Entries for February 2006

February 28, 2006

The later Martin Luther King

Some writers are very good at planning ahead for their writing and preparing pieces that coincide with upcoming anniversaries. I am hopeless at this, reacting to events after the fact rather than anticipating them. So, for example, Charles Darwin's birthday was on February 12 but I completely forgot about it, even though I have been reading and writing about him extensively. Similarly Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday came and went in January without me commenting on it, although he was a person who influenced me tremendously.

But today's visit to Case of Harry Belafonte, yesterday's Case Martin Luther King celebration with speaker Fred Gray, and the recent death of Coretta Scott King have made me reflect on the life and message of Martin Luther King and the importance of resurrecting an essential aspect of his message. It is clear that there is a need to remove the layers of gauze that have covered his legacy and blurred the increasingly hard edged vision that characterized the last years of his life.

Most people focus primarily on his "I have a dream speech" given at the March on Washington in 1963. It is important to realize that he did not retire after that oratorical triumph but went on to speak and act in ways that were often different from his pre-1963 positions. His new emphasis on a class-based analysis of American society, his drive to unite the problems of black people with poor and working class white people, coupled with his opposition to the war in Vietnam, were a radical departure from a purely race-based civil rights struggle, cost him some support and alienated some former allies, and are what some believe precipitated his assassination.

Since his death in 1968, the mass media have increasingly portrayed King as primarily a visionary and a dreamer of a non-racial America, and some have even argued that that his dream has essentially come true, apart from some minor remaining problems. To read his last book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community is to be jolted by the piercing clarity of his wide-ranging analysis of the real problems, what needed to be done to resolve them, and the immense obstacles that lay in the way of reaching the goal of a free and fair society. It is also important (and rather chastening) to note that nearly everything that he said four decades ago is still relevant today.

What is particularly striking about King's writings is his ability to keep in balance the tension between a hard-eyed and realistic appraisal of the problems faced in trying to achieve justice (derived from his study of politics, economics, history, and philosophy) and his deep-rooted optimism in the innate decency of human beings (derived from his religious faith).

He saw that the successful multiracial coalitions that formed in the civil rights struggles and which culminated in Selma and the Voting Rights Act were just the first phase of the struggle and that these focused around the issues of treating African-Americans decently but not necessarily equally. People of all races were appalled at the lynchings and beatings, and the legal remedies that were proposed did not cost anything and could be supported fairly easily. "There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels, and other facilities with whites." But he pointed out that "the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the same thing as the presence of justice."

King noted that when the issue switched to the second phase, from that of simple decency to one of equality, much of the multiracial support evaporated as the cost of the remedies for generations of injustice became clear. "The discount education given to Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions of people is complex far beyond integrating lunch counters."

King praised the thousands who rushed to battle the brutalities of Selma, "heedless of danger and of differences in race, class, and religion." But he also realized that they represented "the best of America, not all of America" and "Justice at the deepest level had but few stalwart champions. . .The great majority of Americans are uneasy with injustice but unwilling yet to pay a significant price for eradicating it." He realized that while equality was the common goal of everyone, even the word was interpreted differently by whites and blacks. "Negroes have proceeded from the premise that equality means what it says. . .but most whites. . .proceed from the premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement.''

It is startling to see how well King's analyses of the status of African-Americans in US society hold up three decades later, despite all the other changes that have taken place during that time. King realized that generations of slavery and other forms of discrimination and subjugation had taken its toll on the financial, intellectual, and other resources on the African-American and thus required an enormous and concerted effort from within their own community in order to "overcome his deficiencies and his
maladjustments." But he rejected out of hand the suggestion (currently enjoying a resurgence) that the poor conditions under which they lived "can be explained by the myth of the Negro's innate incapacities, or by the more sophisticated rationalization of his acquired infirmities (family disorganization, poor education, etc.).''

He was no sentimental believer that this appalling state of affairs would disappear by itself once the institutionalized roadblocks had been removed and a legally 'color blind' society had been created. He saw that the problems went much deeper than that. "Depressed living standards for Negroes are not simply the consequence of neglect. . .They are a structural part of the economic system in the United States. Certain industries and enterprises are based upon a supply of low paid, under-skilled and immobile nonwhite labor. Hand assembly factories, hospitals, service industries, housework, agricultural operations using itinerant labor would suffer economic trauma, if not disaster, with a rise in wage scales.''

In other words, powerful economic and political interests benefited from the depressed state of poor people and would strenuously resist any attempts to improve things.

He realized that achieving equality for African Americans required a massive expenditure in education, housing, and employment for blacks, but always emphasized that this must be done within the context of a general anti-poverty program meant for all poor people, of all races and religions. It is a big mistake to think of King as a leader of only black people. When he was killed, he was becoming an outspoken national leader of all people, which was what made him really dangerous.

To be continued. . .

February 27, 2006

The Harry Belafonte-Coretta Scott King funeral mystery

Harry Belafonte's talk at Case has been rescheduled for Tuesday, February 28 at 7:00pm at Strosacker. The event is free and open to the public but tickets are required. The tickets issued for the earlier date will be honored at this event.

The original talk was postponed because Belafonte said he had to give a eulogy at Coretta Scott King's funeral. It is common knowledge that Belafonte's relationship with Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King was strong and his involvement with them and the civil rights movement has been for more than half a century. (See here for my previous postings on Harry Belafonte.)

But he was not seen during the funeral ceremonies. So what happened?

What is clear is that there is a split in the King family with one daughter Rev. Bernice King, along with some other influential black pastors who are on Bush's "faith-based initiatives" gravy train, trying to take the movement along a direction quite different from that envisioned by her parents. And since she seems to have wrested control of the funeral arrangements, and President Bush had expressed interest in attending the funeral, Belafonte became an embarrassment since he has been outspoken in his criticisms of Bush, calling him a terrorist. Did the Bush administration demand that Belafonte be bumped from the roster of speakers as a condition for attending? No one is saying but suspicions abound that there was a quid pro quo.

This article in The Tennessean provides some background:

Could Belafonte have been asked not to show up at Mrs. King's funeral after supposedly being on the program? Could he have been excluded to ensure the presence of President George W. Bush at the "first lady'' of civil rights' funeral?

Earlier this year, Belafonte called Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world'' while in Caracas, Venezuela, as he met with Venezuelan President (and Bush critic) Hugo Chavez, according to the Associated Press.

"I called Belafonte to find out for myself if it was true, and he said it was,'' the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a veteran civil rights activist, told me Friday after calling to see if I could find out why Belafonte was not at the funeral. "I asked were you disinvited, and he said, yes.

"The reason is that the president was not coming if Belafonte was going to be there. …''

That's just not true, according to a public relations spokesman who worked with the King family on services for Mrs. King.

"The rumor Harry Belafonte was disinvited to the King funeral is 100% inaccurate,'' Dan Rene, vice president of Impact Strategies, a Washington-based public relations firm, told me Friday over the telephone, and later in an e-mail. "The only individuals with the authority to take such action were the King family.

"The White House did not have that authority, nor did anyone else - again, only the family. It is ridiculous and insulting to suggest that they would treat someone so close to them and their mother in such a manner.

"It is up to Mr. Belafonte to answer the question of why he was not in attendance. The King children would have welcomed his presence. In fact, he was listed in the program as an honorary pallbearer.

"Additionally, the rumor is very suspect because no one, including Mr. Belafonte, can explain exactly who it was that supposedly disinvited him. The reason for this is, of course, the fact that he was always welcome.''

So, who and what do you believe?

I haven't been able to reach Harry Belafonte directly for comment, but Rev. Vivian told me it is unlikely he will respond publicly because he wants to maintain some relationship with the King children.

The issue was also raised Tuesday in a newsletter distributed by former Emerge magazine editor George Curry. "Evidently, the funeral organizers were more interested in not offending Bush than recognizing the person who had actually supported Dr. King and his work,'' Curry wrote.

And, in The Weekly Holla from the Web site,, a reader asked Tuesday, "Are y'all going to run anything about the King children dis-inviting Harry Belafonte …?"

Vivian, meanwhile, told me that Belafonte is saddened and hurt by this turn of events. If this is true, who could blame him? And it makes you wonder about that freedom we call speech.

The excellent website The Black Commentator had this article by Dr. Donald H. Smith, Associate Provost and Professor (Emeritus), Bernard M. Baruch College, the City University of New York, that provides some important background into what happened, as well as the class divisions that exist in the black church community.

Importantly, we also cannot be fooled by the Black Faith-based, self-anointed "Bishops" of mega churches who seduce and beguile depressed, often defeated African Americans, whose largess allows them to fly their private jets, drive Rolls Royces and live baronial existences. Instead of advocating to their congregations that they should organize and take direct political action, even civil disobedience as Dr. King consistently urged to secure the "blessings of liberty" to which they are entitled, these "Bishops," whose already sizeable incomes are supplemented by the Republican government's Faith-based Initiative grants, use powerful propaganda oratory to convince their congregations that God will take care of their needs, and, not incidentally, to support President Bush and vote Republican.

"Bishop" Eddie Long, in whose New Birth Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia where Mrs. King's funeral was held is typical of the increasing number of money driven Black preachers. It is a cruel irony that the funeral was held in Long's church rather than Ebenezer where Coretta Scott King was a member, where Dr. King was pastor and where his funeral was held. Preacher Eddie Long is the very antithesis of what Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, stood for. In 2004, Bishop Long led a demonstration in Atlanta to the tomb of Dr. King to protest a woman's right to choose and to denounce the right of individuals to marry persons of the same sex. Among the thousands of supporters who marched with preacher Long was Dr. King's daughter, Bernice, a minister at New Birth. Instead of the social justice and freedom advocated by the Kings, preacher Long endorses the conservative mandates of the Republican government. Coretta Scott King opposed the march, and reaffirmed her stance for human rights and social justice.

"Bishop" T.D. Jakes, whose mega church in Dallas has a reputed congregation of 30,000 members, and who sells "blessings" for $50, $500 or whatever larger sum he can persuade, was also a speaker at Mrs. King's funeral, though his brief words were hollow, unlike the bombastic oratory for which he is well known. Like Bishop Long, Bishop Jakes is a friend and supporter of President Bush and the Republican government's Project for a New American Century.
. . .
Bernice King and the Republican Party sought to control the funeral discourse, denying the likes of civil rights veterans Jesse Jackson, John Lewis and Reverend C.T. Vivian the opportunity to speak, as well as preventing Reverend Al Sharpton and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, in whose district the funeral was held, from speaking and - the unkindest cut of all - disinviting Harry Belafonte who marched with Dr. King, who gave large amounts of money and who consoled Coretta Scott King when her husband was assassinated, nevertheless the truth was heard. As Dr. King said many times, "Truth crushed to earth shall rise again." And truth did emerge from the mouth of President Jimmy Carter who underscored the present controversy of wiretapping American citizens by reminding the mourners of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's wiretapping of Dr. King, whom he had threatened with disclosure of intimate information. President Carter was the only one of the four presidents who spoke of the government's mishandling of the Katrina tragedy, and he stated that the nation has not yet "achieved equal opportunity for all Americans." And truth emerged from Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder with Dr. King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who said there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Coretta Scott King had criticized that money spent for the war should have been spent to fight poverty in America. And truth came from the poetry of Maya Angelou who made a point of saluting Harry Belafonte. The truth was told.

The most that can be said about the tortured, illogical eulogy/sermon delivered by Mrs. King's daughter, Bernice, is that those four King children deserve our pity and love for the tragic circumstances of their childhood. When Bernice King, possessor of three degrees, including degrees in divinity and law, said "God is not looking for another Martin Luther King or Coretta Scott, the old has passed away, there is a new order that is emerging," I hardly knew what to think, as many of the mourners must have been puzzled. Did Bernice King imply that she is the new emergent order, along with her "mentor" Eddie Long? Heaven help us.

Unless Harry Belafonte chooses to tell us, we probably will not know what silenced him at the funeral. But it is clear that he should have spoken and would have spoken and that his omission could not have been his own choice.

February 24, 2006

Estimating Civilian Casualties in Iraq

The bombing of the Shia Askariyah shrine in Samarra threatens to lift the existing low-level civil war in Iraq to the status of a major one. Already, the level of deaths has risen dramatically. Which again raises the question of how little we know (or even seem to care) about the level of Iraqi deaths since the US attack on that country in March 2003.

Z Magazine is an excellent monthly that I subscribe to put out by a very small editorial staff. Each month, there is always some article that I find gripping. In the February 2006 issue, the Nicolas J. S. Davies writes how the civilian casualty estimates in Iraq are being underreported.

In 2000, an international team of epidemiologists, headed by Les Roberts of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health studied the number of casualties in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Davies says:

In that case, he reported that about 1.7 million people had died during 22 months of war and, as he says, “Tony Blair and Colin Powell quoted those results time and time again without any question as to the precision or validity.” In fact the UN Security Council promptly called for the withdrawal of foreign armies from the Congo and the U.S. State Department cited his study in announcing a grant of $10 million for humanitarian aid.

Roberts conducted a follow-up study in the Congo that raised the fatality estimate to three million and Tony Blair cited that figure in his address to the 2001 Labor Party conference.

Now fast forward to 2004. Using that same methodology, Roberts and his team did estimates for the civilian casualties in Iraq as a consequence of the US attack on that country.

They estimated that at least 98,000 Iraqi civilians had died in the previous 18 months as a direct result of the invasion and occupation of their country. They also found that violence had become the leading cause of death in Iraq during that period. Their most significant finding was that the vast majority (79 percent) of violent deaths were caused by “coalition” forces using “helicopter gunships, rockets or other forms of aerial weaponry,” and that almost half (48 percent) of these were children, with a median age of 8.

This research was published in the prestigious medical journal Lancet. But this time the reaction by the US and British governments was quite different.

Soon after the study was published, U.S. and British officials launched a concerted campaign to discredit its authors and marginalize their findings without seriously addressing the validity of their methods or presenting any evidence to challenge their conclusions.
. . .
Official and media criticism of Roberts’s work has focused on the size of his sample, 988 homes in 33 clusters distributed throughout the country, but other epidemiologists reject the notion that this is controversial.

Michael O’Toole, the director of the Center for International Health in Australia, says: “That’s a classical sample size. I just don’t see any evidence of significant exaggeration…. If anything, the deaths may have been higher because what they are unable to do is survey families where everyone has died.”

David Meddings, a medical officer with the Department of Injuries and Violence Prevention at the World Health Organization, said that surveys of this kind always have uncertainty, but “I don’t think the authors ignored that or understated. Those cautions I don’t believe should be applied any more or less stringently to a study that looks at a politically sensitive conflict than to a study that looks at a pill for heart disease.”

. . .

The campaign to discredit Roberts, the Johns Hopkins team, and the Lancet used the same methods that the U.S. and British governments have employed consistently to protect their monopoly on “responsible” storytelling about the war. By dismissing the study’s findings out of hand, U.S. and British officials created the illusion that the authors were suspect or politically motivated and discouraged the media from taking them seriously. This worked disturbingly well. Even opponents of the war continue to cite much lower figures for civilian casualties and innocently attribute the bulk of them to Iraqi resistance forces or “terrorists.”

Roberts points out that the way they did their research is standard for epidemiology, and yet it is interesting how the media takes sits cues on how to respond to such studies from the way that governments treat them. As Roberts says, "It is odd that the logic of epidemiology embraced by the press every day regarding new drugs or health risks somehow changes when the mechanism of death is their armed forces.”

The media instead prefers to report the much lower figure of around 30,000 deaths that President Bush used in a news conference. But this figure is presumably from the website Iraq Body Count. But the methodology of that site is to only counts deaths that have been confirmed by recognized news sources, which is very likely to lead to undercounting in chaotic conditions.

Roberts says that if at all his team erred on the conservative side. Although his estimates pointed to about 285,000 killed, they reported it only as "at least 100,000."

Davies concludes his article:

Thanks to Roberts, his international team, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and the editorial board of the Lancet, we have a clearer picture of the violence taking place in Iraq than that presented by “mainstream” media. Allowing for 16 months of the air war and other deaths since the completion of the survey, we have to estimate that somewhere between 185,000 and 700,000 people have died as a direct result of the war. Coalition forces have killed anywhere from 70,000 to 500,000 of them, including 30,000 to 275,000 children under the age of 15. (my emphasis)

This is an appalling level of death and destruction unleashed from the air, reminiscent of the aerial warfare waged in Vietnam.

The fact that nearly 80% of the civilian casualties are caused by aerial bombardment is significant. American reporters tend to travel with US ground troops and thus are not seeing the real war that is going on. In fact, Davies suggests that it is when media attention on focused on ground offensives that aerial bombardment is unleashed elsewhere and thus escapes scrutiny. This is why the reports of Iraqi and other Arab journalists, who can travel more freely throughout the country than western journalists, are more likely to present a truer picture of what is actually going on.

February 23, 2006

The state of literacy in the US

The government's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is an invaluable source of information about the state of education in the US. Among other things, it periodically measures the state of literacy and determines what percentage of the population falls into four categories: below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient. These levels are defined (with samples of abilities and skill sets) are given below:

Below Basic indicates no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills.

Key abilities
• locating easily identifiable information in short, commonplace prose texts
• locating easily identifiable information and following written instructions in simple documents (e.g., charts or forms)
• locating numbers and using them to perform simple quantitative operations (primarily addition) when the mathematical information is very concrete and familiar

Sample tasks typical of level
• searching a short, simple text to find out what a patient is allowed to drink before a medical test
• signing a form
• adding the amounts on a bank deposit slip

Basic indicates skills necessary to perform simple and everyday literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading and understanding information in short, commonplace prose texts
• reading and understanding information in simple documents
• locating easily identifiable quantitative information and using it to solve simple, one-step problems when the arithmetic operation is specified or easily inferred

Sample tasks typical of level
• finding in a pamphlet for prospective jurors an explanation of how people were selected for the jury pool
• using a television guide to find out what programs are on at a specific time
• comparing the ticket prices for two events

Intermediate indicates skills necessary to perform moderately challenging literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading and understanding moderately dense, less commonplace prose texts as well as summarizing, making simple inferences, determining cause and effect, and recognizing the author’s purpose
• locating information in dense, complex documents and making simple inferences about the information
• locating less familiar quantitative information and using it to solve problems when the arithmetic operation is not specified or easily inferred

Sample tasks typical of level
• consulting reference materials to determine which foods contain a particular vitamin
• identifying a specific location on a map
• calculating the total cost of ordering specific office supplies from a catalog

Proficient indicates skills necessary to perform more complex and challenging literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences
• integrating, synthesizing, and analyzing multiple pieces of information located in complex documents
• locating more abstract quantitative information and using it to solve multistep problems when the arithmetic operations are not easily inferred and the problems are more complex

Sample tasks typical of level
• comparing viewpoints in two editorials
• interpreting a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity
• computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items

The 2003 results can be found on page 4 of the NCES document.

For prose literacy, the population breaks up as 14% below basic, 29% basic, 44% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

For documents literacy, 12% are below basic, 22% basic, 53% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

For quantitative literacy, 22% are below basic, 33% basic, 33% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

It does not surprise me that the literacy levels go down for quantitative skills. What does surprise me is that the bars are set so low. Maybe I am living in a dream world (after all, I do work in a university!) but it seems like the tasks required of people at the proficient level are the minimal ones needed to function effectively in modern society, if you are to have a sense that one is aware of what is going on around.

For example, last week I was preparing my tax returns and it seemed to me that to be able to do them requires proficiency level (at least as far as prose and document literacy went), since there was a lot of "if-then' reasoning involved. And my taxes are fairly simple since my finances are straightforward, as is the case for most people whose income comes mainly in the form of salary or wages.

To think that only 13% reach proficiency level in all three categories is troubling. How do the rest even do their taxes, let alone make sense of the complexities of the modern world?

February 22, 2006

The Death of Conservativism

In a previous post, I wrote about how political language has been abused and how words have either lost their meaning through misuse or whose meaning is deliberately kept vague so that they can be used as political weapons.

Glenn Greenwald (over at Unclaimed Territory) points out how this process of distortion is in full swing currently over the labels "liberal" and "conservative." And in the process, he points put that conservatism, as a recognizable political ideology, is dead in America, killed by the very people who currently proudly claim themselves to be conservatives. I am excerpting some key passages from his long essay on this act of ideological suicide but you really should read the whole thing, with its links to supporting examples..

It used to be the case that in order to be considered a "liberal" or someone "of the Left," one had to actually ascribe to liberal views on the important policy issues of the day - social spending, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, immigration, "judicial activism," hate speech laws, gay rights, utopian foreign policies, etc. etc. These days, to be a "liberal," such views are no longer necessary.

Now, in order to be considered a "liberal," only one thing is required - a failure to pledge blind loyalty to George W. Bush. The minute one criticizes him is the minute that one becomes a "liberal," regardless of the ground on which the criticism is based. And the more one criticizes him, by definition, the more "liberal" one is. Whether one is a "liberal" - or, for that matter, a "conservative" - is now no longer a function of one’s actual political views, but is a function purely of one’s personal loyalty to George Bush.

. . .

People who self-identify as "conservatives" and have always been considered to be conservatives become liberal heathens the moment they dissent, even on the most non-ideological grounds, from a Bush decree. That’s because "conservatism" is now a term used to describe personal loyalty to the leader (just as "liberal" is used to describe disloyalty to that leader), and no longer refers to a set of beliefs about government.

. . .

As much as any policy prescriptions, conservatism has always been based, more than anything else, on a fundamental distrust of the power of the federal government and a corresponding belief that that power ought to be as restrained as possible, particularly when it comes to its application by the Government to American citizens. It was that deeply rooted distrust that led to conservatives’ vigorous advocacy of states’ rights over centralized power in the federal government, accompanied by demands that the intrusion of the Federal Government in the lives of American citizens be minimized.

Is there anything more antithetical to that ethos than the rabid, power-hungry appetites of Bush followers? There is not an iota of distrust of the Federal Government among them. Quite the contrary. Whereas distrust of the government was quite recently a hallmark of conservatism, expressing distrust of George Bush and the expansive governmental powers he is pursuing subjects one to accusations of being a leftist, subversive loon.

. . .

And what I hear, first and foremost, from these Bush following corners is this, in quite a shrieking tone: "Oh, my God - there are all of these evil people trying to kill us, George Bush is doing what he can to save us, and these liberals don’t even care!!! They’re on their side and they deserve the same fate!!!" It doesn’t even sound like political argument; it sounds like a form of highly emotional mass theater masquerading as political debate. It really sounds like a personality cult. It is impervious to reasoned argument and the only attribute is loyalty to the leader. Whatever it is, it isn’t conservative.

. . .

A movement which has as its shining lights a woman who advocates the death of her political opponents, another woman who is a proponent of concentration camps, a magazine which advocates the imprisonment of journalists who expose government actions of dubious legality, all topped off by a President who believes he has the power to secretly engage in activities which the American people, through their Congress, have made it a crime to engage in, is a movement motivated by lots of different things. Political ideology isn't one of them.

This happens to ideologies. Initially they are about ideas, about the principles around which societies should be organized and about how to govern. But when people with a strong sense of ideology get into power, they find that trying to attain their goals takes longer and is more difficult than they anticipated because most people are not strongly ideological and resist being forced to conform to a rigid mold. So then the focus shifts to cutting corners on honesty and ethical and even legal behavior, doing anything to silence their critics and stay in power for as long as they can so that they can attain their goals by whatever means necessary. And in the process, the principles of the very ideology that initially drove them become sacrificed.

When that happens, the original followers of that ideology have a choice to make. Either they stay with their original principles and become critics of those in power or they abandon the principles and become instead power cultists, slavishly and uncritically following the dear leader.

A good test to gauge this thinking is to ask such people if there is anything, anything at all, about the leader's actions that they find objectionable. The signs of cult-like behavior are when those people cannot find anything about the leader's policies to criticize or when they do criticize, point to trivialities ("I wish he would make better speeches") or say that the leader should be even more extreme. ("There should be warrantless wiretapping of everyone!", "We need to invade more countries!", "We should torture not just suspects but their families as well!", "We need to put all foreigners in internment camps, not just Muslims!") Such statements are not really criticisms. They are in reality a form of pandering, because they enable the leader to claim the mantle of moderation while pursuing extreme measures.

When this kind of thing happens on a large scale, it signals the impending death of the ideology. It is what we currently see happening in the US for the movement formerly known as conservative.

Greenwald's essay seemed to have touched a nerve, with many "conservatives" trying to deny the existence of a Bush cult and to discredit his main point that conservatism these days is measured by the degree of blind allegiance to whatever Bush does. He has responded to those arguments in this post.

February 21, 2006

Why is ice slippery?

I have been meaning to write about this for some time but got sidetracked by all the other topics. It formed the basis of an article by Robert Rosenberg in the December 2005 issue of Physics Today (pages 50-55).

How people respond to such a question can tell you a lot about their relationship to science in general. Some people will think that such an everyday question should have a simple answer that has been known for a long time. Others will answer that that is just the way ice is. Intelligent design and other types of creationists might respond that ice was made slippery for a purpose that we cannot comprehend. Yet others will say "who cares?" and wonder why we should bother with trying to answer such a question at all. But ask a group of scientifically-minded people this question and you will get a lively discussion going about the various possible explanations.

The basic reason why ice is slippery is not hard to understand. It is caused by the presence of a thin layer of water on the surface of ice

But this begs the next question of what causes that layer of water to coexist with the ice. Why doesn't it also freeze? And seeking the explanation for this has formed the basis for a long series of research programs that have lasted for well over a century.

One popular explanation is that the pressure of the feet or skis or skates on the ice lowers the melting point temperature of ice. So when ice skaters glide on the ice, the high pressure caused by their weight on the thin blades (nearly 500 times atmospheric pressure) causes the melting point to drop below the normal freezing point of 0oC, and thus the surface of the ice, finding itself about that temperature, melts. Joly examined this idea in 1886 and calculated that such a high pressure would lower the melting point temperature to -3.5oC.

The catch is that the optimum temperature for figure skating is -5.5oC while ice hockey players favor harder, faster ice at -9oC. In fact skating is possible at temperatures as low as -35oC. However, the chief scientist of the 1910 Scott expedition to the Antarctic reported that at -46oC, the snow surface became sandlike, making skiing difficult. But this pressure explanation, despite its flaws, remained the dominant explanation for nearly a century.

Another competing explanation (originating in 1939) was that the friction caused by the walking or sliding generated heat that caused the ice surface to melt. Experiments done between 1988 and 1997 to test this showed that skiing and skating over ice and snow did create enough frictional heating to create a water layer.

But this still did not explain why ice was slippery even when you were simply standing on it. The current explanation originated as far back as in 1850 from suggestions by that great scientist Michael Faraday who did some experiments. He found that even though cubes of ice seemed to have a surface water layer, when you held two cubes together, their common surface froze together to form a single ice block. This suggests the phenomenon of pre-melting which says that the surface layer of ice is unstable (because of the lack of molecules above it) and becomes liquid at temperatures below the commonly accepted melting point. But when two cubes are brought together, the common surface is no longer a surface layer and thus freezes, binding the two.

Faraday's explanation was supported by others at the time but challenged by critics who said that holding the cubes together created pressure between them and it was this (and not premelting) that caused them to bind together. Faraday lost out in the end and his theory was pretty much forgotten until more sophisticated experiments were done beginning around 1950. In 1969, experiments confirmed that premelting of ice started occurring at -35oC and yet more sophisticated experiments have been done since and are still continuing that suggests that premelting is the explanation.

Is this something peculiar to ice? It turns out that premelting occurs in other materials as well. Lead, for example, melts at 327oC. But premelting causes the surface to become unstable at about 307oC, so you would be able to skate on lead at that lower temperature, in the few seconds before you were burned to a crisp. (Kids, don't try this at home!) Scientists have found similar liquid surface layers below the melting point for other metals, semiconductors, molecular solids and rare gases, suggesting that this is a common phenomenon.

Some interesting features of this history stand out. It shows how science and scientists work. Although Michael Faraday was a famous scientist, and his explanation ultimately turned out to be correct, it was not accepted at the time, despite some experimental support. It was only much later, with solid quantitative data coming in from a variety of sources, that resulted in the premelting hypothesis being accepted. Scientific prestige only assures you that your ideas will be taken seriously, not that they will be accepted.

Second, ideas by themselves, however appealing or aesthetically appealing, need their own supporting data if they are to be accepted. It is not enough to simply discredit other people's ideas. Solid support for Faraday has only been coming in the last half-century.

Third, if you have a theory that explains one phenomenon, then it should also predict other phenomena. This is what was done by extending the liquid layer surface idea to other materials and seeing if they showed the same thing. When they did, the idea gained credibility. In other words, it was not an ad hoc theory to explain just one result, that of ice. This is the essential hypothetic-deductive (if-then) reasoning at work in science, which says that if something explains result A, then it should be possible to use it to predict something in context B.

I emphasize these three points to contrast the process with what intelligent design creationist (IDC) advocates are trying to do with their idea. They are violating points two and three of those criteria. They should not be surprised that IDC is being rejected by the scientific community.

POST SCRIPT: Motown at the Super Bowl

Some critics argued that the NFL showed bad judgment by selecting some aging British rock band to play at half-time at the Super Bowl, and completely ignoring Detroit's Motown sound.

Meanwhile, Alexander Pollack, Detroit's city architect, had proposed a truck horn band in which the air horns of big trucks could be tuned to play the musical scale and thus could serve as an orchestra. He had proposed that this collection of trucks be driven in during half time to play music on their horns but his idea was rejected because of the weight of the trucks. I like the Rolling Stones but this would have been a far more novel halftime show.

But he did get the trucks lined up to play somewhere outside the stadium and if you go here, you can hear the air horns playing "Stop in the name of love." So Motown did have a presence at the game. Sort of.

February 20, 2006

Hot buttons and the people who push them-3

When it comes to how to find and push hot buttons in the US (see here and here for the first two parts of this series), we can all learn from the master, the infamous Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. These people are so off-the-wall hateful in their message that they are almost a self-parody.

Phelps and his small church consisting of mostly his extended family (he has 13 children of his own) hate gay people with a passion. He and his church members started their crusade by traveling around the country demonstrating at the funerals of gay people (especially those with high profile deaths like Matthew Shepard where they knew media would be there), with anti-gay signs.

This was annoying enough (especially to the grieving people at the funerals) but did not create enough of a ruckus to satisfy Phelps. After all, picking on gay people is hardly newsworthy, given the strength of anti-gay sentiment in this country. So Phelps cast around, trying to find ways to create a bigger impact, something that would really get under the skin of a lot of people. And he found one. His church members decided that in addition to protesting gays, they would also protest "enablers" of the gay lifestyle. This broadened the targets of their attacks to almost everyone.

They struck it big when they started demonstrating at the funerals of dead soldiers. At one such funeral "members of the church stomped on the American flag and held signs thanking God for the explosives" that killed the soldier being buried. How are soldiers "enablers" of gays, you ask? Easy, at least for Phelps, who displays an affinity for syllogistic arguments. Soldiers defend the US. The US harbors gays. Ergo, soldiers enable the gay lifestyle.

So members of the Westboro Baptist Church travel the country picketing military funerals with signs saying that the soldiers deserved to die because god hates them for defending a country that tolerates homosexuality and adultery.

They also demonstrated at the funeral of the miners killed at the Sago disaster, with "God hates miners" signs in addition to the standard signs against gays and gay enablers. How are miners gay enablers, you ask again? Well, miners support the US economy and keep it running. The US harbors gays. Ergo, miners are gay enablers.

They even demonstrated at Coretta Scott King's funeral. Why her, you ask? I'm sure you can fill in Phelps' reasoning for yourself.

What do you do with people like this who are being so obnoxious? It seems to me that publicity and attention is what such people really crave. And Phelps found a really hot button with the military funerals because now state legislatures are proposing laws that restrict demonstrations at military funerals, at least to greater than a certain distance.

That is, in my opinion, exactly the wrong thing to do. What it does do is guarantee that Phelps will get the spotlight as he goes to court and eventually, as seems likely, win his case (perhaps in the Supreme Court) on first amendment grounds. And Phelps will take credit for being a martyr for free speech rights.

His case is like that of the Maryland man who got annoyed with his neighbor over some triviality concerning his dog, and mooned his neighbor. He was taken to court for indecent exposure but was acquitted because of the first amendment. That man now actually calls himself as an "American hero."

If we could only learn to take control of our hot buttons we would take away the only weapon these obnoxious people have.

If the families of the slain soldiers could, instead of looking for laws to protect them, ask the military to designate a few people to go up to Phelps's crowd at these funerals and smile and thank them for their concern and for taking the trouble to come to the funeral, then Phelps might get deflated. Or if people come with other signs saying things like "God loves gays" and "Only gays go to heaven" and stand near Phelps group, then that shifts the attention away from Phelps. Or they could stand with those signs outside Phelps's church before and after Sunday service.

In my opinion, humor, parody, satire, and gentle ridicule are far more effective at neutralizing obnoxious people than physical threats and legal actions, because the latter enables them to play the hero role while the former makes them merely figures of fun. People who deliberately set out to be obnoxious are (going into pop psychology mode for a moment) usually humorless and insecure, and it is disturbing to them to be ignored or considered ridiculous.

As I have said before. I am a firm believer in the first amendment and free speech rights. We have to protect them because those rights are needed to protect those who are using it in the service of the common good. If in the process of protecting them, we also allow people like Phelps to pester grieving families or some newspapers to goad some Muslims into intemperate behavior, then so be it. (See an interesting article on this in the Guardian.)

But my right to say what I feel does not mean that I am to be commended for using that right whenever and wherever I please. It is true that I have the right to insult someone (within limits). If that person is provoked enough that he or she threatens me with physical harm, I should have the right to be protected. But I shouldn't expect praise for my exercise and subsequent "defense" of free speech rights. It seems like praise is what the newspapers who published the Muslim cartoons, Phelps, and even the Maryland mooner, expect.

The so-called Golden Rule of human behavior, that says that we should treat other people the way that we would like to be treated, is articulated almost universally by religions and societies. It sets a high bar for behavior and is a hard rule to follow.

I would like to suggest a somewhat lower standard of behavior, say the Silver Rule, and that is: We should try not to be gratuitously offensive to others and we should try not to take offense easily.

If people simply followed that rule, life would be a lot more pleasant.

POST SCRIPT: The Cheney Chronicles

Trying to shed himself of his secretive and reclusive image, the VP has been making the rounds.

David Letterman shows clips of the VP giving a speech after the shooting, talking frankly about himself. . .

. . . and then Jay Leno interviews him . . .

. . . and then Cheney, showing that he has talents other than starting disastrous wars, gives a concert where he sings his version of the Johnny Cash hit Folsom Prison Blues, the song that contains the immortal line "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." (Warning: Explicit lyrics because in the song Cheney repeats the phrase that he used against Senator Patrick Leahy on the floor of the US Senate.)

February 17, 2006

Baby killers

I saw the documentary film Winter Soldiers on Wednesday night at Strosacker and it was a very moving experience. (The film will be shown again on Sunday at 1:30pm. I strongly recommend it. See below for details.)

In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, more than 125 veterans of the Vietnam war came to a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit and spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. The documentary gives voice to these soldiers as they describe what they had seen and done.

The soldiers recounted story after story of the appalling things that were committed routinely by the soldiers on the Vietnamese. And the brutality was indiscriminate, against old and young and infants, men and women, combatants and civilians. People were pushed out of helicopters, they were raped, they were tortured and killed in cold blood, in ways that sicken you. Entire villages were routinely and systematically destroyed. One person testified that while their truck passed a group of five little children, one child gave made a rude gesture at them. The truck slowed and the soldiers killed all the children in a volley of fire.

The soldiers spoke of a brutal culture that pervaded the entire military. Their superior officers deliberately kept vague as to what the soldiers could and could not do but did not reprimand anyone for anything, even if they witnessed these atrocities. As a result, each soldier soon developed the attitude that all Vietnamese were fair game, that anything could be done to them and there would not be any consequences. And they knew that their superiors knew and approved and even carried out these acts.

The events at My Lai, far from being an aberration by "a few bad apples" (the standard reaction by the Pentagon and official Washington to such revelations) were, in the words of the soldiers, SOP (standard operating procedure).

After the film, there was panel moderated by Mary Reynolds Powell, who served as a nurse in Vietnam and is the author of a memoir A World of Hurt: Between Innocence and Arrogance in Vietnam. The panel had three veterans of Vietnam, now all middle aged men. All of them had served in Vietnam during the same period portrayed in the documentary. They all said that the stories we had just heard were consistent with their own experiences and that this is what happens in war. They said anyone who thinks such acts are aberrations is living in a dream world.

They said that this is what is currently happening in Iraq and the revelations of atrocities like those that occurred at Abu Ghraib in Iraq are things that go on all the time with the full knowledge and tacit approval of the superior officers all the way up the command chain to the very top. They said that whatever its faults, the information chain in the military is highly efficient in both directions, so for the top brass to claim ignorance of what is going on on the ground is to be disingenuous. One recommended the website Veterans Against the Iraq War.

(More photos of Abu Ghraib atrocities were released on Wednesday by an Australian newspaper. The Australian news program Dateline aired a program on it that can be seen here. Some of the photos can be seen here. But be warned that they are very graphic.)

I had expected to be angry at these stories of cruelty, and I was. What I did not expect was to also feel a deep sense of sadness. This was because the young men recounting the horrible things they did and saw could easily have been the students I teach at Case. They were roughly that age and had the same look of youthful innocence. But mixed in with that were fleeting glimpses of haunted looks in their eyes, as if they were wondering "My God, what have I done? What have I become?"

While watching them, I was reminded of the prologue to Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five, based on his experiences as a young prisoner of war during World War II in Dresden, which was bombed relentlessly by the allied forces causing massive destruction and civilian deaths and was arguably a war crime. "Out of 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden, 24,866 were destroyed. An area of 15 square kilometres was totally destroyed, among that: 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 18 churches, 5 theatres, 50 bank and insurance companies, 31 department stores, 31 large hotels, 62 administration buildings as well as factories such as the Ihagee camera works."

In preparing background material to write the novel over twenty years after the war's end, Vonnegut went to visit one of his fellow prisoners-of-war to help recollect incidents from that time. He said that his friend's wife, whom he had never met before, seemed to be barely concealing her anger at him for reasons that he could not fathom. While he and his friend were sharing war stories, she finally wheeled around and raged at him:

"You were just babies then!. . . You were just babies in the war - like the ones upstairs. . . But you're not going to write it that way, are you. . .You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some other of those glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs."

She was right. As I have written earlier (see part one, two, and three of that series) war brutalizes those who fight as well as those who don't.

However much the media and the film industry might try to gloss over that fact, this is the ugly secret of war, this is what war does. It creates baby killers in both senses of the phrase - those who kill babies, and babies who learn how to kill.

POST SCRIPT: Film Winter Soldier

The Cleveland Museum of Art is screening the film Winter Soldier on Sunday, February 19 at 1:30pm.

The screening is at Strosacker Auditorium on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, since the Museum of Art is closed during its major renovation. Tickets are $7.00 per person general admission, but $5.00 for those associated with Case and (I think) affiliated with some other institutions (ask the ticket seller).

You can see the trailer of the film here from where I have also taken this background information and which also lists other screenings around the country.

In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, a public inquiry into war crimes committed by American forces in Vietnam was held at a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit. Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized this event called the Winter Soldier Investigation with support from Jane Fonda and Mark Lane. More than 125 veterans spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. "The major that I worked for had a fantastic capability of staking prisoners," goes one piece of testimony, "utilizing a knife that was extremely sharp, and sort of fileting them like a fish. . . . Prisoners treated this way were executed at the end because there was no way that we could take them into any medical aide and say, 'This dude fell down some steps.'"

Though the event was attended by press and television news crews almost nothing was reported to the American public. Yet, this unprecedented forum marked a turning point in the anti-war movement. It was a pivotal moment in the lives of young vets from around the country who participated, including the young John Kerry. The Winter Soldier Investigation changed him and his comrades forever. Their courage in testifying, their desire to prevent further atrocities and to regain their own humanity, provide a dramatic intensity that makes the film Winter Soldier an unforgettable experience.

February 16, 2006

Secret Agent Vice President

What amazed me is that after Vice President Cheney shot 78-year old Harry Whittington, the administration started by essentially blaming the man for getting shot.

From what I have read (see here and here), the consensus among bird hunters is that in such incidents, the fault almost always lies with the shooter. It is like rear-end collisions, where placing the blame is a no-brainer because it takes an extraordinary series of events for the person who gets rear-ended to be at fault. But this is an administration that however much it messes things up, always finds other people to blame and insists that what it did was right.

The Daily Show satirized this attitude with correspondent Rob Corddry saying, "Jon, tonight the Vice President is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. Now according to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be the 78 year old man, even knowing that today, Mr. Cheney insists he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face."

After it became clear that the attempt to blame Whittington was not getting any traction and was inviting outright ridicule and contempt, after four days, the Vice President in an interview absolves Whittington from blame.

What is interesting about the whole story is the reticence to reveal information about the incident and the sometimes contradictory nature of the information that is disclosed.

For example, although there were reports of three hunters in the party, the identity of the third was kept quiet and was only revealed after much prodding to be that of Pamela Willeford, the US Ambassador to Switzerland. Since she was an eyewitness to the events, why was her identity not revealed earlier? Why was she not questioned about her version of events? After all, she is a public employee.

Noted criminal lawyer and Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz also questions the reasons for the 14/18/24-hour delay (depending on who is reporting) in revealing the details of the shooting, and brings his experience to speculate on possibilities.

And others are questioning the story that the shooting distance was 30 yards since that does not square with the density of pellets that hit the victim, and the degree of penetration of the pellets. Those facts suggest that he may have been much closer, say 30 feet.

If this is a simple accidental shooting, why is it so hard to have a simple, straightforward, accounting of the events? In fact it is amazing that the VP waited four days before speaking on the matter, and then, rather than give a full-fledged news conference, he spoke only to Brit Hume of Fox News, who can be counted upon to be very sympathetic, if not outright sycophantic.

Why was it so hard for the Vice President to come forward quickly and publicly apologize and say that he is terribly sorry about the accident and the resulting pain he has caused Mr. Whittington and his family? He could have turned it into an important lesson learned, that even people experienced with guns can make mistakes and thus should always exercise extreme caution when handling firearms. That seems to me to be the gracious thing to have done. (I am assuming that he has already done all this privately to the Whittingtons. If he hasn't, that becomes even more appallingly ungracious behavior.)

The Vice-President seems to think that he can simultaneously have all the privileges of a private citizen while having all the perks of being on the taxpayer payroll. As James Wolcott points out:

The question the press should ask itself when it has time to pause and (ha-ha) reflect is: Why has Dick Cheney been allowed to be secret-agent vice president since 9/11? Everyone foolishly accepted that he needed to be in an undisclosed location in case of terrorist attack, but there hasn't been a terrorist attack and Cheney has used the 9/11 moment as a permanent opaque bullet-proof shield between himself and accountability on everything pertaining to his office. Has there ever been an administration where the vice president was more aloof, arrogant, and stealthier than the president himself? As Dana Bash said the other night on CNN, the vice president's office routinely refuses to let anyone know what the veep's schedule is, what his travel plans are, who he's meeting with, etc. They didn't know he was spending the weekend shooting quail and the occasional fellow hunter until the news broke in Texas. He's an elected official, which he seems to have forgotten, as has the press, as has the Republican Party, as have the American people.

Good points. The VP is not a private citizen, although he seems to think he can act like one. As many people have pointed out, the media fuss over this incident is surprising since they glossed right over all the much more serious things the VP has been involved in, especially in making the fraudulent case for attacking Iraq.

Just this very week, on February 10 it was reported that Cheney's indicted former chief-of-staff Lewis Libby "testified that his bosses instructed him to leak information to reporters from a high-level intelligence report that suggested Iraq was trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, according to court records in the CIA leak case.

Cheney was one of the "superiors" I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby said had authorized him to make the disclosures, according to sources familiar with the investigation into Libby's discussions with reporters about CIA operative Valerie Plame."

That criminal investigation by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is ongoing.

Then Paul Pillar, the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005 said on February 10 "In the wake of the Iraq war, it has become clear that official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made," Pillar wrote. And Cheney was one of the people who made those decisions.

These news items, although very serious, have received scant attention from the media because of the shooting on the very next day (February 11), which led comedian Bill Maher to joke that the VP may have deliberately shot Whittington to draw attention away from those more serious policy revelations.

So why the media focus on the shooting? After all, no one is seriously suggesting that at bottom it was anything more than an accident. Some are suggesting that the way the shooting episode news release was handled is the straw that broke the camel's back. At some point, the White House media got fed up with the almost obsessive secrecy and stonewalling that they have been receiving on so many issues.

For example, just on Tuesday, the White House press secretary in the morning was trying to laugh off the whole shooting incident by joking about it and then during his daily briefing in the afternoon, while knowing that Whittington's condition had taken a turn for the worse that day with a heart attack, and did not share this information with the assembled unwitting press corps. This kind of secrecy is hard to understand.

Perhaps the media are taking their frustrations out on the White House using a story that is simple to understand and write about, even though it does not have the serious policy implications of the Iraq war and the other controversies of which the VP is at the center.

POST SCRIPT: Parody film trailers

Sleepless in Seattle as a stalker thriller? The Shining as a warm family comedy? These are some of the parody film trailers circulating on the internet that take scenes from the real film and present them as belonging to a completely different genre. Of course, Brokeback Mountain has also spawned its share of parodies such as Brokeback to the Future and Top Gun 2: Brokeback Squadron.

To see them (and others), go here.

February 15, 2006

Ohio Sets Back Intelligent Design

Yesterday the Ohio Board of Education (OBE) struck a huge blow against intelligent design by voting 11-4 to remove benchmarks in its science standards that called for "critical analysis" of evolution and to eliminate a lesson plan based on that benchmark.

Here is some background to the issue. In 2001 I was selected to be part of Ohio's Science Standards Advisory Board to set new science standards for Ohio. After many months of work, we approved a set of standards to be fleshed out by other people in writing committees. There was some discussion of what to do about intelligent design creationism (IDC) but the consensus was to keep it out.

Then in 2002 an emergency meeting of the advisory board was called in Columbus (which I did not attend) and I am told that the members who did attend were told that certain members of the OBE were unhappy at the omission of IDC. They were then given an ultimatum. In the section that dealt with biological evolution, they had to include a benchmark that said "Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of intelligent design." If they did not agree, the entire set of standards would be jettisoned and a new set created by the state legislature. Since this would probably be worse, the members of the advisory board reluctantly agreed.

At the OBE meeting where the standards were to be adopted, some OBE members were concerned that this benchmark would open the door to teaching IDC so they added additional language that said (in parentheses) "The intent of this benchmark does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design."

But it soon became clear that this benchmark was a Trojan horse. The pro-IDC OBE members inserted people into the lesson plan writing team who drafted a lesson plan called Critical Analysis of Evolution that essentially recycled IDC ideas without explicitly mentioning intelligent design.

This lesson plan was roundly criticized on both science and pedagogical grounds but the OBE stood firm on retaining it.

The Dover trial revived the criticism of both the benchmarks and the lesson plan and at its January meeting, a vote for their removal was narrowly defeated 9-8, with two members absent. Governor Bob Taft then stepped in and asked for a legal review of the lesson plan to see if it could be challenged. Meanwhile I and twenty other members of the original science advisory board wrote to the Governor on February 7, 2006 urging elimination of the benchmark and the lesson plan.

All this lay behind yesterday's 11-4 vote to reject both the benchmark and the lesson plan.

In order to clarify the somewhat subtle issues behind this, I had written an op-ed on February 10, 2006 which I submitted to the Plain Dealer and which was rejected. But I reproduce it below so that you can see what was wrong with both the benchmark and the lesson plan.

Here's the op-ed:

How Critical Analysis Can be Abused

The course on The World's Religions was proceeding smoothly. Using a textbook that had one chapter dedicated to each religion, the students learned about Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, and Taoism. The class soon settled into a predictable routine in which they learned the basic beliefs, rituals, origins, and history of each religion.

The students were surprised, however, when a completely different teaching strategy was adopted for the chapter on Christianity. The new lesson plan adopted a much more critical stance.

The students were first asked to identify five important elements of Christianity's religious beliefs and history, such as the Genesis stories, the exodus, the life of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the virgin birth. For each item, the students were instructed to critically analyze it by finding one major piece of evidence in support of it and one to challenge it, and to compare and contrast that evidence. The class watched the documentary The God Who Wasn't There (which challenges the idea that Jesus was a historical figure and argues that his life story was constructed out of myths that were prevalent at that time) and students were also directed to archaeological, anthropological, historical, and scientific sources that said that the Genesis stories could not be taken literally and that the Biblical story of the exodus did not occur.

Students were asked to evaluate the usefulness and credibility of both the Bible and the sources that challenged it, debates were held among the students on the relative merits of the sources, and students were asked to write reflective essays on why it was important to critically analyze Christian beliefs. Students were asked to provide written arguments both in favor of and against each of the basic five Christian beliefs, and teachers were given sample answers to better help them guide students towards providing suitable answers on both sides.

At the end of the course, many students felt that Christianity was much less credible than all the other religions.

Where did this biased form of teaching occur? Well, actually, I made it up. But it is fictitious only in terms of its subject matter. I created this example to clarify what is at issue behind the February 7, 2006 letter that I and twenty other former members of Ohio's Science Standards Advisory Board sent to Governor Taft, urging that a lesson plan approved by the Ohio Board of Education (OBE) be removed.

This grade 10 "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan treats evolution almost exactly the way Christianity is treated in the above example. While all the other topics in physical, earth, space, and life sciences are taught so as to give students a basic understanding of the elements of those disciplines to prepare them for more advanced work in the field, there is a sudden change as soon as evolution is introduced and students are taught as if the arguments for and against it are on an equal footing.

This singling out of evolution for special critical analysis was one of the reasons that US District Judge John E. Jones III used to argue that the Dover, PA school board's action was unconstitutional. His ruling (Kitzmiller, et. al. v. Dover, 2005) quoted a US Supreme Court judgment that objected to legislation that "[o]ut of many possible science subjects taught in the public schools...chose to affect the teaching of the one scientific theory that historically has been opposed by certain religious sects."

Judge Jones further said with this kind of singling out "the Board sent the message that it "believes there is some problem peculiar to evolution," and "[i]n light of the historical opposition to evolution by Christian fundamentalists and creationists. . . the informed, reasonable observer would infer the School Board's problem with evolution to be that evolution does not acknowledge a creator.""

He said that this extraordinary scrutiny of evolution violated the "prohibition against government endorsement of religion" because that prohibition "preclude[s] government from conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred."

Those members of the OBE who have been promoters of the lesson plan argue that the Dover decision does not apply to Ohio because their plan does not mention intelligent design, which was an issue in the Dover case. They should not be so sanguine. Although it is hard to predict how a different judge in a different jurisdiction in a different case might rule, the Dover case has relevance because the problem Judge Jones identified was that the singling out of evolution for special critical analysis was tantamount, because of the history of the issue, to an attempt to undermine its credibility in order to advance a specific religious belief.

It seems clear that that argument applies to the Ohio lesson plan as well, and thus the Dover ruling will weigh heavily. The OBE would be well advised to remove the lesson plan.

POST SCRIPT: Talk on Science Standards

UPDATE: Lawrence Krauss will be talking on "Science Under Attack, from the White House to the Classroom: Public Policy, Science Education, and the Emperor's New Clothes" in Rockefeller 301 at 4:15pm on Thursday, February 16.

See here for more details.

February 14, 2006

Hot buttons and the people who push them-2

Continuing yesterday's posting, what I find most difficult to sympathize with are the other newspapers that later reprinted the Jyllands-Posten cartoons that have inflamed some Muslim sensitivities. Far from being free speech champions, they seemed to simply want to provoke anger in the Muslim world. They were not defending free speech rights because, as far as I can tell, those were not in any danger. It is true that some who opposed the publication of the cartoons were asking the government of Denmark to take action against Jyllands-Posten but there was no indication that this was a serious request or that there was any chance of the Danish government was doing so. And even if it made moves towards doing that, there are other ways to defend the rights of that paper.

In fact, the free speech claims spouted by these newspapers have a strong flavor of hypocrisy. Many western countries have compromised their free speech rights long ago by enforcing them selectively, reinforcing the sense in the Muslim world that only they can be targets of such humor. Some are quite brazen about the fact that Muslim sensitivities can be ignored while those of others are protected. And Muslims are told they must either accept this state of affairs or leave the country.

Roger Koeppel, editor in chief at German newspaper Die Welt, which published the cartoons last week, says that European societies have a right to make their own choices. "Every society has the right to have taboos, the things they don't talk about," he says. Mr. Koeppel says the cartoons were not published to annoy but to question a growing tendency for press self-censorship in delicate matters.

At times, he says, it may appear there is a double standard. "Evenhandedness cannot be a goal," he says. "It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules. If the rules are not acceptable, no one is forced to live there."

This is an amazingly frank admission of the dirty little secret that the media picks and chooses whose feelings they wish to protect and whose they can ignore. It is also startlingly self-contradictory. On the one hand, Koeppel says that they were challenging a growing tendency to "self-censorship in delicate matters." On the other, he justifies the existence of "taboos, the things they don't talk about." What are such taboos if not topics that are self-censored?

What this proliferation of republication of the cartoons has done is to further strengthen the suspicion that there is a deliberate campaign going on to disparage the beliefs and sensibilities of Muslims. And there are those on all sides who are intent on promoting this so-called "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the west and see benefits to be gained from fanning this conflagration. On the one side, it makes it easier, for example, to build the case for a US attack on Syria or Iran, the enemies du jour of the US. On the other side, it may make it easier to portray the west as uniformly anti-Muslim and to justify attacks on any westerner and to strengthen the hands of those who seek to impose theocracies on predominantly Muslim countries.

So what can be learned from all this? For me, it reinforces my belief that while people have the right to be offensive if they choose, they should not expect to be admired for doing so. I do not admire the newspapers for what they did, even though they had every right to print the cartoons.

People have all kinds of hot buttons. It seems to be an ironclad rule of human nature that the more buttons you have and the hotter those buttons are, the more people who will be eager to push them just to see you explode. Any person who can remember their middle school years can recall the hapless students who could be counted on to react angrily to some particular slight, and how others would exploit this for easy amusement. The taunts directed at the parentage of someone is a schoolyard staple and you would think that by the time people reached adulthood, they would have wised up and got hardened to this tired ploy at provoking them.

But no. Even adults fall for this kind of provocation and it is worse because now they have the ability to wreak great damage in response, as we have seen with these riots. There is nothing you can do to prevent this except to stop being such an easy target. This means realizing when someone is deliberately trying to provoke you, and ignoring them. The more you react, the more they attack.

Practicing such restraint is not easy. All of us have our personal sacred cows and are prone to anger over some slight directed at them. It takes considerable self-control to not blow up in response. But there is something about religious sacred cows that make things worse. I think that this is because when people's religious sensitivities are slighted, their anger is fueled by a sense of righteous indignation, that they are defending the honor of god, and that god will look favorably on them for their outrage. A moment's reflection should convince any rational person that the idea of any mere mortal defending god's honor is laughable on its face since god can presumably take care of him/herself.

Now we are seeing that other publications have decided that they too can play the same game as Jyllands-Posten (the original publisher of the cartoons that caused the controversy). Syndicated cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall reports that:

A European Muslim website has posted a cartoon depicting Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler. "If it is the time to break taboos and cross all the red lines," the site explains, "we certainly do not want to fall behind."

And an Iranian newspaper has solicited cartoons about the holocaust of Jews and is challenging the newspapers that published and republished the Prophet Mohammed cartoons to show their true commitment to free speech and their religious impartiality by publishing the twelve "winning" cartoons as well.

"It will be an international cartoon contest about the Holocaust," said Farid Mortazavi, the graphics editor for Hamshahri newspaper - which is published by Teheran's conservative municipality.

He said the plan was to turn the tables on the assertion that newspapers can print offensive material in the name of freedom of expression.

"The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let's see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons," he said.

Jyllands-Posten has already said that they will not publish the holocaust cartoons, further reinforcing the belief in the Muslim world that it is only Islam that can serve as a target for religious skewering in the west.

As Justin Raimondo points out about the proposed holocaust cartoons:

Of course, the publication of such cartoons would be illegal in most states of the European Union, as well as Canada, and the publishers, as well as the artists, would probably be thrown in jail and forced to issue a groveling apology. Rose is supposedly against any religion demanding "special treatment," but apparently there is at least one exception.

This issue has nothing to do with "freedom of speech." The government of Denmark is not about to prosecute Jyllands-Posten, nor will the EU - although they could do so, given the existence of "hate speech" legislation signed into law in both cases.

The violent reaction is being portrayed as something that happens mainly with Muslims. But in becoming violent in their actions, the Muslims who were doing so were following in a long tradition of religious groups taking to the streets in response to seeming provocations. Juan Cole points out that such violent reactions were routine in the Protestant-Catholic clashes in Northern Ireland.

It seems amazing to me that we have reverted to middle school playground behavior, where the taunting and goading of one child by another is repaid in kind. We are now in a race to the bottom of offensiveness, competing in a game of chicken to see which group can come up with religiously offensive cartoons that others will not publish.

It is not easy for people to take a detached view when their cherished beliefs are ridiculed. The people who like to push other people's buttons are often ingenious about finding out what works and don't hesitate to do use that information to create anger.

Which bring me to the infamous Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. More about him and his group tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Film Winter Soldier

The Cleveland Museum of Art is screening the film Winter Soldier on Wednesday, February 15 at 7:00pm and again on Sunday, February 19 at 1:30pm. A panel discussion with some Vietnam vets will follow the 2/15 screening.

Both screenings are being held at Strosacker Auditorium on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, since the Museum of Art is closed during its major renovation. Tickets are $7.00 per person.

You can see the trailer of the film here from where I have also taken this background information, and which also gives screening information aroun d the country:

In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, a public inquiry into war crimes committed by American forces in Vietnam was held at a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit. Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized this event called the Winter Soldier Investigation with support from Jane Fonda and Mark Lane. More than 125 veterans spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. "The major that I worked for had a fantastic capability of staking prisoners," goes one piece of testimony, "utilizing a knife that was extremely sharp, and sort of fileting them like a fish. . . . Prisoners treated this way were executed at the end because there was no way that we could take them into any medical aide and say, 'This dude fell down some steps.'"

Though the event was attended by press and television news crews almost nothing was reported to the American public. Yet, this unprecedented forum marked a turning point in the anti-war movement. It was a pivotal moment in the lives of young vets from around the country who participated, including the young John Kerry. The Winter Soldier Investigation changed him and his comrades forever. Their courage in testifying, their desire to prevent further atrocities and to regain their own humanity, provide a dramatic intensity that makes the film Winter Soldier an unforgettable experience.

February 13, 2006

Hot buttons and the people who push them

Like most people, I have been dismayed by the demonstrations, the arson, the boycott threats, etc. caused by the publication in Denmark of twelve cartoons that were seen as disrespectful to Islam. I have resisted commenting on it because there was so much coverage that anything I would say would seem superfluous.

But it seems some important aspects of the story are not being told. The coverage has settled into a familiar storyline: The countries of the Islamic world do not understand western concepts of free speech, not to mention western humor in which no sacred cow is immune from skewering. Furthermore those countries are full of irrational religious fanatics who respond with violence to things that offend them, rather than peaceful dialogue.

Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the person who decided to publish the cartoons issued a statement that reinforces this view.

"This is about standing for fundamental values that have been the (foundation) for the development of Western democracies over several hundred years, and we are now in a situation where those values are being challenged," he said.

"I think some of the Muslims who have reacted very strongly to these cartoons are being driven by totalitarian and authoritarian impulses, and the nature of these impulses is that if you give in once they will just put forward new requirements."

Once the media finds a storyline that is congenial to its readers (and this one definitely reinforces a positive self-image of the west combined with a stereotype of Muslims who currently regarded with suspicion and hostility) it usually tends not to delve too deeply into more subtle issues. But in this case, when you do so, you find that the story is more complex than has been portrayed.

For instance, consider the timeline of this story that is presented. The cartoons were first published on September 30, 2005.

Approximately two weeks later, nearly 3,500 people demonstrated peacefully in Copenhagen. In November, several European newspapers re-published the images, triggering more protests."
On January 10, 2006, the cartoons were reprinted in the small Norwegian Christian newspaper Magazinet (circulation: 5.000).

On January 30, the Carsten Juste, the editor of Jyllands-Posten apologizes, saying "In our opinion, the 12 drawings were sober. They were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims for which we apologize."

So far, this story seems reasonable. A newspaper publishes something edgy, some people get upset and protest, and the newspaper apologizes for unwittingly causing offense but defends its rights to free speech. This kind of thing happens routinely.

But apparently some other newspapers saw this apology as some kind of free speech violation, and the Danish newspaper's apology as capitulation. In order to assert the right to free speech, on February 1, the cartoons were reprinted in the French daily France Soir, and many other European newspapers. And this is what has led to the big demonstrations that we see going on now, with some Muslim communities seeing this as a deliberate insult to their religion.

The main issue of rights seem to be fairly clear. The Danish newspaper had every right to publish the cartoons. People who find the cartoons offensive have every right to protest in non-violent forms, such as holding demonstrations, and even organizing boycotts and breaking off diplomatic relations.

In apologizing, the newspaper was not being censored by governments, it was just saying it was sorry for causing offense. Newspapers depend on advertisers and routinely avoid printing some things to avoid losing readers.

That is the standard storyline. But when you look underneath it, the division between right and wrong, good and bad, start getting blurry, and the motives of the people who published the cartoons become increasingly suspect.

For one thing, the cartoons about Prophet Mohammed were actually solicited by the cultural editor of the newspaper not for their humor but in order to test Muslim sensitivities. Flemming Rose is supposed to have done so because he had heard that cartoonists "were too afraid of Muslim militants to illustrate a new children's biography of Islam's Prophet Muhammad," since depictions of Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, as they are considered idolatrous.

Furthermore, the very same Danish newspaper had rejected cartoons three years earlier that made fun of Christianity because they feared they would cause offense.

Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that have caused a storm of protest throughout the Islamic world, refused to run drawings lampooning Jesus Christ, it has emerged today.

The Danish daily turned down the cartoons of Christ three years ago, on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny.

In April 2003, Danish illustrator Christoffer Zieler submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons dealing with the resurrection of Christ to Jyllands-Posten.

Zieler received an email back from the paper's Sunday editor, Jens Kaiser, which said: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them."

What this demonstrates is a certain level of hypocrisy because the editor felt that the sensitivities of Muslims were not worth considering but that of Christian were.

The story gets even murkier. Justin Raimondo points out that Flemming Rose seems to be an admirer of those in the US like Daniel Pipes who are "fanatically hostile to Islam." So the whole story of a somewhat naïve editor who innocently publishes cartoons that caused a surprising amount of offense starts becoming unraveled and becomes more and more like a case of deliberate provocation aimed at Muslims.

And it gets worse. More on this tomorrow. . .

POST SCRIPT: Mainstream Churches Fight Back

It looks like mainstream churches are getting fed up with fundamentalist attacks on evolution. Commenter Cathie points out this notice for "Evolution Sunday" organized by them (now past, unfortunately). But it is a good sign. Here is the introduction to their website. You can check if your own church is here, or encourage them to join for next year.

On 12 February 2006 hundreds of Christian churches from all portions of the country and a host of denominations will come together to discuss the compatibility of religion and science. For far too long, strident voices, in the name of Christianity, have been claiming that people must choose between religion and modern science. More than 10,000 Christian clergy have already signed The Clergy Letter demonstrating that this is a false dichotomy. Now, on the 197th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, many of these leaders will bring this message to their congregations through sermons and/or discussion groups. Together, participating religious leaders will be making the statement that religion and science are not adversaries. And, together, they will be elevating the quality of the national debate on this topic.

The New York Times reports that "more than 10,000 ministers from around the country had signed [An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science], which states, in part, that the theory of evolution is "a foundational scientific truth." To reject it, the letter continues, "is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children."

On the 197th birthday of Charles Darwin, ministers at several hundred churches around the country preached yesterday against recent efforts to undermine the theory of evolution, asserting that the opposition many Christians say exists between science and faith is false.

At St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, a small contemporary structure among the pricey homes of north Atlanta, the Rev. Patricia Templeton told the 85 worshipers gathered yesterday, "A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all."

And don't forget, Charles Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species both occur in 2009. Mark your calendars now for the big party that is sure to happen on February 12th of that year.

February 10, 2006

The divide between modernists and medievalists

The current attacks on science in the US are often portrayed as a battle between religion and science but that is not really the case. The widespread beliefs about the rapture (taking seriously the claim that 44% of Americans believe that the rapture will certainly or most probably occur within their lifetimes) and the attempts at overthrowing evolution by natural selection because of religious reasons signals something more serious.

When these beliefs are coupled with the fact that 53% reject common ancestors for humans and apes and that 45% of Americans can still, in this day and age (according to a Gallup poll in November 2004), believe that "God created man in present form within the last 10,000 years," indicates that what we have here in the US is a far deeper and more disturbing phenomenon. I think that it is fair to say that it pretty much represents a rejection of modernity and a yearning for an almost medieval, pre-Renaissance way of thinking.

The great divide in the current culture wars in the US is not between religious people on the one side and scientists on the other. It is between those who are modernist and those who are medieval. The modernist camp contains both religious and secular people. Religious people who are modernists believe that god somehow works in the world and in their lives, but don't seek an explicit mechanism. They leave god out of the secular world and science. The medievalists on the other hand are rejecting almost entirely the modern worldview, arguing that religious doctrine must take precedence over everything else and that whenever science and religion are in opposition, it is religious beliefs that must take precedence.

It seems (to me at least) that if post-renaissance life reveals anything at all, it is that we are more likely to get useful information and results from putting our faith in science to make progress and solve problems than in praying for solutions. This is not to promote science triumphalism. Science and scientists can and do make mistakes and one should not yield to them sole decision making power, even over important and esoteric scientific questions.

What I am saying is that is absurd to reject those scientific theories and methods that have brought us to where we are because of religious objections, which is what the opponents of modernism are essentially advocating.

The rejection of modernity represented by these religious beliefs seems to me to be similar to the attitudes of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In both cases, these groups identified the current state of life as morally iniquitous and identified social and moral well-being with a return to "traditional values." They did this by rejecting all the trappings of modernity (TV, clothing, films, popular music, etc.) and tried to return their countries to a more primitive lifestyle, seeing that as somehow morally superior. In the case of Afghanistan this was driven by religion and in Cambodia by ideology, but the end result in both countries was similar - "back-to-basics" on steroids.

This rejection of modernism by about 150 million Americans (i.e., the people who believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis) is disturbing because it means that the foundations on which US society is built is shaky. What may save the situation is that in the US, the rejection of modernity, unlike in Afghanistan or Cambodia, is somewhat contradictory in practice. While appealing for a return to "traditional values," the groups advocating this show no indication whatsoever of giving up all the trappings and luxuries that modernity provides. They want to be worthy of heaven, but will hold onto their iPods until they are pried from their "cold, dead hands" as Charlton Heston famously said about his right to have guns.

Take for example stem-cell research. Currently, religious objections in the US have resulted in other nations taking the lead in this area. Since no major breakthroughs in the treatment of diseases using this new technology have yet been achieved, it seems like it costs nothing to reject this technology. But as soon as it produces a treatment or cure for a major disease, I predict that religious objections to this research in the US will collapse. Whatever their religious objections, people who have the disease will demand the treatment and the authorities will have no choice but to acquiesce.

With the Taliban or Khmer Rouge, they would have just said "tough." If the price for moral purity is a primitive lifestyle and early death, then so be it. But somehow I cannot see the members of the fundamentalist Christian community in its suburban megachurches in affluent communities, people who think that having a long, materially rich life is a sign of god's favor, being willing to accept that tradeoff.

But can you essentially reject the premise of the scientific approach while clinging to the fruits that science provides? I don't think so, at least not over the long run. Collisions between those two sets of values is inevitable and whether we like it or not, scientific advances always trump religious objections.

And ultimately, this is why science always wins in the end. Not because it is obviously true or always correct or aesthetically appealing or emotionally satisfying but because it is just too useful and practical to reject.

February 09, 2006

The religious beliefs of scientists-2

In yesterday's post, we saw that the degree of belief in a personal god or in immortality among scientists had not changed much over time, staying at roughly around 40% for nearly a century, as long as one used a broad definition of scientist.

But the picture changed quite dramatically when one looked at more elite groups of scientists, those who were acknowledged by their peers as having done superior work. For this group, the figure started lower (around 30% in 1914) and dropped dramatically (to less than 10%) by 1998. The results of this research by Larson and Witham become even more interesting when disaggregated by academic discipline.

As the authors say:

Our survey found near universal rejection of the transcendent by NAS natural scientists. Disbelief in God and immortality among NAS biological scientists was 65.2% and 69.0%, respectively, and among NAS physical scientists it was 79.0% and 76.3%. Most of the rest were agnostics on both issues, with few believers. We found the highest percentage of belief among NAS mathematicians (14.3% in God, 15.0% in immortality). Biological scientists had the lowest rate of belief (5.5% in God, 7.1% in immortality), with physicists and astronomers slightly higher (7.5% in God, 7.5% in immortality). (my emphasis)

What could be the reasons for all this? The fact that biologists have the lowest rate of belief suggests that Darwin is the bad boy mainly responsible for this decline, since as Theodosius Dobzhansky famously observed: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution... without that light [of evolution] [biology] becomes a pile of sundry facts some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole."

This higher rate of disbelief among biologists is probably not caused by naïve opposition to Darwin's idea that humans and apes have common ancestors and that thus we have not been designed in the image of god. Most sophisticated religious believers have no trouble accepting this basic message of natural selection and still retaining their beliefs.

The reason why Darwin's theory results in a greater degree of disbelief is more sophisticated, which may be why only elite scientists and particularly biologists, who presumably have looked into the theory more closely, see it.

As I said in an earlier post, Darwin's theory of natural selection finally allowed for the full realization that one did not need a god in order to explain the diversity of life. Darwin showed us how it could be possible that life can bootstrap itself from primitive forms to increasingly complex and sophisticated ones. It reveals how you can have the appearance of design without any need for a designer. Thus the most intuitive argument for the existence of a higher being has been removed.

Richard Dawkins says in The Blind Watchmaker (p. 6): "An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

But this important message is buried deep in the theory and is not immediately apparent to those concerned about the more superficial question of whether we are really related to monkeys.

The fact that mathematicians have comparatively the highest rate of belief (although still low) may also follow from Dawkins' comment. Despite Darwin, one is not logically forced to reject the existence of god, and mathematicians who tend to work more with proofs, may feel that since there is no proof for the non-existence of god, there is no reason why they should not believe in one.

But natural scientists have a different approach. They know that you cannot prove with 100% certainty any of their theories. As a result, they are more prone to looking at the whole picture and making judgments about what is reasonable to believe and what is not. And the more eminent scientists in the NAS are probably older and have spent more time thinking about these questions than the general population of scientists.

I have also argued that when one tries to create a coherent unified philosophy that reconciles all the different elements of one's belief structures, religion has a tendency to lose out. It is just hard to make it fit.

In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Daniel Dennett, author of that excellent book Darwin's Dangerous Idea explains what needs to be done by any scientist seeking to remain religious:

SPIEGEL: How is it, then, that many natural scientists are religious? How does that go together with their work?

Daniel Dennett: It goes together by not looking too closely at how it goes together. It's a trick we can all do. We all have our ways of compartmentalizing our lives so that we confront contradictions as seldom as possible.

So back to the original question posed yesterday of whether science and religion are compatible, the answer seems to be that the more deeply one goes into science and the more science advances, the harder it becomes to prevent the use of methodological naturalism that is a necessary part of scientific practice from converting its users to philosophical naturalism, not by force of logic but by familiarity.

POST SCRIPT: Minimum wage

I wrote sometime ago about the minimum wage and tipping and said that the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour was too low. I had assumed that all states had to follow this federal law for all workers. I was mistaken. It turns out that states have some flexibility on this for certain categories of workers. Eighteen states have minimum wage laws set at above the federal level. As for the rest:

Federal law requires that all workers covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act are paid at least $5.15 an hour. Two states - Kansas and Ohio - set a minimum rate below the federal $5.15 mark for some workers who aren't covered under the federal law, such as waitresses. Six states have no minimum wage law at all, while 24 have formally adopted the federal rate as the state minimum.

The six states that have no minimum wage laws at all are Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana Alabama, and South Carolina.

February 08, 2006

The religious beliefs of scientists-1

Are science and religion compatible? There are two ways to approach this question. The first is a philosophical one where one tries to see if there are any irreconcilable contradictions between the beliefs and practices of science and those of theistic religious beliefs. The second is an empirical one where one surveys scientists to see if a significant number of scientists are also religious.

In the first case, I discussed in an earlier posting that all that being a scientist committed one to was methodological naturalism, while denying the existence of god required a commitment to philosophical naturalism as well. So there seems to be no inherent difficulty with being a god-believing scientists.

What about the empirical results? In a recent post, I speculated on the possibility of a high level of atheism among clerics but said that unfortunately it would be hard to get honest poll results on this question. But scientists are not so hesitant to answer this question and such surveys have been done and the results are extremely interesting.

These surveys were done early in the twentieth century (in 1914 and 1933) by James H. Leuba and repeated at the end of the century by Edward J. Larson
 and Larry Witham who published their findings under the title Leading scientists still reject God in the journal Nature (Vol. 394, No. 6691, p. 313 (1998)).

What the earlier Leuba studies found in his survey of 1,000 scientists in general, selected randomly from the standard reference work, American Men of Science (AMS) was that in 1914, 58% of scientists expressed "doubt or disbelief" in god, with the number rising to 67% in 1933.

Larson and Witham's repeat of this study in 1996 using the current edition of the same source (now called American Men and Women of Science) to select their sample and found the number to be 60.7%. So these numbers have remained fairly steady.

In fact, the 1996 survey found that about 40% of scientists believe in a personal God as defined by the statement "a God in intellectual and affirmative communication with man ... to whom one may pray in expectation of receiving an answer." This is a sizeable number (close to the figures in the 1914 and 1933 surveys), indicating that, at least empirically, there seems to be little problem with being a scientist and also believing in the existence of even an activist, interventionist god who directly answers individual prayers.

But the really interesting changes have come from the beliefs of a more elite group of scientists. One criticism about the studies quoted so far was that perhaps the selecting of the sample of scientists was not discriminating enough. Larson and Witham quote Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins as criticizing their 1996 study on these grounds saying: "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge." (my emphasis)

But how does one define a "real" scientist as opposed to, presumably, a run-of-the-mill scientist. It turns out that Leuba had also surveyed the beliefs of "greater" scientists, using as his sample those scientists designated as such by the editors of the AMS. He found the rate of "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God" to be higher that that of the general scientist population, being 70% in 1914 and as much as 85% in 1934. So it seems as if the more eminent one becomes, the less one believes.

In repeating this particular aspect of the study in 1998, Larson and Witham were hampered by the fact that the editors of American Men and Women of Science stopped designating people as "greater scientists." So Larson and Witham used as their sample source the member list of the highly prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). What they found was that the number among this group who expressed "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God" was a whopping 93%.

Here are the detailed results:

Belief in personal God 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 27.7 15 7.0
Personal disbelief 52.7 68 72.2
Doubt or agnosticism 20.9 17 20.8
Belief in immortality 1914 1933 1998
Personal belief 35.2 18 7.9
Personal disbelief 25.4 53 76.7
Doubt or agnosticism 43.7 29 23.3

Some interesting questions arise from these results. Belief in a personal god has dropped by half from 1914 to 1933 and again by half by 1998. The latter drop may have as a contributing factor the fact that the NAS members are probably a more elite group than the "greater scientists" designated by the editors of AMS. But that means that religious beliefs among elite scientists are either decreasing with time and/or with increasing eminence.

In tomorrow's posting, I will look at this data (and others that give the breakdown according to scientific discipline) more closely and speculate as to the reasons behind these results.

POST SCRIPT: More Iraq war lies surface

The British newspaper The Guardian reports on a yet another memo that reveals that all the talk by Bush and Blair about trying diplomacy was (surprise!) a sham and that they were going into Iraq whatever the UN said.

A memo of a two-hour meeting between the two leaders at the White House on January 31 2003 - nearly two months before the invasion - reveals that Mr Bush made it clear the US intended to invade whether or not there was a second UN resolution and even if UN inspectors found no evidence of a banned Iraqi weapons programme.

What is even more astounding, the memo alleges that Bush was even prepared to try a Gulf of Tonkin-like act of trickery to create a pretext for war. "Mr. Bush told Mr Blair that the US was so worried about the failure to find hard evidence against Saddam that it thought of "flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft planes with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours". Mr Bush added: "If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach [of UN resolutions]."

The British government has not denied the existence of the memo.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat acting leader, said last night: "The fact that consideration was apparently given to using American military aircraft in UN colours in the hope of provoking Saddam Hussein is a graphic illustration of the rush to war. It would also appear to be the case that the diplomatic efforts in New York after the meeting of January 31 were simply going through the motions.

"The prime minister's offer of February 25 to Saddam Hussein was about as empty as it could get. He has a lot of explaining to do."

One wonders why this kind of news gets so little coverage, and generates so little outrage, in the US.

February 07, 2006

Harry Belafonte and the politics of language

In 1946, George Orwell published his classic essay Politics and the English Language which is something that anyone interested in politics or writing should read because of the deep insights that Orwell provides about how to learn to write clearly, and the ways that language can be abused, especially by people trying to use it to serve political ends.

I was reminded of this article again by the flap created by Harry Belafonte when on a visit to Venezuela he called Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world." (UPDATE: Harry Belafonte's visit to Case today has had to be rescheduled to an as-yet unspecified date since he is giving a eulogy for Coretta Scott King.)

Critics have seized on his use of the word "terrorist" to condemn him. In this effort, any attempt to define the words "terror" and "terrorism" are carefully avoided because to do so is to risk finding that Belafonte might be onto something. Orwell points out that this is an old problem.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

Here is the current version of this old problem. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "terrorist":

1. As a political term: a. Applied to the Jacobins and their agents and partisans in the French Revolution, esp. to those connected with the Revolutionary tribunals during the ‘Reign of Terror’. b. Any one who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation.

2. Dyslogistically: One who entertains, professes, or tries to awaken or spread a feeling of terror or alarm; an alarmist, a scaremonger.

Even if one is given the freedom to tweak this definition to suit one's own purposes, it is hard to objectively get the result that the user of such words is usually seeking. I recall a conversation with someone many years ago about the same word terrorism and to whom that word should apply. Instead of simply assuming that persons A, B, and C were terrorists and that X, Y, and Z were not as that person was doing, I asked that person to first come up with a definition of terrorism that did not do too much violence to its common meaning and then see how that definition applied to the different people. That way, one had a measure of the degree of terrorism perpetrated by any given individual or group.

It turned out that the person was unable to come with a definition that avoided the awkward result that either one or more of the people he approved of being labeled as a terrorist or a person he disliked not making the list. This problem existed even though he already had decided before trying to define the word who should be labeled a terrorist and who should not be. (The comic strip The Boondocks identifies a well-known person whom it would be hard to exclude under almost any objective definition of terrorist. And yet, most people would reject that label being applied to him.)

(This definition problem is similar to the demarcation problem that exists in science in which philosophers and historians of science have found it difficult to come up with definitions that have both necessary and sufficient criteria that enables one to judge whether a given theory is scientific or not. The problem is that all such definitions result in either something that is commonly accepted as being science being excluded or something that is clearly not accepted as science being included.)

Because of this, words like terrorism and democracy are used dishonestly. They have become political weapons. As an example, some of you may have observed how the language of reporting changed during the run-up to the attack on Iraq. National Public Radio reporters followed the lead of the US government and started referring to the Iraqi government as "Saddam Hussein's regime" and to the members of his cabinet and armed forces as his "henchmen."

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "regime" as: "A manner, method, or system of rule or government; a system or institution having widespread influence or prevalence. Now freq. applied disparagingly to a particular government or administration."

And "henchman" is defined as "The personal attendant, ‘right-hand man’, or chief gillie of a Highland chief; hence, generally, a trusty follower or attendant who stands by the side of his chief or leader, and supports him in every case of need...A stout political supporter or partisan; esp. in U.S. ‘A mercenary adherent; a venal follower; one who holds himself at the bidding of another’

Using these definitions, one could just as easily refer to the US government as the "Bush regime" and to Cheney and Rumsfeld as his henchmen. But that is never done by the mainstream media. Not because it is not accurate but because these words have ceased to have any meaning and are now just verbal weapons, to be used only against political enemies.

As Orwell says:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

If Orwell were still living, he would have as a fresh example the phrase "collateral damage" to euphemize the "killing of innocent civilians."

Once one has become sensitized to the way political language is used, one can see its abuses everywhere. As Orwell says: "Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." When it is not used in this way, "it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a "party line.""

This is why outspoken people like Harry Belafonte have to be lauded. They are rebels because they use language to say what they honestly think, and to clarify rather than obscure. Such people are seen as dangerous because they cause us to question our assumptions and the way we use language, and the way language is used to mislead.

POST SCRIPT: Some light relief

With all the bad news recently on the international and domestic fronts, one needs a little humor to get through it. So here are some items for your amusement.

* A greatest hits compilation of Bush's bloopers, which includes the ever-popular "Fool me once."

* I have always been intrigued by the ability of technology to change images pixel by pixel so that one image gradually morphs into another. See this for one of the best applications to politics.

* And check out this satire about the NSA wiretapping. (On a serious note, I have been linking recently to the excellent posts of Glenn Greenwald on this issue. If you want to hear the clearest spoken exposition of why the NSA wiretapping is illegal, watch him respond to a caller on the C-Span program Washington Journal.)

* And finally, The Daily Show has a hilarious report that thanks to one American hero who stood up for his free speech rights, it is now legal to moon people in Maryland. So not all the news is bad on the civil liberties front. Or should I say back?

February 06, 2006

Harry Belafonte

For those of you fortunate enough to be in the Cleveland area, Harry Belafonte has been invited by the University Program Board to speak at Case Western Reserve University. The talk will be in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00pm on Tuesday, February 7, 2006. The talk is free and open to the public but tickets are required. For more information and to get tickets see here. (UPDATE: Harry Belafonte's visit has had to be rescheduled to an as-yet unspecified date since he is giving a eulogy for Coretta Scott King.)

Harry Belafonte hardly needs any introduction worldwide to older fans of music (Belafonte was a staple on Sri Lankan radio and I still know all the words to such hauntingly beautiful ballads like "Island in the Sun" and "Jamaican Farewell") or to those who have followed the civil rights and other social justice movements. In the UPB statement about the invitation to him, they quote Professor Henry Lewis Gates who said that Harry Belafonte was "Radical before it was chic and remained so long after it wasn't."

More recently, Belafonte has said that "President George W. Bush] lied to the people of this nation, distorted the truth, declared war on a nation who had not attacked us…put Americas sons and daughters in harm's way…and destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of [Iraqi] women and children who had nothing to do with it. It was an act of terror." In doing so, William Loren Katz says that Harry Belafonte became part of a proud African American tradition of speaking out against wars of aggression that Frederick Douglass started in 1848 and continued through with Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali.

Frederick Douglass excoriated President Polk's administration for "grasping ambition, atrocious aggression, and wholesale murder of an unoffending people" in "a disgraceful, cruel, and iniquitous war," and demanded "the instant recall of U.S. forces from Mexico." President Polk lied to justify a U.S. invasion that seized land stretching from Texas to California for new slave states. "I would not care if tomorrow, I should hear of the death of every man who engaged in that bloody war," said Douglass. (Congressman Abraham Lincoln also reviled Polk for ordering an invasion of an innocent neighbor based on a lie.)

Harry Belafonte is one of those rare people who has used his talents and fame to further the cause of social justice. While many celebrities carefully avoid politics and controversy for fear of alienating lucrative commercial endorsement opportunities, Belafonte has always spoken his mind, even if that meant losing contracts for sponsoring the colorful silk shirts he wore during his concert performances. My parents were fortunate enough to attend a concert given by him in London around 1960 and I still remember how they were raving about it. I am looking forward to Tuesday, not to hear him sing (sadly), but to listen to one of the political legends of our time.

The UPB statement describes his accomplishments:

Harry Belafonte received the first platinum record ever, the creator of "We Are the World," which earned $70,000,000 that was donated to fight the famine in Ethiopia, the first African-American to win an Emmy. He is immensely successful and a world-wide star. He also is a political and social activist. It was he who bailed Martin Luther King out of the Birmingham jail. It was he who wouldn't perform in the south during the period of segregation. It was he who helped to organize the March on Washington. Harry Belafonte railed against apartheid in South Africa. On civil rights and human rights, Harry Belafonte has used his extraordinary intelligence, vision, talent and visibility to bring those issues to the world's attention.

Democracy Now! had an extended interview with him on January 30 that is well worth reading, where he elaborates on the reasons behind his outspoken activism. The prologue to that interview gives further information about him.

He sent money to bail King out of the Birmingham City Jail and raised thousands of dollars to release other imprisoned protesters. He financed the Freedom Rides, and supported voter-registration drives and helped to organize the March on Washington in 1963.

In the 1980"s he helped initiate the star-studded "We Are the World" single, which raised tens of millions of dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia, calling global attention to the humanitarian crises in Africa.

A longtime anti-apartheid activist, Belafonte hosted former South African President Nelson Mandela on his triumphant visit to the United States. In 1987 he was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

The son of Caribbean-born immigrants, Harry Belafonte grew up on the streets of Harlem and Jamaica. After serving two years in the US Navy towards the end of World War II, he became radicalized when he returned after the war. As he explains in the interview:

When I was discharged from the United States Navy, having served almost two years during the Second World War, I came back, like millions of us did, with an expectation that those principles for which we fought would be fully revealed and embraced by the American government and the American people - the war was about democracy, the war was about ending white supremacy, the war was about ending colonialism - only to discover that the Allies, the British, the French, the Dutch and the Americans, all who were the forefront of the democratic charge, having victoriously won that war, did not upon the celebration of victory do anything but go back to business as usual.

Segregation was more vigorously enforced in this country. Many citizens in this country did not have the right to vote. Opportunities were not on an equal level playing field. The peoples of Asia and Africa and the colonial Caribbean were not experiencing any relief from their colonial degradation. And many of us were very, very upset and very angry with the fact that here was democracy, having been fought for so vigorously, not reaching out to those of us who were the victims of the absence of democracy. And in that context, rather than submit, we joined and organized and did everything we could to have the principles of democracy in our Constitution upheld. That meant we went after voting, we went after ending the segregation laws. We did everything.

For that act, we were looked upon as unpatriotic, we were looked upon as people who were insurgents, that we were doing things to betray our nation and the tranquility of our citizens, when nothing could have been further from the truth. That engaged the F.B.I. That engaged the House on American Activities Committee. Many of our leaders were hounded and denied their livelihood. Their passports were taken away. So vigorous was that campaign of oppression that even American citizens committed suicide, and not by ones or twos, but by large numbers. It was a cruel, oppressive period. But we stayed the course, many of us. We resisted. And ultimately, we prevailed.

On the threshold of that experience came the Civil Rights Movement. As a matter of fact, we were the forerunners to the movement. We energized the spirit and people to make America live up to its code, live up to its great promise. In that context, the Civil Rights Movement began to do the same things that those before the movement did to vigorously pursue the unjust laws of this country and to turn them over.

J. Edgar Hoover and others in government began to put surveillance on the citizens. I have no idea how many court permissions were given to have our wires tapped, but nevertheless, we were. Everything we talked about were tapped. As a matter of fact, as an artist, while I was away, the innocence of my family and my children were invaded one evening by the F.B.I. agents who came while I was away, knocked at the door. My wife was very startled at the experience, and when she queried them as to why they were there, they said they had come to investigate me, because they felt that I was doing acts of treason towards our country.

Most recently Belafonte stirred up a controversy when on a visit to Venezuela he called Bush "the greatest terrorist in the world." This has, of course, caused controversy, but this is nothing new to Belafonte who has never shown any sign that he can be intimidated and prevented from saying what he thinks needs to be said in the cause of social justice. (In a subsequent interview on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, Belafonte refused to back down and explained why he was justified in what he said.)

As Democracy Now! says:

Belafonte has been a longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, calling for an end to the embargo against Cuba, and opposing policies of war and global oppression. Earlier this month, he led a delegation of activists, including actor Danny Glover and professor Cornel West, to Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez. Belafonte spoke at a rally in Caracas, where he commented on President Bush.

Belfonte was standing next to Chavez when he made those comments. And he didn't let up. Belafonte also recently spoke in commemoration of Martin Lurther King Day at Duke University where he said, "Bush has led us into a dishonorable war that has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people…What is the difference between that terrorist and other terrorists?" And in a speech to the annual meeting of the Arts Presenters Members Conference days later he said, "We've come to this dark time in which the new Gestapo of Homeland Security lurks here, where citizens are having their rights suspended."

Tomorrow I will discuss the language of politics and how words like terror and terrorists are used to serve political ends.

I definitely will be at the talk and I strongly urge people who can attend to come to Strosacker tomorrow. It is not often that one has the occasion to deal with people who have played such a pivotal role in history. Just as my parents were proud to be able to say that they saw and heard live the great Harry Belafonte, I would like to be able to tell others in years to come the same thing.

POST SCRIPT: I'm a failure

I read that David Horowitz has published a new book naming the "101 most dangerous academics in America." Although I have not read the book, the fact that no one has contacted me probably means that I did not make the cut.

I find this frustrating. Surely he would have found my positions on issues highly dangerous and objectionable since I disagree with almost everything he says and that is usually the most reliable indicator for inclusion in books of this kind that are lists of people? I recognize that the field of people that find Horowitz to be a ridiculous figure must be huge in number but I thought I had criticized Horowitz enough (see here, here, and here) to merit his ire and warrant my inclusion. I even highlighted the news story accusing him of making allegations about people without evidence. What more can one person do to become an enemy? To paraphrase Art Buchwald, what kind of person is this who does not even know who his real enemies are?

I jealously note that Michael Berube made the list. Apart from being much better known and prolific and extremely witty writer than me, and a person who is full of interesting and provocative ideas, and seems to get enormous enjoyment making fun of Horowitz, what else has Berube done to deserve this honor?

It's enough to drive a person to drink.

February 03, 2006

Is the Pope an atheist?

Let me begin by saying that this question is not aimed at the current Pope. I have no reason to believe that the present Pope is any less religious than his predecessors and, for all I know, may be the most pious of all the Popes. My question is really more general and deals with my suspicion that you are likely to find a high level of atheism amongst clergy and theologians, with the levels getting higher the more senior those people are.

The reason I pose the question is that it seems to me that the more one is steeped in religious matters and thinks about issues of doctrine, the more likely that one becomes an atheist. So my question would apply to all priests, rabbis, ayatollahs, mullahs, swamis, monks, theologians, and other religious scholars. Are you more likely to find atheists among those groups than in the general population? This is, of course, a question for which one can obtain an empirical answer. You could simply survey such people and report the results. The obvious catch is that one is unlikely to get an honest answer. Saying you are an atheist is probably a bad career move for clerics.

My belief that most people intimately involved with religion are likely to be atheists may seem to be counter-intuitive. After all, we associate these people with being more religious than the average person, not less. But the reasons for thinking so arise from looking at the usual factors that lead people to atheism.

Most people begin life growing up in religious homes and have some kinds of religious belief as children. So what makes some of them become atheists?

One factor has to be personal experiences of seemingly unjustified tragedy. To have loved ones, people who by any measure lived good and decent lives, suffer and perhaps die can shake the faith of some. But most ordinary people have the good fortune to usually experience just a very few such things personally. In such cases, one's faith may be shaken but not broken. For some, it may even be an occasion to reinforce one's faith as a coping mechanism.

But if many of one's friends and relatives and acquaintances keep falling victim to suffering and illness and death, then you might begin to increasingly question god's purpose and existence. And this is what happens to priests. They are constantly called upon to deal with this kind of problem. When religious people fall very sick or are the victims of tragedy, they immediately tend to call for the priest for support and prayer. So priests are constantly having to deal with the kinds of questions of meaning that the rest of us may have to deal with only a very few times in our lives. That must be tough to handle for any thoughtful person.

The second issue is that priests have studied theology and the origins of their religious texts more than other people. Hence they know (or must strongly suspect) that these documents are human creations with a somewhat dubious history. For example, the documentary film The God Who Wasn't There takes direct aim at the historical evidence for Jesus' existence and finds it weak. Religious scholars know that the claim to textual infallibility is highly weak. Most lay people rarely think about these things but clergy cannot avoid it. They have to deal with these arguments and convince themselves that they can still believe what the Bible says. That cannot be easy.

Similarly most lay people do not really have to confront on a regular basis the major existential questions of meaning. Why are we here? What is our purpose? We also do not have to deal with, on a daily basis, knotty theological problems such as (for Christianity) the virgin birth, the nature of the Trinity, and the resurrection, not to mention all the other problems caused by stories in the Bible. But people are always asking priests to explain away these things to them, so priests cannot avoid repeatedly dealing with such questions, and even more troubling, have to come up with explanations that can overcome the questioner's skepticism.

In the film Million Dollar Baby, the Clint Eastwood character goes to mass every morning, waits for the priest after service, and then pops a theological curve ball at him, to the priest's increasing exasperation. Questions that may only occasionally and passingly occur to lay people (such as why god would be so petty and vengeful to use bears to attack forty two children who merely called his prophet Elisha "baldy") are constantly being asked of priests. What is an occasionally question for us are asked of priests all the time. In a more extreme case, recently a lawsuit was filed by an atheist against a priest asking him to prove that Jesus existed. One can imagine that dealing with such things would wear them down

The final reason for my suspicion is that those priests who have risen in the hierarchy tend to be intellectuals and scholars. Such people have a natural tendency to try and tie ideas together, to make them internally consistent and coherent. Hence they are more likely to study other religions to see what commonalities and differences exist, and to try and reconcile religion with science. But that kind of thinking runs the great risk (if you are religious) of arriving at the conclusion that god does not exist, that all religions are wrong, and that the only worldview without irreconcilable contradictions is the atheistic one.

It is possible that the truly devout priest might develop a much stronger belief and faith because he or she needs it to overcome all these doubt-generating issues that are being constantly thrown at them. But apart from such exceptions, I hypothesize that priests are more likely to be atheists than the population at large, with the probabilities rising as one goes to the higher ranks of the clergy. Thus my question as to whether the Pope is an atheist. It is too bad that one cannot check this out.

In a previous post, I spoke about the fact that if more and more atheists are public about their beliefs, the climate might change since others will realize that atheists are all around them, living normal lives, and are not crazed, amoral, baby-eating, serial killers.

As examples, when I mentioned to a very religious cousin that I had become an atheist, she confessed that she too often wonders if there is any thing after this life and is reconciled to the fact that there may not be. A colleague at the university said that after he told people that he was an atheist, he was surprised at the number who said that they were too.

Maybe there is a potential snowball effect here. If enough people come out and say what they truly believe, then many more may recognize that they actually have been closet atheists all along, and had simply been denying it out of habit and convention or for fear of what others might think.

Who knows, it might reach a stage when so many people have openly said that they are atheists that even the Pope is comfortable coming out.

POST SCRIPT: Another religious furor over symbolism

In a recent post, I expressed bafflement as to why some religious people get so upset at perceived slights aimed at their religion. Now a full-blown international incident has been created by the publication of cartoons (first in Denmark and then in France) that allegedly disrespect the Prophet Mohammed.

The BBC reports "In diplomatic protests, Syria and Saudi Arabia have recalled their ambassadors to Denmark, and Libya has closed its embassy in Copenhagen." Boycotts are being threatened. All this fuss over cartoons? This is as silly as the so-called 'war on Christmas' in the US and its threats to boycott stores whose employees did not say "Merry Christmas.".

In response, in order to defend speech rights, other newspapers in Europe have reprinted the cartoons. "The front page of France Soir on Wednesday carried the headline "Yes, We Have the Right to Caricature God" and a cartoon of Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian gods floating on a cloud."

People who make sweeping generalizations about religions or go out of their way to say nasty things about them may be not being very polite and sensitive. But why do religious people care what others think about their religion? Isn't their faith strong enough to withstand ridicule?

In general I tend to be a first amendment absolutist and to oppose hate speech codes and other policies that try to stifle speech. People should be allowed to say obnoxious things if they want to as long as they are not disruptive or actually threatening other people with harm or creating a real and palpable danger of harm to others or all the other exceptions that the courts have ruled is consistent with first amendment rights.

The rest of us should learn to just ignore such people if we don't like what they are saying.

February 02, 2006

Why Darwin is dangerous

In a previous post, I looked at why many Christians seemed to find Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection to be so objectionable. After all, many theories of physics also lead to conflicts with literal interpretations of the Bible. The answers that physics and chemistry and geology and astronomy give to the question of the ages of the Earth and the universe are reason enough for anyone who believes in a 10,000 year old Earth to reject all those disciplines wholesale. And yet, biology seems to be the sole target of Biblical literalists.

One reason, of course, is that the idea that humans and apes descended a common ancestor is repulsive to some of those who think that god created humans "in his own image," although other Christians have no trouble reconciling those two ideas.

Another reason is that evolution is not teleological. It is not leading towards any particular goal. While we can say where we came from, we cannot say where we are going. This creates an existential angst for those who like to believe that their lives are part of some great cosmic plan.

I pointed out that in the "wedge" strategy document that was developed by the Discovery Institute, they pointed to the teaching of evolution in schools as one of the main causes of the supposed moral and spiritual decay in the US and this view was reinforced in my own conversations with believers in intelligent design.

But there is still a deeper question that has to be posed and that is why it is believed by such people that Darwin's ideas in particular, more than those of physics, cause a disbelief in god. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Daniel Dennett, author of that excellent book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, puts his finger on it.

SPIEGEL: In the center of the debate is the theory of evolution. Why is it that evolution seems to produce much more opposition than any other scientific theory such as the Big Bang or quantum mechanics?

Dennett: I think it is because evolution goes right to the heart of the most troubling discovery in science of the last few hundred years. It counters one of the oldest ideas we have, maybe older even than our species.

SPIEGEL: Which is what exactly?

Dennett: It's the idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing. I call that the trickle-down theory of creation. You'll never see a spear making a spear maker. You'll never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith. You'll never see a pot making a potter. It is always the other way around and this is so obvious that it just seems to stand to reason.

SPIEGEL: You think this idea was already present in apes?

Dennett: Maybe in Homo Habilus, the handyman, who began making stone tools some 2 million years ago. They had a sense of being more wonderful than their artifacts. So the idea of a creator that is more wonderful than the things he creates is, I think, a very deeply intuitive idea. It is exactly this idea that promoters of Intelligent Design speak to when they ask, 'did you ever see a building that didn't have a maker, did you ever see a painting that didn't have a painter.' That perfectly captures this deeply intuitive idea that you never get design for free.

SPIEGEL: An ancient theological argument…

Dennett: ... which Darwin completely impugns with his theory of natural selection. And he shows, hell no, not only can you get design from un-designed things, you can even get the evolution of designers from that un-design. You end up with authors and poets and artists and engineers and other designers of things, other creators -- very recent fruits of the tree of life. And it challenges people's sense that life has meaning.

SPIEGEL: Even the spirit of humans -- his soul -- is produced in this manner?

Dennett: Yes. As a multi-cellular, mobile life form, you need a mind because you have to look out where you are going. You have got to have a nervous system, which can extract information from the world fast and can refine that information and put it to use quickly to guide your behavior. The basic problematic for all animals is finding what they need and avoiding what could hurt them and doing it faster than the opposition. Darwin understood this law and understood that this development has been going on for hundreds of millions of years producing ever more android minds.

SPIEGEL: But still, something out of the ordinary happened when humans came along.

Dennett: Indeed. Humans discovered language -- an explosive acceleration of the powers of minds. Because now you can not just learn from your own experience, but you can learn vicariously from the experience of everybody else. From people that you never met. From ancestors long dead. And human culture itself becomes a profound evolutionary force. That is what gives us an epistemological horizon and which is far, far greater than that of any other species. We are the only species that knows who we are, that knows that we have evolved. Our songs, art, books and religious beliefs are all ultimately a product of evolutionary algorithms. Some find that thrilling, others depressing.

In other words, Darwin tells us how life can bootstrap itself from primitive forms to increasingly complex and sophisticated ones. It reveals how you can have the appearance of design without any need for a designer. Thus the most intuitive argument for the existence of a higher being is removed.

And that can make all the difference. As Richard Dawkins says in The Blind Watchmaker (p. 6): "An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

The more I study Darwin's theory and the development of it by modern science, the more I find it to be a work of immense beauty and power. I totally agree with Dawkins. Although I had not consciously thought of it that way before, I too feel that thanks to Darwin, I can also be an intellectually fulfilled atheist and I have to acknowledge: "Charlie, you're the man."

POST SCRIPT: Nibbling away at the first amendment?

We have reached a stage where wearing a T-shirt bearing the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq is grounds for arrest. Cindy Sheehan describes her arrest at the State of the Union.

Meanwhile, Beverly Young, the wife of Florida Republican congressman Bill Young said she "was kicked out of her gallery seat six rows away from Laura Bush for wearing a shirt reading ``Support the Troops -- Defending Our Freedom.'' In this case, the police said, she didn't get ejected -- she was just asked to leave, and she did."

Glenn Greenwald explains the law governing behavior inside the capitol and argues that what the women were doing was perfectly legal. That view gains support when today the Capitol police said they had made a mistake and apologized to the two women.

What is it about T-shirts with even mildly political messages that make the security forces start hyperventilating?

February 01, 2006

Sudoku and scientific research

I have always liked logic puzzles. They exercise a curious fascination for me, extending even to my choice of reading. From the time I was very young, I was drawn to mystery novels of the Agatha Christie variety, which are essentially logic puzzles where the identity of the culprit is unknown until the end and the author lays out clues which the careful reader can use to solve the puzzle.

Needless to say, this extended to my choice of board games too, Clue and Master Mind being some of my favorites at one time. I also enjoy chess and card games like bridge, both of which contain a considerable element of puzzle solving.

So it should be no surprise that I have recently become addicted to doing the daily sudoku puzzle in the Plain Dealer. For those of you unfamiliar with this new craze, it is basically a logic puzzle consisting of 81 squares arranged in a 9x9 square grid in which about one-third of the squares contain numbers 1 through 9 from already filled in. The reader is required to fill in the rest containing subject to rules that are simple and can be found here.

The daily newspaper puzzle is labeled gentle, moderate, or diabolical, to indicate the expected level of difficulty, although the labeling does not always match my experience with the occasional diabolical being quite easy and the moderate quite hard.

The sudoku puzzles do not require any mathematics or even arithmetic to arrive at a solution. One could just as well do the puzzle with nine different fruits or symbols or whatever. But there is a lot of interesting underlying mathematics, and Brian Hayes has an interesting article in the January-February, 2006 issue of the American Scientist with a fascinating discussion of the mathematics of sudoku. involving such questions as how many different puzzles there are (Answer: 3,546,146,300,288) and what is the minimum amount of filled squares that must be initially provided so that there is a unique solution. It turns out that the latter question remains unsolved. "[T]he minimum number of givens is unknown. Gordon Royle of the University of Western Australia has collected more than 24,000 examples of uniquely solvable grids with 17 givens, and he has found none with fewer than 17, but a proof is lacking." So there's a nice challenge for the mathematically ambitious. Published problems usually have between 25 and 30 givens, with no simple correlation between the number of givens and the advertised level of difficulty.

One interesting question that the article does not answer is how the constructors of the puzzles know when they have given enough information so that there exists a unique solution. Do they have to work through the puzzles themselves and keep adding initial data until they have a unique solution? That seems tedious. In yesterday's (January 31, 2005) Plain Dealer puzzle, it seemed to me that there were at least two solutions.

(The sudoku problems belong to a more general class of math problems associated with the term NP but there are some disagreements about whether it is NP or NP-hard or NP-complete, which I will leave to the more mathematically informed to figure out.)

After doing a few, it struck me that these puzzles are a good analogy for the way science research is done. Thomas Kuhn in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that normal scientific research within a paradigm is largely a puzzle solving exercise in which there is an assurance that a solution exists to the problem and that it is only the ingenuity of the scientist that stands between her and a solution. The sudoku problem is like that. We know that a solution of a particular form exists and it is this belief that makes people persevere until they arrive at a solution.

Most of the sudoku solution strategy is deductive. One starts by filling in those empty squares with numbers that can be arrived at deductively, by rigorously ruling out all but the correct number. But in the more difficult puzzles, one reaches a stage where there may be two (or rarely) three possibilities for a crucial square and deductive logic alone cannot determine it. At that point, one has to resort to 'hypothetico-deductive' or 'if-then' reasoning. This kind of reasoning is an essential element of the scientific process. In scientific research one never knows exactly all the information needed to solve some problem. Hence one has to make reasonable assumptions about some things in order to proceed further and arrive at conclusions. And those assumptions can change in the light of new information.

Sudoku provides an example of this in that when one reaches such an impasse, one simply chooses one of the possible options and proceed to fill in all the rest of the squares using the standard deductive reasoning until either the puzzle is completed satisfactorily, confirming the correctness of the initial choice, or one runs into an obvious contradiction, indicating that one's choice was mistaken and that one should have chosen the other option at the branch point.

In yet harder puzzles, one might encounter nested hypothetico-deductive situations, where after making one choice, one might encounter yet another impasse requiring another choice. Those are the hardest puzzles because they involve selecting between many possible options, each resulting in a different final solution. (As an aside, the mechanism of evolution by natural selection works similarly to this, with the choice options being provided by random genetic mutations and the choice being 'made' by natural selection.)

Scientific research is a lot like these harder sudoku puzzles, involving long chains of inferential reasoning, with assumptions being made along the way. One rarely arrives at solutions purely deductively, hence the popular notion of scientific truths being "proven" to be true is largely a mirage. There are always choices that have to be made at intervening stages. One has to make decisions as to what one assumes to be true and can be used as a basis for further investigations. Being able to do hypothetico-deductive reasoning is essential for science, and yet it is not skill we focus much on in our science teaching.

In doing this kind of hypothetico-deductive reasoning one also has to use one's judgment and select which of the various possibilities is likely to be the most fruitful. Science also requires one to make such judgments and good scientists are those who, over time, develop a good 'nose' for which situations are best suited.

The extra wrinkle in scientific research that is not present in sudoku puzzles is that the correctness of the choice is also time-dependent. What may be a satisfactory choice at one time may turn out, in the light of subsequent research in a related field, to have been the wrong choice later. It is this kind of thing that causes the scientific community to sometimes reverse itself and declare that what was considered wrong once is now right and vice versa.

The hardest problems in science are those that challenge the very paradigm itself because then one is not guaranteed that a solution even exists. It is like working on a sudoku puzzle in which the data given may not be sufficient to guarantee the existence of a unique solution, or one in which the rules have changed but you are not aware of it. It takes a strong will and a great deal of perseverance to take on such problems. But it is just that kind of problem that leads to scientific revolutions.

POST SCRIPT: Warrantless wiretapping

Tom Tomorrow's take on the NSA wiretapping story.