Entries for October 2005

October 31, 2005

The strangeness of George W. Bush

While Iraq unravels before everyone's eyes, the White House administration devolves into incoherence under the weight of indictments (both actualized and pending) of its senior members, and finger pointing and blame for the debacle starts being spread around, it is time to look more closely at the curious role of George W. Bush in all this.

As I have said before, I do not feel that it is a very useful exercise to try and find out what public figures are 'really' like in private. One should simply judge them by their public actions and consequences and their official role in it. And when it comes to Iraq, the picture is clear, even if the image of the person behind the decision is not. The policy was flawed, the attack on Iraq was based on lies and deception, and since he was the President and had to authorize all the decisions, he has to be held responsible for the results and be taken to task. For any substantive purpose, it does not matter what Bush is 'really' like.

Having said that, there is always some residual fascination with the 'real' character of people who are so public (witness the public's endless fascination with celebrity news, gossip, and interviews), and George Bush is a particularly enigmatic and intriguing person, since he has been at the center of a turbulent and short period that has seen one debacle after another.

There are several conflicting public images of Bush. It is interesting that in some quarters he is perceived as a somewhat minor player in the whole matter. This plays into the image that he is a stupid man, a buffoon, the butt of jokes by television comedians, made fun of in the White House parody website, easily pushed around by those around him, who has to be told what to do, where to go, what to say. This is the The Pet Goat-reading, Michael Moore Fahrenheit 9/11 image of Bush. In this image, he is just a front man for other interests, a marionette, with the strings being pulled by Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld. This image is undoubtedly helped by Bush's famous verbal slips and gaffes, his seeming inability to think on his feet, and his reluctance to engage in any forum that is not tightly scripted and surrounded by supporters. (See, for example, this Saturday Night Live sketch which pokes fun at the much-ridiculed scripted Q&A that Bush had with troops in Iraq last week. The sketch takes swipes at Brit Hume and Fox News as well.)

But contrasting this is the fact that, during the first presidential campaign and especially during his earlier campaign for governor of Texas, one would have seen an articulate and coherent Bush who rattled off long, complex, grammatically correct sentences and seemed to know what he was talking about.

The second image is the "official" one, that of the affable, simple, straight talker, a regular guy, someone who speaks his mind in plain words, and likes nothing better than to wear blue jeans, drive his pickup around his ranch, and find brush to clear. (Given the amount of brush clearing he has done during his long periods at his ranch, his must be either the most brush-infested ranch in the nation or one that actually cultivates brush as a crop.) But this image is undermined by the fact that he is the son of extreme privilege, born to a very wealthy and well-connected family who has gone to expensive and exclusive private boarding schools and then to Ivy League colleges. He has spent his whole life amongst wealthy people.

Then there is the third image that is whispered about by insiders, that of the autocratic, bullying, vindictive, ruthless, stubborn, petulant, and petty person, a typical spoiled child who wants people to be obsequious towards him, who holds grudges and lets loose profanity-filled tirades against those who cross him. This is the image of a man who, once he decides what he wants to do, does not want to even hear anything that challenges his beliefs, a person who always wants to get his way whatever the cost to others or the nation. This is the man whom the BBC reports as saying that god told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. This is the man who enjoys the trappings of power, taking every opportunity to dress up in uniform and surround himself with saluting troops. (See the report of Bush interview with an Irish reporter who was not willing to play the obsequious game that the Washington press corps does. She reports that at one point during the interview she was so irritated at his attitude that she felt like slapping him.)

Then there is the fourth image of a shrewd and cunning leader who knows how to use people to advance his agenda, and who understands politics better than most people and is able to appeal to the visceral response of people to emotional appeals to patriotism, god, and strength, even if the resulting policies make no sense. This is the man who repeatedly in his public utterances tries to link the events of September 11, 2001 and terrorism as the justification for the invasion of Iraq (although knowledgeable observers have long concluded that there are no such links and there never were) because he knows that if you repeat emotional appeals often enough, there are enough people in the media who are cowed by people in high office who will obligingly support you and repeat your claims, thus giving them some credibility. In this image, Bush is the master puppeteer, making other people do what he wants so that he can achieve his goals.

These kinds of multiple images of a US President are nothing new. Having more than one face serves some useful purposes and for this reason one should be wary of taking any one of them seriously. One of the prime goals of those surrounding the President is to maintain deniability for the President so that whatever goes wrong does not reflect badly on him. The out-of-the-loop figure of fun is sometimes useful when things go wrong, because it can be used to point to others as the culprits who did things without the President knowing. This was the strategy employed by former Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush during the Iran-Contra fiasco. Richard M. Nixon purposefully tried to convey an image of irrationality, of being a "madman" during the Vietnam war, hoping that it would cause the North Vietnamese to negotiate terms more palatable to the US because of fears that he would do something stupid and extreme, such as use a nuclear weapon.

But having so many contrasting images, as George W. Bush does, is unusual. So which image of Bush is 'real'? As I said before, it really does not matter. But journalist Patrick Cockburn writing in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter has a quote that I think is particularly revealing:

One Iraqi leader, who has met frequently with President George W. Bush, attributes many of the bizarre events of the last three years to him. "What a strange man," he exclaimed. "Not stupid, but very, very strange."

I could not put it better myself.

POST SCRIPT: Revisiting Katrina and race

Tim Wise provides a long but cogent analysis of the way race framed the Katrina news coverage.

October 27, 2005

The mess that is Iraq-4: Why things fell apart

One of the peculiar things about history is how the great powers of any given era do not think that the lessons of history apply to them, that somehow the present conditions are so qualitatively different that there is little to be learned from the past, because the old rules are not applicable anymore. And by ignoring the lessons of history, they suffer the consequences.

This particular administration seems to have not avoided this kind of hubris. In fact, it seems to have been even more arrogant than its predecessors, even to the extent that it thinks it could create its own reality.

Patrick Cockburn, longtime observer of Iraq and a correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent writing in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter draws upon some of the lessons from history that might have been useful if they had been fully considered.

One of these lessons is that there have always been two countervailing tensions in Iraq. There are the traditional suspicions and tensions that divide the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities. But these divisions have been countered by their greater joint dislike of foreign occupiers. This fact, that uniting to repel an occupying force tends to trump internal divisions, has been an almost constant factor in colonial history in many countries and yet it always seems to come as a surprise to the new occupying forces.

Cockburn points out that when the British captured Baghdad in 1917, they eventually faced an uprising from the Iraqis that left 2,269 dead and wounded occupying British and Indian troops and an estimated 8,450 Iraqi's dead. Cockburn points out that "highly informed British officials in Baghdad at the time underestimated the fact that, however much Shia and Sunni disliked each other, they hated the British even more."

But while the first major rebellion against the British in 1920 took nearly three years to come to fruition, it took only three months for a rebellion on a similar scale to occur following the 2003 invasion. Cockburn says that the vast majority of Iraqis did not support Saddam Hussein and did not fight for him, thus leading to the initial 'cakewalk.' But he adds "Strangely, the Americans and the British never seem to have understood the extent to which the occupation outraged Iraqi nationalism, though anger might take a different form in the Sunni and Shia communities."

Support for Cockburn's position comes from this secret survey recently commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence (and revealed by the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph) which found that the majority of Iraqis support attacks on UK troops. Keep in mind that British troops are supposed to have better relations with the local population than the Americans.

According to the Telegraph report:

The survey was conducted by an Iraqi university research team that, for security reasons, was not told the data it compiled would be used by coalition forces. It reveals:
  • Forty-five per cent of Iraqis believe attacks against British and American troops are justified - rising to 65 per cent in the British-controlled Maysan province;
  • 82 per cent are "strongly opposed" to the presence of coalition troops;
  • less than one per cent of the population believes coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security; (my emphasis)
  • 67 per cent of Iraqis feel less secure because of the occupation;
  • 43 per cent of Iraqis believe conditions for peace and stability have worsened;
  • 72 per cent do not have confidence in the multi-national forces. The opinion poll, carried out in August, also debunks claims by both the US and British governments that the general well-being of the average Iraqi is improving in post-Saddam Iraq.
The opinion poll, carried out in August, also debunks claims by both the US and British governments that the general well-being of the average Iraqi is improving in post-Saddam Iraq.

As Cockburn points out, the extent of the dislike for the occupation forces can be seen by the reaction of bystanders to the killing of American and British personnel. In the well-publicized incident in 2004 when American contractors bodies were mutilated in Fallujah "they were mutilated not by the insurgents who killed them but by townspeople, day laborers waiting by the roadside for a job. The same savage joy was visible on the faces of the Shia crowd setting fire to the British armored vehicle in Basra on September 19 this year."

Then just last month, on September 10 in an incident which received surprisingly little news coverage and was confirmed by the US military only on October 23 "Four US contractors for the US military were killed in Iraq last month, the military says, confirming an attack that a British newspaper said saw two of the men murdered in front of a jeering crowd."

The report goes on:

At least two of the men were dragged alive from their vehicle, which had been badly shot up, and forced to kneel in the road before being killed, it said.

"Killing one of the men with a rifle round fired into the back of his head, they doused the other with petrol and set him alight," the newspaper report said.

There is a very strange coda to this story that cries out for further explication. These contractors were not alone but were actually being escorted by a US military convoy but "US soldiers escorting the convoy were unable to respond quickly because the hatches on their Humvees were closed."

History tells us that military occupations breed resistance. The longer the occupation, the more determined and widespread the resistance becomes.

You can learn from history or you can ignore it at your peril. People who think that they can control reality are likely to choose the latter option. And the current administration seems to belong in that camp.

POST SCRIPT: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

trail of dead1.jpg I am not sure how many of you have seen Luis Bunuel's classic 1972 absurdist comedy with the above name. On the surface it deals with the repeated attempts by a group of sophisticates to get together for a meal and having it repeatedly disrupted by a series of increasingly improbable events, while beneath the surface it is a satire on social manners and hypocrisy.

The main narrative segments of the film are separated by scenes in which the characters are shown walking determinedly down a remote road on a hot sunny day. These walking scenes have no obvious connection with what went on previously or came later. It is not clear where the people are coming from or where they are going, but they walk with a sense of purpose. Each repetition of this sequence makes you laugh more at the sheer pointlessness of it all.

When I saw this photograph over the summer, it felt vaguely familiar but I could not pin it down. Now I realize that it reminded me, both literally and metaphorically, of that film from long ago. A group of determined people resolutely going nowhere...

October 26, 2005

The mess that is Iraq-3: The reasons for the invasion

The one question that everyone keeps puzzling over in analyzing the Iraq debacle is why? Why did the US attack Iraq? It has become increasingly clear that the Bush administration had long wanted to invade Iraq and was just waiting for an excuse to do so. The events of September 11, 2001 was seized by them as a means to persuade the public to support them in their mission, although we know now that the case making the links between Iraq and September 11 was fraudulent.

The reason most often proposed by the administration, that the invasion was an important part of the war on terror, can be dismissed since we know that despite strenuous efforts by the administration, the purported links have proven to be next to non-existent.We also now know that the other "official" argument, that Iraq had or was on the verge of acquiring WMDs, is also false. So other reasons must be at play and people have been resorting to all kinds of speculations.

The following is a list of the many other reasons that have been speculated about by various people: the control of Iraqi oil; the need to establish a strategic and long-term military base in the Middle East since Saudi Arabia was asking the US to leave its soil; Iraq as the first step in a successive series of invasions of other countries such as Iran and Syria so that eventually the US would control the entire region; to act in Israel's interests and disarm an enemy of Israel; to bring democracy to Iraq; to project US power and show the world that the US had the power to invade any nation it wanted to, thus cowing any other nation's ambitions to challenge the US in any way; to prevent Saddam Hussein from switching to the euro as a reserve currency for oil purchases, thus threatening US financial markets; an opportunity to test the new generation of weaponry in the US arsenal; to finish what was seen as unfinished business from the first Gulf war in 1991; to avenge the alleged attempt by Iraq on George H. W. Bush's life; to enable George W. Bush to show his father that he was tougher than he was; because George W. Bush, despite his efforts to avoid actual military service himself, was enamored of the idea of being Commander in Chief and dearly wanted to be a 'war president.'

We see that the possible reasons span the range of political, economic, strategic, personal, and psychological. We may not know the actual reasons for some time but my own suspicion is that there may not be a single or even two or three reasons for invading Iraq. It may be that there were many groups with differing agendas jockeying for influence in Washington and the one action they could agree on as to invade Iraq, even though they each had different reasons for doing so. This might explain the incoherence of the administration's case for war. Policies based on bad reasoning often occur because while everyone can see the flaws in the rationale proposed by others, they do not criticize it too strongly since they want the action to be taken for other reasons. So none of the rationales are really subjected to tight scrutiny. While each argument for the action is weak, the fact that many people can agree on the action itself makes the action seem more reasonable that it really deserves to be.

Another thing that I think they agreed on and sincerely believed was that invading Iraq would be easy. Cheney said he expected it to be a cakewalk and I think that in that one statement at least he was actually telling the truth. After all, the US had easily overthrown the Taliban government in Afghanistan and it was well known to intelligence sources that after almost a decade of war with Iran, followed by a humiliating withdrawal from Kuwait during the first Gulf war, and then another decade of debilitating sanctions, the Iraq military was weak reed, easily crushed by the powerful US army.

So dangling before policy makers was a tempting option: Invade Iraq because that would please all the different pressure groups desiring this action and cause them to support the president, achieve a quick victory, reap all the diverse benefits outlined above, and then bask in the political adulation that victorious military operations always brings to a nation's leaders. It must have seemed at the time like a no-lose proposition. As an additional bonus, the people of Iraq would be rid of an autocratic leader, thus enabling the US to polish its credentials as opponents of dictatorships.

Thus one can see why the fateful decision was made to attack Iraq even if one cannot isolate a single specific reason. And the actual invasion of March 2003 was a 'cakewalk' as predicted, enabling Bush to first pose in a flight suit and then stand proudly beneath the 'Mission Accomplished' banner on an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003.

And that's when things started to fall apart, as we will see tomorrow.

October 25, 2005

The mess that is Iraq-2: How could it have happened?

There is no question in the minds of any but the most diehard supporters of George Bush that what has happened in Iraq can only be described as a debacle. The only serious debates that are occurring now center around two issues: (1) How could this mess have happened? and (2) What is to be done now.

As is usually the case when a policy starts to go seriously wrong, people involved in it start to divulge previously confidential information in a way that seeks to deflect blame from themselves and put it on others. Current and former administration officials are currently leaking information all over the place, a sure sign that insiders have acknowledged that the policy is a failure and that the only thing remaining is to determine who gets saddled with the blame. It is usually in the swirl of charges and countercharges that ensue from such attempts at blame avoidance that one can try to piece together the truth from the debris. While doing this truth reconstruction, one has to be aware that all the people speaking out now have an element of self-interest in revealing what they want you to know.

The latest is the broadside delivered by Lt. Col. Larry Wilkerson, chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was Secretary of State, who blames the whole Iraq fiasco on what he calls a 'cabal' of policy ideologues led by Cheney and Rumsfeld who, in their zeal to control and remake the Middle East, ignored the long-time professionals in the State Department and other agencies who knew something about what was likely to be encountered if an invasion of Iraq was carried out. (See here for the full transcript of Wilkerson's speech.)

Wilkerson's public denunciation of Cheney and Rumsfeld as the prime architects of the failed Iraq policy was followed by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft's interview in the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine (see here for excerpts) where he describes the way the current administration distanced themselves from those who said things they did not want to hear.

It may only be a matter of time before Colin Powell comes out publicly as well, with his own version of events. Powell has a long history (going back to the days when he was asked to investigate the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and initially said that nothing had happened) of being willing to go along with all kinds of dubious policies in order to advance his career. But when things go wrong, he leaks information to reporters suggesting that he was secretly opposed to the failed policy all along, and tried to challenge it unsuccessfully. The image that he tries to convey is that if not for him, things would have been much worse, and that is why he did not speak out or resign when flawed policies were adopted.

Powell's biggest challenge so far has been to resurrect his image following his shameful performance at the United Nations on February 5, 2003, when his speech just prior to the invasion of Iraq was based on information that was known to be either false or dubious or misleading. That speech convinced many people, both here and abroad, that the case for war was strong. To be quite honest, even at that time, anyone who had been following the WMD saga closely knew that it was very unlikely that Iraq had any WMDs or was even close to having any capability to produce them. Many knowledgeable observers were highly skeptical of Powell's speech even then. But Powell's speech provided the cover for those who wanted the US to, for whatever reason, attack a country that had never threatened it.

But that speech has come back to haunt him as it has emerged that almost all the arguments made for war were false. As is usually the case when Powell is involved in a policy fiasco, news stories based on 'anonymous but highly placed' sources have come out how he himself was dubious at that time about the information on which his speech was based, but that he felt that he had been deceived.

Thus Powell tries to burnish his image, suggesting that he was the one wise and ethical person in the group, trying to influence policy in a good way but unable to do so because of the Machiavellian actions of others who maneuvered against him.

But this particular case is a hard sell. It may not be enough to put Powell in the position where he loves to project himself be, as the squeaky clean person surrounded by knaves. He may have to come out publicly, though that risks opening himself up for public questioning, something that carries its own dangers.

All these issues are coming to head as rumors swirl endlessly in the news media about where special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity will lead. Will it end up in indictments? Will it reveal who was behind the infamous 'sixteen words' about the uranium from Niger? Will it open the door to how it could possibly be that the US blundered into what journalist Patrick Cockburn calls "one of the greatest disasters in American history," even worse than Vietnam?

The Fitzgerald investigation is winding down. The term of the grand jury empanelled in this case ends on October 28th. Stay tuned this week for developments ...


I just saw the new film Good Night, and Good Luck about Edward R. Murrow's struggle with Senator Joe McCarthy during the 1950s red scare and witch hunts. I found the film to be thoroughly engrossing, especially as an allegory of current events about the relationship between the media and politics. The film raised a lot of themes that I found particularly relevant and I will write about them later. Any one who likes the genre of political films will not want to miss it.

October 24, 2005

The mess that is Iraq

One of these days, the number of US soldiers killed will reach a milestone of 2,000. The media will take solemn note of this event. Of course, the very fact that the focus is only on US troop deaths is a measure of how insular the media coverage is. The 2,000 mark of non-Iraqi coalition forces (mainly US and UK) deaths passed 2000 sometime ago with no fanfare and is now approaching 2,200. (See here for current totals.) And, of course, the total deaths of the fledgling Iraqi security forces, presumably allies of the coalition forces, are not usually reported (although you can see the current number which is about 3,500 here), nor are the huge number of civilians killed by the ongoing war. Estimates of the last category currently lie between 26,000 and 30,000. And when one adds the injured to all these totals, one gets a sense of the immense cost of this war.

At a meeting last month, part of the Cindy Sheehan Camp Casey cross-country bus tour, at which I spoke, I showed a graph similar to this of the rate of non-Iraqi coalition casualties of the war, on which were marked so-called landmark events, things that were signaled by the US government as significant turning points in the war. The latest political move in this sequence, not shown on the graph, was the referendum on the new constitution in Iraq, another touted 'landmark on the road to democracy in Iraq', which occurred just this month. (Graph is from The Intelligence Squad Reports, where you can see the original graph.)

What was significant was that the graph is a straight line, showing that none of these events had caused any significant shift in the intensity of the attacks on the US occupation.

This struck me as significant because as many of you may have noticed, the deaths of US troops in Iraq has ceased to be a national news story in the media. It is now mainly a local story and is reported in the local media when a hometown soldier or marine is killed. Since this is a rare event in any given community, this may have led many to think that the violence in Iraq is abating and that all the political maneuvers that are so exhaustively reported are having a calming effect.

The website that tracks coalition forces deaths shows that far from abating, the rate of deaths goes on, a steady drumbeat of violence. In fact, the present month seems to have the highest rate of coalition forces deaths since January of this year.

Patrick Cockburn, longtime observer of Iraq and a correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent has a long report in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter that paints a dismal picture of the state of affairs in Iraq and suggests that despite the determined efforts by the US and UK governments to paint all these political developments as significant improvements, they may only be making things worse. He writes:

A deep crisis is turning into a potential catastrophe because President George W. Bush and Tony Blair pretend that the situation in Iraq is improving. To prove to their own publics that progress is being made they imposed on Iraq a series of artificial milestones, which have been achieved but have done nothing to end the ever-deepening violence. The latest milestone was the referendum on the new constitution - the rules of the game by which Iraq is to be governed - on which Iraq voted on October 15. The document was rushed through with the U.S. and British ambassadors sitting in on the negotiations. The influential Brussels-based think tank, the International Conflict Group, warns in a very sensible report that because the five million Sunni Arabs see the constitution as legitimizing the break up of the country the referendum will insure that "Iraq will slide towards full-scale civil war."

Cockburn continues with a sobering and devastating assessment:

The need for the White House to produce a fantasy picture of Iraq is because it dare not admit that it has engineered one of the greatest disasters in American history. It is worse than Vietnam because the enemy is punier and the original ambitions greater. At the time of the invasion in 2003 the USA believed it could act alone and win. … It is a defeat more serious than Vietnam because it is self-inflicted like the British invasion of Egypt to overthrow Nasser in 1956…A better analogy is the Boer War, at the height of British imperial power, when the inability of its forces to defeat a few thousand Boer farmers damagingly exposed Britain's real lack of military strength and diplomatic isolation. (my emphasis)

I will write more about Cockburn's analysis of Iraq. It is not pleasant reading.

October 21, 2005

Debating tricks and defenses in the IDC debate

In the postings this week, I have been looking at the way that IDC people have been using language to blur crucial distinctions and to hide their true agenda.

In order to combat this, the scientific people have to be very careful and adopt two strategies. The first is to not let the IDC people control the vocabulary of the debate. The second is to constantly expose the long-term agenda of the IDC people.

In the first case, we should not let the IDC people pretend they are not talking about god when they refer to an 'intelligent designer.' If they claim that what they are proposing is science, we should demand that they, like any scientist who invents a new concept, produce an operational definition for their concept of 'intelligent designer.' Then we can compare their operational definition with that of an operational definition of god to see if we are talking about two different things or the same thing. For a definition of god we can tentatively propose (following the Oxford English Dictionary definition) "A superhuman person….who is worshipped as having power over nature and the fortunes of mankind." But is this operational? An operational definition of god might be "an entity who cannot be detected by measuring instruments but is yet capable of influencing events in the natural world." Of course, this definition does not rule out other entities like the devil and other spirits, so it needs to be fine-tuned. I am open to suggestions for improvement.

We should also not let them assert that they are not creationists simply because they do not use that particular word. Again, we need an operational definition of a generic creationist and see if the operational definition of intelligent design does not meet that generic category. I assert that it does because 'creationism' can be operationally defined as the belief that certain things come into being that are outside the workings of natural laws, and IDC definitely makes that assertion. I will use Robert Pennock's label of Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) to make clear that theirs is just a variant of creationism that can be distinguished from young-Earth creationism (YEC), old-Earth creationism (OEC), and extra-terrestrial creationism (ET-IDC) but still falls under the creationist umbrella.

Third, we should reject their attempt to divide science into 'empirical science' and 'origins science' and to use that spurious division to imply that theories that fall into the latter category are evaluated by different means than those in the former category. This strategy enables them to avoid any empirical evidence for the theory of intelligent design. This division is spurious since all science is empirical and all require evidentiary warrants.

The real, and long-term, goals of the IDC people should also be relentlessly emphasized. The spokesmen for IDC downplay their goals and make minimalist claims when they are speaking to general audiences and trying to influence public policy. Then they claim that all they want is for IDC theory to be accepted as an alternative to evolutionary theory or for the 'controversy' about evolution to be taught.

But that is not what they want. As their Wedge Strategy document clearly states, they seek "nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies." The "Governing Goals" of the movement are to "defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies" and to "replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."

In short, they want to overthrow the very foundations of modern scientific practice and everything that goes along with them. Basically, they want to turn the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment. In fact, as Marshal Berman (of Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico) points out in the latest issue of the American Physical Society News (vol. 14, no.9, October 2005), the disdain that the IDC people have for the Enlightenment and nostalgia that they have for the Dark Ages (i.e., the name given to the period before the Enlightenment) is palpable and should cause concern for everyone. Here is a quote from Unapologetic Apologetics by William Dembski and J.W. Richards, 2001, p.20. (Dembski is, along with Phillip Johnson, an important theoretician of the IDC movement):

From the sixth century up to the Enlightenment it is safe to say that the West was thoroughly imbued with Christian ideals and that Western intellectual elites were overwhelmingly Christian. False ideas that undermined the very foundations of the Christian faith (e.g., denying the resurrection or the Trinity) were swiftly challenged and uprooted. Since the enlightenment, however, we have not so much the means to combat false ideas as the will and the clarity.

Ah, yes, the good old days when we were not afraid to use the inquisition and torture chambers and the burning of witches and other heretics to "swiftly challenge and uproot" the ideas of those who disagreed with Christian orthodoxy. Now, they lament, while we have much more advanced coercion techniques (Abu Ghraib reveals some), we have, alas, lost the "will" to use them because all this science stuff has caused us to become confused and lose our "clarity." But with luck and help from their political allies, IDC will enable us to return to those glory days when we could depend on our religious leaders to tell us what was good and bad and right and wrong. And I think that we can guess what "challenge and uproot" might mean for those who advocate any thinking other than that approved by the new defenders of the faith.

This, shorn of all its pretences, is the main goal of IDC, to create nothing less than a theocracy based on a very narrow view of Christianity. And we need to make their ultimate goal the main focus of the debate and get beyond the word games that they have been trying to play.


It is rare that I have such good timing in my posts. I had written the above words about IDC advocates' yearning for the 'clarity' of the Dark Ages early in the week. But this very week, in testimony at the Dover, PA trial on including IDC ideas in science classrooms, IDC advocate Michael Behe (author of Darwin's Black Box) seemed to lend further credibility to my thesis. Under cross-examination by attorney for the parents Eric Rothschild, Behe "acknowledged that under his definition of a scientific theory, astrology would fit as neatly as intelligent design."

Behe's testimony also showed how IDC does not have the ability to make any predictions:

In an attempt to pin Professor Behe down, Mr. Rothschild asked, "What is the mechanism that intelligent design is proposing?"

Mr. Behe said: "It does not propose a mechanism in the sense of a step-by-step description of how these structures arose." He added that "the word 'mechanism' can be used broadly" and said the mechanism was "intelligent activity."

In other words, "Stuff happens, we haven't a clue why or how or how to even investigate it, but figure it must be god." And that is basically the IDC case.


Here's the story of evolution (going backwards) told in 50 seconds flat to the pounding beat of Sammy Davis Jr. singing The Rhythm of Life– and it's in a beer commercial! (Thanks to Cathie)

October 20, 2005

Blurring distinctions as part of the 'Wedge Strategy'

As I said in a previous posting, there is nothing mysterious about the practice of methodological naturalism. It is what we expect people to use in everyday life and anyone who did not do so and saw god's hand behind commonplace daily events would be viewed as some kind of religious nut, even by otherwise religious people.

So given the fact that methodological naturalism is just a fancy name for something that people use in their everyday lives without even thinking about it, how do you set about discrediting it? How do you make it appear to be some weird and esoteric principle that is used by a scientific cabal to keep contrary ideas out?

Phillip Johnson, an emeritus professor of Law and one of the main strategists of IDC and the author of books such as Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance, tries to do so by failing to distinguish between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturalism. The latter term asserts that the natural world and natural causes are all that exist and is thus pretty much equivalent with atheism. As I have argued before, there is nothing about science that forces anyone to adopt philosophical naturalism though some people choose to do so. It is only methodological naturalism that is a bedrock principle of science.

Phillip Johnson tries to create a new category called 'scientific materialism' that conflates methodological and philosophical naturalism, and tries to imply that this is something that is only used in science. He often truncates even 'scientific materialism' to simply 'naturalism', so that he can then blur even further the important distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism.

But by referring to both as naturalism, and then decreeing that this is tantamount to atheism, IDC advocates try to drive a wedge between science and religion by arguing that scientists' insistence on methodological naturalism is not a barrier to just IDC ideas, it is also a bar to belief in god. By this verbal sleight of hand, they hope to categorize the opposition to IDC ideas as opposition to god, and thus gain the allegiance of religious people to their cause.

For example, in his Darwin on Trial he says:

Naturalism assumes the entire realm of nature to be a closed system of material causes and effects, which cannot be influenced by anything from "outside." Naturalism does not explicitly deny the mere existence of God, but it does deny that a supernatural being could in any way influence natural events, such as evolution, or communicate with natural creatures like ourselves. (Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel, p. 191)

His first sentence describes 'naturalism' the way I would describe 'philosophical naturalism.' The second sentence is a mish mash of both kinds of naturalism, confusing the issue. Methodological naturalism simply says scientists always look for material causes for natural events, just like plumbers and mechanics and doctors do, not that this is all there is.

When I talk to groups of lay people (both religious and non-religious) and describe methodological naturalism, most of them think that it is a perfectly rational way to operate. It seems like common sense, which it is. They can easily understand why abandoning it would be a bad idea in any field, not just science. This is why the IDC people are so desperate to blur its meaning and confuse it with philosophical naturalism.

And this is why we have to pay close attention to language in this discussion.

POST SCRIPT: Sand sculptures

Take a look at these sand sculptures. (Click on the thumbnail photos to see the full sculptures.) I am always amazed at the patience and painstaking care that people take over this kind of art, which is later destroyed in a matter of moments.

The Buddhist mandala sand paintings are another example. These paintings are painstakingly created by hand using grains of colored sand, just to be swept after the display is over.

In Buddhism, the impermanence of all things, the constancy of change, and the need to avoid getting attached to people and things are important philosophical underpinnings. So putting a vast amount of work into a work of art and then destroying it may be just a way of teaching these ideas.

Personally, I don't know if I could ever put so much effort into something, knowing that it would not last.

October 19, 2005

Methodological naturalism

If our car developed a strange and disturbing noise, we would take it to a mechanic to diagnose the problem. If, after trying out just one or two ideas and failing, the mechanic threw up her hands and said that she gave up because the cause must be something mysterious and inexplicable, we would very likely switch to another mechanic.

We would do the same thing with a plumber who gave up on trying to find the source of a leak or a doctor who gave up trying to find the cause of an acute pain after merely ruling out gas and muscle pulls.

We want each of these people to keep investigating, to try and find the reason for the problem and not give up until they have solved it. If any one of them told us that the cause was some supernatural power, we would quickly dump that person and find a new one, even if we were ourselves were religious and we preferred to have religious people as our doctors and plumbers and mechanics.

In other words, we want all these people when carrying out their professions, whatever their religious beliefs, to practice methodological naturalism, which is the practice of postulating and testing one natural cause after another as the source of the problem until the problem has been diagnosed correctly. It would be strange for someone to insist on people using methodological naturalism in all these everyday areas of life, while demanding that they give it up in the one area that underlies all of them, and that is science.

And yet, this is exactly what so called intelligent design creationists want scientists to do. IDC people want scientists to not use methodological naturalism but instead concede that some systems have "irreducible complexity", by which they mean that god must have made it. They do not explicitly say god as part of their public strategy. Instead, they adopt a complicated circumlocution that goes as follows: "irreducible complexity implies it must have been intelligently designed which implies the existence of an intelligent designer whose identity and properties we refuse to speculate about." Instead of going through all that, it seems much easier to say "god" since that is what everyone knows we are talking about anyway.

It is clear that the IDC advocates know that they are essentially asking for the overthrow of the foundation of science when they urge the overthrow of methodological naturalism. In the Dover, PA case on the inclusion of IDC ideas in the science curriculum, expert witness Robert T. Pennock made this point explicitly where he highlighted the words of leading IDC advocate William Dembski:

As examples of the movement's intentions, Pennock showed the court a number of articles written by the movement's leaders, including two by William Dembski, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.

Discovery has been part of efforts to change wording of Kansas state education standards to be more open to the supernatural in the definition of science. "The scientific picture of the world championed since the Enlightenment is not wrong, but massively wrong," Dembski wrote in an article titled "Building bridges between science and theology."

In another article, titled "What every theologian should know about creation, evolution and design," Dembski wrote, "In the words of Vladimir Lenin, What is to be done?

Design theorists aren't at all bashful about answering this question: The ground rules of science have to be changed."

And finally we get this quote from Dembski where he says: "So long as methodological naturalism sets the ground rules for how the game of science is to be played, (intelligent design) has no chance (in) Hades."

Clearly, overthrowing methodological naturalism is a key part of their strategy. And they don't care that they are overthrowing something that has been the foundation of the Enlightenment, something that has been the foundation for scientific and technological and medical breakthroughs, and took us out of the dark ages. In their attempt to include their religious views within science, they are willing to gamble with the very essence of science and they are playing for very high stakes.

October 18, 2005

The name game

When I first started getting interested in the so-called 'intelligent design creationist' (IDC) movement, I noticed that they were very careful about terminology and insisted on using specific terms.

For example, IDC people would divide science up into two categories that they called 'empirical science' and 'origins science.' Empirical science was defined by them as the kind of science where you could do experiments in laboratories or in the field. Origins science dealt with subjects that dealt with the origins of things and which had happened long ago. So theories of cosmology, astronomy and, most importantly (for them), evolution of life came under the heading of 'origins' science.

They were also very insistent on avoiding the use of the terms 'creationist' and 'God' and pushed for the use of the term 'design' which they used to mean things that were not randomly created. 'Intelligent design' was used by them to denote design by a human-like intelligence and not by (say) a computer program.

Since I came from the scientific world where what something is called is not what is important and it is the operational definition that matters, I was initially willing to go along with their terminology. The problem was that I discovered that rather than the names being used just as a harmless label for the underlying operational definition, as is the case in science, in the case of intelligent design, no operational definition was forthcoming. Instead, the names themselves became used as arguments, so that conceding to them the choice of names meant conceding a substantial portion of the argument.

Let me illustrate with some examples. Since they did not use the name God in their literature, they could proffer the claim that theirs was not a religious theory ("See, nowhere do we use 'God' in our work"). Also, since they did not use the name 'creationist,' they could dissociate themselves from the young-Earth creationist (YEC) movement and the old-earth creationist (OEC) movement, both of which explicitly mentioned god in their literature and had already been struck down by the courts as being religious in nature and thus inappropriate for inclusion in science classes. Also, the YEC and OEC were embarrassing to the IDC people in that they interpreted the Bible literally (to differing degrees) and thus alienated a lot of potential allies.

This attention to words and language has been part of a careful thought-out strategy. In testimony in the Dover, PA case, it was shown that in the book Of Pandas and People which the students were explicitly told to read as an 'antidote' to evolution, early drafts of the book used the words creationism but later replaced it with intelligent design. This enables the intelligent design people to claim that their theory does not involve god because they avoided providing an operational definition for intelligent design or an intelligent designer. If they did so, it would be hard to see how that operational definition was not functionally equivalent to an operational definition of god.

Robert T. Pennock in his book Tower of Babel points out that all these theories are variations of creationism, and he creates a classification scheme that lists them as YEC, OEC, and IDC (for intelligent design creationism). This is the terminology that I have adopted and will use henceforth so that the relationship of intelligent design to creationism is kept explicit, and IDC people cannot hide their creationist links.

The use of the empirical/origins science distinction is another example of this verbal sleight of hand. By dividing science in this way, and by putting evolution into the origins science category, they then try to imply that evolution is not an empirical theory! Since the word 'empirical' implies data-driven and subject to the normal rules of scientific investigation, casting evolution as 'origins science' is part of an attempt by IDC people drive a wedge between evolution and other theories of science and make it seem less 'scientific.'.

The IDC people also assert that the way we evaluate theories is different for the two categories. They assert that 'empirical science' can be tested experimentally but that 'origins science' cannot.' This assertion allows them to claim that how competing theories of 'origins science' should be evaluated is by seeing which theory 'explains' things better.

I have already shown that using 'better' explanations as a yardstick for measuring the quality of theories leads one down a bizarre path where the 'best' explanation could well be the Raelian theory (or ET-IDC using Pennock's classification scheme). But it is important to see that the reason that the IDC people can even make such a claim is because of their artful attempt to divide science into 'empirical' and 'origins.'

The fact is that all science is empirical. All scientific theories ultimately relate to data and predictions. If one wants to make distinctions, one can say that there are historical sciences (evolution, cosmology, astronomy) that deal with one-time events, and non-historical sciences where controlled experiments can be done in laboratories. But both are empirical. It is just that in the historical sciences, the data already exists and we have to look for it rather than create it.

But IDC people don't like to concede that all science as empirical since that would mean that they would have to provide data and make predictions for their own theory just like any other empirical theory, and they have been unable to do so. This is why it is important that the scientific community not concede them the right to categorize the different kinds of science in the way they wish, because it enables them to use words to avoid the hard questions.

October 17, 2005

The different use of terminology in scientific and political debates

I would like to revisit the question addressed earlier of why scientists are at a disadvantage when they try to debate in political forums, like those involving so-called intelligent design creationism. This time it deals with how terminology is introduced and used.

Scientists often need to introduce new terms into the vocabulary to accommodate a new concept, or seek to use a familiar everyday term or phrase with a more precise technical meaning.

The scientists who introduces the new concept usually has the freedom to name it and most of the time the community of scientists will go along with the name. The reasons for the name vary and can sometimes have whimsical origins. The physics term 'quark' for subnuclear particles for instance was named from the line "three quarks for Muster Mark" from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, and was invoked because it was thought at the time that there were only three subnuclear particles that made up the proton and the neutron. The proton consisted of two 'up' quarks and one 'down' quark, while the neutron consisted of one 'up' quark and two 'down' quarks. But then other particles were discovered which had unusual properties and these were dubbed to be 'strange' particles and so a third type of quark, the 'strange' quark, was postulated to explain their properties.

Later a fourth type of quark was required and this was called the 'charm' quark. Not all terminology sticks, however. When a fifth and a sixth type of quark came into being, initial attempts to name them 'truth' and 'beauty' seemed to most physicists to have crossed the line of acceptable whimsicality, and the names of those two quarks settled to the more mundane 'top' and 'bottom' quarks.

Although there are a variety of reasons for the names scientists select for new concepts, the success or failure of the ideas that are associated with the concept does not hinge on the choice of the name. This is because science concepts are more than names, they also have 'operational definitions,' and it is these definitions that are important. Many non-scientists do not understand the importance that scientists attach to operational definitions.

For example, if you ask a non-physicist to define 'mass', you will usually get some variation of 'it is the amount of matter present in an object.' This intuitive definition of mass may give a serviceable understanding of the concept that is adequate for general use but it is too vague for scientific purposes. It could, after all, just as well serve as a definition of volume. A definition that is so flexible that it can apply to two distinct concepts has no scientific value.

But an operational definition of mass is much more precise and usually involves describing a series of operations that enable one to measure the quantity. For mass, it might be involve something like: "Take an equal arm balance and balance the arms with nothing on the pans. Then place the object on one pan and place standardized units of mass on the other pan until balance is achieved again. The number of standardized units required for this purpose is the mass of the object on the other pan."

For volume, the operational definition might be: "Take a calibrated measuring cylinder with water up to a certain level and note the level. Then immerse the object in the water and measure the new level of the water. The difference in the two level readings is the volume of the object." We thus see that, unlike the case with intuitive definitions, there is a clear difference between the operational definitions of mass and volume.

It is possible for a concept to have more than one operational definition. For example, the mass of an object could also be defined operationally as placing something on a triple beam balance, moving the weights around until balance is achieved, and then taking the reading.

It does not matter if a concept has more than one operational definition. In fact that is usually the case. The point is that consistent operational definitions of mass would enable one to show that the different definitions are functionally equivalent, so that you can use any one of these mutually consistent operational definitions. If you actually want the mass of an object, all the various operational definitions would result in the same numerical value, so that mass is an unambiguous physical concept.

Such operational definitions enable scientists to avoid confusion and quickly agree on what names like mass and volume mean. The names themselves tend to be value neutral and by themselves do not advance an argument. Scientists tend to not challenge the ways things get named because it is the underlying operational definition that is crucial to scientific arguments. Scientists are quite content to go along with whatever names others give to concepts, because they rightly see the name as irrelevant to the merits of the debate.

This is quite different from what goes on in the political arena. There what you call something can be a crucial factor in whether the argument is won or lost. Take for example, what was known as the 'estate tax.' This is a tax on the estates of very wealthy people who become deceased. It affects only a tiny minority of people and was very uncontroversial for a long time. The term 'estate tax' is fairly descriptive because we associate the word 'estate' with the wealth passed on by rich people.

But there were interest groups who wanted to repeal this tax and one of the ways they achieved this goal was by renaming the tax as a 'death tax,' which seemed to imply that you were being taxed for dying. By getting this new terminology accepted in the debate to replace the old term, they have succeeded in getting quite considerable popular support for the removal of a very egalitarian tax, even though few of the people supporting the repeal would have estates large enough to worry about paying the tax.

Similarly the Bush administration at one time tried to get the media to use the term 'homicide bombers' instead of 'suicide bombers,' Perhaps they were thinking that 'suicide bomber' would remind people that the people doing this were making a great personal sacrifice and that raised awkward questions about their level of determination to remove US troops from their country and the reasons behind the determination. But that effort at renaming went nowhere because the old name was an accurate description of the person, while the new name was seen as being redundant and conveying less information.

In political battles, winning the name game is half the battle because accepting the name preferred by your opponent often means tacitly conceding the high ground of the argument and playing defense. So the habit of scientists to concede the name and to work with whatever name others come up with is not a good strategy when they enter the political arena. But it is not clear that all scientists have realized this and know when to shift gears.

In the next posting, I will examine how IDC advocates have used this casual approach to names to get an edge in the public relations wars, and how scientists should fight back.

October 14, 2005

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices - part 5

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

It is quite possible for someone who has a seemingly spotless record on matters of race, who has said all the correct things, who associates freely with people of other groups, to take political actions that have a disproportionately harmful effect on other races. And often such people's actions are not closely scrutinized because they are seen as not being racist.

For example, take former President Clinton. Because he seemed so at ease with black people, he was welcomed by many black leaders, even being occasionally referred to as 'America's first black president.' He seemed quite at home in black churches and showed no awkwardness at all in interacting with black people. I am quite willing to accept that he is not a racist. And yet he was the architect of a so-called welfare reform program that had a huge and negative impact on the lives of poor people, disproportionately black. But because he was perceived as not being personally "anti-black," he was able to enact these policies and escape the kind of criticism that would have erupted had the same thing been done by someone like George Bush, whose bona fides on race are more suspect.

Another example is that of former Education Secretary William Bennett. On his radio show, in response to a caller, said: "[Y]ou could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." It was clear that he was making a hypothetical case and not advocating this as policy because he immediately followed this by saying that such an action "would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do." But his statement created an uproar, with charges that Bennett is a racist and should be taken off the air, and he and his supporters vehemently denying it.

Is Bennett a racist? I don't know and frankly, I don't think that that is an important question. It is the policies that he advocates and implements that concern me. And there is evidence that have nothing to do with his private beliefs about race that he was exactly the wrong person for the job of Education Secretary. Reed Hundt, the former head of the Federal Communication Commission recently recounted the following story about Bennett:

When I was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (1993-97), I asked Bill Bennett to visit my office so that I could ask him for help in seeking legislation that would pay for internet access in all classrooms and libraries in the country. Eventually Senators Olympia Snowe and Jay Rockefeller, with the White House leadership of President Clinton and Vice President Gore, put that provision in the Telecommunications Law of 1996, and today nearly 90% of all classrooms and libraries do have such access. The schools covered were public and private. So far the federal funding (actually collected from everyone as part of the phone bill) has been matched more or less equally with school district funding to total about $20 billion over the last seven years. More than 90% of all teachers praise the impact of such technology on their work. At any rate, since Mr. Bennett had been Secretary of Education I asked him to support the bill in the crucial stage when we needed Republican allies. He told me he would not help, because he did not want public schools to obtain new funding, new capability, new tools for success. He wanted them, he said, to fail so that they could be replaced with vouchers, charter schools, religious schools, and other forms of private education.

To me, this story is a far more damning indictment of Bennett's suitability for public office, especially that of Education Secretary, than his speculations about the relationship between race and abortion and crime. It is truly appalling that he so badly wants public schools to fail that he is willing to withhold important resources from them. If public schools are to be deprived of resources and pushed along the road to failure, this has a huge and disproportionately negative effect on poor and black children. So his actions in this case, his unwillingness to support this measure and the reasons for doing so, are a much better measure of his suitability for public office than whether he hangs out with black friends in the evening. And yet, this particular story from Reed Hundt has attracted next to no attention, while everyone looks for clues to see whether Bennett is 'really' a racist or not.

Conversely, during the last presidential election, there was a minor fuss made about the fact that Howard Dean had few black people in his cabinet when he was governor of Vermont. The attempt was made, and was marginally successful, to use this to portray him as somehow unfriendly to black people. But on the other hand, as governor he had instituted health care reforms that opened up access health care to almost all the population of his state. This meant that the poor, who are disproportionately black, had more access to health care than before. To my mind, those are the measures that are important, rather than appointments to cabinet offices, which can be symbolic and not substantive.

It is hard for us to get rid of the prejudices we have. One of the things that my many years of teaching have taught me is that the beliefs that students bring with them into the classroom are the most powerful beliefs of all, and have a far stronger hold on their minds than the new things they learn from their teachers in their formal classes. This is because the things we learn informally are based on our life experiences and are what our minds have worked out for themselves, even if not done consciously. Our stereotypes and prejudices have been constructed over many years, starting when we were very young. They are a kind of theoretical model based on bits of actual data, things we were told by the peers and adults in our lives, conversations we have had, books we have read, and films and TV that we have watched. Our minds have taken all these things and created a network of ideas. And it is precisely because we have created this mental structure ourselves that it is so powerful. We cannot simply will them away. As the economist John Maynard Keynes said: “The difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping from old ones.” (The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936)

Stereotypes and prejudices are part of our own constructed knowledge structure and we may never be able to get rid of them completely however much we wish to. But rather than trying to hide their existence, we need to bring our prejudices out of the subconscious and unconscious where they usually exist so that we can more effectively deal with them. Then we can let our intellectual commitment to deal with people fairly do battle with our instincts.

The battle between our intellect and our instincts will always be an ongoing one. Race is a very sensitive topic and people shy away from it. What I have written this week on the topic may have caused discomfort and even offense to some and if so, I apologize.

But if the battle is fought in the arena of our conscious minds, and in open dialogue with others, we are more likely to be able to defeat racism. Can we ever have such a frank discussion about race? I don't know. The real question is whether we can afford not to try.

POST SCRIPT: Some Friday video fun

See this video where people are interviewed about which country they think should be invaded next in the "war on terror." One person even suggests Sri Lanka.

JibJab also has a new video where they take on Walmart. Take a look.

October 13, 2005

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices - part 4

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

In order to begin an honest discussion about race, it might be good to start by accepting certain things. The first is that all of us harbor stereotypes, and have prejudices based on them. These come about despite our best intentions. People should be able to concede this without fear of being labeled racist.

The second is that people who have been the victims of prejudicial actions by others are not immune from thinking and acting prejudicially against others. Being a victim of racial prejudice is not some kind of vaccine that inoculates you against carrying the disease yourself. It is very easy, when one or one's group has been the victim of prejudice, to convince oneself that one's own actions towards others must be beyond reproach. This kind of hubris can lead to appalling injustices perpetrated by one discriminated group against another.

The third is that just because one believes in stereotypes and has prejudices based upon them, does not automatically imply that one cannot be fair in one's actions. It is perfectly true that some people may not like people of another color/ethnicity/religion, etc. They may dislike the thought of having such people as neighbors or marrying into their family. But such people might also be opposed to taking any steps to restrict the rights of the groups they dislike, to prevent them from living where they wish and marrying whom they want. In other words, they may well want the very people they are uncomfortable to be around to be treated fairly.

For example, during the time of slavery, there were many white people who felt that having slaves was wrong. Often they aided the escape of slaves and, as jurors, often refused to convict others who had provided such aid. It is quite possible (even likely given the times they lived in) that the people who did these good things may not have actually liked black people or wanted them as guests in their homes. But many people respond to the higher call of justice, and an appeal to it can produce good results that appeals to other qualities cannot. As I have often said in the past, people have an intuitive sense of justice. You can't force people to like other people, but you can expect people to act justly. It is the one quality that seems to have universal appeal.

I believe that it is easier to deal with a person who does not wish to associate with people of different color/race/religion but who also believes in justice and fairness than to deal with someone who may think that they are free of prejudice, and says all the right things, but cannot see that they may be acting is subtle ways that are harmful to other groups.

The relationship of private beliefs and public actions becomes more important when it enters the public political sphere. Some of you may be aware that following the inept response of the federal government in response to hurricane Katrina, singer Kanye West said on live TV during a fundraising event that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." This naturally stirred up a storm of controversy, as any public statement about race always does, and people looked for evidence that either supported or undermined his assertion. As usual, what was looked at was whether Bush had close friends and associates and advisors who were black, whether he appointed black people to positions of authority, and whether his statements could be analyzed to see what he really felt about race, etc.

I have seen these kinds of discussion many times before. In Sri Lanka, which has had a long history of ethnic strife between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority, the government has always been in the hands of the majority community and when it comes to ethnic matters there is always a close examination of the head of state to try and discern what that person's private feelings about the minority community are, using the same measures that are being used to gauge George Bush's 'true' feeling towards blacks following Kanye West's allegation. So people try and look closely into the leader's life to see if they can find clues as to whether they are "anti-Tamil" (as they say in Sri Lanka) or whether he treats the Tamil people around him well.

It has been my view that such analyses are largely a waste of time. It really does not matter what Bush thinks privately, or even what his actions are in relationship to the people in his immediate world. It is what he does publicly and politically and have a large-scale impact that matters. Someone (I wish I could remember who, because the words had a strong impact on me) wisely said something along the lines of "It is very difficult to determine the private beliefs of public figures, and even if, after much trouble, one is able to do so, it is not clear that the knowledge gained is worth the effort."

To be continued tomorrow…

October 12, 2005

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices - part 3

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1 and part 2)

The problem with fighting prejudice is that we think that conceding that we have any prejudices at all is in itself shameful. So to avoid being thought badly of, we deny that we have them or avoid conversations that run any risk that we might unwittingly reveal our prejudices. This is why it is so hard to have an honest discussion about race in America (or most places for that matter). Any discussion that does take place either ends up with people holding hands and singing "We shall overcome" or "Kumbaya" or uttering platitudes about everyone being the same or being guarded and defensive.

It always amazes me, for example, when I hear people say that they do not see the 'color' of people. For example, I have done a lot of work with the public education system in urban areas in and around Cleveland. There are immediate color issues that arise in schools because the majority of teachers are white and many of the students are black. This imbalance carries with the ever-present danger that any teacher-student conflict will be interpreted in race terms. Teachers often try to preempt this by saying that they do not 'see' their students in terms of their color. But I often wonder if that is really possible or if they are just trying to fool themselves.

I think that they say this to imply that they are not prejudiced. But I find it hard to accept that people literally do not see color, when people's skin color is such an important factor in our lives. I remember someone once trying to help me identify someone else who had attended a meeting by describing that person. I was given various pieces of information but at one point I asked "Was she black?" And the person said "yes." If I had been given that piece of obviously useful information right at the beginning, I could have identified the person much earlier. I think the reason that my friend had not volunteered this important identifying marker right up front was due to the fear that if he had said so, that meant that the person's color had been noted by him and thus he was prejudiced.

But this is raising the bar for evidence of lack of prejudice to an absurd and unreachable level. Of course we register the color of the people we meet. How can we not when skin color is such a major part of our political and social dialogue? When I go into a roomful of people, I immediately register people on the basis of their skin color and gender and age and size (height/weight) because these are the major identifying categories that I use. Interestingly, I find that I do not register hair or eye color, although many other people do. When someone asks me if so-and-so has blue eyes or brown hair, I find that I cannot recall this kind of detail at all. This may be because in Sri Lanka, everyone has black hair and dark brown eyes so we never use hair and eye color as identifying markers, and I have not acquired that habit. But although we are all brown skinned, there was a wide range of shades and skin color is an important feature.

If we really want to have honest discussions about race we need to start by acknowledging that it is natural to believe in stereotypes and to have prejudices. By natural, I do not mean that it is admirable (it is not) or that we can do nothing about it (we can). We can and should strive to eliminate such thinking. But at this stage of our social development, both individually and as a society, we have stereotypes and prejudices and it is not use denying them. It may be more helpful to simply concede that we have them and think about how we can prevent ourselves from taking actions based on them.

Fortunately in my own case, I have been lucky to have worked with people with whom I can discuss issues of race honestly, and am able to ask them questions about customs, practices, and behavior that increase my awareness of the culture of other communities. This has enabled me to increase my personal store of information about others that I hope will slowly eat away at the false knowledge structures that were built on inadequate data. But it is foolish to think that this has enabled me to eliminate all my prejudices. At best, it has helped me to remove some of my major misapprehensions.

To be continued tomorrow…

October 11, 2005

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 2

As I get older and more introspective, it is becoming increasingly clear that I have deep within me all kinds of stereotypes about other groups of people based on their religion and ethnicity and nationality and class. So I am sure that, if I go deep into my psyche, I will discover beliefs about Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Norwegians, Chinese, Ugandans, working class people, rich people, in fact every group that I myself am not a member of, that would be seen as laughable, absurd or even offensive by members of those groups. The reason is that basically I know very little about any of these groups.

Because of this I have learned that I cannot trust my instincts, because they have been acquired using inadequate and erroneous data. In order to combat my stereotypical thinking, I have to fall back on my intellectual understanding of politics and race and class. In my intellectual/analytical mode, I know that stereotypes are unreliable guides to predicting the behavior of people, that race has no validity as a biological construct, and hence no inferences can be drawn about what various ethnic groups are 'really' like, as if there is some innate and unchangeable quality that characterizes groups of people. We are the products of our upbringing and while there is variation due to genetics and heredity, these qualities do not correlate with 'race, ' because the concept of race is not a biological one.

But to say that intellectually I understand that my stereotypes have little basis in science and reality is not to imply that the prejudices the stereotypes generate have no power over me. It is that when it comes to issues of race (and class), my intellectual knowledge is in a constant struggle with my 'gut' feelings, and I have to constantly guard against making snap judgments. While I trust my intuition in many areas of life (say in applying laws of physics to situations), I know that it is unreliable in making judgments involving race, and so I have got into the habit of being on my guard whenever issues of race comes up. This is why I was so skeptical of the initial reports of people of color behaving badly after Katrina. It was not because I am not prejudiced. It was because I am consciously aware of the existence of my prejudices and so realize the need to be alert whenever I encounter news reports that have racial implications. I needed to see harder evidence about the events of Katrina to convince myself that I was not believing things because I was succumbing to my prejudices. And that hard evidence never materialized.

I think that we all have such stereotypes. We cannot help it. It seems to be an instinctive trait that we make generalizations and create theories (often unconsciously) about everything in life that we encounter. It is well known in the educational literature that even very young children develop quite intricate models of how the world works, prior to, and even in the face of, formal instruction. The less actual data that we have about any thing, the more likely that our theories will be faulty, and thus are stereotypes and prejudices born, often at a very young age.

Stereotypes are not necessarily completely false. They usually have kernels of truth. In my own case, there exist stereotypes about each of the categories of the community of people that I grew up in, which consisted of middle class Protestant Christian Tamil Sri Lankans. They are not completely untrue. The difference is that since I know that community very well, I am well aware that the common features that give rise to stereotypes are dwarfed by the huge diversity and variation that exists within that group. And because of that variation, I know that it is foolish to judge any individual in that group based on the stereotype, because any given person in that group might come nowhere close to it. So while elements of the stereotype may be true, it would be a mistake to judge any individual person based on that stereotype.

To take a trivial example, Sri Lankans in general have the stereotype about being somewhat casual about punctuality, especially in attending social events. This has an element of truth and I recognize it. So when one is invited to dinner at a Sri Lankan home, one should not be surprised to see people arrive at a range of times spanning a couple of hours.

But recently I was invited to a surprise party in the US where a sizeable number of Sri Lankan Americans had been invited. These kinds of parties depend on all the guests arriving by the scheduled time in order for the surprise to be effective. I discovered that all the Sri Lankan invitees had been given a starting time that was an hour earlier than that given to other guests, on the assumption that then they would arrive by the scheduled time. When I discovered this little ruse after arrival, I found it mildly offensive, even though it would have been too petty to complain. I resented being put in a box, when the hosts had no idea whether I was a punctual person or not. From my personal experience I knew that, despite the stereotype, there are many Sri Lankans who are punctual and they should not have to be treated based on the stereotype.

This is where I think the problem lies. While it is perhaps inevitable that each of us harbors prejudices about other groups of people based on stereotypes, we should not base any specific actions on them. It is not what we believe that is the problem, it is what we do with those beliefs.

To be continued tomorrow…

POST SCRIPT: Real Time with Bill Maher discussion on religion

Bill Maher, Salman Rushdie, Ben Affleck, and Andrew Sullivan discuss religion on the TV program Real Time.

October 10, 2005

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices

Growing up in Sri Lanka, I never met any African Americans. As far as I could tell, none ever lived there. Looking back at that time, the only African American in Sri Lanka that I can recall was the US Ambassador to that country, whose picture occasionally appeared in the paper giving a speech at some formal function or attending some cocktail party. Given that my only contact with African Americans (if you can call it contact since, not being a member of high society, I never actually met him) was based on a single very important and distinguished-looking black man, you might expect that growing up I would have been spared the acquisition of negative stereotypes of black people that we saw surfacing during the post-Katrina coverage.

But unfortunately that was not the case. When I arrived in the US to start graduate school and came into contact with black people, I discovered that I probably had every stereotype and prejudice that the average person who grew up in the US had.

I have been thinking a lot about race all my life, even more so since the events triggered by Katrina. Race seems to be the primary prism through which we view and interpret events, with class close behind, although the two concepts are inextricably intertwined. W. E. B. Du Bois, the author of the classic book Souls of Black Folk said in 1903: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea." I think that it is even more true than he thought. I also think that this issue, broadened to race in general, will dominate discussions well into the twenty-first century.

I don't think any of us are exempt from the fact that race and class always distorts the way we view events. I too am guilty of instinctively seeing things in a way that interprets the actions of poor (and people of color) in a more negative way than if the same actions were done by middle class (and white) people, even though I am also a person of color. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink suggests that even people of color are not immune from the powerful pressures of the environment that cause us to have negative stereotypes even about ourselves.

I wrote earlier about a research study by Harvard University that measures the level of negative associations we make about race. If you want to check it out for yourself, go to the test site, click on "Demonstration", then on "Go to Demonstration Tests", then on "I wish to proceed". This takes you to a list of Implicit Association Tests (or IATs) and you can choose which kinds of associations you wish to check that you make.

I took the Race IAT because that was what was discussed in Gladwell's book, and it took me less than five minutes to complete. This test looks at the role that race plays in making associations. In particular it looks at whether we instinctively associate black/white people with good/bad qualities.

It turns out that more than 80% of people who have taken this test have pro-white associations, meaning that they tend to associate good qualities with white people and bad qualities with black people. This does not mean that such people are racists. They may well be very opposed to any kind of racist thinking or policies. What these tests are measuring are the unconscious associations that we pick up (from the media, the people we know, our community, etc.) without being aware of them, and that we have little control over.

Gladwell himself says that the test "always leaves me feeling a bit creepy." He found himself being rated as having a moderate automatic preference for whites although he labels himself half black because his mother is Jamaican.

So in a way, it should not be surprising that even though I had never met any black people growing up, I should fall prey to the same kind of prejudices that the average American has. US culture has permeated the world, for both good and bad, and my impressions of America and Americans was formed by my reading of the news, magazines, films, and books. If we go back to the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up, black people were generally either absent or portrayed in negative ways in those media. Although the civil rights struggle in the US and Martin Luther King were inspiring because of the dignity with which they were largely carried out, that was the exception. The image that dominated was that of black people as poor, uneducated, and prone to violence and crime. It should not be surprising that I absorbed all those images in my formative years and they should have such a powerful influence on my thinking even now.

To be continued tomorrow…

October 07, 2005

Using Katrina to beat up on poor people

There is no question that people of color lag behind whites in almost all the indicators of social and economic well-being. One can respond to this realization by seeing it as a consequence of institutional structures that perpetuate long standing injustices, try to identify the causes of this situation, and urge the adoption of measures that provide the promise of ameliorating those injustices.

Or one can adopt the much easier course and either blame such people for their condition by saying that they willfully engage in behaviors that are self-destructive (which I call the socio-pathological model of inequality) or argue that this condition is due to largely unchangeable (and presumably genetic) qualities.

One reason that the immediate (and false) characterization of people in New Orleans as primarily antisocial beings who used the breakdown of civil society to engage in widespread and rampant looting, thuggery, raping, and murdering was so easily believed is that this is how poor people are often portrayed. And Katrina enabled a lot of pundits to dust off their well-worn sermons on what is wrong with poor people.

George Will uses the occasion to point the finger of blame at unmarried African American women with children.

Given that most African Americans are middle class and almost half live outside central cities, and that 76 percent of all births to Louisiana African Americans were to unmarried women, it is a safe surmise that more than 80 percent of African American births in inner-city New Orleans -- as in some other inner cities -- were to women without husbands. That translates into a large and constantly renewed cohort of lightly parented adolescent males, and that translates into chaos in neighborhoods and schools, come rain or come shine.

And you can always rely on Charles Murray (of The Bell Curve fame) to surface again and recycle his thesis that America has a permanent "underclass" that is beyond improvement, due to largely hereditarian factors. It does not matter that his book (co-authored by Richard Herrnstein) has been shown to be really shoddy scholarship. As Nicholas Lehman asserts: “The Bell Curve, it turns out, is full of mistakes ranging from sloppy reasoning to mis-citations of sources to outright mathematical errors. Unsurprisingly, all the mistakes are in the direction of supporting the authors’ thesis.”

But people like Murray, however much their work is shot down (See The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, Steve Fraser (Ed.), Basic Books, 1995) are always given access to mainstream media to repeat their tired charges of the hopelessness of trying to improve the "underclass". For people like him, the supposed bad behavior is merely 'The hallmark of the underclass,' which is the title of his piece in the latest platform he has been given, the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal where he says:

Other images show us the face of the hard problem: those of the looters and thugs, and those of inert women doing nothing to help themselves or their children. They are the underclass. … The lack of home ownership is not caused by the inability to save money from meager earnings, but because the concept of thrift is alien. You name it, we've tried it. It doesn't work with the underclass. … Despite the exceptions that get the newspaper ink, the statistical reality is that people who get into the American job market and stay there seldom remain poor unless they do something self-destructive. And behaving self-destructively is the hallmark of the underclass. Hurricane Katrina temporarily blew away the screens that we have erected to keep the underclass out of sight and out of mind. We are now to be treated to a flurry of government efforts from politicians who are shocked, shocked, by what they saw.

Ezra Klein writing in The American Prospect gives Murray his deserved comeuppance

Which brings us to today's Wall Street Journal atrocity. Penned by Charles Murray, he of The Bell Curve fame, it argues that what we're seeing post-Katrina isn't poverty but a once-again visible "underclass," a sort of shadow society of unsocialized black men with no appetite for work, no capacity to hold jobs, and no ability to be helped through conventional methods. They are, quite literally, savages, unable to function in the world the rest of us inhabit. They are, as he puts it, the "looters and the thugs," not to mention the "inert women doing nothing to help themselves or their children." And government attempts to craft helpful policy will fail because, after all, it doesn't matter if you give a gorilla a college loan, it's still a gorilla.

I've no idea where Murray got the idea that the New Orleans evacuees lacked jobs rather than cars and social skills rather than transportation - from deep within his own prejudices, I'd guess. And where he got the concept that these men and women are somehow incapable of holding jobs and unwilling to send their children to school - that's all similarly obscure. The absence of autos affects the social and the unsocialized alike; the folks you see on buses are often en route to jobs they hold, contra Murray, perfectly well.

But if his argument is flawed, its aim is clear. All those stories of urban anarchy were, to Murray, accurate, everyday manifestations of the Black people we'd hidden from sight. The normal explanation, that their assumed bad behavior was a reaction to extraordinary circumstance - that was the wrong part. This had nothing to do with Katrina; it was part and parcel of an inferior race, an incorrigible culture.

It is too much to hope that Murray will disappear from the opinion pages of major newspapers. People like him will surface to repeat the same tired and discredited message whenever there is another social upheaval. But there is no reason that we should let their ideas go unchallenged. And the way we do that is be very wary of initial news reports that are unsubstantiated but appeal to popular prejudices. Because otherwise rumors become 'facts' and then the 'facts' are used to create policies that are more punitive than helpful.

In the final analysis, events like Katrina and our response may reveal more about us and our deeply held prejudices than it does about the nature of the people directly affected by the disaster.

POST SCRIPT: An Atheist's Manifesto

Sam Harris comes out with another strong essay titled There is No God (And You Know It). Check it out. It is well worth reading.

October 06, 2005

Why were the New Orleans stories believed?

The degree to which the stories of mayhem in the Superdome and Convention Center were overblown is captured in this story in the Seattle Times:

After five days managing near riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following days of internationally reported murders, rapes and gang violence inside the stadium, the doctor from FEMA - Beron doesn't remember his name - came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.

"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalled the doctor saying.

The real total?

Six, Beron said.

Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the handoff of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice.

The vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees - mass murders, rapes and beatings - have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law-enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.

"I think 99 percent of it is [expletive]," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. "Don't get me wrong - bad things happened. But I didn't see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything ... 99 percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved."

As a result of such stories, though, the victims of Katrina continued to suffer further indignities. People of neighboring communities wanted to have nothing to do with people who they thought were capable of such awful behavior. I have already written (see here and here) about how the sheriff of the neighboring town of Gretna fired at a group of people on the bridge leading to their town to prevent them from entering because the townspeople were afraid of looters. (The mayor of Gretna has released his side of the story which can be read here.)

And this negative image spilled over to the people affected by hurricane Rita as well. There are the reports of the buses carrying Rita evacuees to East Texas not being allowed to stop in towns, even for people to buy food or use the rest rooms or just rest, because of similar fears. The evacuees described their journey as like a horror movie, as they met hostility from the various small towns they passed through nds their buses were prevented from stopping and forced to keep moving. The description of their journey is heart wrenching.

So why were these stories of poor people behaving badly so easily believed and broadcast in the face of so little evidence? In actual fact, what you had, apart from isolated incidents, were people behaving remarkably well in the face of tremendous hardship. It is here that the issues of race and class come to the surface. Most of the people whose plight was dramatized and cast in a negative light were poor, representing the wide range of ethnicities that live in New Orleans. Even though much of the 'looting' was done out of desperate need, it was portrayed differently depending on who did it. When tourists staying at hotels raided nearby drugstores for food and water and when Roman Catholic nuns looking after elderly and infirm patients in a nursing home in a flooded area looted a store to try and get supplies to ease the conditions of their dying patients, these were rightly seen as justifiable acts based on need.

But when the people taking the same kinds of things were poor and people of color, the acts were viewed by some as the kinds of things you could expect, once the institutions of law and order crumbled, from people who were basically criminally inclined. Although TVs and car stereos are stolen every day and in every city without much attention paid to it, when the same things happened in post-Katrina New Orleans, those acts were given a symbolism they did not merit, and used to stigmatize a whole community. There are always criminals who seize on instability to try and enrich themselves. But I am at a loss to understand why, when the urgent need was for the relief and rescue of people, so much attention was focused on the loss of goods.

In the next posting we will examine how people have seized upon the false reports out of the aftermath of Katrina to pursue various political agendas.

October 05, 2005

Treating Katrina evacuees as the enemy

Because of the widely believed rumors of anarchy that followed the hurricane, the emphasis shifted almost overnight from rescue and assistance to control. This resulted in delays in providing relief to people who were living in appalling conditions inside the Superdome and Convention Center and desperately in need of assistance.

For example, as this Wall Street Journal report indicates, the people left behind in New Orleans in Katrina's wake were perceived by the National Guard and other military forces as the 'enemy' to be conquered rather than helped and this militaristic mindset delayed the shipment of much needed food and water to the evacuees. In addition, buses that could have moved people out of the Superdome and the Convention Center were not allowed in because it was not perceived to be safe, and the buses that were already there did not move evacuees out because the drivers were scared.

One of the mysteries of the fumbling federal response to Hurricane Katrina has been why the military, which was standing by, and federal disaster agencies, which had pre-positioned supplies in the area, didn't move in more quickly and with greater force. Senior government officials now say that one major reason for the delay was that they believed they had to plan for a far more complicated military operation, rather than a straight-ahead relief effort. Accounts from local officials of widespread looting and unspeakable violence - which now appear to have been significantly overstated - raised the specter at the time that soldiers might be forced to confront or even kill American citizens. The prospect of such a scenario added political and tactical complications to the job of filling the city with troops and set back relief efforts by days.

To add insult to injury, the report goes on to say that even much of the publicized 'looting' that did occur was not by ordinary people but by the authorities themselves.

But some of the most spectacular looting -- the sacking of the Wal-Mart in the lower Garden District and the summary emptying of the Office Depot Uptown, appear to have been initiated not by organized bands of thieves but police and City Hall bureaucrats intent on securing supplies.

Nowhere is the idea that the wretched people struggling to stay alive in New Orleans were viewed as the enemy than the statements in this briefing by Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief, National Guard Bureau, who oversaw the National Guard response, about how they 'took down' the Convention Center almost a week after the hurricane (thanks to Tex in his blog).

GEN. BLUM: "…We waited until we had enough force in place to do an overwhelming force. Went in with police powers, 1,000 National Guard military policemen under the command and control of the adjutant general of the State of Louisiana, Major General Landreneau, yesterday shortly after noon stormed the convention center, for lack of a better term, and there was absolutely no opposition, complete cooperation, and we attribute that to an excellent plan, superbly executed with great military precision. It was rather complex. It was executed absolutely flawlessly in that there was no violent resistance, no one injured, no one shot, even though there were stabbed, even though there were weapons in the area. There were no soldiers injured and we did not have to fire a shot.

Some people asked why didn't we go in sooner. Had we gone in with less force it may have been challenged, innocents may have been caught in a fight between the Guard military police and those who did not want to be processed or apprehended, and we would put innocents' lives at risk. As soon as we could mass the appropriate force, which we flew in from all over the states at the rate of 1,400 a day, they were immediately moved off the tail gates of C-130 aircraft flown by the Air National Guard, moved right to the scene, briefed, rehearsed, and then they went in and took this convention center down.

It's a great success story -- a terrific success story."

A great success story? A terrific success story? Yes, if you see the situation as a military operation against an enemy. Then indeed seizing territory without suffering any casualties is a success. But this is not Iraq, it is a city after a flood. The people are not an enemy army, they are people who have been made homeless and destitute by a natural catastrophe. As Tex points out: "The UPI, reporting on Blum's "storming" of an American city, makes the Iraq mentality even more explicit":

On Friday, 1,000 National Guard troops and police executed a 'clear and hold' mission on the New Orleans convention center. Once host to the 1988 Republican National Convention, the convention center was now unofficial host to thousands of refugees - squatters all - who were mixed in with criminals and thugs. There was no official government presence there.

Note how the people who took shelter in the Convention Center, and who had been told to go there, are being referred to as 'squatters.' Note also the terminology of 'clear and hold' which is what is used to describe operations in Iraq where the US goes into an area where they suspect insurgent activity. It is hard to believe that this language is being used on people who are the victims of a natural disaster.

What is interesting is that even during the time of reports of mayhem in the Convention Center, it appears that there were armed members of the National Guard actually in the Center but they were hiding from the evacuees. According to a Washington Post article:

That futility was symbolized by the presence in the convention center for three of the most chaotic days of at least 250 armed troops from the Louisiana National Guard. They were camped out in a huge exhibition hall separated from the crowd by a wall, and used their trucks as a barricade when they were afraid the crowd would break in.

The troops were never deployed to restore order and eventually withdrew, despite the pleas of the convention center's management. Louisiana Guard commanders said their units' mission was not to secure the facility, and soldiers on the scene feared inciting further bloodshed if they had intervened. "We didn't want another Kent State," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of the active-duty military forces responding to Katrina. "They weren't trained for crowd control."

I find this hard to comprehend. Even if everyone believed the false reports that the people in New Orleans were being terrorized by armed gangs, how could it be that the decision was made to let all the other unarmed and defenseless people (which included children, the elderly, and the invalid) who were reportedly being assaulted, raped and murdered, fend for themselves? How can it be more important to protect troops than displaced and helpless civilians?

After all, at most the people causing trouble had to be common criminals, acting independently and using low-level weaponry, and could not be a trained army with a command structure that was seeking to do battle with the military. How hard could it be for a professional army to deal with such a rag-tag group of hoodlums? Although I have no military experience, I find it hard to believe that 250 trained troops in a single building would not be sufficient to maintain and keep order against criminals.

I remember reading one report about an army base commander grounding all the helicopters that had been sent to rescue people from rooftops because of a report that someone had shot at a helicopter. (There is doubt now even about this shooting. See this Knight-Ridder report that documents the many rumors.) Even if the shooting incident had occurred, I remember being startled by the decision to ground the entire fleet. After all, these are not hospital medical helicopters or TV news helicopter crews who do not experience hostile fire in the course of their normal work. These are military helicopters. Surely they of all people should be able to deal with occasional and random fire from street toughs?

There is a delicate line that has to be drawn about the use of the military in times of unrest. There are good reasons for restricting the ability of the armed services to be given police powers, even during times of seeming lawlessness. These restrictions are covered by the Posse Comitatus law of 1878 and one should be cautious about the attempts by some in the current administration to loosen the provisions of this act. The Katrina disaster should not be used as an excuse to increase the militarization of society in the way that the events of September 11 were used to encroach on the civil liberties of people by way of the USA PATRIOT act. (See Alan Bock's thoughtful analysis on the Posse Comitatus law.)

The focus should be on the fact that it was not the restrictions of the current law that led to the post-Katrina mess but the erroneous perception of the situation on the ground.

October 04, 2005

When rumors kill

In a series of previous posts (see here and here), I suggested that we should all be very skeptical of news reports that immediately follow any major news event because those early versions can turn out to be very wrong on the facts but succeed in leaving a highly misleading imprint on the minds of people.

In particular, I pointed out that governments and official sources often lie to reporters so that they can initially get favorable reactions and support for their actions, knowing that people tend to be reluctant to change their views later, even if the facts change. I gave as examples of such lies Reagan's comments on the aftermath of the shooting of the Iranian Airbus airliner, Clinton's justification for the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, and the British authorities' initial version of the killing of the innocent Brazilian in the wake of the London bombings in July. And of course, we have the whole series of lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which turns out to be one of the biggest and most reprehensible causes of the invasion of Iraq and the consequent debacle that is currently occurring in that country.

So we should be highly skeptical when high level government officials are the main or only sources of information on a big story. My belief is that low-level officials are much more likely to tell the truth for several reasons, all of which are precisely because they are low-level: (a) they know that they can easily get into trouble for lying unless they have powerful patrons to protect them, and even then they know they can be sacrificed for the sake of political expediency; (b) they are not aware of the big picture purposes the lie is designed to serve; (c) they have not, or do not wish to, become expert at the kinds of lying that is required to rise in the ranks to become a high level official.

But there is another situation when we should be highly skeptical about initial news reports and that is when those reports feed into our existing stereotypes about people and behavior. And nowhere is this kind of danger better exemplified than what happened to the people of New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

I watched in horror as, within the space of just one or two days after the hurricane struck, the displaced people of that city became transformed from desperate victims deserving of immediate help, to the ranks of the undeserving, with descriptions of them ranging from incompetent and selfish helpless whiners and complainers, to thugs and looters and rapists and murderers descending into 'animalistic' behavior. As a result, the emphasis seemed to shift from helping them to suppressing and controlling them.

As reports begin to emerge (and I will write about them later), it is clear that the kinds of criminality that received such huge coverage were vastly overblown. What was so harmful about this was that this hugely negative portrayal resulted in delays in rescue operations that undoubtedly led to unnecessary and avoidable deaths and misery.

Almost a month after the hurricane, the New York Times offered this sober reappraisal:

After the storm came the siege. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit, grounded helicopters. Edwin P. Compass III, the police superintendent, said that tourists - the core of the city's economy - were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city's two unlit and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

A month later, a review of the available evidence now shows that some, though not all, of the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations, the product of chaotic circumstances that included no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the longstanding raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.

The question is why these stories took hold so quickly and were seemingly believed and propagated by people in positions of authority even when they had no evidence that they were true. How could it be that the New Orleans superintendent of police (who resigned without explanation last week) could have himself believed those erroneous reports and how could it be that the Mayor could describe the people of the city as 'animalistic'? These statements were passed on by reporters, and coupled with all the other rumors of vile behavior passed on as fact, became the reality for people all over the world. The nation and the world seemed to find it easy to believe them even though what they were describing was shocking.

Why was this? As I will argue in subsequent postings, what we tend to believe and not believe in the aftermath of such events is largely determined by our prior conceptions of people and our prejudices, and New Orleans opened a window into what we believe poor (and people of color) are like, and the picture is not pretty.

October 03, 2005

Paley's watch, Mount Rushmore, and other stories of intelligent design – 2

In the previous posting I described a popular IDC argument that things like watches and Mount Rushmore are obviously 'designed' objects and thus imply the existence of a designer. By analogy, it is asserted that certain biological systems are also supposed to bear the hallmarks of design and thus must require a designer (aka god) too.

This argument seems to be persuasive to many people because I repeatedly hear it various forms. The usual response to it by scientists is to argue that the appearance of biological design is only an illusion and that random mutation and natural selection are perfectly capable of producing the seemingly complex biological forms that seem to stymie the IDC people.

But there is a philosophical issue here as well and that is what I want to address. First of all, while we all supposedly can agree that a watch and Mount Rushmore could not have simply appeared without human action, how is it that we are so sure that this is the case that we can accede to it without argument? How is it that in these cases we can definitely identify them as designed objects and say that other things (like rocks) are not designed?

Identifying the methods we use to classify things is an old and important question that has been addressed by many philosophers, most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein. To illustrate how Wittgenstein differed from his predecessors, I will quote Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (pages 44-45):

What need we know, Wittgenstein asked, in order that we can apply terms like 'chair,' or 'leaf,' or 'game' unequivocally and without provoking argument?

That question is very old and has generally been answered by saying that we must know, consciously or intuitively, what a chair, or a leaf, or a game is. We must, that is, grasp some set of attributes that all games and that only games have in common. Wittgenstein, however, concluded that, given the way we use language and the sort of world to which we apply it, there need be no such set of characteristics. Though a discussion of some of the attributes shared by a number of games or chairs or leaves often helps us learn how to employ the corresponding term, there is no set of characteristics that is simultaneously applicable to all members of a class and to them alone. [Note: This is essentially the demarcation problem dealing with the difficulty of requiring necessary and sufficient conditions that was discussed in an earlier posting - MS] Instead, confronted with a previously unobserved activity, we apply the term 'game' because what we are seeing bears a close "family resemblance" to a number of the activities that we have previously learned to call by that name. For Wittgenstein, in short, games, and chairs, and leaves are natural families, each constituted by a network of overlapping and crisscross resemblances. (emphasis in original)


We can recognize objects designed by humans because we have seen multiple examples of things designed by humans and we can recognize the differences between them and those found 'in nature' (and thus not designed by humans) like rocks, grass, rivers, etc.. The reason why we can all so easily agree that watches are designed is that they have a family resemblance to other items (cars, trains, aeroplanes, iPods, etc.) that we know were definitely designed by humans. Similarly with Rushmore, we have seen numerous examples of sculptures and other art definitely designed by humans and so we can recognize the family resemblance of Rushmore to them.

Small children very quickly can learn to identify, purely on the basis of such family resemblances, whether the animal they see in a field is a horse or a cow even though they may not be able to precisely define each animal. This happens after they have seen some horses and cows and been told by their parents which is which. Even parents don't try to define the animals. They just tell children which is which and that seems to be sufficient.

But when we use this as an analogy, as IDC advocates do, to identifying items (like Behe's bacterial flagellum) as being designed by god, we run into a problem. In order to make that kind of family resemblance identification, we have to already know for sure many examples of things that have been designed by god and those that have not. But how can we know this? Of all the things that we see around us, what examples do we have of things that we definitely know have been designed by god and those that have not? That might be hard to get consensus on.

If you believe in a god who designed everything (grains of sand, rocks, Rush Limbaugh), then the classification system breaks down. If you believe in a god who designed only some things and let others come about 'naturally', then you get caught in a vicious cycle where the things you simply believe to be designed are then used again as models for identifying design of other things.

How, for example, would we teach children how to distinguish between things that are designed by god and those that are not, like we do with horses and cows? What are the things we could point to as exemplars of those two categories? While each of us has a personal experiential database that we can draw upon and use to identify family resemblances between human-designed objects and non-human designed objects, we do not have corresponding databases of god-designed and non-god designed objects.

Thus the watch/Rushmore analogy argument for design does not work in identifying the existence of god as a designer, unless we have an independent means of knowing which items were definitely designed by god and which were not, so that we can classify any specific item according to the family resemblance to each group.