeral: A month inside the house of horrors that is Congress by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone and posted on August 10, 2005. The article describes how the legislative process has become far removed from what you might have idealized in your government classes or in Schoolhouse Rock. As Rep. Bernie Sanders says "Nobody knows how this place is run. If they did, they'd go nuts."

Taibbi's piece concludes:

After a month of watching [Sanders] and other members, I get the strong impression that even the idealists in Congress have learned to accept the body on its own terms. Congress isn't the steady assembly line of consensus policy ideas it's sold as, but a kind of permanent emergency in which a majority of members work day and night to burgle the national treasure and burn the Constitution. A largely castrated minority tries, Alamo-style, to slow them down -- but in the end spends most of its time beating calculated retreats and making loose plans to fight another day.
Taken all together, the whole thing is an ingenious system for inhibiting progress and the popular will. The deck is stacked just enough to make sure that nothing ever changes. But just enough is left to chance to make sure that hope never completely dies out. And who knows, maybe it evolved that way for a reason.

And that's the current state of democracy in the US.

August 15, 2005

Has the ID movement jumped the shark?

Some time ago, I wrote that I was not worried in the long term about the so-called intelligent design (ID) movement because it would ultimately lose, sharing the fate of all previous faith-based theories in their disputes with science.

The reason is that science has no place for useless ideas. Theories that do not have mechanisms or make predictions or which can be used for some purpose simply do not make it in science. And ID strikes out on all three of those requirements, thus fitting perfectly the description of a useless theory. All it does is provide a story that meets the needs of those who want to think that god intervenes in the world. And that's fine as far as it goes. But what good are such stories for science? Science even prefers demonstrably false theories as long as they are useful. Excellent examples of such latter theories are Newton's laws of motion and gravitation.

While the pre-Copernican adherents of the geocentric model also had religious reasons for their support of the theory, their theory did also make predictions and were used for making astronomical calculations and navigational charts. But when their precision was exceeded by the more accurate elliptical-orbit based Copernican model, all the religious support in the world could not keep that theory from eventually disappearing.

But I think the defeat of ID is going to occur sooner than I had anticipated and I think that it is their very "success" in becoming higher profile that will do them in. Garnering presidential support, rather than being a boost to their fortunes, may be the moment when they jumped the shark because it will have the effect of making people look more closely at what the ID movement really represents and wants.

This is because although the front men (and they do seem to be all men) financed by the Discovery Institute to spread the word of ID are sophisticated and use the vocabulary of science, the main body of people behind them are young Earth creationists who believe that the world was created about 6,000 years ago, that dinosaurs lived alongside humans, and that the Bible is literally true in all its details. Thus Adam and Eve were real people, Noah's flood was a historical event, and god stopped the motion of the Sun. These people are not simply criticizing aspects of evolutionary theory. They are also turning their backs on the bulk of astronomy, physics, geology, and paleontology. They represent a return to a pre-scientific way of thinking.

This split between the visible face of ID and the thinking of the bulk of its supporters has been largely hidden from those members of the public who have not been closely engaged in this discussion. But it was immediately obvious to me when I attended the ID function in Kansas and spoke with many of the attendees. What the recent higher profile of the ID movement has done has revealed this fact to a much larger national audience, and some of those people who had previously looked on it benignly are becoming alarmed.

This alarm is occurring even among those intellectuals who up to now merely saw these Christian militants as ballot fodder, people who could be counted on to turn up in large numbers in "the heartland" to vote in political leaders who could then ignore them.

The realization that this anti-science movement is at the gates of their world has caused a split among the ID movement's political allies. We saw that neoconservative Charles Krauthammer strongly denounced ID until Bush's support for it made him go weak in the knees. Now Krauthammer takes refuge in thinking that sophisticates like him in the big cities are safe from ID-based education, which will remain entrenched among the yokels in the "heartlands." Others are not so sure that the ID movement can be contained this way. Commenters Becky and Cathie pointed out that George Will has also come out against ID and the pandering to religious extremism.

What I expect to see in the future is an edging way from ID by many otherwise sympathetic intellectuals who up to now may have viewed it as a harmless fixation among the lowbrows. Can ID survive in the face of opposition from intellectuals in the influential think tanks who are their allies in other battles but up to now have been largely silent on the ID issue? I don't think so, but it is going to be an interesting development to watch.

POST SCRIPT

Have you noticed something? As the tide of public opinion starts to turn significantly against the Iraq war, the people leading the charge to discredit this wrong and even criminal policy are not coming from the top of Democratic party but from lower-level party members and outsiders like Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a dead soldier, currently camped out in Crawford, Texas and fast becoming a political headache for the administration. (See also the comments by former Senator Gary Hart.)

Why is this? Ari Berman has an insightful analysis of the reasons for the spinelessness of the Democratic party leadership. He basically says that the leadership is riddled with "liberal hawks" on the make, people who carefully tailor their message to promote their own interests within the beltway, trying to reserve their seat on the gravy train.

He quotes someone who says "It's pretty hard to go wrong right now taking a hard-line position [in support of the Iraq war]. There's enough places or institutions that will take care of you. Outside of academia, if you take positions on the other side, there's just nowhere near the level of institutional support."

This is why I continue to emphasize the importance of keeping universities independent and free from outside political meddling. They remain the foundation of a "reality-based" world-view and the source of people who can say what they truly think because they do not have to curry favor with powerful people just in order to get and keep jobs.

August 12, 2005

Should secularists fight for 100% separation of church and state?

Like most atheists, it really is of no concern to me what other people believe. If you do not believe in a god or heaven and hell in any form, then the question of what other people believe about god is as of little concern to you as questions about which sports teams they root for or what cars they drive.

If you are a follower of a theistic religion, however, you cannot help but feel part of a struggle against evil, and often that evil is personified as Satan, and non-believers or believers of other faiths can be seen as followers of that evil. Organized religions also need members to survive, to keep the institution going. So for members of organized religion, there is often a mandate to try and get other people to also believe, and thus we have revivals and evangelical outreach efforts and proselytizing.

But atheists have no organization to support and keep alive with membership dues. We have no special book or building or tradition to uphold and maintain. You will never find atheists going from door to door spreading the lack of the Word.

This raises an interesting question. Should atheists be concerned about religious symbolism in the public sphere such as placing nativity scenes on government property at Christmas or placing tablets of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, both of which have been the subjects of heated legal struggles involving interpretations of the First Amendment to the constitution? If those symbols mean nothing to us, why should we care where they appear?

In a purely intellectual sense, the answer is that atheists (and other secularists) should not care. Since for the atheist the nativity scene has as little meaning as any other barnyard scene, and the Ten Commandments have as much moral force as (say) any of Dave Letterman's top ten lists, why should these things bother us? Perhaps we should just let these things go and avoid all the nasty legal fights.

Some people have advocated just this approach. Rather than fighting for 100% separation of church and state, they suggest that we should compromise on some matters. That way we can avoid the divisiveness of legal battles and also prevent the portrayal of atheists as mean-spirited people who are trying to obstruct other people from showing their devotion to their religion. If we had (say) 90% separation of church and state, wouldn't that be worth it in order to stop the acrimony? Bloggers Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum present arguments in favor of this view, and it does have a certain appeal, especially for people who prefer to avoid confrontations and have a live-and-let-live philosophy.

But this approach rests on a critical assumption that has not been tested and is very likely to be false. This assumption is that the religious community that is pushing for the inclusion of religious symbolism in the public sphere has a limited set of goals (like the items given above) and that they will stop pushing once they have achieved them. This may also be the assumption of those members of non-Christian religions in the US who wish to have cordial relations with Christians and thus end up siding with them on the religious symbolism question.

But there is good reason to believe that the people who are pushing most hard for the inclusion of religious symbolism actually want a lot more than a few tokens of Christian presence in the public sphere. They actually want a country that is run on "Christian" principles (for the reason for the quote marks, see here.) For them, a breach in the establishment clause of the first amendment for seemingly harmless symbolism is just the overture to a movement to eventually have their version of religion completely integrated with public and civic life. (This is similar to the "wedge strategy" using so-called intelligent design (ID). ID advocates see the inclusion of ID (with its lack of an explicit mention of god) in the science curriculum as the first stage in replacing evolution altogether and bringing god back into the schools.)

Digby, the author of the blog Hullabaloo argues that although he also does not really care about the ten commandments and so on, he thinks that the compromise strategy is a bad idea. He gives excellent counter-arguments and also provides some good links on this topic. Check out both sides. Although temperamentally my sympathies are with Yglesias and Drum, I think Digby wins the debate.

So the idea of peaceful coexistence on the religious symbolism issue, much as it appeals to people who don't enjoy the acrimony that comes with conflicts over principle, may be simply unworkable in practice.

POST SCRIPT

In an earlier post, I discussed the op-ed by a cardinal of the Catholic Church who seemed to be backtracking on the church's acceptance of evolution and floating a trial balloon advocating a position close to that advocated by so–called intelligent design. Now comes an article by George Coyne SJ, the Director of the Vatican Observatory which says that the op-ed was wrong.
So, nearly 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species we may be seeing the beginnings of an internal debate in the Catholic Church on what official stand to take on the teaching of evolution. If the earlier struggle over Copernican ideas is any indication, prepare yourselves for a long, long, debate. (Thanks to Cathie for the link to the Coyne article.)

August 11, 2005

When principle collides with power worship, the wreck is not pretty

One of the leading intellectuals of the so-called "neo-conservative" movement (their motto: "We will not rest until all countries are invaded") is Charles Krauthammer. However, just because one is a rabid warmonger does not mean that one has completely lost one's senses and in a recent opinion column in Time magazine entitled Let's Have No More Monkey Trials: To teach faith as science is to undermine both, Krauthammer came down hard on the issue of teaching so-called intelligent design (ID). He decries the recent events in Kansas as "new and gratuitous attempts to invade science, and most particularly evolution, with religion." He calls ID a "tarted-up version of creationism" and hails evolution as "one of the most powerful and elegant theories in all of human science and the bedrock of all modern biology."

He goes further and condemns Cardinal Schonborn's recent ID-inspired critique of evolution, saying:

What we are witnessing now is a frontier violation by the forces of religion. This new attack claims that because there are gaps in evolution, they therefore must be filled by a divine intelligent designer….How many times do we have to rerun the Scopes "monkey trial"? There are gaps in science everywhere. Are we to fill them all with divinity?....To teach faith as science is to undermine the very idea of science, which is the acquisition of new knowledge through hypothesis, experimentation and evidence. To teach it as science is to encourage the supercilious caricature of America as a nation in the thrall of religious authority.

Pretty strong stuff. The problem was that on the very same day that article was published, President Bush, showing no consideration at all for one of his most ardent admirers, comes out in favor of teaching ID in science classes.

When confronted with this unfortunate turn of events, what is an intellectual to do? Does Krauthammer stick to his principles and say that Bush is wrong on this issue and should reconsider his stand? Of course not, because one of the tenets of neocondom is to see Bush as an equal with god in terms of infallibility. To question Bush's rightness on anything (other than to suggest that he should invade more countries more quickly) is to invite immediate dismissal from the neoconservative club, presumably involving some secret midnight ritual sponsored by Fox News.

Instead Krauthammer showed that there is no principle that cannot be sacrificed, no position that cannot be backpedaled from, if one's desire to grovel to power is strong enough.

In his rush to try and reconcile the irreconcilable and ensure that he does not have to face any more embarrassing Presidential undercutting on this issue, Krauthammer takes two contradictory positions. The first is the familiar one that is used to excuse all the policy idiocies of the current administration, that what really matters is the sincerity of the President, not whether the policy is good or even makes any sense ("We really, really believed Iraq had WMDs."). As long as the administration believes in what they are doing, that makes it ok. “It is very clear to me that he is sincere about this,” Krauthammer says, “He is not positioning.”

But what if the President is not sincere and comes out the next day and says that he was just joking, thereby making Krauthammer look foolish again? To cover that flank, Krauthammer also takes a backup position that that's ok too, so the President is right either way. Krauthammer adds: “If you look at this purely as a cynical political move, it will help in the heartlands and people of my ilk care a lot more about Iraq than about textbooks in Kansas.”

In other words, who cares what the hicks in Kansas and the other loser states (codename: "the heartlands") learn in their science classes? After all, our "ilk" and our ilk's children don't live there. We can sacrifice those other children's education as long as it buys us votes and enables us to keep invading other countries.

James Wolcott, always quicker on things like this than anyone else, skewers Krauthammer's craven behavior in his own inimitable style.

August 10, 2005

Distorting the message of Jesus

In the previous posting, I spoke about how the version of Christianity that predominates in the US and its media is one that does not draw much at all from Christ's own teachings. This means that these particular "Christians" have to really stretch to justify some of the intolerant positions that they espouse.

For example, take the current hot-button issue of homosexuality and gay rights. Some Christian groups (like the followers of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson) go to great lengths to portray this as one of the great abominations. But the problem for them is that nowhere in the Bible does Jesus himself even speak about homosexuality, let alone rail against it.

So I was surprised by this letter in the Saturday, July 30, 2005 issue of the Plain Dealer. It was by a Rev. Robert C. Hull of Lakewood who said:

In the discussions about homosexuality, there has been much confusion and many misrepresentations of the Bible. For starters, the biblical references have always been focused on homosexual acts - on sodomy. There has not been a biblical discussion of homosexual tendencies or the inner proclivities of a human being regarding sexual preference.

Jesus speaks directly against sodomy in four passages of the Gospels, all of which are in sections of direct instruction for the immediate task of spreading his word to the whole world (Matthew 10:14-15 and 11:23-24; Luke 10:10-13 and 17:28-30). Since the word "sodomy" comes from the name Sodom, it is evident that the reason Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God was because they engaged in sodomy, among other faithless acts. (emphasis added)

This was an impressive array of citations, enough to convince the casual reader that Falwell, Robertson and company are right and actually channeling Jesus on this issue. How could people like me have missed such a seemingly clear prohibition? But when you actually look up the verses you see that Hull's thesis is a lie and it exposes the fact that these groups have to go to great lengths to distort Jesus' message.

The first problem is that of sheer bad logic. All four citations are variations on the same theme, which in the first one (Matthew 10:14-15) has Jesus telling his followers to go and preach in his name and saying "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town."

So basically, Jesus is comparing what will happen to the people who reject his disciples to what happened to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom is being set as a standard of punishment, not of crimes. You cannot infer from this that it is an indictment of homosexual behavior. At most, the words are clearly a warning against being inhospitable and rude and indifferent.

The second point is that the sins that the people of Sodom allegedly were punished for were not what we commonly think them to be. In fact, as the prophet Ezekiel (16:49-50) points out, "Now this was the sin of Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen."

So if you want to associate a "sin" with the word "sodomy" and the people of Sodom, it would more properly apply to those who are haughty, arrogant, unconcerned, and who do not help the poor and needy.

The sexual connotations of the word sodomy were imposed as a much later development and to read them back into Jesus's words is just plain wrong. If a lay person had written that letter to the Plain Dealer, I would have been generous and dismissed it as intolerance arising from ignorance. But since this is by a clergyman who should know better, I can only put it down to a willful attempt to mislead, its success depending on people being too gullible and lazy to look up the citations.

POST SCRIPT

Paul Krugman describes how those with overtly political agendas are using their rich sources of funding to create a parallel intellectual universe that has little to do with reality. This strategy was initially used with some success to promote things like supply-side economics despite the absence of any evidence that it worked, and now this method is being turned to subjects like global warming and evolution.

August 09, 2005

"Christian" country?

When some people claim that the US is a "Christian" country, they may have a point. In the August 2005 issue of the invaluable Harper's Magazine, Bill McKibben provides some statistics that indicate that the US is "among the most spiritually homogeneous rich nations on earth. Depending on which poll you look at and how the question is asked, somewhere around 85 percent of us call ourselves Christian. Israel, by way of comparison, is 77 percent Jewish." McKibben also reports that 75 percent claim they actually pray to God on a daily basis, but only 33 percent say that they go to church every week.

But the interesting point about McKibben's article The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong is that what all these believers mean by being "Christian" may not bear much resemblance to what Jesus actually preached. In fact, what is conspicuous is the widespread ignorance about the religion and the leader they purport to follow.

For example, he points out that "[o]nly 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels" (my emphasis). And 12 percent believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife! (I have long had the impression that there is no proposition, however idiotic, that you cannot find at least 10 percent, often 20 percent, to agree to on such nationwide surveys.)

What McKibben's article asserts is what I have long suspected, that the "Christianity" that is genuflected to in the US bears only a slight resemblance to the message actually preached by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. As McKibben (a Sunday School teacher at his local church) points out, if one breaks down the essentials of Jesus' teaching, it was very socially oriented, emphasizing the need for us to look out for each other. Jesus' summary (Matthew 25: 32-46) of what distinguished a righteous person from the damned was whether they'd fed the hungry, slaked the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick and the prisoner. (The last requirement should be particularly easy to carry out since the US has six to seven times the number of prisoners of other rich nations.)

This social message has been replaced by a personal, individualistic, self-empowerment, 'feel good' one, that looks on personal wealth and well-being as signs of God's favor. Consider Jesus' advice (Matthew 19:16-24) to a rich man who had asked him what he should do to gain eternal life. He told him to sell everything he add and give it all to the poor, following that with this aside to his disciples: "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." This is not a message, one suspects, that is preached in the modern mega-churches which feature drive-through latte stands, Krispy Kreme doughnuts at services, and sermons on how to reach professional goals and invest your money.

Perhaps the most telling symptom of this deviation from the Gospel message is the fact that three out of four American "Christians" believe that the saying "God helps those who helps themselves" comes from the Bible. It was actually said by Benjamin Franklin and is directly opposite to the message of interdependency preached in the Gospels. But it fits in nicely with a political message that favors tax cuts for the rich, cutting welfare benefits for the poor, and reductions of foreign aid.

What we seem to have in the US (at least among the Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson crowd and their followers) is a religion that is based on the Bible except for the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. It seems to be something cobbled together from pieces of the old testament, some of Paul's letters, and the book of Revelations. What should this hollowed out religion be called? I have so far put the name "Christian" in quotes since this commonly used label hardly seems appropriate for a belief structure that ignores the essentials of Christ's teachings. It seems clear that "Christianity" doesn't fit. What alternative name might be suitable? Any ideas?

POST SCRIPT

I have never understood why people buy bottled water if you don't happen to live in a country where tap water is contaminated. As this article points out, in the US itself, where there is every indication that tap water is in fact better than bottled water, people spend vast amounts of money for what they could get free. The author says that bottled water has become seen as a lifestyle choice, rather than as something that is necessary, and he goes on:

Clean water could be provided to everyone on earth for an outlay of $1.7 billion a year beyond current spending on water projects, according to the International Water Management Institute. Improving sanitation, which is just as important, would cost a further $9.3 billion per year. This is less than a quarter of global annual spending on bottled water.

I drink the bottled water that is now routinely provided at meetings. But I don't spend my own money to buy it, except for the gallon or two I keep for emergencies.

August 08, 2005

The journey to atheism

In a comment to a previous post, Jim Eastman said something that struck me as very profound. He said:

It's also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.
"I contend we are both atheists - I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well." - Stephen F. Roberts

This quote captures accurately an important stage in my own transition from belief to atheism. Since I grew up as a Christian in a multi-religious society and had Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist friends, I had to confront the question of how to deal with other religions. My answer at that time was simple – Christianity was right and the others were wrong. Of course, since the Methodist Church I belonged to had an inclusive, open, and liberal theological outlook, I did not equate this distinction with good or evil or even heaven and hell. I felt that as long as people were good and decent, they were somehow all saved, irrespective of what they believed. But there was no question in my mind that Christians had the inside track on salvation and that others were at best slightly misguided.

But as I got older and reached middle age, I found the question posed by Roberts increasingly hard to answer. It became clear to me that when I said I was a Christian, this was not merely a statement of what I believed. Implicitly I was also saying, in effect if not in words, that I was not a Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc. As in the quote above, I could not satisfactorily explain to myself the basis on which I was rejecting those religions. After all, like most people, I believed in my own religion simply because I had grown up in that tradition. I had little or no knowledge of other religions and hence had no grounds for rejecting them. In the absence of a convincing reason for rejection, I decided to just remove myself from any affiliation whatsoever, and started to consider myself a believer in a god that was not bound by any specific religious tradition.

But when one is just a free-floating believer in god, without any connection to organized religion and the comforting reinforcement that comes with regular worship with others, one starts asking difficult questions about the nature of god and the relationship to humans for which the answers provided by organized religious dogma simply do not satisfy. When one is part of a church or other religious structure one struggles with difficult questions (suffering, the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, original sin, the basis for salvation, etc.) but those difficulties are addressed within a paradigm that assumes the existence of god, and thus always provides, as a last option, saying that the ways of god are enigmatic and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.

But when I left the church, I started struggling with different questions such as why I believed that god existed at all. And if she/he/it did exist, how and where and in what form did that existence take, and what precisely was the nature of the interaction with humans?

I found it increasingly hard to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions and I remember the day when I decided that I would simply jettison the belief in god altogether. Suddenly everything seemed simple and clear. It is possible that I had arrived at this conclusion even earlier but that my conscious mind was rejecting it until I was ready to acknowledge it. It is hard, after all, to give up a belief that has been the underpinning of one's personal philosophy. But the feeling of relief that accompanied my acceptance of non-belief was almost palpable and unmistakable, making me realize hat my beliefs had probably been of a pro forma sort for some time.

Especially liberating to me was the realization that I did not have to examine all new discoveries of science to see if they were compatible with my religious beliefs. I could now go freely wherever new knowledge led me without wondering if it was counter to some religious doctrine.

A childhood friend of mine who knew me during my church-religious phase was surprised by my change and reminded me of two mutual friends who, again in middle age, had made the transition in the opposite direction, from atheism to belief. He asked me if it was possible that I might switch again.

It is an interesting question to which I, of course, cannot know the answer. My personal philosophy satisfies me now but who can predict the future? But while conversions from atheism to belief and vice versa are not uncommon, I am not sure how common it is for a single person to make two such U-turns and end up close to where they started. It seems like it would be a very unlikely occurrence. I don't personally know of anybody who did such a thing.

POST SCRIPT

It is always interesting how the media instinctively resorts to certain standard tropes to reinforce religious beliefs, even when they are wholly inappropriate. Jon Stewart on his Daily Show skewers this way of thinking when the media quickly jumped on the "It's a miracle!" bandwagon to "explain" the lack of any fatalities from the recent Air France plane crash in Toronto when there was a perfectly natural and even admirable alternative explanation at hand. This reason is of, course, the competence of the crew that managed to get everyone off the plane less than two minutes after the crash. And yet the media, rather than giving credit to all the emergency personnel involved, quickly started playing the "miracle" theme.

As Stewart says: "The only thing that was a miracle in that situation was the lightening that hit the plane, that was the act of God. If anything, God was trying to kill these people. His plan was foiled by the crew's satanic competence."

See the video here.

August 05, 2005

Foreign news and foreign correspondents

In July 1983, I lived through a major upheaval in Sri Lanka where rampaging mobs raged through the streets looking for the homes and businesses and members of the minority Tamil community, killing and destroying everything in their path, with the government and the police just standing by doing little or nothing. There was strong speculation that the government had actually instigated and guided the events to serve their own political agenda, but since the government itself was doing the subsequent investigation, one should not be surprised that nothing came of it.

The scale of the events attracted worldwide media attention and huge coverage. After I arrived in the US in October of that year, I visited the libraries to read the newspapers and newsmagazines of that period and was appalled at how the events had been reported here. I was shocked to find that the reporting by nearly all the major newspapers and newsmagazines in the US were incredibly narrow, shallow, biased, and misleading. The sole exception was Mark Fineman, then with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The reports were wrong, however, in an interesting way and with an interesting pattern. It seemed as if the reporters had relied on a combination of just three sources: US (and other western) embassy sources, official Sri Lankan government sources, and members of the upper and middle-class English speaking minority, the kinds of people who populate the cocktail lounges of the major hotels. All these groups had a vested interest in giving just one side of the story. (This was the beginning of my interest in how the media works and how its has agendas other than just giving the facts.)

To understand why this is so, one has to know that the Sri Lankan government at that time was extremely closely allied to the US government, and was adopting very pro-Western policies, strongly favored by the English speaking elites. So all these groups were anxious to disassociate the mobs from the government and to pin the blame for the upheaval on whatever convenient and mysterious elements that they could conjure up.

If the reporters had got translators, gone outside the capital city Colombo and beyond the confines of their luxury hotels and official briefing rooms in the capital, and actually spoken to more representative groups of people and local journalists and academics (which is what Mark Fineman seemed to have done) they were more likely to have obtained an accurate version of events.

This problem is endemic to coverage of fast-breaking news events in foreign countries. Journalists are flown in who know nothing of the local languages, history, and culture, and thus are dependent of little more than official sources and the few English-speaking people who happen to be around.

This is why I am skeptical of foreign news coverage of such events, unless they are by journalists who have a long history of working in the region, have knowledge of its history and culture, preferably know the language as well, and have over the years developed knowledgeable sources. So in the case of Iraq, I take seriously the reporting of Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, and people like them from Iraq. I do not bother to watch the "reporting" of US TV news anchors and journalists who fly in one day, do a report, and fly out the next day.

People like Juan Cole, who is not even a reporter but is a US-based academic, has more to offer than a lot of these foreign correspondents because he has studied the language and history of the middle east, lived in that region for an extended period, can read the newspapers and listen to the broadcasts of the region which feature the writings of the local journalists who are much better informed, and has a good sense of which reports are credible and which are not.

So when you read the news reports of some event from some foreign country, be alert that what you might be reading could be just the version of events put out by the US embassy there, the government of that country (if it happens to be friendly to the US), and a few members of the English speaking elite who have access to the foreign press and like to hang out with them at upscale bars and hotels in the capital city of that country. All of them have a particular agenda, a particular story to tell, and that agenda might have very little to do with the truth.

POST SCRIPT 1

Historian and Middle East scholar Juan Cole has given excellent capsule history of the way that the US government, along with Saudi Arabia, starting with Ronald Reagan in 1980, helped to create what is now Al-Qaeda by supporting Usama Bin Laden, the Afghan mujahideen, and Afghan warlords as a way to undermine the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Cole provides an interesting sidelight:

In the US, the Christian Right adopted the Mujahideen as their favorite project. They even sent around a "biblical checklist" for grading US congressman as to how close they were to the "Christian" political line. If a congressman didn't support the radical Muslim Muj, he or she was downgraded by the evangelicals and fundamentalists.

The whole sordid story of how that strategy, which you will rarely see publicized in the mass media, backfired can be read here.

POST SCRIPT 2

Under the category of news reports that make you shake your head comes this study that suggests that "if you made men more insecure about their masculinity, they displayed more homophobic attitudes, tended to support the Iraq war more and would be more willing to purchase an SUV over another type of vehicle." Women did not show similar correlations.

August 04, 2005

Scientists' Achilles heel

I was reading an article the other day about how, during the World War II, the US government assembled a team of anthropologists to investigate whether there were any fundamental differences between the Japanese "race" and white people which could be exploited to wage biological warfare that would harm them only.

The anthropologists found no differences and that particular war plan was abandoned. This is consistent with our modern scientific consensus that "race" has no biological markers and only makes sense as a social and cultural construct.

But the interesting point is that the anthropologists were told to not consider the ethical implications of their work, and that ethical issues would be taken into account by others when decisions on implementing the biological weapons were made. And presumably, the anthropologists went along with that.

This is the Achilles heel of science, the fact that so much of our work can be easily twisted to serve ends that we might not approve of. And yet we do it anyway. The allure of science is such that it draws in people to work on problems that could, with a few slight modifications, be used to harm innocent people.

Physicists are perhaps the most culpable. After all, we have been responsible for the invention and development of atomic weapons that, in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulted in the deaths of a quarter of a million people. And when one counts the deaths from ore conventional weapons that physicists have helped bring into being, the numbers run probably into the tens, if not hundreds, of millions.

(Some physicists have refused to go along with this. Physics Professor Charles Schwartz at the University of California, Berkeley felt that university federal-funded science (especially physics) was so closely tied to the Pentagon that he refused to ask for grants and started to advise physics students on how to avoid getting sucked into making the Faustian bargain with the military machine. This seriously hampered his career but he stuck to it.)

How can physicists do our research and still sleep at night, knowing the purposes for which it might be used? I think we do the same thing that the anthropologists did. We avoid thinking about the ethics of our actions and hope that others will take ethics into account in due course at the appropriate time. We hope that policy makers will not take advantage of the science we develop for evil purposes, although time and again that hope has proven to be ill-founded. Or we persuade ourselves that while we may be doing something evil, we do it in the cause of preventing an even greater evil. Or we say that on balance science does more good than evil and has saved millions of lives in other ways. (A few of us may actually believe that developing weapons is a good thing and suffer no angst at all.)

All these things are true and they do provide some consolation. But they never quite wash away all the blood on our hands and I think that we physicists justifiably bear a burden of guilt that academics in other disciplines such as (say) history or English or music do not.

In his memoir A Mathematician's Apology, written in 1940, G. H. Hardy takes pride in working on pure mathematics because he felt that it was "useless." By this, he did not mean that it was of no value (he loved the beauty of the subject) but that he felt that, unlike applied mathematics, his field could not be used for evil purposes, that it had no applications at all to the outside world. But time has proved him wrong, and mathematics results that might have been considered too esoteric to have any real usefulness then are now being used in all areas.

It is probably safe to say that there is no area of science or mathematics that is immune from potential misuse. Apart from avoiding science altogether, perhaps our only option is to simultaneously work to prevent governments from using our work for destructive purposes.

POST SCRIPT

The Knight Ridder newspapers say that President Bush has endorsed the teaching of "Intelligent Design" in schools. This should not be too much of a surprise. He has been saying similar things in the past.

August 03, 2005

Harry Potter, Karl Rove, and the allure of puzzles (safe to read - no spoilers!)

Those of you who have followed the series know that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate book. There are clearly many ways in which the saga can proceed to its conclusion and there are heated discussions as to the various ways that the story could end. I myself have had a series of discussions with people where we compared our various predictions of where the stories would go. The people I was arguing with had carefully read all the books and had noted all kinds of details, which they insisted were hints at the author's intention. Since I am told that J. K. Rowling had mapped out the entire plot line in advance, these hints had to be taken seriously.

Since I had read only two of the six books (but have seen all three films) I was at a bit of a disadvantage arguing with these Potter mavens, and they were clearly amused by my temerity in advancing theories without having all the facts. Nevertheless I had my own strong views of how I thought the story would end and I stuck to my guns in the face of their clearly better-informed arguments.

But I started wondering why so many of us are so absorbed in trying to predict the end of the Potter story. It is after all, a work of fiction that has no real importance. But it captivates people. Even in one of the serious political websites that I read, the author of a posting, just in passing, posed a simple question about the ending of book six and what it implied for the future, and immediately there were a huge number of comments with people passionately advancing all kinds of theories and explanations.

Clearly many people are attracted to puzzles such as these and it struck me as a possible explanation for why the Karl Rove-Valerie Plame story has achieved such staying power in the media.

(A detailed time line of the events can be found here but here is a quick recap for those of you who have somehow managed to avoid this story. On July 6, 2003, former ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed saying that in February 2002 he had been sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate the claim that Saddam Hussein's government had tried to purchase 'yellowcake' uranium, presumably as part of a weapons program. He could find no evidence of such efforts and had reported this. He said he had then been surprised by the famous 'sixteen words' in President Bush's January 2003 State of the Union address ("“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.") which he felt implied something that was opposite to what he had found and reported. As a result, he wrote the op-ed. The very next week, newspaper columnist Robert Novak wrote that he had been informed by unidentified administration sources that Wilson had been suggested for this mission by his wife Valerie Plame, who worked for the CIA. That was when events escalated because revealing the identity of a covert CIA employee is a crime. There is now a full-scale investigation before a grand jury empanelled by a special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald who has been working since December 2003 on the case, and much of the speculation about the sources of this leak centers on the President's close advisor Karl Rove and the Vice President's chief of staff 'Scooter' Libby.)

The media have been all over this story and their doggedness bemuses me a little when I think of all the far more serious stories that they glossed over. After all, the attack on Iraq was from the beginning based on false premises that could have been uncovered and exposed if the media had approached that task with anything close to the thoroughness with which they are acting in the Valerie Plame case. The war has resulted in the deaths of about a hundred thousand Iraqis, untold numbers injured, nearly two thousand US soldiers dead and about ten thousand injured, Iraq in ruins with its infrastructure shattered, the US undermining its own armed forces, spending money it cannot afford, and still there is no good solution or end in sight. All this might have been avoided if the media had not given this administration a free pass in selling this war by letting all kinds of misleading statements to be made and left unchallenged, and allowed the country to be raised to a fever pitch of fear. (See this week's Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World cartoon here.)

So why this media doggedness with respect to the relatively minor Plame revelations? (I am not saying that revealing the identity of a CIA agent is not important, just making a comparison with all the other shenanigans going on right now.) Reporters are examining documents closely, parsing words and sentences, creating timelines, comparing different statements for possible contradictions, poring over evidence, questioning motives, digging for information, not taking things at face value, aggressively challenging the White House Press Secretary's statements, and so on. Very little of this was done when the significantly more important question of war was involved. Then the press dutifully repeated what the administration told them, acting like stenographers and mouthpieces and cheerleaders rather than reporters. No one was more guilty of this kind of behavior than Judith Miller of the New York Times who has been jailed by the special prosecutor for contempt, possibly because she is protecting the administration sources that fed her false information about Iraq and its purported weapons of mass destruction, and which she dutifully 'reported' as part of the effort to create war frenzy. Sam Smith in an essay titled How Journalism Went Bad on his website Progressive Review traces some reasons for the decline in journalism.

I think the reason for the interest in the Valerie Plame-Karl Rove story is the same as that causing the Harry Potter interest. People like puzzles that clearly have a solution, where there are tantalizing clues, where there is a paper trail, and, most importantly, where the consequences are not that serious. After all, in the Plame affair, nobody is going to die and the government is not going to collapse. At the worst, some minor official will resign or go to prison for a short time for perjury or revealing classified information. This makes the whole exercise a game, like playing Clue, and it becomes a race to see who first solves the puzzle correctly. Reporters love this kind of thing.

Serious matters like starting an unprovoked war against another country on false pretences, however, involve high crimes and misdemeanors and are grounds for impeachment and the basis for trials of war crimes. Reporters are not going to go anywhere near that kind of thing out of fear for what they might uncover.

It sometimes does happen, like in the case of Watergate, that what starts out as a simple and small and intriguing puzzle (which was what the initial Watergate investigation was) could end up unraveling the whole fabric of the government. But I think that there is no chance of that happening in this case. The really big scandal associated with the Plame affair, that the country was taken into a catastrophic war on false pretences, is by now well established and there seems to be no huge public outcry. So the Plame affair is likely to stay an intriguing puzzle that can be enjoyed by everyone who is not too preoccupied with speculating about the end of the Harry Potter saga.

POST SCRIPT

The London bombings have raised again the issue of whether security forces should randomly search people or use profiles for targeted searches. Tim Wise argues in The Faulty Logic of "Terrorist" Profiling why profiling will not help.

August 02, 2005

Harry Potter's school life and mine (safe to read - no spoilers!)

One of the appealing things for me personally about the Potter books are the similarities with my own education, which results in waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I read the stories. I went to a single-sex private school in Sri Lanka that was modeled on the British boarding school like Hogwarts, although about half the students (including me) commuted from home. We were called 'day-scholars' which, looking back now, seems like a quaint but dignified label when compared to the more accurate 'commuters.'

As in Hogwarts, we had teachers (some of whom we liked and others whom we disliked), who mostly taught in a didactic style, and we did have punishments like detention, writing lines, and even canings. In my own school, only the principal and vice principals could officially cane students, though some teachers still resorted to painful raps on the knuckles with rulers or even slaps across the face. Our chemistry teacher, who was an exceedingly kind and gentle man, nevertheless could be provoked to fits of violent rage which completely transformed him for a short time into a raging monster, during which he would lash out with the rubber hoses that were readily available in the laboratories, sometimes raising welts on an offending student's arm. The rage would subside as quickly as it was triggered and the teacher would be immediately overcome with remorse, apologizing profusely and begging for forgiveness, which we always agreed to because we liked him. We were fascinated by his Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations.

We also had the system of 'houses', which involved the separation of students into separate groups (such as Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff, and Ravenclaw), each of which had a master in charge. The boarded students (or 'boarders') even had separate dormitories based on the houses. These houses were set in competition with each other, earning points for various achievements, These points were totaled at the end of the year, with a trophy going to the winning house, giving them bragging rights for a year.

The houses were a good way of encouraging team spirit and intramural competition, and provided opportunities for students who were not good enough to be in the school teams (or 'varsity' teams as they are known here) to still take part in a competitive program with their fellow students. I think that this system helped to increase participation of students in extracurricular activities because most students took seriously their responsibilities to help their house do well. The downside was that the competition could sometimes be too fierce, leading to churlish and unsportsmanlike behavior. The intramural quidditch games that take place at Hogwarts were mirrored in the cricket, rugby, and hockey matches at my school.

We also had the 'prefect' system, which must sound strange to American readers. (Hermione is a prefect in book 6 and I too was a prefect during my last two years in school.) A prefect was essentially a student who was given authority over his fellow students. A prefect was selected by the master in charge of each house and appointed by the school principal. Very few students were prefects. We had special privileges that others did not, such as being allowed to leave school premises during the day and a special lounge reserved exclusively for our use. We had the power to enforce rules during the school day, at special functions, and at athletic events, and could issue punishments such as detentions to 'evil doers.' In earlier times, prefects at my school were also allowed to use corporal punishments (such as caning misbehaving students), but that was taken away before my time as the use of corporal punishments became more restricted.

At that time, we saw it as a great privilege and honor to be selected as a prefect. It was viewed as recognizing and building leadership qualities. Looking back now, it does not seem to be such an unadulterated good thing. I sometimes wonder whether the house and prefect system was not also a cheap means of extending the reach of the school administration by creating a free labor force of rule enforcers. The house system and the prefect system may also have been a means of enhancing teacher and administration control over students by weakening overall student cohesion, another manifestation of the 'divide and rule' philosophy that the British used so successfully to maintain control over their colonies but which often resulted in ethnic strife and civil wars when they left.

But at other times I think that I am reading too much into this, and seeing too many dark undercurrents in well meaning, if perhaps misguided, attempts at encouraging student participation and developing student leadership. Perhaps I should lighten up.

POST SCRIPT

I find William Faulkner difficult to read and understand, and struggled through The Sound and the Fury. But I found the winning essay in the 2005 FAUX FAULKNER contest hilarious. It is by Sam Apple and is called The Administration and the Fury: If William Faulkner were writing on the Bush White House. You can read it here.

August 01, 2005

Harry Potter's school life (safe to read - no spoilers!)

I just finished reading the latest episode of the Harry Potter saga. I cannot claim to be a rabid fan since I have read only book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) and book 6 (Half-Blood Prince), although I have seen all three film versions, but they have all been enjoyable.

Reading these books reminds me of my own school days and of much of the British schoolboy literature I read as a child, especially the Billy Bunter series and the Tom Merry series, both written by the same author Frank Richards. (These books were produced at such a prodigious rate that there were suspicions that 'Frank Richards' was the pseudonym of a whole stable of authors just churning out the stuff.)

There was a rigid formula to these books, the main features of which the Potter series largely adheres to. The schools were all boarding schools, and the stories started with students arriving at the beginning of the academic year and having various adventures that fortuitously ended just at the end of the school year. (There was a complementary series of children's books by Enid Blyton which took place during the summer, with a group of friends arriving at their home town from various boarding schools, and having an adventure that ended just in time for them to go their separate ways the next academic year.)

The big difference between Harry Potter and the earlier Billy Bunter and Tom Merry series is that although the context of a British boarding school is the same, the Potter books are far better written, with complex plots and characters developed realistically, dealing with important issues of good and evil, and real human emotions. The books I read as a child had stereotypical characters (the smart student, the bully, the figure of fun, the lisping aristocrat, the athlete, the sarcastic one, etc.) who all behaved in highly predictable ways. Those characters were two-dimensional and never changed, never grew or matured. This was reassuring in some ways because you knew exactly what you were getting with the books, but you cannot enjoy them as an adult the way you can with Potter.

The earlier books and schools were also single sex and we young boys only read the books about boys' schools, while girls only read equivalent books dealing with girls' boarding schools. The only members of the opposite sex that appeared in the books were siblings who made cameo appearances. For all we knew, the books written for the boys may have been identical to those written for the girls with just the genders (and sports) of the characters switched, such was the rigid separation between what boys and girls read when we were growing up. There was no romance whatsoever in any of the story lines. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is co-ed, a major difference.

Another similarity between Potter and the earlier books is that the educational practices in all the schools are pretty conventional. The classes are run in an authoritarian way. As someone pointed out, Hogwarts seems a lot like a trade school, with students learning very specific skills involving potions, hexes, and the like, mostly by rote memory and repetitive practice, similar to the way the earlier books had students learning Latin and Greek. There does not really seem to be a theory of magic or even any interest in developing one. Some magic works, others don't, with no serious attempts to discover why. There is little or no questioning of the teachers or class discussions, or inquiry-oriented teaching.

Rowling is mining a very rich vein of British school literature. As we will see in the next posting, the world she creates is probably very familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up in an English-language school anywhere in the British colonies. What she has done is added magic (and good writing) to a tried and true formula. But since that tradition of boarding school-based fiction is not present in the US, it is interesting that she has managed to strike such a chord in readers here as well.

POST SCRIPT

An anonymous commenter to an earlier post gave a very useful link to the various shades of meaning attached to atheism and definitions of atheism and agnosticism.