Entries for July 2006

July 31, 2006

Global warming-5: The emergence of a paradigm

The need to take global warming seriously is not slam-dunk obvious to most people. In my own case, over time I have slowly became convinced that there was an emerging consensus among scientists studying the issue that planetary warming was a serious matter. Like most people, I do not have the time or the expertise to have studied the question in detail, but I have enough respect for the scientific process and the way that scientists make collective judgments as a community that when I see a scientific consensus emerging on anything, I tend to take it seriously. In fact the global warming issue is a great example of seeing, before our very eyes, a transition in science from a pre-paradigmatic state to a paradigmatic state.

In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that during the early, pre-paradigmatic days of any scientific field, one has different schools of thought and different theories underlying them. These schools exist and function almost independently of one another. They investigate different problems, operate under different rules, and have different criteria for evaluating their successes and failures. Each develops along its own path and has its own adherents and practitioners. But at some stage, for a variety of reasons, the community of scientists coalesce around one school of thought and this becomes the dominant paradigm in that field, and all scientists start working within the framework of that paradigm.

This transition occurs at different times for different sciences. For optics, Newton's corpuscular theory was the first paradigm. For electricity, it was Franklin's theory. For geology, it was Lyell's work. In biology, the Darwinian theory was the first paradigm in evolution. It should be noted that the adoption of a paradigm does not mean that the paradigms are true or that the problems in that field were solved once and for all. Newton's optics paradigm and Franklin's electricity paradigm were completely overthrown later, and the advent of molecular genetics resulted in the early Darwinian theory being modified to what is now called the neo-Darwinian synthesis. But the adoption of a paradigm significantly alters the way that the scientific community does its work.

Once a scientific community adopts a paradigm, the way its members work changes. Before the adoption of a paradigm, each school of thought challenges the basic premises of the others, examines different problems, uses different tools and methods, and uses different criteria for evaluation of problems. Once a paradigm is adopted however, there are no more controversies over such basics. The scientific community now tends to agree on what problems are worth focusing on, they tend to use the same terminology and tools, and they share a common understanding of what constitutes an acceptable solution to a problem. Scientists who do not adapt to the dominant paradigm in their field become marginalized and eventually disappear.

The conversion of the scientific community to a new paradigm is usually a long drawn out process with many scientists resisting the change and some never breaking free of the grip of the old paradigm. Historian of Science Naomi Oreskes gives an example:

In the 1920s, the distinguished Cambridge geophysicist Harold Jeffreys rejected the idea of continental drift on the grounds of physical impossibility. In the 1950s, geologists and geophysicists began to accumulate overwhelming evidence of the reality of continental motion, even though the physics of it was poorly understood. By the late 1960s, the theory of plate tectonics was on the road to near-universal acceptance.

Yet Jeffreys, by then Sir Harold, stubbornly refused to accept the new evidence, repeating his old arguments about the impossibility of the thing. He was a great man, but he had become a scientific mule. For a while, journals continued to publish Jeffreys' arguments, but after a while he had nothing new to say. He died denying plate tectonics. The scientific debate was over.

So it is with climate change today. As American geologist Harry Hess said in the 1960s about plate tectonics, one can quibble about the details, but the overall picture is clear.

It should emphasized that adoption of a paradigm does not mean that scientists think that everything has been solved and that there are no more open questions. What it does mean, among other things, is that the methods used to investigate those questions are usually settled. For example, in evolution and geology, establishing the age of rocks and fossils and other things are important questions. Dating those items uses, among other methods, radioactivity. This field assumes that radioactive elements decay according to certain laws, that the decay parameters have not changed with time, and that the laws of physics and chemistry that we now work with have been the same for all time and all over the universe. This common agreement with the basic framework enables geologists and evolutionists to speak a common language and arrive at results that they can agree on and build upon.

Some creationists, in order to preserve their notion of the universe being 10,000 years old or less, have either rejected radioactive dating entirely or jettisoned parts of it, such as that the radioactive decay constants have stayed the same over time. In doing so, they have stepped outside the framework of the paradigm and this is partly why they are not considered scientists. Kuhn's book discusses many other cases of this sort.

Kuhn argues that once a science has created its first paradigm, it never goes back to a pre-paradigm state where there is no single paradigm to guide research. Once a paradigm has been established, future changes are from thenceforth only from an old paradigm to a new one.

A key marker that a science has left a pre-paradigmatic state and entered a paradigmatic state can be seen in the way that scientists communicate with each other and with the general public. In the pre-paradigmatic stage, the book is the primary form of publication, and these books are aimed at the general public as well as other scientists, with an eye to gaining more support among both groups. As a result, the books are not too technical and there is an ongoing dialogue between scientists and the public.

But after a paradigm is adopted, scientists are freed from the need to explain and justify the basic premises of the field to a lay public, and no longer have to make a political case to justify what they are doing. They now tend to communicate only with each other. This results in them developing a more technical, insider, language and jargon that is opaque to nonscientists, and the chief means of communication becomes the technical paper addressed to similarly trained scientists and published in specialized journals. They start addressing their arguments to only those who work within their own narrow field of specialization. As a result of this increased efficiency in communication, science then tends to start making very rapid progress and the rules by which scientific theories get modified and changed become different. It now becomes much harder to overthrow an established paradigm, although it can and does still happen

But one consequence of this change in communication patterns is that, as in the global warming case, a disconnect can emerge between the consensus beliefs of scientists and the general public, and how to combat this is an interesting question.

Next: What happens to the public after a science becomes paradigmatic.

POST SCRIPT: Request for information

During the week of August 14, I will be driving with my daughter to San Francisco. Driving across the US is something I have always wanted to do to get a chance to personally experience the vastness of this country and some of its natural beauty.

We will be stopping near Denver to visit some friends on the way. I was wondering if people had any recommendations about the sights we should see between Denver and San Francisco. Here are some constraints:

1. I would like to see natural beauty as opposed to human creations. So suggestions about which national parks are worth a visit and what specific things should be seen in those parks would be most welcome.

2. We don't have much time and I cannot hike, so the sights should be such that they are accessible using an ordinary car (not an SUV or other type of off-road vehicle).

July 28, 2006

Global warming-4: Is there a scientific consensus on global warming?

Is there a scientific consensus on global warming? Naomi Oreskes from the Department of History and Science Studies Program, University of California at San Diego, thinks so. She published a study in the journal Science (December 3, 2004, volume 306, p. 1686) which argued that the scientific community had arrived at a consensus position on "anthropogenic climate change." i.e. that global warming was occurring, and that “Human activities . . . are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents . . . that absorb or scatter radiant energy. . . . [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”

Her study looked at the scientific databases of the Institute for Scholarly Information (ISI) and searched on the keywords "climate change." She then examined the abstracts of the 928 papers that were returned and classified them under six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position.

Her results were that "75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position." (my italics)

She is careful to point out that some of the authors of the minority 25% may not have agreed with the consensus view but none of those papers explicitly took such a stand. She also pointed out that scientific bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme), the National Academy of Sciences (2001), The American Meteorological Society (2003) , the American Geophysical Union (2003), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had all issued statements endorsing the consensus viewpoint.

This does not necessarily mean that there is complete unanimity among scientists about all aspects of this issue. Richard Lindzen, who is an MIT professor of meteorology and a member of the NAS panel on climate change that issued the report cited by Oreskes, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on June 11, 2001, that as far as he was concerned, all he was agreeing with was that "(1) that global mean temperature is about 0.5 degrees Celsius higher than it was a century ago; (2) that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen over the past two centuries; and (3) that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas whose increase is likely to warm the earth (one of many, the most important being water vapor and clouds)." But he went on "we are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in the future" and he argued that the case for reducing the level of carbon dioxide emissions, as called for by the Kyoto treaty in 1997, was not compelling. He argues that the process of warming we currently observe may be part of the normal cyclical variations of the Earth, and that other greenhouse gases (such as water vapor and methane) may be more important players in producing warming than carbon dioxide.

Lindzen repeated much of the same arguments in a critical review of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, that appeared in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal on June 27, 2006, where he also explicitly challenged Oreskes' 2004 study.

In a previous post on belief preservation I wrote about the fact that there are many strategies that can be adopted to preserve one's existing beliefs. The latest issue of Physics and Society, published by the American Physical Society (vol. 35, no.3, July 2006) illustrates this. It has a letter (p. 25) by a global warming skeptic who also argues for the "natural cycles" theory and also adds that the Earth is so big that human activity is unlikely to have an impact on it. Looking on the bright side, the author argues that some parts of the Earth are too cold now anyway, and that even if global warming should occur, we might be better off figuring out better crops that can be grown in warmer conditions, and taking steps to protect ourselves from the flooding that would ensue from the rise of ocean levels.

This raising of alternative speculative ideas against a scientific consensus is not uncommon and can confuse non-scientists into asking "Well, is there a scientific consensus or not?" This sense of confusion is encouraged by those industries (such as automobile and energy) that are the chief producers of carbon dioxide, and who oppose actions that would require them to reduce emissions. Such people know that if there is a sense of controversy over an issue, and especially if that issue has economic costs associated with it, the natural impulse of the general public is to wait until the dust settles and a clear policy emerges. So kicking up dust is a good strategy if you want nothing to be done. This is not unlike what was done by the tobacco industry concerning the adverse health effects of smoking (an effort which ultimately failed) and by intelligent design creationists concerning evolution (which is ongoing). These people take advantage of the media's propensity to do "one the one hand, on the other hand" type stories, balancing the quotes of scientists warning of the dangers of warming with those of skeptics. This results in there being a much wider divergence in media coverage of the global warming issue than there is in the scientific community.

All these interests have used such strategies to dispute the conclusion that there is a scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is occurring. Oreskes addresses these arguments head-on in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed on July 24, 2006:

[S]ome climate-change deniers insist that the observed changes might be natural, perhaps caused by variations in solar irradiance or other forces we don't yet understand. Perhaps there are other explanations for the receding glaciers. But "perhaps" is not evidence.

The greatest scientist of all time, Isaac Newton, warned against this tendency more than three centuries ago. Writing in "Principia Mathematica" in 1687, he noted that once scientists had successfully drawn conclusions by "general induction from phenomena," then those conclusions had to be held as "accurately or very nearly true notwithstanding any contrary hypothesis that may be imagined. . . "

Climate-change deniers can imagine all the hypotheses they like, but it will not change the facts nor "the general induction from the phenomena."

None of this is to say that there are no uncertainties left - there are always uncertainties in any live science. Agreeing about the reality and causes of current global warming is not the same as agreeing about what will happen in the future. There is continuing debate in the scientific community over the likely rate of future change: not "whether" but "how much" and "how soon." And this is precisely why we need to act today: because the longer we wait, the worse the problem will become, and the harder it will be to solve.

The fact that you never run out of alternative hypotheses and explanations for anything is an important point to realize. Philosopher of science Pierre Duhem addressed this way back in 1906 in his book The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory when he pointed out that you can never arrive at a correct theory by a process of eliminating all the possible alternatives because "the physicist is never sure that he has exhausted all the imaginable assumptions."

It is easy to come up with alternative explanations for any phenomenon. That is why evidence plays such an important role in evaluating theories and scientists use published research in peer-reviewed journals as indicators of whether an idea has any merit or not. And Oreskes' 2004 (peer reviewed) study in Science, showing that in the technical (peer-reviewed) journals a scientific consensus exists on anthropogenic climate change, has to be taken seriously. As she says in that paper:

The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known. But our grandchildren will surely blame us if they find that we understood the reality of anthropogenic climate change and failed to do anything about it.

Sensible words. But if you prefer, you can always listen to George Bush's ideas about global warming, courtesy of Will Ferrell.

July 27, 2006

Global warming-3: The science behind global warming

To understand the science behind global warming, it may be helpful to look at a simplified version of the science behind it.

Consider two objects, one that is luminous (i.e., an object that we can see without the aid of a light source) and another that is not luminous. Examples of luminous objects are the Sun (which generates energy due to nuclear reactions within it and sends a lot of that energy out as light) or a light bulb (that converts electrical energy into light energy). Examples of non-luminous objects are the Earth or a person in a room. The energy radiated by the luminous source spreads out in all directions and some of it will fall on the non-luminous object.

What is important to understand is that even what looks like a non-luminous object also radiates energy into space. In fact every object radiates energy. So in a sense, every object is 'luminous' in the sense that it sends out energy, but we usually reserve that term for objects that emit visible light. Not all radiated energy is visible. A human being radiates energy at a rate of about 500 watts, or the equivalent of five 100 watt bulbs, but the reason we do not "see" the radiation energy emitted by people is due to it being outside the visible range

The rate of energy emission of an object radiates depends to a large extent on its temperature (it actually goes as the fourth power of the temperature) and the nature of its surface (such as color, texture, material). So just as the Sun radiates energy into space, so does the Earth, except that the Sun's radiation is much greater since it is at a much higher temperature.

The important thing about global warming is understanding what happens when the energy radiated by a luminous source (say the Sun) falls upon a non-luminous object (say the Earth). Part of it is immediately reflected back into space, and does not affect the temperature of the Earth. But the rest is absorbed by the Earth and, in the absence of anything else happening, will tend to cause the Earth's temperature to rise. The relative amounts of the Sun's energy that are absorbed and reflected by the Earth depends on the nature of the Earth's surface. (As an example, a person in a room absorbs energy from the surroundings at a rate of about 400 watts, thus adding a person to a room is the net heat equivalent of turning on a 100 watt bulb.)

But as the temperature of the object rises due to it absorbing energy, the amount it radiates out again also increases, and at some point the object reaches equilibrium, which occurs when the energy absorbed by it from outside equals the energy it radiates away. Once an object reaches this state of thermal equilibrium, its temperature stays steady.

If for some reason we alter the ratio of energy absorbed by the Earth to the energy reflected, then the state of equilibrium is disturbed and the Earth's temperature will shift to a new equilibrium temperature. If relatively more energy gets absorbed, then the equilibrium temperature will rise until the energy radiated again becomes equal to the energy absorbed. Conversely, if relatively more energy now gets reflected, then the equilibrium temperature will drop, i.e., the Earth will cool. The people warning of global warming argue that human activity is causing the former situation and they say that the reason for this is that we are changing the nature of the Earth's surface, especially its atmosphere.

To understand what is happening at the Earth's surface and atmosphere, we need to understand something about the energy radiated by the Sun. This comes largely in the form of "electromagnetic energy." This is an umbrella term that encompasses X-rays, ultraviolet, light waves, infrared, microwaves, radio waves, etc. All these types of radiation are identical except for one single factor, which is called the wavelength of the radiation. The items in the list differ only in their wavelengths, with X-rays having the smallest wavelength and radio waves having the longest. (Similarly, all colors of visible light are also identical except for the wavelength, which increases as you go from blue to green to yellow to red.)

When this broad range of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun hits the Earth's atmosphere, almost all of it, except the visible light portion, gets absorbed by the atoms and molecules in the atmosphere and does not reach us on the ground. Of the portion that does reach the ground, some of it gets directly reflected unchanged and escapes back into space. The remainder gets absorbed by the ground. It is the energy that is absorbed by the ground that is the source of concern.

Recall that the Earth, like any object, also radiates energy away. But since the temperature of the Earth is different from the temperature of the Sun, the distribution of the wavelengths in the energy radiated by the Earth is different from the distribution that we receive from the Sun (although the total energy involved is the same in both cases for an object in equilibrium). This affects how much is absorbed by the atmosphere as it passes through it. Some of the Earth's radiation will get absorbed by the gases in the atmosphere (i.e., is trapped), while the rest passes through and goes off into space.

This is a crucial point. If the gases in the atmosphere change significantly, then you can change the relative amounts of the Earth's radiated energy that escapes into space and the amount that is trapped by the atmosphere . The so-called 'greenhouse gases' (carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and others) are those that are very good at absorbing the energy at the wavelengths radiated by the Earth, preventing them from escaping into space.

Global warming scientists argue that human activity is increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere. Hence more of the energy radiated by the Earth is being absorbed and less of the energy is escaping into space. Note that the incoming visible light from the Sun is not affected much by the concentrations of greenhouse gases since they are at a different wavelength, and the greenhouse gases do not absorb them as much. As a result of this increase in the absorption levels of the outbound radiation, the equilibrium temperature of the Earth will rise.

At this point, there are various scenarios that can unfold. One is that we arrive at a new and higher but stable equilibrium temperature. If the change in equilibrium temperature is small, the consequences might not be too disastrous, although there will be some adverse effects such as some temperature-sensitive organisms (such as coral reefs) becoming destroyed or some species going extinct if they cannot evolve mechanisms to cope. If the change is large, then there could be massive floods and droughts and other catastrophes.

The worst case scenario is a kind of runaway effect, where a rise in temperature results in effects that cause an even more rapid rise in temperature and so on, in a series of cascading effects.

Some argue that we are already seeing some signs of runaway effects, and point to the melting of the polar ice caps and the general decrease in glaciers and snow coverage worldwide. Snow is white and thus reflects back unchanged into space almost all the sunlight that hits it at the Earth's surface. When this snow melts and becomes water, not only is the amount of reflected energy decreased but water absorbs light energy. Hence the major loss of snow cover (apart from adverse environmental and ecological consequences) has a major effect on the reflection/absorption balance of the Earth, shifting it towards greater absorption. So more energy is absorbed by the Earth, resulting in even greater warming, resulting in further snow loss, and so on.

Another possible runaway factor is the amount of green cover. On balance, plants, because of photosynthesis, tend on average to be net absorbers of carbon dioxide and emitters of oxygen. Thus they reduce one of the greenhouse gases. If global warming results in less green cover of the Earth (say caused by prolonged droughts), then that would result in more greenhouse gases remaining in the atmosphere and causing yet more warming and more droughts. Human activity such as deforestation can accelerate this process.

Those are the basic elements of the science underlying global warming and the factors that go into building the models that try to predict long term climate change.

Next: The emerging scientific consensus over global warming.

POST SCRIPT: Colbert takes media apart again

As you may recall, the mainstream media did not take kindly to Stephen Colbert's demolishing them at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. Now he takes them apart again.

July 26, 2006

Global warming-2: Understanding the problem

Understanding global climate concerns is not easy because it is a complex issue which involves many factors and theories, is based on data that span millennia and is not easy to extract, involves sophisticated theories and computer modeling, and requires long chains of inferential reasoning to arrive at conclusions. Compared to it, evolution, that other anathema of Bush and his anti-science Christian base, is a model of clarity.

At least with evolution, the progression shows a clear pattern, with life evolving from simple single cell organisms to the wide array of complex multi-cell systems we see today. If we started discovering anomalous organisms that seem to violate that temporal ordering, that would require a major restructuring of evolutionary theory.

With global warming, on the other hand, there isn't such a steady progression. It is not as if global warming implies that the temperature at each and every location on the Earth rises steadily with time. If it did, then people might be more easily convinced. But that is not how it works. Instead, the relevant data always deal with averages that are calculated (1) over very long time scales (involving tens and hundreds and thousands and even millions of years) and (2) over the whole planet or at least large areas of it.

It is quite possible to have wide fluctuations over shorter time periods and in localized areas that go counter to the long-term trend. Unfortunately, this means that there are plenty of opportunities for those who either do not understand that only averages are relevant, or who are deliberately trying to mislead others, to seize upon these fluctuations to argue that global warming is either not occurring or is not a serious problem. I can surely predict that if, for example, the next winter is colder than average in Cleveland, there will be many snickering comments to the effect that this 'proves' that global warming is a myth. Similarly, the current heat wave in France and California cannot, by themselves, be used, to argue in favor of global warming either. Scientists' conclusions will be unaffected since they know that data from a single year or location has only a tiny effect on averages.

These are the questions that need to be considered when we evaluate whether global warming is serious or not.

1. Is warming occurring? In other words, are average temperatures rising with time?

2. If so, is it part of normal cyclical warming/cooling trends that have occurred over geologic time or is the current warming going outside those traditional limits?

3. Are the consequences of global warming such that we can perhaps live with them (slightly milder winters and warmer summers) or are they going to be catastrophic (causing massive flooding of coastal areas due to rising ocean levels, severe droughts, blistering heat waves, total melting of the polar regions, widespread environmental and ecological damage)?

4. How reliable are the theories and computer models that are being used study this question?

5. What are the causes of global warming? Is human activity responsible and can the process be reversed?

My own ideas on this issue have changed over time. I started out by being somewhat neutral on this issue, not sure whether warming was occurring or not. Like most people, I didn't really understand questions about climate and tended to make the mistake of equating climate with weather. My understanding of weather was strongly influenced by the one feature about weather that we all grow up with, and that is its variability and unpredictability. This tends to create a strongly ingrained belief that we cannot really predict weather and I am sure this spills over into thinking that climate is also highly variable and so should not worry too much about warming since it might just as easily reverse itself.

But the key difference between weather and climate is that while weather systems are chaotic, climate change is not, at least as far as I am aware. In everyday language, chaos means just mess and disorder and confusion. But chaos, in science, is a technical term with a precise meaning. A chaotic system is one that progresses according to particular kinds of mathematical equations, usually coupled non-linear ones, such that the end state of the system is highly sensitive to initial conditions.

With non-chaotic systems, like a thrown ball, a small change in the initial conditions results in small changes in the final state. If I throw the ball slightly faster or at a slightly different angle, the end point of its trajectory will be only slightly different as well. This is what enables us to have expert athletes in any sport involving thrown or struck balls, because based on previous attempts, the professionals know how to make slight adjustments to hit a desired target. The reason that they can do so is because the ball's trajectory obeys non-chaotic dynamical equations.

But with a chaotic system, that is no longer true. A change in the initial conditions, however small, can result in the end state being wildly different, with the divergence increasing with time. But in order to predict the future of any system, we need to specify the current conditions. Since we can never know the initial conditions with perfect accuracy, this means that reliable long-term predictions are impossible. An analogy of a chaotic system might be river rapids. If you place a leaf at one point in the rapids, it might end up at some point further down the river. But making even a tiny change in your initial position will result in you ending up in a completely different place, even if the river flow itself is unchanged.

For example, suppose the mathematical quantity pi enters into a calculation. We know that the value of pi=3.1415927. . . , a sequence that goes on forever. But in performing actual calculations we cannot punch in an infinite sequence of digits into our computers and need to truncate the sequence. Usually for most problems (which are non-chaotic) we can treat pi as being equal to 3.14 or 22/7 or even just 3 and get fairly good results. We can adjust the precision of this input depending on the required precision of the output. But if pi was a particular part of a chaotic system of equations, then using 3.1415927 or rounding up to 3.141593 would give wildly different results. This is why this kind of chaos is better described as "extreme sensitivity to initial conditions."

Weather is thought to obey a chaotic system of equations. This is why, despite "Doppler radar" and other innovations that can give quite accurate measures of the state of weather-related parameters at any given time, weather forecasts become notoriously unreliable after three or four days, or even fewer. There is a reason that your local TV newscasts do not go beyond five-day weather forecasts. They are at the limits of predictability and already pushing their luck.

But the equations that drive climate calculations are not believed to be chaotic. Hence, given a model, one can hope to make reasonable predictions about global temperatures in the next century with some confidence in their reliability, even though one does not know if it is going to rain next week.

(In the terminology of chaos theory, sometimes climate is referred to as a "strange attractor" of the weather system, or a "boundary value problem," whereas weather is an "initial value problem." Basically, weather and climate are thought to evolve according to different kinds of mathematics.)

It is important to realize that the predictability of the results is possible only once a particular model of climate change has been chosen. One could get different results by choosing a different model altogether, although the range of possible models is strongly limited because they have to conform to the fundamental laws of science and be compatible with what we know about the behavior of related systems. The difference with weather is that with weather one can very different results while using the same model, simply because of our inability to specify exactly the initial values of the problem.

Next: The emerging scientific consensus over global warming.

July 25, 2006

Global warming

It is undoubtedly true that, while the increasing level of warfare in the Middle East in the immediate issue of concern, the question of global warning is the preeminent long term issue facing the planet today. It represents one of the rare situations when the health of the entire planet is at stake. The only other thing that has similar global consequences is an all-out nuclear war between major nuclear powers since that could also unleash an atmospheric catastrophe that could destroy the planet.

But while we can avoid a nuclear winter by simply doing nothing, i.e. not using the weapons, global warming is an issue where doing nothing is the problem. A strong case has been made that if we continue on the present course, the planet is going to suffer irrevocable harm, changing its climate and weather patterns in ways that will dramatically affect our lives, if not actually destroy them.

One would think that global warming is one scientific question where politics would play a minor role, and where the debate would be based on purely scientific evidence and judgments. Unlike issues like stem cell research and cloning where the scientific questions have to contend with religion-based arguments, as near as I can tell the Bible, Koran, and other religious texts are pretty much agnostic (so to speak) on the issue of whether global warming is something that god has strong views on. While god has a lot to say about things like the proper ways to sacrifice animals or how sinners should be put to death, he seems to not be concerned about the weather, expect for using it as a tactical weapon, like unleashing the occasional deluge to drown everyone but Noah and his family or creating a storm to chastise his prophet Jonah.

Hence it is surprising that some people (including the Bush administration) perceive the case being made that global warming is a serious problem as some kind of 'liberal' plot, tarring the proponents of the idea that global warming is real and serious as political enemies, seeking to somehow destroy truth, justice, and the American way. Glenn Greenwald argues that this is the standard mode of operation of the Bush administration, saying "What excites, enlivens, and drives Bush followers is the identification of the Enemy followed by swarming, rabid attacks on it."

Once that bugle call of politics sounded, Bush devotees dutifully fell into line. They know the script and exactly what they must do and have rallied to the cause, trying to discredit the scientific case and the scientists behind it, arguing that the whole global warming thing is a fabricated crisis, with nothing more to be worried about than if we were encountering just a warm summer's day. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) says "With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it." And this man is the Chair of the Senate's Committee on 
Environment and Public Works.

The administration and its supporters have gone to surprisingly extreme methods to suppress alarms about climate change, such as changing the wording of reports by government scientists in order to play down the threat of global warming and muzzling government climate experts, in order to prevent information from getting to the public.

Take another example in which the administration has sought to divert government's scientist's focus from global warming:

From 2002 until this year, NASA's mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: "To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers. . .as only NASA can."

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase "to understand and protect our home planet" deleted. In this year's budget and planning documents, the agency's mission is "to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research."

David E. Steitz, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the aim was to square the statement with President Bush's goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.

But the change comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the "understand and protect" phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

"We refer to the mission statement in all our research proposals that go out for peer review, whenever we have strategy meetings," said Philip B. Russell, a 25-year NASA veteran who is an atmospheric chemist at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. "As civil servants, we're paid to carry out NASA's mission. When there was that very easy-to-understand statement that our job is to protect the planet, that made it much easier to justify this kind of work."

Several NASA researchers said they were upset that the change was made at NASA headquarters without consulting the agency's 19,000 employees or informing them ahead of time.
. . .
The "understand and protect" phrase was cited repeatedly by James E. Hansen, a climate scientist at NASA who said publicly last winter that he was being threatened by political appointees for speaking out about the dangers posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

The attempts to downplay the extent of the problem, divert attention away from actions to study and remedy it, and distort the science behind the global warming issue has been helped by the fact that although the consensus conclusions of the scientific community are pretty straightforward (that global warming is occurring, it is largely caused by human activity, and that we need to take steps to reverse it or face disastrous consequences), the actual science behind it is complicated. This enables those who wish to blur the issue to find ways to cast doubt on that scientific consensus.

Next: Understanding the problem

July 24, 2006

Killing Lebanon

I had thought of moving on to other topics this week, away from the depressing news of the violence in the Middle East to the other depressing (but at least science-related) topic of global warming. But I simply could not ignore the news over the weekend about the destruction of Lebanon and its capital Beirut and have postponed global warming until tomorrow.

Lebanon is a country that was rebuilding itself after many, many years of civil war that killed over 150,000 people. What we see now is that the Israeli barrage of that country is destroying everything that was so painstakingly created. Veteran British journalist Robert Fisk who has made Lebanon his home and seen it go through good times and bad, walked through the now-deserted streets of this once-vibrant city that had been built from the ashes.

And now it is being un-built. The Martyr Rafiq Hariri International Airport has been attacked three times by the Israelis, its glistening halls and shopping malls vibrating to the missiles that thunder into the runways and fuel depots. Hariri's wonderful transnational highway viaduct has been broken by Israeli bombers. Most of his motorway bridges have been destroyed. The Roman-style lighthouse has been smashed by a missile from an Apache helicopter. Only this small jewel of a restaurant in the centre of Beirut has been spared. So far.

It is the slums of Haret Hreik and Ghobeiri and Shiyah that have been levelled and "rubble-ised" and pounded to dust, sending a quarter of a million Shia Muslims to seek sanctuary in schools and abandoned parks across the city. Here, indeed, was the headquarters of Hizbollah, another of those "centres of world terror" which the West keeps discovering in Muslim lands. Here lived Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Party of God's leader, a ruthless, caustic, calculating man; and Sayad Mohamed Fadlallah, among the wisest and most eloquent of clerics; and many of Hizbollah's top military planners - including, no doubt, the men who planned over many months the capture of the two Israeli soldiers last Wednesday.

But did the tens of thousands of poor who live here deserve this act of mass punishment? For a country that boasts of its pin-point accuracy - a doubtful notion in any case, but that's not the issue - what does this act of destruction tell us about Israel? Or about ourselves?

Alan Dershowitz, Harvard law professor, fresh from his earlier attempts to provide mechanisms to justify torture, now turns his talents to justify the killing of Lebanese civilians, arguing that many of those "tens of thousands of poor" did in fact deserve this punishment. Following his usual methods, Dershowitz carefully fine-tunes and calibrates his definitions and arguments so as to exonerate the actions of the US and Israel against others, while similar actions taken against the people of the US and Israel are treated as horrendous crimes. Dershowitz always provides fine examples of how to start with a desired conclusion and work back to the required premises, showing that there is no proposition, however execrable, that some people will not attempt to rationalize.

The BBC website has pictures of Beirut after the shelling began. These pictures are shocking in showing the level of destruction, but are not gruesome. Other sites (which I will not link to) are showing pictures of dead and mutilated bodies, many of them children, that are appalling and stomach churning, and these pictures are being seen all over the world. For those who are consoling themselves that what is happening is "precision bombing" that is not targeting civilians, it has to be realized that there can be no such thing in densely populated, highly built up areas. When you hit a high rise building in a city, you are targeting everything and everyone around it as well.

According to the BBC again, "The UN's Jan Egeland has condemned the devastation caused by Israeli air strikes in Beirut, saying it is a violation of humanitarian law. Mr Egeland, the UN's emergency relief chief, described the destruction as "horrific" as he toured the city." The scale of the destruction of Lebanon has even caused "Bush's poodle" Tony Blair's government to break with the US. The British Foreign Office minister Kim Howell on a visit to Lebanon said "The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people: these have not been surgical strikes. If they are chasing Hizbollah, then go for Hizbollah. You don't go for the entire Lebanese nation."

Meanwhile, the Bush government is "rushing" a delivery of more missiles to Israel, which requested them after the bombing of Lebanon began, suggesting that even more of Lebanon is going to be devastated. The administration seems to see no irony in doing this while at the same time alleging that Syria and Iran are supplying Hamas and Hezbollah forces and condemning that support.

When this action is coupled with the US not calling for an immediate ceasefire and Condoleeza Rice's lack of urgency in trying to find a solution or ceasefire, the rest of the world will simply take this as a sign that the US is doing Israel's bidding, giving Israel all the time to wants to pummel Lebanon.

Glenn Greenwald argues that all these are signs that the neoconservative stranglehold on American foreign policy is not only complete, but it has lost all semblance of restraint, supporting reckless policies and cheering on further destruction and death with an abandon that should send chills down every person's spine.

Apparently, it isn't enough that the U.S. has been defending without reservation the wisdom of the Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon. Nor is it enough that we have been unilaterally blocking a cease-fire and other diplomatic solutions. Nor is it enough that the American taxpayer pays for enormous amounts of Israel's military equipment -- from the planes flying over Lebanon to the tanks entering it. Now we are handing Israel the very bombs that they drop in order to flatten more and more of Lebanon, on a bomb-by-bomb basis.
. . .
The terms they [i.e., neoconservatives] are using to describe their grand war visions are "annihilation" and "cleaning out." They have had enough with restraint and limited strikes and a war that has been depressingly and weakly confined just to Iraq and Afghanistan. They want full-scale, unrestrained Middle Eastern war -- they always have -- and they see this as their big chance to have it.

And the more one reads and listens to neoconservatives in their full-throated war calls, the more disturbing and repellent these ideas become. So many of them seem to be driven not even any longer by a pretense of a strategic goal, but by a naked, bloodthirsty craving for destruction and killing itself, almost as the end in itself. They urge massive military attacks on Lebanon, Syria, Iran -- and before that, Iraq -- knowing that it will kill huge numbers of innocent people, but never knowing, or seemingly caring, what comes after that. And the disregard for the lives of innocent people in those countries is so cavalier and even scornful that it is truly unfathomable, at times just plain disgusting. From a safe distance, they continuously call for -- and casually dismiss the importance of -- the deaths of enormous numbers of people without batting an eye. And for what?

What is Lebanon going to look like -- let alone Syria and Iran -- once we decimate large parts of their infrastructure, kill, maim and render homeless thousands upon thousands of their citizens, and bring down their governments? Who cares. Let's just stop whining and appeasing and get on with the action.
. . .
One can easily lose sight of how bizarre it is that we now so frequently debate whether we should attack countries who have not attacked us nor pose any real threat to attack us. As was true for the "debates" over whether we should use torture (or even "debates" over whether the President can break the law), when something is advocated openly and frequently enough, even the most reprehensible and previously insane ideas can become acceptable and mainstream. We have become a country that now casually and without much trauma debates which countries we should preemptively invade next.

Veteran Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member Uri Avnery argues that if the goal of punishment the entire nation of Lebanon is to weaken support for Hezbollah, then Israel has gravely miscalculated, which agrees with what I wrote last week.

Further support for this view comes from a CNN interview with the Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. The interviewer Nic Robertson kept pressing the prime minister to condemn Hezbollah and distance himself from them, and even suggested that he should order the Lebanese army to move against them. But Lahoud was having none of it and said that the Israeli invasion of his country is only going to unite the people of Lebanon. Here are some excerpts of the interview:

LAHOUD: Well, if you knew the interior politics of Lebanon, you will understand that in 2000 Hezbollah was the main liberator of our land. And at the time, the Lebanese army was and still is with what is happening on the frontier. Because, you see, what was happening was Israel with airplanes. . . but having the resistance, they think twice. And because of that there is no animosity between the army and the resistance [i.e., Hezbollah]. . . The resistance are Lebanese.
. . .
So our thanks comes when we are united, and we are really united, and the national army is doing its work according to the government, and the resistance is respected in the whole Arab world from the population point of view. And very highly respected in Lebanon as well.
. . .
Believe me, Hezbollah has done a lot for Lebanon in liberating this land. . . Hezbollah is part of the government.
. . .
ROBERTSON: Not everyone supports Hezbollah, and there are divisions in this community. And this country fought a 15-year civil war over those divisions. Those divisions are re-emerging below the surface of support of the attacks that are going on. Those figures could realistically grow bigger.

LAHOUD: Yes, but we're not going to let them. Because the Lebanese have learned the lesson. Because when they fight between themselves it's much worse than having someone come from outside. Because we've seen what happened in '75 because we paid a very high price. Now, being united, whatever Israel can do we stay strong, because this makes the morale of the Lebanese stronger when they are united and no one can beat them.
. . .
But children are being killed, massacred. And we don't see these pictures of these children in the international media because of political reasons. If you see them, well you can't wait to talk about it and wait for these children and women with nowhere to go and live under bombs and shells. They just live outside. They don't have a shelter. We can't wait for the talks to go on. Meanwhile the aircrafts are bombing whatever they want in Lebanon. It never happened. . . I don't see anything in history that has happened like what is happening now. Airplanes are hitting civilians all over the country and [there is no] retaliation on these airplanes because they are civilians.
. . .
Believe me, violence brings violence, and it will be a cycle that no one will be able to get out of and everybody will lose. If Israel thinks it's going to win, it's very mistaken. You cannot solve things and have peace in the region with violence. It might be now they have all this weaponry. But what about the children and the people who have brothers and sisters now dying? Well, they're pushing them to, really, well, they don't have anything to lose. For them, their life is nothing, so whatever will do to them. In the future they will seek revenge. So the only way [is] to stop the firing right now for the good of everybody.
. . .
ROBERTSON: How do you get the cease-fire? The Israelis want their soldiers back.

LAHOUD: There were three in Lebanon that have been in prison since 30 years. And there were many, and there was an exchange. So why now, suddenly, after taking two soldiers they have done such a retaliation? Because I believe all was planned from before and, unfortunately, they were waiting for the moment. And when the moment came and these two soldiers were taken, they had the plan of attack. It's not for the reason that the soldiers were taken, it's for other reasons. Because since 2000 they have wanted to take their revenge because they had to leave Lebanon.
. . .
Because they have a previous plan and they are executing that plan in that way thinking they will do what they did in '82. But things have changed since '82.


LAHOUD: Because it's not like '82 that they can come in Lebanon and make a promenade until they reach Beirut. These people, underground Lebanese, are ready to die for their land.

ROBERTSON: Hezbollah?

LAHOUD: Not only Hezbollah, many people are ready to die for their land. Wouldn't you do that if they go inside your country? You'd do the same. And the Lebanese army as well. We're not going to let anyone take our land. We've done it in the past, we liberated our land. We're not going to let them come back and take it from us. (my italics)

While much of Lahoud's rhetoric may be just bluster and defiance (because the Lebanese army is no match for the US-supplied Israeli forces), Lahoud's remarks are a sign that politically, Hezbollah has gained by this action, not only in Lebanon but around the region.

Larry Johnson, formerly with the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. State Department's Office of Counter Terrorism says much along the same lines as Lahoud. Meanwhile Paul Craig Roberts argues that Americans should be concerned about allying themselves with neoconservative policies of "tooth and claw," where might makes right, and Palestinians are treated as expendable. And Juan Cole also debunks the notion that this attack had much to do with the capture of two Israeli soldiers. He says "That this war was pre-planned was obvious to me from the moment it began. The Israeli military proceeded methodically and systematically to destroy Lebanon's infrastructure, and clearly had been casing targets for some time." Support for this view also comes from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

It all comes back to the problem of Palestinian statelessness. That is the key problem that must be solved if any progress is to be made on any of the other fronts. But it keeps getting deliberately ignored.

July 21, 2006

Power hubris in the Middle East

(See part 1 , part 2, part 3, and part 4 of this series.)

Politicians love power. They try to obtain as much of it as possible and think that the more they have, the better able they are to solve any problems and crush any opposition they encounter. But what frequently gets overlooked is that there is only a limited class of problems for which power can provide the solution, but success in this very narrow area often deludes leaders into thinking that they can apply power in all areas.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with military power. In conventional battles involving conventional armies, the side that has more troops, more planes, more weapons, more tanks, and so on, will win. Power works in such cases. This was why there was never any doubt that the US would succeed in overthrowing Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq, once it had committed itself to using its full conventional arsenal.

But raw military power fails to deliver the goods when it seeks to achieve more subtle political goals, such as creating stability and harmony among groups. But politicians seem to never learn this basic truth. Iraq is once again the prime example where power has failed to achieve a post-war peace.

Take, for another example, Sri Lanka. For decades, the Tamil minority had been complaining of discrimination by the Sinhala majority government. The Tamil leadership before 1980 were steeped in Gandhian nonviolent traditions and when it protested, the protests took the form of civil disobedience, such as 'sit down strikes', where large numbers of protestors blocked the entrances of government buildings. The protestors carried no arms and offered no resistance when the police or other authorities carted them off to jail.

The Tamils developed a reputation for non-violence to the point of being considered docile and passive, easily pushed around by the more powerful police and security forces. When a few young Tamils abandoned what they felt was this futile non-violence strategy and launched the movement known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or more commonly, Tamil Tigers) as an armed group willing to take on the Sri Lankan army militarily, it was not taken seriously at first, because the Tamils had never shown any inclination, let alone expertise, towards militaristic actions. When the Tigers launched their first significant military action in July 1983, a bombing that killed government 13 soldiers, they were still a small and seemingly insignificant group.

The Sri Lankan government reacted the way that governments tend to do in such situations when they are confronted by opposition from members of a different ethnic or religious group over which they think they have overwhelming military superiority. They try to exact revenge on the civilian population. The Sri Lankan government instigated attacks by mobs that killed Tamils in the streets, looted and ransacked and burned their houses, bombed Tamil areas, and arrested and imprisoned large numbers of Tamils, and murdered them in the prisons. The idea behind this massive show of force seemed to be to 'teach the Tamils a lesson,' and persuade the Tamil people that it was futile to resist the power of the government, that their best bet was to abandon any support for the Tigers and give up armed struggle in general and go back to pleading their cause the way they had done for decades, even though such methods had produced no meaningful results.

When those measures did not produce any immediate results of the kind they sought, the government then raised the stakes even more and that led to aerial bombing in the Tamil areas that killed and wounded many people, destroyed the infrastructure (roads, hospitals, schools, businesses), created huge numbers of refugees, and made ruins of large areas. (This is similar to what is being currently done in Lebanon, where estimates say that over 300 people have been killed, 1000 wounded and 500,000 displaced. United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland says that nearly a third of the Lebanese casualties are children.)

But the result of this approach was the opposite of what the government hoped. Support for the Tigers, instead of waning, actually expanded and solidified and the Tigers actually grew stronger militarily. Over time they became larger in numbers, more sophisticated in their tactics, and acquired better weapons. As a result we are now, twenty years later, in a virtual stalemate with the Tigers controlling significant portions of land and able to hold its own against the Sri Lankan military. Just last month, the Sri Lankan Army's Deputy Chief of Staff was killed in a suicide bombing by suspected Tigers. (He was another victim of the war in Sri Lanka that I knew personally, since he went to the same school as I did and was just one year my junior.)

The examples can be multiplied. The US in Vietnam and the French in Vietnam and Algeria thought that their overwhelming military superiority could be used to inflict such pain on the civilian population that in despair they would abandon all support for the liberation forces and give up the struggle. The US used carpet bombing of huge swaths of land, defoliants to wipe out vegetation, and napalm, to terrorize villagers, all in an attempt to undermine support for the Vietnamese guerillas. But instead what happened was that the support actually increased, the opposition forces became stronger, and eventually both the US and the French militaries were beaten and had to leave ignominiously.

Overwhelming conventional power can win battles waged in conventional ways but cannot overcome the challenges posed by asymmetric warfare against a hostile population. The Tigers in Sri Lanka and the National Liberation Fronts of Vietnam and Algeria took care to position themselves as defenders of their own people, fighting an alien force, and provided the security, stability, and services that the people were looking for. More importantly, the fact that they were defending themselves and their own people militarily, and were no longer acting like patsies, instilled pride in the people. Thus these opposition forces won the political struggle, which enabled them to neutralize the military advantage of the major powers opposing them.

Israel is the predominant military power in that region but it faces a determined opposition in Hamas and Hezbollah, groups that remind me of the Tigers in their determination. What Israel seems to be doing is falling into the same trap as other powerful governments before them, seduced by their conventional military superiority into thinking that they can 'teach the people a lesson,' that by inflicting severe pain on the civilian populations of Gaza and Lebanon, the people in those regions will abandon support for Hamas and Hezbollah and rally round those political leaders who are acceptable to Israel and the US.

Perhaps there exist some historical examples where (overlooking for the moment its total immorality) this strategy of the military forces of one ethnicity/nationality/religion punishing civilian populations of a different ethnicity/nationality/religion has succeeded in cowing people and destroying support guerilla or insurgent or other resistance forces. I am at a loss of think of any. All the historical examples that I am aware of suggest that the opposite will happen. At most, what you get with such attempts at using military force is a temporary lull in hostilities, while the insurgency lies low and regroups. But they tend to return with greater vigor and more sophisticated munitions at a later time. Witness what is happening now with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the modern world, where all kinds of armaments are easily available in the global black market, the sophistication of the weapons used by the forces opposed to Israel will increase, just the way that the Tamil Tigers improved their weaponry over time and now seem have a wide array of advanced weapons at their disposal, despite living on a island which makes procurement difficult. We are already seeing that Hezbollah seems to have more sophisticated weapons than Israel had anticipated, able to attack Israeli navy vessels and penetrate deeper into Israel than before.

In Sri Lanka, the show of military force by the government resulted in the so-called 'moderate' Tamil leadership, those acceptable to the government and willing to talk to the government on the government's terms, becoming completely marginalized and irrelevant. Eventually, the government was forced to negotiate directly with the Tigers, the very group it had condemned as terrorists and unworthy of being negotiating partners. In the case of Vietnam, the succession of Vietnamese leaders that the US wanted to see as representatives of the Vietnamese people (Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Van Thieu, and Duong Van Minh) were seen as puppets by most of the Vietnamese people, as can be seen by the fact that their governments collapsed as soon as the US withdrew its support.

What amazes me is that this should be seen as at all surprising. After all, the same governments that think that 'punishing' civilian populations will lead to them withdrawing support for their representatives know that when they themselves are attacked, their own populations rally round them. In the US for example, we saw how the attacks of 9/11 caused George Bush's support levels to soar. And he still routinely tries to use the terror threat to rally support for himself. Why would these governments think that the people they are fighting would think and act any differently? As Israeli academic Ran HaCohen says:

As often in war time, most citizens do flock together behind the army, no matter how much they suffer. What Israel fails to grasp is that this simple logic applies to the other side as well: devastating Gaza will only increase support for the Palestinian militants.

Arresting dozens of their Cabinet members and members of parliament is only going to increase Hamas' support even more. In the case of Gaza, we have to remember that Hamas actually won the last elections. Commentator Pat Buchanan looks at what happened in the immediate aftermath of those elections:

To punish these people for the crime of electing Hamas, [Israeli prime minister] Olmert imposed an economic blockade of Gaza and the West Bank and withheld the $50 million in monthly tax and customs receipts due the Palestinians.

Then, Israel instructed the United States to terminate all aid to the Palestinian Authority, though Bush himself had called for the elections and for the participation of Hamas. Our Crawford cowboy meekly complied.

The predictable result: Fatah and Hamas fell to fratricidal fighting, and Hamas militants began launching Qassam rockets over the fence from Gaza into Israel. Hamas then tunneled into Israel, killed two soldiers, captured one, took him back into Gaza, and demanded a prisoner exchange.

Israel's response was to abduct half of the Palestinian cabinet and parliament and blow up a $50 million U.S.-insured power plant. That cut off electricity for half a million Palestinians. Their food spoiled, their water could not be purified, and their families sweltered in the summer heat of the Gaza desert.

The fact that the US and Israel were dismayed by the election results and have since tried to destabilize the Hamas government will only serve to increase the suspicion that the attack on Gaza was meant to nullify the election results. Imprisoning the cabinet members and members of parliament of Gaza is an unmistakable signal that Israel wants to overthrow the elected authorities in Gaza. HaCohen suggests that such a move may have been planned well in advance and was simply waiting for a provocation that duly arrived in the form of the capture of the Israeli soldier.

If I may make a prediction, it is that I fully expect to see at some point in the future, after many, many more deaths of ordinary people on all sides and the consequent immense suffering, Israel (along with the US) sit down with Hamas to negotiate the future of the region, exactly as the Sri Lankan government ended up being forced to negotiate with the Tigers, and the US and French were forced to negotiate with the NLF in Vietnam and Algeria.

Instead of dragging the Palestinian and Israeli people through years and years of suffering, spilling rivers of blood, and destroying families and communities, just to end up negotiating with the people they are currently fighting, how much better would it be if far-sighted leaders skip that bloody intermediate step, save all that unnecessary suffering, and begin negotiating now on creating a just and viable Palestinian state, with security guarantees for all the people and states in the region.

POST SCRIPT: The warmongers are never wrong, are they?

Tom Tomorrow's eerily prescient April 2003 cartoon.

July 20, 2006

The seductive illusion of power's efficacy

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series.)

To understand the dynamics at play when governments take on guerilla groups and insurgencies, it requires a look at the role that perceptions of power play.

People often quote the Bible passage that "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10) but I think Paul, the author of that document, was mistaken about this (as he was about so many things), and that it really should be the love of power to which we should assign blame. After all, beyond a certain point, money does not meet any actual physical needs and I suspect that it merely serves as a concrete and measurable index, a proxy measure for the more elusive and abstract concept of power. Except in highly circumscribed hierarchical organizations, it is hard to tell who has more power and who has less. But money provides a way. People with more money are usually perceived as more important, more powerful, and have more status, than those with less.

Power has the ability to seduce a person into thinking that acquiring more of it will enable them to more easily solve their problems and achieve their dreams. In seeking it, people lose all sense of proportion and reason, tempting them to overreach, and in the end, destroying them. Shakespeare's explored these themes in two great tragedies, Macbeth and Richard III, showing how acquiring great power ultimately caused those two ambitious but flawed people to stumble and fall.

Power is so seductive that few can avoid succumbing to its allure. Is there any one of us who has not daydreamed of what we could do if we had total power over our circumstances and could make people do what we wanted them to? Even those people who want to do good easily fall into thinking that what they need is more power to achieve their worthwhile ends.

Fortunately, few of us actually possess much power over others but in those few situations where we mistakenly think we do, a little reflection would show us that depending on power to achieve our ends is actually harmful.

The first situation is that of parents and children. Parents think they have power over their children and in a limited sense they do, especially when their children are very young. They can make them eat their spinach, go to bed at designated times, sit in a corner when punished for doing something wrong, practice the piano, and so forth. But children can rebel, especially after they reach adolescence, and parents who try to over-reach and think that they can force their children to think in a certain way or to have certain values are deluding themselves. As soon as their children grow up and are no longer under their control, they will do what they want, often deliberately going counter to their parents' wishes just to assert their independence.

Teachers are another group that sometimes think they have a lot of power. Because teachers are put 'in charge' of classes and can take disciplinary action and assign grades, they too tend to think that they have more power and influence over their students than they actually do. Yes, teachers can make students do certain things such as work problems, read papers, write essays, and so on. Teachers can even force students to parrot certain opinions and express a particular point of view. But teachers cannot force their students to change their minds about anything, and any teacher who tried to do so is, like a parent with adolescent children, acting delusionally.

I have taught for a long time and have realized that I have very little real control or power over students. The only influence that I have over them is what they are willing to voluntarily grant me and I believe that this is true of any relationship. We may be able to force people to take specific actions and to do certain things, but we cannot change the way people think or make them learn or like what we make them do.

This is why I am always amused by the efforts of those self-appointed protectors of students (like David Horowitz) who seem to see students as delicate hot-house flowers, and are fearful that 'liberal' college instructors are brainwashing these intellectually fragile and highly impressionable students away from 'conservative' values, whatever those may be. Such ideas about student naivete and impressionability could only be held by someone who has never really taught students or, more importantly, listened to them. It is quite possible that a few college instructors do try to do what he alleges, although Horowitz has a history of making such allegations without evidence to back them up, leaving him with no credibility. But has there been any evidence that even if these rare instructors do exist, that they are effective?

Let me be perfectly clear about this important distinction concerning power. We can, if we wish and had sufficient power over others, make them jump through hoops and we can demand external conformity (though speech and action) to whatever we want. But we have no control over people's internal processes. We cannot force changes in their thinking and we cannot make them like doing whatever we force them to do.

Any experienced and reflective teacher knows that the more you try to force students to change their minds, especially over things they care about, the more likely you are to actually strengthen their existing beliefs. This is why the goal of my own teaching is not to change students' minds about anything. My goals are instead (1) to make them understand and be able to articulate and use whatever knowledge serious scholars in the field have learned about the topic at hand, and (2) to help students better understand why they believe whatever they believe. In the process of achieving that deeper understanding of the subject and of themselves, students may change their minds (just as I may change mine due to my interactions with them), but that is an incidental outcome of the learning process.

In their book Power in the Classroom (1992) Virginia Richmond and James McCroskey emphasize that students have more power than we realize, and that the more we try to exercise direct authority, the more likely it is that they will devise ways to thwart us, leading to reduced learning. As they say “[P]ower can be used effectively to get people to do what we want, so long as (a) we are willing to watch them do it, and (b) we do not care what they think of us [or the task] afterward. Both of the above conditions are seldom present outside of prisons.” (p. 102)

This does not mean that teachers have no power at all. It means that they should realize that the power they have is not over students' minds, but over the conditions under which students learn. Teachers can use their administrative power to create environments that are conducive to learning by, for example, giving students more choices and control over what they learn and how they learn. Teachers can also adjust their teaching styles to make the classroom more interactive and engaging and the material more interesting, while maintaining course requirements and standards. This is the only kind of power that teachers can use and should use. And used wisely, it can result in the only worthwhile goal of education, which is to make students more curious about the world around them, more able to pose meaningful questions about that world, and more adept at seeking answers.

We all have actually very limited power over other people. The more we realize this inherent limitation, the more effective we become in using that limited power to achieve worthwhile ends. Conversely, those who have an inflated sense of the power they have and what raw power can achieve, and seek to achieve results using power alone, are doomed to disastrous results.

Nowhere are the destructive consequences of following the siren song of power more visible than in the political arena.

Next: The consequences of power hubris in the Middle East.

July 19, 2006

The warmongers

(See part 1 and part 2 of this series.)

Most people are rightly appalled at the rapid escalation of war in the Middle East region, knowing that it will worsen an already bad situation. But not everyone is dismayed. Some people are actually pleased that this crisis has arisen.

It has to be recalled that it has long been the aim of the neoconservatives in the US to overthrow the governments of Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and replace them with regimes that are friendly to the US. This would give the US unparalleled control of the huge Middle East oil reserves, and strategic and military control of the entire region. For these people, the invasion of Iraq was seen as just phase one in this grand plan, to be rapidly followed by invasions of the other two countries.

Of course, that plan ganged agley in a major way in Iraq, with the Iraqis refusing to follow the script and play their designated role of being grateful for the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, throwing flowers at the US troops, and then allowing their country to be the staging ground for the attack on Iran. Iran, sandwiched between US forces controlling Iraq and Afghanistan, would supposedly fall like a ripe fruit.

As a result of this delay in advancing their agenda, these people have been chafing, even resorting to criticizing their former hero George W. Bush for delaying and essentially wimping out in the implementation of their grand plan. Neoconservative William Kristol, writing in the The Weekly Standard which he edits, says that as a result of not already taking military action against Syria and Iran "We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak."

Such people see the current conflagration in Gaza and Lebanon as providing a golden opportunity to get their grand scheme back on the fast track by widening the war. Already allegations are being made that Iran and Syria are behind the Hezbollah and Hamas forces and directly instigating them, and it is clear that the groundwork is being laid to justify attacking those countries, just like the fake allegations of Iraqi WMDs and Iraq-al Qaeda links were used to stampede the American public into supporting an ill-conceived, illegal, and immoral attack on Iraq. For these warmongers, creating a sense of crisis and urgency is important because when people get frightened, they don't think clearly and tend to turn towards authoritarian figures to 'save' and 'protect' them. The current state of hostilities in Gaza and Lebanon provides them with those conditions and they are quickly moving to take advantage of it. They know that advocates of negotiations and peace, both in Israel and elsewhere, have started to mobilize, and they want to quickly start these new wars soon before, god forbid, those groups start to have an effect and peace breaks out.

Glenn Greenwald describes the rhetoric used by warmongers such as William Kristol. He quotes Kristol saying:

The right response is renewed strength--in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?

The eagerness of these people to go to war is palpable. Of course, the US military is already stretched thin, bogged down in Iraq, limited largely to its bases there, while a civil war takes the lives of numerous civilians. So even a person who supports widening the war might reasonably ask where Bush is going to get the troops to engage in two new battlefronts. After all, even if the US military able to overthrow the governments of Syria and Iran by mostly using aerial bombardment, the most probable outcome are two more protracted insurgency and guerilla wars like the current one in Iraq. In fact, it is likely that the opposition in Iran will be even stronger than that faced in Iraq since the Iranian government is an elected government with considerable popular support, unlike the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Iranian people have long memories and know that in 1953 the US overthrew its popularly elected government of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh and replaced him with the deeply hated Shah Reza Pahlavi. They are not likely to welcome a rerun.

Kristol dismisses this possibility with the breezy "Yes, there would be repercussions--and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement." And what form might these things that that he coyly refers to as "repercussions" take? He does not elaborate but developments in Iraq mean that we can easily guess. Perhaps another decade of fighting in Syria and Iran? Another hundred thousand civilian deaths and injured in each those countries? Destruction of the economies and infrastructure of two more countries, setting their development back a generation and leading to widespread impoverishment and anger? Tens of thousands more US troops dead and injured? Another trillion dollars used for the purposes of destruction or to enrich the military industry and its civilian hangers-on? But, for Kristol, all that would be worth it because we would be projecting to the world that the US is "strong." Is there no limit to this disastrous macho posturing, especially when it is others who are paying the price, never the speakers? Even George Will finds Kristol to be over the top, describing his comments as "so untethered from reality as to defy caricature." And yet, Kristol and other warmongers are always invited back by the mainstream media to propagate this kind of dangerous nonsense.

The answer to this puzzle of whether the US should expand the war to three fronts when it is already bogged down on the first one is quite simple. Another protracted war against Iran and Syria is not something that can be sustained and would not be the choice of any rational policy maker or military leader. This becomes especially so when the other, forgotten, front in Afghanistan, that supposedly 'successful' war which was supposedly 'won' in 2001, has opened up again with a resurgent Taliban becoming more aggressive and regaining control of territory it had once lost.

What worries me is that the neoconservatives might try to escalate the current crisis in order to drag the US into it despite such an action going against its own interests. One has to suspect that they hope that the use of nuclear weapons would be envisaged as a possible option to provide a quick end, as Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker magazine.

As Greenwald says:

The mindless casualness with which such people blithely advocate starting a new war -- like it's no different that deciding what one will eat for dinner tomorrow -- is breathtaking. There is an influential and determined minority out there craving U.S. intervention in this war. They are searching for any means to expand the war in Iraq to additional countries, all as part of our Epic War of Civilizations, and given their past success in inducing the U.S. to invade Iraq, I think it's a mistake to assume that what they are advocating is too extreme and self-evidently disastrous to become a reality.

Stephen Colbert provides a quick compilation of pundits discussing how we are now in World War III. What is remarkable is how casually pleased they seem to be at this state of affairs. Their only point of disagreement seems to be whether we are at number III or IV. The reason they are so eager to hype this 'world war' label is that it frightens people, making them think that we are in apocalyptic conflict in which 'our' side must win or it would be disaster for humanity, when in actuality what we have is a regional conflict for which there can be political solutions. (James Wolcott skewers this overblown rhetoric in his inimitable style. Read his piece to get a laugh from an otherwise grim situation.)

While many people will be appalled at the idea of widening the conflict, there is one other particular group that is positively salivating at the prospect, and deliriously awaiting increased chaos and bloodshed. These are our old friends, those people who believe in the 'rapture' and think that the Armageddon that signals the second coming of Jesus should arrive any day now.

The signs of impending Armageddon are increased turmoil in the world, and so these people are ecstatic at the current turn of events. The Rapture Ready website had a forum titled "Is it time to get excited?" in which the people who posted were almost giddy with anticipation at the thought that the current round of bloodshed in the Middle East was the fulfillment of the rapture prophecy. That particular forum seems to have disappeared, perhaps because of the unwelcome attention it received from people making fun of it, but some of the discussion was captured and can be read here. Here's a sample: "I too am soooo excited!! I get goose bumps, literally, when I watch what's going on in the M.E.!!" The commenter is also pleased that the Boston tunnel collapsed killing a religious woman, and is delighted at the terrifying storms that hit nearby areas. All these events, which others would regard as tragedies, are for rapture lovers good things, because they signal that Jesus is coming. "But, yes. . .it is most indeed a time to be happy and excited."

While it is tempting to dismiss and ignore such people as misguided crackpots, we must not forget that they represent a large fraction of the American people (with some estimates ranging as high as 44%) and provide mass support for the more cynical calculations of the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives and these Christian extremists may make an unlikely couple but they do represent a potent alliance that is a powerful driver for the madness of widening the conflict, and a significant obstacle to finding a peaceful resolution.

The drive for wider war in some quarters seems to have resulted in the complete abandonment of logic, such as can be seen in The New Republic magazine, which was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and now seems to be equally enthusiastic in urging wider war. One does not know whether to laugh or cry at the subheading of an article by Michael B. Oren in the July 17, 2006 online edition that says "To prevent a regional conflagration, Israel should attack Syria" (That subhead has since disappeared but Brad DeLong caught it.)

It seems like we have actually fulfilled Orwell's 1984 prediction of someone seriously saying "War is Peace." The real test will be in seeing how many people believe it.

Next: The seductive illusion of power

POST SCRIPT: First hand account from Beirut

Cleveland Peace Action has published an email from Michael Provence, a Cleveland native who is a historian at UC San Diego and is spending a year at the American University in Beirut. He describes what is currently happening in Beirut, and his efforts to leave with his family. It is an eye-opening first-hand account, giving the kind of details that you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

In the course of his email, he says: "There is some talk that the Embassy may be sending an aircraft carrier 
from the Red Sea to evacuate us to Cyprus. The email notice they have sent out states that citizens will be required to sign a financial 
release and apparently pay for the helicopter ride to the ship." (my italics)

Apparently getting people to pay for their rescue is the law, irrespective of the level of danger and even whether the evacuee is alive or dead. The government, so profligate when it comes to spending money waging war on remote threats, and so cavalier about obeying the law in other areas, turns surprisingly frugal and law abiding when it comes to saving the lives of its own citizens from actual and imminent danger.

July 18, 2006

The balance of power in the Middle East

The recent attacks by the Israeli armed forces in Gaza and Lebanon is evidence, if anyone needed it, that Israel is the overwhelming military power in that region. The reason it could bomb Beirut and other parts of Lebanon and impose an air and sea blockade on that country is because it can do so without fear of meeting any major resistance. What we are currently witnessing is a demonstration of unmatched power.

Thanks to sustained economic and military support from the US (Israel is the single largest beneficiary of US aid, with about $3 billion annually in aid), Israel not only has developed overwhelming conventional military power over its immediate neighbors in the region, it is even a nuclear power. Estimates give Israel about 100-200 strategic nuclear weapons, well ahead of India and Pakistan, and comparable to England. When this military dominance is coupled with the diplomatic backing of the US, which provides it with cover to prevent any international diplomatic moves against its use of this power, this enables the Israeli government to take military actions against its neighbors that would be unthinkable for almost any other state.

The passive response of the world to the current actions by Israel in Gaza and Lebanon is symptomatic of this situation. The US has vetoed UN resolutions calling for a halt to the attacks on Gaza and blocked international attempts to call for a ceasefire in Lebanon, as requested by the beleaguered government of Lebanon, thus enabling Israel to proceed unchecked.

Other governments that responded to provocations the way Israel has would face immediate condemnation. India and Pakistan have long shared a tense border with Kashmir, where along the 'line of demarcation' it is almost routine to have border incursions and skirmishes of the kind that just occurred in the Middle East. In addition, just this past week we also saw the bombing in India of commuter trains that killed about 200 people. There are strong suspicions being voiced that the perpetrators of this atrocity are Islamic groups based in Pakistan. But India did not unleash an invasion of Pakistan, say by bombing civilian centers like Karachi and Islamabad, because Pakistan is a nation of comparable strength, able to defend itself and even retaliate, and for India to do so would have been to invite worldwide condemnation for over-reacting. This necessitates that the two countries try and talk their way through the tensions.

As another example, the Prime Minister of India (Rajiv Gandhi) was murdered by members of Tamil separatist groups from Sri Lanka. India did not invade and bomb Sri Lanka in response, which it could have easily done if it wanted to because of its overwhelming military superiority, because that would have been a hugely disproportionate response that would have invited immediate worldwide condemnation.

The fact that the US has enabled Israel to do what it likes militarily is perhaps why Israel is so isolated politically. When you have unmatched military power and also no diplomatic constraints, leaders tend to succumb to the fatal temptation of thinking that they can use force to solve political problems, and spurn diplomatic avenues. There is no incentive to try and negotiate long-term political solutions, even though those are the only ones that can promise any kind of peace and justice for all. Because it can so easily unleash military power in response to any provocation, Israel can avoid the necessity of seeking diplomatic and political solutions to the problems in that region.

But despite this clear demonstration of power disparity between Israel and the Palestinians, the myth continues of Israel as the underdog in the region, constantly fearful for its existence. Does anyone (other than the irrationally insecure) seriously think that the actual existence of the state of Israel, the fifth largest nuclear power in the world, is in any danger? To do so is like seriously thinking that al Qaeda can overthrow the US government. Yes, you get the occasional threats and boasts of few people, and some militant groups opposed to the existence of Israel are capable of striking the occasional blow here and there, but they are nowhere close to being a serious threat to the actual existence of the state. No state in the region, however belligerent its rhetoric, is going to actually attack Israel with a view to destroying its existence, because almost the entire world would condemn and oppose and rebuff this attempt, let alone the fact that Israel is quite capable of defending itself without any outside help. The worldwide response when Iraq invaded Kuwait, a far less influential state than Israel, should persuade people that the territorial integrity of Israel is secure.

But the idea of a beleaguered state that is facing an existential threat has always been useful because it enables countries to unleash disproportionate responses to attacks. This has been the practice of many governments in response to even minor threats to its authority. The US has done it with terrorism, creating the feeling that the whole country is in danger in order to dismantle long standing civil rights protections at home and wage war abroad. And now Israel has used it to respond with disproportionate force in Gaza and Lebanon.

In this case, the capture of an Israeli soldier near the West Bank border, and the capture of two soldiers near the Lebanese border, were used as justification for invading Lebanon and Gaza and bombing its cities, resulting in enormous numbers of casualties. The whole of Lebanon is now under siege and blockaded, its airports and highways and residential areas indiscriminately bombed, and its infrastructure in shambles. It is, of course, a given that any nation has the right to defend itself from external aggression but to argue that the capture of one or two soldiers near a tense border is sufficient cause to unleash a massive assault on civilians centers in a neighboring country is to lower the bar for inter-nation warfare to such a low level that almost any country that shares a border with a hostile neighbor will be in a state of permanent warfare.

And even before this, for a long time now, Israel has responded to attacks from missiles or by suicide bombers by massively retaliating against the Palestinians. Attacks on Israeli territory and settlers by individuals have been used to arrest family members and friends of the alleged perpetrators, bulldoze their family's homes, destroy their farms and communities and villages, and imprison large numbers of people. Such collective punishments violate the norms of justice and proportional response. What is currently taking place in Gaza and Lebanon is another over reaction to an undoubted provocation.

As a result of its power dominance in the region, there is no compulsion for Israel, at least in the short run, to seek a just and permanent solution to the core issue of Palestinian statehood, the very thing that inflames the passions. In fact, the ongoing creation by Israel of settlements in the West Bank is resulting in no viable Palestinian state being possible. What is being offered by Israel to Palestinians is a kind of Bantustan, a Swiss-cheese like entity consisting of enclaves ('cantons') of non-contiguous Palestinian areas, that are broken up by Israeli settlements and roadways that will result in Palestinians having to pass through Israeli checkpoints to go from enclave to another. Bantustans were created in South Africa under the former apartheid regime and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who experienced them first hand, said at a Boston conference in April 2002 "I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land. It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa."

Professor Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Israel and a peace activist, says that the goal of Israel seems to be to:

establish a tiny Palestinian state of, say, five or six cantons (Sharon's term) on 40-70% of the Occupied Territories, completely surrounded and controlled by Israel. Such a Palestinian state would cover only 10-15% of the entire country and would have no meaningful sovereignty and viability: no coherent territory, no freedom of movement, no control of borders, no capital in Jerusalem, no economic viability, no control of water, no control of airspace or communications, no military--not even the right as a sovereign state to enter into alliances without Israeli permission."

Is it any surprise that Palestinians would reject such a future?

I myself had not realized how bad the situation was until a talk given at Case last year by Professor Halper who explained in alarming detail how the settlement building on the West Bank is surely extinguishing any hope for a lasting peace settlement. He presented detailed maps that showed how what is envisaged by Israel and the US for Palestinians is life under permanent Israeli control. He pointed out that even if the entire West Bank and Gaza were handed over to a Palestinian state, that state would still constitute only about 22% of the total land currently occupied by Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, but what is offered is far less than that.

While there is a huge amount of coverage of the Middle East, most of it is simply a lot of blather about whether the "peace process" is on track or off, dead or alive, and one rarely gets crucial details about actual plans or sees actual maps detailing what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza and what is being proposed for Palestinians. Hence most Americans have no idea about what is being offered to the Palestinians and cannot understand why it is being rejected. They are simply told that the Palestinians are ungrateful for rejecting a 'generous' Israeli offer of land, but are not given the data to evaluate the merits of this offer for themselves.

If we are going to have any kind of resolution to the problems of the Middle East, a viable and independent self-contained Palestinian state has to be created, which will then have a vested interested in building itself in peace. Creation of that state will require the withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders and the dismantling of the settlements in the occupied territories. If instead what Palestinians are offered is a non-viable state with non-contiguous pieces of land under Israeli control, we are all doomed to an endless cycle of violence that will repeatedly spill over into the rest of the region, and perhaps engulf us all.

Next: Why some people are pleased at the recent upsurge in violence and want an even wider war.

July 17, 2006

Israel and the Palestinians

If there is one thing that lies close to the heart of the problems in the Middle East, it is the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. The status of the Palestinians has been a scandal for over a half-century, and resentment over their situation has created the breeding ground for the unrest that regularly and periodically spills over into outright violence. The current invasion by Israel into Gaza and Lebanon is just the latest direct manifestation of the consequences of leaving this long-standing problem unresolved, though the Iraq war and the attacks of 9/11 can also be seen as other less direct ones. After all, bin Laden and al Qaeda stated explicitly that one of the reasons for their actions was because they were opposed to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and America's support for those policies.

Even since the state of Israel came into being, the Palestinians have been dispossessed of their land and homes and left stateless, many of their people shunted to refugee camps and denied any meaningful form of self-governance.

The fact that the world has allowed the wretched plight of the Palestinian people to continue for so long is unconscionable. There has to be a permanent and just solution to the problem of the statelessness of the Palestinian people. The lack of such a solution has resulted in spiral of violence and counter-violence that cannot be stopped by merely looking at the immediate causes of the current crisis.

In order to achieve such a long-range solution, it will help if we stop thinking so reflexively in terms of ethnicity and religion and nationality, as if these purely human constructs have any deep meaning.

I have long felt that dividing people and nations along the lines of ethnicity or religion is absurd, a relic of ancient tribal histories that should have long ago been rejected by modern people. My own personal philosophy and sense of identity is captured exactly by the philosopher Tom Paine, when he wrote in his Rights of Man: "My country is the world and my religion is to do good." Or if we want more modern examples of famous people who were able to overcome parochial thinking, we have people like Albert Einstein who felt that he was a citizen of the world, and for whom allegiance to the fundamental principles of shared humanity were more important than sectarian thinking.

There is no biological basis for distinguishing between 'races,' and myths abound in the stories, such as those in the Bible, of people's ancient origins, making them of little value as historical records. People's religion, ethnicity, and nationality are almost entirely predictable based on the purely accidental factors associated with their birth. By virtue of being born and growing up in a particular community, people identify with and acquire the characteristics of that group, and there is no deeper significance to that affiliation, although people may like to think that there is.

This situation is not unlike the fact that most people born in the Cleveland area are fans of the city's football team, the Browns, and the people who grow up in Pittsburgh are Steelers fans. To be 'proud' of belonging to a particular ethnicity or nationality or religion makes as much rational sense as being proud of being a Browns fan and to link one's self-image with the rise and fall of that team's fortunes. To go to war based on those identities is as ridiculous as the city of Cleveland going to war against the city of Pittsburgh because some of their fans taunted and beat up on some of our fans.

The only positive advantage to labeling people according to their ethnicity, religion, and nationality is as a tool for research, for statistical, demographic, and sociological purposes. But unfortunately ethnicity and religion and nationality have always been useful to those who seek and benefit from war, using those labels as a means of fomenting conflict between peoples who would otherwise have no real quarrel with one another. After all, let us not forget that war has been a source of enrichment and power and control for political leaders from time immemorial. Some people see a real benefit in keeping people fearful and tense and paranoid about others, and religious and ethnic and nationality differences have always been convenient for getting people to be suspicious of one another.

I tend to favor secular states and oppose identifying countries according to ethnicity and religion. This is also why I feel that there is no intrinsic reason why the people of Israel and the Palestinians could not have shared the same geographical region that is now labeled as Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Or, for that matter, why the Sinhala and Tamil people in Sri Lanka could not continue to share one state.

But the realist in me sadly recognizes that thanks to religious and ethnic partisans who have been successful in pushing their divisive views and building hatred between groups by appealing to their tribal allegiances, that dream of peaceful coexistence, of people simply living their lives together according to common secular and human interests and principles maybe dead, and we may have no alternative, at least in the short run, but to go to two-state solutions based on ethnicity. (The situation in Sri Lanka is not yet as dire as in the Middle East but the way it is heading, that country too may have to result in partition.)

What we need are solutions that are just and equitable and provide long-term peace and security, so that the bitter past can fade into obscurity. In the case of the Middle East, the basis for a negotiated two-state solution has always been clear. It requires that Israel withdraw completely from the West Bank and Gaza (the areas occupied in the 1967 war) and a Palestinian state established there, with international pressure and monitoring and security guarantees to ensure that the two states leave each other alone and in peace until decades have passed and the bitter enmity that has been allowed to be generated dissipates. The optimist in me even hopes that after a long period of time, the two states may even form economic and political alliances, the way that the countries of Europe have overcome warring pasts and come together to form the European Union.

It also means that we have to get beyond the proximate causes of the immediate conflict, and shelve questions of who is responding to whose actions, and who is provoked and who is doing the provoking. The conflict has gone on for so long that looking for prime causes is futile. Each side can provide an antecedent cause to justify any action.

What we can be absolutely sure of is that the ultimate losers in this conflict, as in any conflict, are ordinary people, men, women, children, old and young, people who are just trying to live their lives. They are the ones who will pay the highest price. The bombardment by Israel of Lebanon and Gaza has already resulted in hundreds of deaths and displacements of civilians. The rockets being hurled by Hezbollah forces into Israeli cities are killing Israeli civilians. And it is going to get worse, since modern warfare has the creation of civilian terror as a key objective, and access to ever more powerful weaponry is getting easier. This is so obvious and drearily predictable that it amazes me that people still support war.

Why has the Palestinian statelessness issue been allowed to continue to fester for so long? Why is it that their legitimate right to a state where they can truly govern themselves and live in dignity been ignored? Why isn't the granting of that basic need at the forefront of discussions?

For those in the Middle East (and Sri Lanka) who think that their national and ethnic identity is so important, and their own religion so noble, that their self-image is inexorably bound up in them, I recommend this Richard Dawkins quote (thanks to, where he speaks with typical lucidity:

Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one.

Until people realize that their allegiance to their nationality or ethnicity or religion has the same superficial significance as support for their favorite sports team, we will continue to have wars, with people having this bizarre notion that it is actually noble to kill or die for their flag, their race, and their god.

Next: The balance of power in the Middle East.

July 14, 2006

The origin of life

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection deals with the question of how life evolves and does not directly address the question of the origin of life itself. The fields of cosmology and physics and chemistry have provided models of how the universe evolved and created the solar system, among other things. But those theories do not explain how organic molecules, the basic building blocks of life, came about.

An article by Gareth Cook in the August 14, 2005 issue of the Boston Globe examined this question in the light of an initiative (known as the ''Origins of Life in the Universe Initiative") by then Harvard president Lawrence Summers to invest millions to investigate this important question, partly in an effort to have Harvard try and catch up the leaders in this field at the University of Arizona, the California Institute of Technology, and the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif..

Cook says that the questions to be addressed are: "How can life arise from nonlife? How easy is it for this to happen? And does the universe teem with life, or is Earth a solitary island?"

Scientists generally work on the assumption that the laws of physics and chemistry that we work with on Earth should also apply everywhere in the universe. But those laws need not result in the same environment being created on different planets and since it is the environment that will determine the nature of the life forms that come into being, the laws of biology could be, and in fact would likely be, quite different from planet to planet, depending on the environment that was in existence at the time that living organisms came into being there.

Of course, we have no evidence right now that life forms exist on other planets. But "biologists have been finding that life can survive in much more hostile environments than thought possible -- such as microbes that live deep in rock or in searingly acidic water -- meaning that planets with more extreme environments might support life", lending support to the idea that life is likely to be found elsewhere.

Hence an important related question would be studying how different environments came into existence in the different planets and how the nature of life is related to the environment that produced it.

Cook's article summarizes some theories for the origins of life. The first is the famous 1953 Miller-Urey experiment: "A flask, containing elements of the early Earth's atmosphere, was jolted with electricity, like bolts of lightening. This simple setup created a wealth of organic molecules, but since [then], the prevailing view of the makeup of the early atmosphere has changed, and the experiment doesn't work well with the new recipe."

Others have suggested that "organic molecules could have been carried to Earth in the icy core of comets" (which presupposes the existence of life elsewhere and does not really answer the question of how life began, only how it began on Earth), or that "life began near the intense heat of deep sea vents, an environment that drives unusual reactions."

Yet other possibilities exist, such as the idea of chemist Scot Martin, who

"believes that ultraviolet light from the sun, shining down on tiny mineral crystals floating near the surface of the early ocean, may have generated organic compounds.

In his flask, he has shown that molecules of bicarbonate, common in the early ocean, attach themselves to a mineral called sphalerite. When the ultraviolet light hits the sphalerite, it sets off a chain of events that makes the bicarbonate more reactive, and that leads to a wide range of organic compounds in Martin's flask."

I find reports of this kind of research exciting because of the deep questions they address. It is undoubtedly challenging work, and finding answers will require intense effort by many dedicated scientists over many years. What will keep them going, apart from funding, is the belief that scientists have in methodological naturalism, the idea that the only thing that stands between them and answers to these important questions is their ingenuity.

As David R. Liu, a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Harvard, says: ''We start with a mutual acknowledgment of the profound complexity of living systems" and he continues ''my expectation is that we will be able to reduce this to a very simple series of logical events that could have taken place with no divine intervention."

Of course not everyone is happy with that last thought. Those who seek to preserve a role for god are hoping that this effort fails, as their claim for the inexplicability of the origin of life is almost their last refuge, perhaps behind only consciousness and the mind. Cook reports:

Michael Behe, a biologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and one of the leading proponents of intelligent design, said he was glad that Harvard was going to try to address the issue.

''If, as I suspect will happen," Behe said, ''they fail to find a plausible answer without invoking intelligence, then maybe science will be less hostile to folks who see intelligent direction in the history of life," he said.

To my mind, this sentiment captures perfectly the anti-science view of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) people, and shows very clearly why IDC should never be part of science. When Behe says he "suspects" that answers won't be found, he really means "hopes," since he has no basis for his suspicions except his faith that god created life. The IDC people actually want to see science fail to answer an important question in order to preserve their religious beliefs.

People with such attitudes can never do really good science because they will willingly and happily give up at the first sign of difficulty and let god do the explanatory heavy lifting. To do science at the frontiers requires one to be willing to work very hard, overcoming setback after setback, spurred on by your belief that an answer exists and is discoverable. The IDC people, always eager to pull god out of their hip pockets to answer tough questions, just do not have what it takes.

We can let Richard Dawkins have the last word on this (thanks to

You see, if you say something positive like the whole of life – all living things – is descended from a single common ancestor which lived about 4,000 million years ago and that we are all cousins, well that is an exceedingly important and true thing to say and that is what I want to say. Somebody who is religious sees that as threatening and so I am represented as attacking religion, and I am forced into responding to their reaction. But you do not have to see my main purpose as attacking religion. Certainly I see the scientific view of the world as incompatible with religion, but that is not what is interesting about it. It is also incompatible with magic, but that also is not worth stressing. What is interesting about the scientific world view is that it is true, inspiring, remarkable and that it unites a whole lot of phenomena under a single heading. And that is what is so exciting for me.

POST SCRIPT: No Joementum!

The indispensable Stephen Colbert looks at democracy and the Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut.

July 13, 2006

Is the US a 'Christian nation'?

If one views this as a question of demographics, the answer is yes because the majority religion is Christianity. But that is not what those who clearly would love to see America be called a 'Christian nation' mean when they use the term because this is too fluid a definition and could change with time to become Muslim or Catholic or atheist nation, depending on demographic changes.

What such people would like to see is the US becoming a theocracy in which the barriers between the church and state are dismantled and the country run according to "Christian principles." Of course, it is not clear what exactly these Christian principles are since, as I have discussed earlier, the Bible, the supposedly authoritative word of the Christian god, is all over the map when it comes to supposedly telling us what god wants.

But this does not faze those who seek to turn America into a theocracy. They share the idea, common to fanatics of all religions, that god, by a surprising coincidence, happens to share their own particular narrow-minded and intolerant view of how the world should be run. Of course, they do not see themselves as intolerant. They see themselves as benign, willing to accommodate other religious views as long as they do not run counter to their own.

One of the means by which they justify their goal of seeking a theocracy in the US is by essentially rewriting history, to argue that this country, after the arrival of the colonialists, was founded on Christian principles. They argue that the nature of the nation is inextricably bound up with Christianity and is thus impervious to demographic changes. They seek to persuade people that what they want is a return to those original principles and that this idea of a secular state with church-state separation is a more recent aberration, a deviation from the intent of the founders of the US constitution and the signers of declaration of independence.

Brooke Allen in his article Our Godless Constitution, which appeared in The Nation magazine (February 21, 2005) convincingly debunks that notion and I strongly urge you to read the full thing. As Allen writes, "Our nation was founded not on Christian principles but on Enlightenment ones. God only entered the picture as a very minor player, and Jesus Christ was conspicuously absent."

Theocracy supporters try to blur this by acting as if more recent incorporations of god into public life were actually part of the original deliberations in the creation of the state. But Allen points out that popular invocations of the supposedly Christian origins of the US, such as "In God We Trust" on coins and "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, were both introduced much later, the first at the time of the Civil War, and the second during the McCarthy hysteria in 1954.

In fact, the founders seemed to go out of their way to keep god out. Allen provides copious examples to support his claims. He says "Our Constitution makes no mention whatever of God. The omission was too obvious to have been anything but deliberate."

"In the eighty-five essays that make up The Federalist, God is mentioned only twice (both times by Madison, who uses the word, as Gore Vidal has remarked, in the "only Heaven knows" sense). In the Declaration of Independence, He gets two brief nods: a reference to "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God," and the famous line about men being "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights."

Allen reports that in a 1797 "Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, or Barbary," (or more commonly, the Treaty of Tripoli), article 11 contains these words "[T]he Government of the United not in any sense founded on the Christian religion[.]"

As Allen emphasizes:

This document was endorsed by Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams. It was then sent to the Senate for ratification; the vote was unanimous. It is worth pointing out that although this was the 339th time a recorded vote had been required by the Senate, it was only the third unanimous vote in the Senate's history. There is no record of debate or dissent. The text of the treaty was printed in full in the Philadelphia Gazette and in two New York papers, but there were no screams of outrage, as one might expect today.

The founders took great pains to keep the fundamentalists of their time (the Puritans) from having too great an influence over civic life because they were well aware of the damage this could do. This attitude is refreshing when compared to the attitudes of current politicians who fall over themselves in pandering to the Falwells and Robertsons and Dobsons, while shutting their eyes to their messages of intolerance.

Jefferson warned of people "civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time."

Allen goes on to provide evidence that the key players among the founders were at most deists, "that is, they believed in one Supreme Being but rejected revelation and all the supernatural elements of the Christian Church; the word of the Creator, they believed, could best be read in Nature."

He also says that:

Jefferson felt that the miracles claimed by the New Testament put an intolerable strain on credulity. "The day will come," he predicted (wrongly, so far), "when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." The Revelation of St. John he dismissed as "the ravings of a maniac."

One wonders what Jefferson would have thought of the current religious climate where even such truly crackpot notions as the rapture (based on the Book of Revelations) hold sway over a large number of Americans.

This did not mean that there was no undercurrent of religion in the US at the time of its founding. There was, and all of the founders seemed to have realized that declaring oneself to be an atheist caused political problems. Thus they seemed to adopt a minimalist religious philosophy as a hedge, to avoid controversy. But their careful positioning on this issue is quite different from the conspicuous public piety that is displayed by the current crop of political leaders.

"Like Jefferson, every recent President has understood the necessity of at least paying lip service to the piety of most American voters. All of our leaders, Democrat and Republican, have attended church, and have made very sure they are seen to do so. But there is a difference between offering this gesture of respect for majority beliefs and manipulating and pandering to the bigotry, prejudice and millennial fantasies of Christian extremists. Though for public consumption the Founding Fathers identified themselves as Christians, they were, at least by today's standards, remarkably honest about their misgivings when it came to theological doctrine, and religion in general came very low on the list of their concerns and priorities--always excepting, that is, their determination to keep the new nation free from bondage to its rule."

Brooke Allen's article is excellent. You really should read it in full.

POST SCRIPT: The new, improved US constitution!

The US constitution is remarkable for its brevity. But many people would have not realized that it has been revised to make it even briefer. It now has only two articles:

Article I. In times of war, the President is always right and can do what he wants.

Article II. The President alone determines when the country is at war.

At least this is how the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel seems to see it.

July 12, 2006

Election year politics

We are well into an election year. In my opinion, every major decision that this administration takes from now on, every major statement of policy will be based on how they think it will affect the fall elections, if it will raise Bush's poll numbers and most importantly, whether it will help maintain Republican control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The last feature is particularly important to this administration. Part of the reason they have been able to stonewall investigations into the Iraq war (both the run-up and the conduct) and into the secret CIA prisons overseas, NSA wiretapping, indefinite detentions and violations of habeus corpus, torture, etc. is that the Republican leadership in both houses have abdicated their oversight role. In particular, since the majority party holds the chairs of the committees, they have not invoked their subpoena powers or their right to ask that witnesses and administration officials testify under oath. As a result, we have seen time and again, that congressional hearings have turned into friendly chat sessions, where administration witnesses have been able to evade accountability under gentle questioning.

To be sure, the Democrats have not shown much vigor either. They were also complicit in letting the administration get away with the foreign policy disaster that is the war in Iraq. The Democrats in Congress have their own corporate and lobbyist base to please and it is expecting too much to see them play the role of vigorous watchdogs of the public interest. But if even one of the two legislative branches of government gets a Democratic majority, then at least a few of the resulting committee chairs will be people who will invoke their subpoena and oath power, demanding answers to at least some hard questions, resulting in the kind of scrutiny and exposure that has been avoided so far. This is something that the administration does not want to see in its last two years, especially as its failed policies at home and abroad start to unravel. Hence we will see a very determined effort to do whatever it takes to retain Republican control of both houses.

As a result, the overture to familiar strains of election year sloganeering are being heard, following a similar pattern. In the months leading to November, one can expect to hear a lot about the following: gay marriage, abortion, immigrants, flag burning, English-only rhetoric, UN bashing, estate tax repeal, and assisted suicide.

All these issues (except for immigration and the estate tax) share the characteristic that they are largely symbolic and directly affect only a tiny minority of people. They have little relevance to the actual lives of most people, but they do aim straight at the emotional core of the base and provide many opportunities to push people's buttons and make them angry. And expect to hear lots of talk about god and religion, perhaps involving those old faithfuls such as displaying the ten commandments in public places or the pledge of allegiance or prayer in schools and similar church-state separation issues.

However, I would not be surprised if a completely unexpected, but equally trivial, new issue emerges suddenly, since the ones I have listed are, like, so-o-o-o 2004, and the extremist base loves fresh raw meat.

The permanent repeal of the estate tax benefits only a tiny number of extremely rich people and provides their heirs with a huge windfall. A more accurate name for the estate tax repeal act would the "Give Paris Hilton an Even Bigger Inheritance Act." But the act will affect all of us since the economic costs of the move are not trivial, removing a huge chunk of revenues that the government will have to recoup from the rest of us. You can ignore the rhetoric about how this tax results in family farmers and other so-called 'ordinary Americans' losing their farms and undergoing other hardships on the death of a parent. That is a myth to make the tax sound as if it affects more people than it does, and is carefully designed to obscure the fact that the beneficiaries are extremely rich people.

The issue of immigration is the only one that is even remotely serious but even this is unlikely to be debated in a serious way. Instead it is likely to play on xenophobia and tap into latent racism.

And if all these things fail to generate support to maintain the congressional status quo, then one can always ratchet up the hysteria about terror. We can expect to see terror alerts being manipulated and the foiling of alleged terror 'plots' being announced with great fanfare, even if they involve seemingly inept groups of clueless people who, apart from grandiose ambitions and rhetoric, have little else going for them, for example, like the pathetic one in Florida and the so-called New York subway plot (see here and here and here.)

We should also expect to see a continuation of attacks by hyperventilating columnists and op-ed writers on the media for reporting any news on the war and the administration's actions that show it in a negative night. These people will accuse reporters of deliberately advancing the interests of terrorists. The amazing thing is that such people can make these bizarre charges with a straight face, and are still treated as if they were serious people, instead of being marginalized for being irrational and incoherent.

(Glenn Greenwald has a typically astute post dealing with how politics in the US have realigned from the traditional liberal-conservative divide to a pro-neoconservative v. anti-neoconservative split. He uses the tough challenge being provided by Ned Lamont to neoconservative Joe Lieberman in the Democratic senatorial primary in Connecticut to showcase this change. You can read his piece here.)

And if all else fails, there is always the threat of war (or even actual war) with Iran and North Korea to fall back on. If they think that an attack on Iran or North Korea will distract voters from the administrations failures and rally people around them, they will do so.

It is interesting that in Sri Lanka too, election time brings out this kind of hysterical talk, base-pandering, and fear-mongering over hot button issues that had little to do with any issue of actual practical significance to most people. It seems as if politicians the world over instinctively resort to the same methods, irrespective of country, language, religion, and ethnicity.

I used to think that at some point people would wise up and realize that they are being played for suckers. But that day has not come yet. People seem to be willing to be used again and again, and have cynical politicians exploit their passions to advance the material interests of a few. Will this strategy work yet again to mobilize supporters this year or has it finally become so threadbare that it is seen as phony even by putative Bush supporters?

POST SCRIPT: New cartoonist

One of the many nice things about the internet is that it provides opportunities for people to get their ideas out to a wider audience and to communicate with others. I just discovered that a neighbor of mine is an amateur cartoonist who has a blog that deals with some of the same religion issues as this blog. You can see his full selection of cartoons here but two that I particularly like are this and this.

July 11, 2006

Details in politics

I wrote earlier how easy it is to believe in broad, sweeping statements. It is the details that are hard to accept. I said that a key difference between science and religion is that religious beliefs actually discourage people from asking detailed questions and investigating how the big picture manifests itself in concrete and specific situations, while in science it is precisely the issue of how well the details are explained that established the plausibility of the big picture.

The same holds true for politics. Politicians are fond of grand sweeping gestures and policies and equally fond of avoiding the details of implementation. Take for example the recent (but failed) attempt to enshrine in the constitution an amendment that would allow congress to pass laws preventing desecration of the flag. If you ask most people if they oppose flag desecration, they would likely say yes. But it is only when you get into the details of this policy that you see its ridiculousness. (Incidentally, I find this veneration for the flag in the US to smack of fetishism or even idolatry, but that is a topic for another day.)

What exactly constitutes desecration? Since the impetus for this amendment arises from people who are offended by flag burning protestors, one can infer that it is the very act of burning that constitutes desecration. The Washington Post reports that "The Citizens Flag Alliance, a group pushing for the Senate this week to pass a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, just reported an alarming, 33 percent increase in the number of flag-desecration incidents this year." As the reporter dryly notes, when one looks at the actual number of burnings, this constituted an increase from three to four, hardly an epidemic. In fact, the comic strip Doonesbury is running a series of strips (starting July 3) in which the Bush administration, frustrated by how few burnings there are to stir up outrage, covertly hires someone to burn a flag.

But the recommended method of disposing of old flags is burning, so it cannot be the act of burning that is objectionable, it must be the thought behind the act. So is the amendment aimed at creating a 'thought crime'? If so, then if someone simply says that the flag should be burned and does not actually burn it, is that desecration? Or someone silently burns a flag while not saying or doing anything to indicate motive, is that a crime?

And what exactly constitutes a flag? The flag emblem is used for commercial purposes all the time and can be found on all manner of objects, including clothing. Can paper napkins with the flag design used at picnics be tossed in the trash or burned? Does such an act become desecration only if accompanied by some kind of protest statement?

But 'defenders of the flag' don't like these questions being raised because it exposes the utter silliness of the issue. They would much rather stay with the big picture and intone with gravity about the deep significance of the flag.

The same thing about the importance of details is true for the much graver issues of war. If journalists covering the run up to the attack on Iraq had focused on investigating the details of the charges that were made by the Bush administration, instead of just reporting their global statements, the fraudulence of the case for war would have been exposed to a far wider audience.

The Bush administration simply kept making the charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the US and implied that they had links with al Qaeda and thus were complicit with the attacks of 9/11. People seemed to have no trouble believing all these big picture claims, which is why there was support for the war, at least initially.

Major media journalists should have repeatedly asked for details of each of these assertions, and asked questions such as: What evidence does the administration have that Iraq has threatened the US? What evidence does it have that they actually have the capacity and the intent to do so? What evidence exists for the alleged al Qaeda links? If they had done so, the case for attacking Iraq would have quickly fallen apart. But they will only do so if we, the public, insist that we want to know the answers to such questions before we approve military actions.

Another example of how details can reveal important truths in a political context is provided in this article by Los Angeles Times reporter Carol Williams on June 18, 2006.

What little we learn often comes to light by accident, through casual slips-of-the-lips by military doctors, lawyers and jailers innocently oblivious of their superiors' preference for spin. A battery of questions to the prison hospital commander — who for security reasons can't be identified — elicited that prisoners are force-fed through a nasal-gastric tube if they refuse to eat for three days and that 1,000 pills a day are dispensed to treat detainee ailments, anxiety and depression.

Those details became relevant when two prisoners attempted suicide May 18 by consuming hoarded prescription medications. Likewise, we understood why a hunger strike early this month began with 89 prisoners but swiftly fell off to a few defiant handfuls with the onset of painful and undignified force-feeding
. . .
I’ve been to Guantanamo six times. It was during my first visit in January 2005 that I learned how expressions of polite interest in minute details can elicit some of the most startling revelations. As Naval Hospital commander Capt. John Edmundson showed off the 48-bed prison annex, for instance, I asked, apropos of nothing, if the facility had ever been at or near capacity.

"Only during the mass-hanging incident," the Navy doctor replied, provoking audible gasps and horrified expressions among the public affairs minders and op-sec - operational security - watchdogs in the entourage, none of whom were particularly pleased with the disclosure that 23 prisoners had attempted simultaneously to hang themselves with torn bed sheets in late 2003.

Details matter. It is well known that when people try to lie, they are often exposed by little details that trip them up, which is why crime suspects are urged to talk. It is easy to lie on a grand scale. It is hard to make details internally consistent if the big picture is false.

POST SCRIPT: Trying to deceive the Supreme Court

On June 29, 2006, the US Supreme Court in the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et. al. struck down the Bush administration's assertion that they could basically do what they like with the detainees at Guantanamo, and that the courts had no jurisdiction over them. The court argued that the Geneva conventions, among other things, applied to the prisoners and that they had basic rights of due process.

When the Supreme Court hears arguments about the constitutionality of a law, it frequently examines the legislative debates that took place during the enactment of the law in order to more accurately determine legislative intent. Some Republicans have tried to use this to try and deceive the court during the arguments on this case, which involved the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), passed on December 20, 2005.

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John Kyl (R-Arizona) created a script of a bogus colloquy between them that did not actually occur while the act was debated, inserted the script into the congressional record after the legislation had passed, and then used that bogus debate as the basis for filing a friend of the court brief in the case to argue that the law meant the opposite of what it meant. The Justice Department also used that bogus debate as part of its brief.

As John Dean writes:

Hamdan's lawyers, however, spotted the hoax. In their opposition to the motion to dismiss the case, they advised the Court that the supposedly conflicting legislative history was entirely invented after the fact, and that it consisted of "a single scripted colloquy that never actually took place, but was instead inserted into the record after the legislation had passed." The brief noted, quite accurately, that this Graham-Kyl colloquy was "simply an effort to achieve after passage of the Act precisely what [they] failed to achieve in the legislative process."

Ultimately, the Supreme Court did not decide the jurisdictional issue until it rendered its full ruling on June 29 of this year. There, Justice Stevens concluded correctly that the Congress had not stripped the Court of jurisdiction with the DTA.

Out of an apparent concern for interbranch comity, the High Court has chosen to ignore the bogus brief filed by Senators Graham and Kyl, rather than reprimanding the Senators. Nevertheless, when Graham and Kyl sought to file the very same brief, a month later, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columba (sic), Slate's Emily Bazelon reports that court "issued an unusual order rejecting" their amicus brief alone, although they accepted five others.

No one familiar with this remarkable behavior by Graham and Kyl can doubt why the court did not want to hear from these senators.

This is the kind of chicanery that ensues when people try to defend the indefensible. How dishonest can these people get? Do they have no sense of ethics? Does no one hold them accountable?

July 10, 2006

The role of emotion in maintaining religion: a follow up

There were some very interesting comments to the original post on this topic that I would urge people to read. There was one point raised that I realized required a much more extended response. In that comment Corbin questioned some of my conclusions and asked "Is there really evidence to support Marx's claim that religious persons and societies are more docile and more likely to simply endure social injustice?"

He went on to say:

I can think of several counter-examples, ranging from the religious roots of the racial justice movement of the 60's in the US to the role of liberation theology in the Polish Solidarity movement. And although I am not a historian, I think that one can find many examples in history of individuals who played major leadership roles in social justice movements feeling motivated, supported, and/or enabled to action in large part due to their faith experience and perspective.

For example as an (highly unscientific) experiment, I found a list of about 25 names of persons famous for leadership in social justice on a web site I see a lot of names of people who are not only religious but for whom their faith played an central role in their actions.

I cannot disagree with any of these statements. Corbin is absolutely correct that there are many, many examples of religious people being at the forefront of major social change movements. One can immediately think of Martin Luther King Jr., Bishop Oscar Romero, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and others like them for whom religion was the driving factor in their social justice philosophy.

But I don't think that the percentages of high profile atheists and religious people is a good measure. One needs data on the attitudes of regular people. While I agree that the question of whether religious people are more likely to be docile in the face of injustice is an empirical one, obtaining actual data is going to be tough, given that people's religious beliefs are hard to pin down, and that atheism is seen as so reprehensible.

Even within Judaism and Christianity, the Bible, by itself, is varied enough that people can draw inspiration for all kinds of attitudes. For example, the book of the prophet Amos contains some of the most scorching condemnations of social injustice that one can find anywhere, excoriating those who exploit the poor and promising severe retribution on them. The gospels recording Jesus' life are also full of passages that serve as inspiring calls to action in the service of social justice.

In fact, my own religious beliefs were strongly influenced by religious people (both clergy and lay), who were themselves inspired by liberation theology and other similar strains, and who felt that the gospels called on them to act for justice. They saw the afterlife as real but also focused on the importance of this life and the obligation of Christians to work for the betterment of everyone. I do not think that I would ever have been attracted to Christianity by a purely "heaven in the sky when you die" message, and these people provided me with a meaningful religious alternative. I was inspired by them and still recall their influence fondly. I look on the religious guidance and values they provided as providing a kind of scaffolding for building my own views. I have since discarded that scaffolding since my beliefs and values can stand independently of them.

But even then I knew that these were not the messages that are dominant in religion. Such people have always formed a distinct minority within the Christian church. The predominant message is one that calls upon people to bear their suffering with dignity, to see their reward in heaven, and not to rise up against their oppression and their oppressors.

In the absence of actual data correlating religious beliefs towards attitudes of social justice, one has to resort (as I did) to more indirect inferences. For example, religious missionaries were in the forefront of colonial penetration by European powers in Africa and Asia and South America, arriving almost concurrently with the invading armies, and given wide latitude to spread their religious message. While these missionaries may have been motivated by purely religious inclinations to "save" the "savages' souls", the colonial powers undoubtedly also saw them as serving an important auxiliary function by keeping the colonies quiet by diverting energies away from the injustices perpetrated on them. As the famous quote by a colonized person goes "When the colonialists arrived, they had the Bible and we had the land. Now we have the Bible and they have the land." It is hard to imagine that preaching for freedom and social justice and self-determination would have been tolerated by colonial administrators.

Or take the bitter experience of slavery. There is no question that religious beliefs sustained the black community during a time of incredible cruelty and hardship, enabling them to endure by hoping for a relief and reunion in heaven. The words of the spirituals are a testimony to that forbearance and that religious tradition remains strong within the black community to this day. But one wonders what might have been the result if they had not had heaven to look forward to. Would there have been more agitation and unrest among the slaves? Would more people have joined in the occasional slave revolts? We are speculating here about an alternative history and we cannot definitively know the answer. But it is hard to get away from the idea that religion does provide a sedative that the powerful can use to make those they control more docile. In fact, as has been discussed by others, promotion of religion is a conscious policy of social control.

The idea that god has a plan for us and that our suffering is part of that plan, while comforting in some way, cannot help but be a bar to taking action to change those conditions. Marx, living in the heyday of colonial expansion and seeing these things in real time, would undoubtedly have taken note of this role of religion in arriving at his metaphor of opium for religion.

If one also looks at religious music (hymns and spirituals) one rarely finds stirring songs that call upon people to unite and fight for justice. Most of them are other worldly, saying that this world is not important, that what really counts is the care of one's soul, extolling patience and forbearance, and promising in return the reward one gets in heaven. When I was a lay preacher conducting services, I found it almost impossible to find hymns that were not of this kind.

Does this prove my point that religious people are more likely to be docile about their fate? Not really. It is still a circumstantial case that is being made. But in the absence of actual surveys and data, this is the best I can do.

Of course, the fact that one is not religious does not automatically imply that one is less likely to tolerate social injustice. One has to want things to be better. The point I was driving at is that if one does not believe in god or cosmic justice or rewards in an afterlife, then the fact this life is all that we have cannot help but be an incentive to action.

POST SCRIPT: Media masochism

Some of you may have been following the venomous attacks on the media following the revelations of administration snooping, such as NSA wiretapping and bank transfer records. It is quite amazing that major newspapers are being accused, of all things, of treason, and calls are being made for reporters to be jailed. These commentators seem to have lost all sense of proportion. It looks like they want to intimidate the media even more so that they will not make even the most timid criticisms of Bush policies. (See Glenn Greenwald who has been tirelessly reporting on these tactics of media intimidation.)

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow skewers the way that mainstream media gives so much air time to these hysterical extremist commentators who hate them.

July 07, 2006

The role of emotion in maintaining religion

As I have said before, I grew up being very religious and actively involved in church and Christian youth activities. I enjoy meeting old and close friends and relatives, many of whom I have known since my early childhood. Growing up, they all had known me as a practicing Christian, even more so than your regular Sunday churchgoer since I was an ordained lay preacher and regularly conducted services that many of them had listened to as members of the congregation.

Most of my relatives and childhood friends are still religious. When I encounter them now, many have heard on the grapevine of my apostasy and start up a conversation about faith, sometimes out of curiosity as to why I renounced my own belief, at other times to try and bring me back into the fold.

This happened again recently and during the discussion, the question was posed to me as to what, as an atheist, I could offer someone whose lot in life was wretched and hopeless. She said that at least religion could promise that person a better life in heaven, something that they could look forward to, and thus make life on Earth, however harsh, at least bearable.

It made me recall an Andy Capp cartoon where he and his wife Flo are stopped by a perspiring man carrying a heavy suitcase who asks them how far it is to the railway station. Flo replies that it is just a short distance away. The man perks up considerably and goes off. Andy then asks her why she said that since the station is a good way away. Flo replies, "The poor man looked so tired that I thought it would cheer him up."

This is probably the main appeal of religion, that it provides hope (even if false) that enables people to face life. Religion provides a strong emotional appeal, providing people with something to look forward to so that they can face the present, however harsh, with a greater degree of equanimity.

It is this feature of religion that Karl Marx described as the "opium of the people." What Marx was objecting to was that such an attitude had the effect of preventing people from protesting the injustice of their situation and seeking to change it. As he said in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (February 1844):

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.

Marx was accurate with his metaphor of opium for religion. It not only takes away pain, it also dulls the will to action. Perhaps religion persists because it is a form of addiction, removing us from the realm of reality just as effectively as heroin or cocaine, and is just as hard to relinquish. What the promise of heaven does is to ease the pressure on us to improve life on Earth. It is the ultimate cop-out.

But if we do not have religion, we are forced to take action. In the Andy Capp cartoon context, that translates into not lying to the person as Flo did in order to help that person feel good in the short run, but to either help him carry his suitcase so that his journey would be easier or to add wheels to the suitcase so that his journey is made easier.

The emotional appeal of religion is strong. It is appealing to think that there is some sense of cosmic justice where good is rewarded and evil punished. It is nice to think that in the afterlife, those who suffered unjustly will be rewarded and that there is a heavenly war trial where all those who have been responsible for willful and major human suffering would face their ultimate comeuppance. I think that it is this emotional appeal that keeps people faithful to religion.

Just yesterday, the news media reported that Ken Lay, the disgraced Enron head, had died of a heart attack just prior to his sentencing. Many people, appalled at the high life he led while swindling thousands of people of their life savings, were hoping to see him brought down from his life of luxury and spend his last days in jail. Some people expressed disappointment at the news of his death, that he had escaped the hardship of jail but expressed hope that he would pay in the afterlife. This is a common enough reaction and presumably gives those feeling aggrieved some consolation.

But atheists know that no such cosmic justice exists. The fate that evil people ultimately face is the same as the fate that anyone else faces, and that is death. Paradoxically, this need not be depressing but actually can serve as a call to action. If this is the one life that we have, it becomes clearer that our obligation to ourselves and to others is to make sure that it is the best it can be, so that everyone had a chance at a decent life.

If we seek justice, then it has to be done by us right here on Earth. That buck cannot be passed. That is the message that atheists have to offer to people. It may not have a soothing effect but is more likely to lead to concrete action.

POST SCRIPT: Minor Milestone

In checking the statistics for this blog, it appears that on June 30, 2006, the one million hit mark since its inception on January 26, 2005 was reached. Thank you very much to all those who visit, read, and comment. It has been a pleasure to write and, I hope, to provoke thought and discussions.

July 06, 2006

Why small problems create the most difficulties for Christians

Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, has some interesting things to say on the importance of details in establishing credibility of any knowledge system. In his Reply to a Christian he points out how central it is to religious beliefs that one avoids any kinds of details that might lead to refutation, something that I have also been writing about for some time. His essay is worth quoting at length.

Christians regularly assert that the Bible predicts future historical events. For instance, Deuteronomy 28:64 says, "The Lord will scatter you among the nations from one end of the earth to the other." Jesus says, in Luke 19:43-44, "The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you." We are meant to believe that these utterances predict the subsequent history of the Jews with such uncanny specificity so as to admit of only a supernatural explanation. It is on the basis of such reasoning that 44 percent of the American population now believes that Jesus will return to earth to judge the living and the dead sometime in the next fifty years.

But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy could be if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage like, "In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the Internet." The Bible contains nothing remotely like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century.

Take a moment to imagine how good a book could be if it were written by the Creator of the universe. Such a book could contain a chapter on mathematics that, after two thousand years of continuous use, would still be the richest source of mathematical insight the earth has ever seen. Instead, the Bible contains some very obvious mathematical errors. In two places, for instance, the Good Book gives the ratio of a circumference of a circle to its diameter as simply 3 (1 Kings 7: 23-26 and 2 Chronicles 4: 2-5). We now refer to this constant relation with the Greek letter pi. While the decimal expansion of pi runs to infinity-3.1415926535 . . .-we can calculate it to any degree of accuracy we like. Centuries before the oldest books of the Bible were written, both the Egyptians and Babylonians approximated p to a few decimal places. And yet the Bible-whether inerrant or divinely inspired-offers us an approximation that is terrible even by the standards of the ancient world. Needless to say, many religious people have found ingenious ways of rationalizing this. And yet, these rationalizations cannot conceal the obvious deficiency of the Bible as a source of mathematical insight. It is absolutely true to say that, if Archimedes had written a chapter of the Bible, the text would bear much greater evidence of the author's "omniscience."

Why doesn't the Bible say anything about electricity, about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? Millions of people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, many of them children. When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will surely be reducible to a few pages of text. Why aren't these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? The Bible is a very big book. There was room for God to instruct us on how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals. Please appreciate how this looks to one who stands outside the Christian faith. It is genuinely amazing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience. (my italics throughout)

All these are good questions. But as cogently as Harris argues, I do not expect him to convince the believer. This is because, as professor of religion Deepak Sarma pointed out during the panel discussion on the tsunami, all religions contain an MWC ("mysterious ways clause") that can be invoked as a last resort to say that the actions of God are inscrutable and that we simply have to accept the fact that a good explanation exists, though we may not know it. As long as believers are willing to invoke the MWC, there is nothing that can shake their beliefs.

Scientists can and do also hold on to theories in the face of counter evidence. They too often consider unsolved problems to be solvable but yet unknown. The difference is that for them, they do not accept this as the final word. They keep chipping away at the unexplained, generating new evidence as they go. For scientists, there is always a tipping point at which the weight of new evidence is such that it shifts the balance sufficiently that the entire scientific community rejects the old theory. That is why scientific theories keep evolving.

In the case of religion, though, there is no such collective tipping point. There are too many political and economic interests vested in religion for any religious leader (say the Pope) to say something like: "You know, after thinking about it, I've realized that this idea of god does not really make any sense. Maybe we should try to understand how the world works without invoking god."

Religious and political leaders have too much vested interest in maintaining religion, whatever their private views might be. So it is up to individuals to decide for themselves how much counter-evidence they can encounter and still maintain their faith. But we are mistaken in thinking that evidence and reason and logic are the decisive factors in how such decisions are made.

Next: The important role that emotion plays

POST SCRIPT: Keeping people locked up forever without trial

Once again, we have to look for comedy programs to tell us the truth. Stephen Colbert looks at the outrageous scandal that is Guantanamo and the fraudulent arguments that are used to keep people there indefinitely without access to basic legal and human rights.

July 05, 2006

Thoughts on Mark Twain's The War Prayer

Sometimes great writers reveal truths that are hidden. At other times they reveal truths that are squarely in front of our eyes but which we do not see because we have not asked the right question. Mark Twain's story The War Prayer fits into the latter category.

The idea of the intercessory prayer, where one asks for a favor or blessing for oneself or for a designated group of people, is such a familiar staple of religious life that its basis is unquestioned. But Twain points out what should have been obvious if we had only thought it through. The key section about the nature of such prayers is revealed when he writes:

For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time.

Twain accurately points out that often such prayers always carry with them a dark underside. Prayers that ask for victory in war always carry with them the wish that god will destroy the other side. The losing side in a war must necessarily suffer death and destruction but prayers never explicitly ask god to do this. That would be too crass. But Twain says that whether we put those sentiments into words or not, that appeal is always present.

Twain carries this argument even further and says that even appeals for seemingly benign help for one person (such as rain for his crops) may prove to be a curse for someone else.

Twain's point seems to be that any prayer that seeks special benefits for any one group is also a request to deny that same benefit to those who do not belong to that group. When people pray asking god's help to help find a cure for cancer, aren't they implicitly also asking him/her to not find a cure for AIDS or Alzheimers or any other of the countless diseases that afflict living things?

And what about the phrase "God bless America" that is now such a staple of political life that politicians routinely end their speeches with it? Fourth of July speeches are full of such appeals. What exactly is being asked for here? That god look out for the interests of Americans and withhold blessings from the people of other countries? What would justify such a request? Do such people really believe that God prefers Americans to other people? What kind of God would check the nationality of people before responding to prayers?

All such intercessory prayers are premised on an authoritarian/subservient model, with god as a kind of despot who has limited rewards at his/her disposal, and whose favors have to be curried by making special appeals, in the manner of kindergarteners with their teacher. Since most religious people also believe in a god who omnipotent and has the capacity to answer any intercessory prayer, and even knows the prayers before they are prayed, it does not make sense to ask for limited rewards benefiting a restricted subset of people. But this obvious contradiction is not perceived. It requires an astute observer like Twain to point it out.

Perhaps the only intercessory prayer that can be justified is the one I saw on a bumper sticker that said "God bless everyone. No exceptions."

It is noteworthy that Mark Twain knew that he was asking for trouble with this story, writing it as he did during a major war, when strong and unthinking appeals to patriotism are used to brush aside any opposition, just as was done in during the preparations for the attack on Iraq.

Twain wrote The War Prayer during the Spanish-American War. It was submitted for publication, but on March 22, 1905, Harper's Bazaar rejected it as "not quite suited to a woman's magazine." Eight days later, Twain wrote to his friend Dan Beard, to whom he had read the story, "I don't think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth." Because he had an exclusive contract with Harper & Brothers, Mark Twain could not publish "The War Prayer" elsewhere and it remained unpublished until 1923.

Mark Twain seems to have had a healthy skepticism towards religion that was not shared by his family and those who were charged with executing his estate.

In later years, Twain's family suppressed some of his work which was especially irreverent toward conventional religion, notably Letters from the Earth, which was not published until 1962. The anti-religious The Mysterious Stranger was published in 1916, although there is some scholarly debate as to whether Twain actually wrote the most familiar version of this story.

Given that Mark Twain had achieved iconic status in his own lifetime and was so well-known and liked, his own apprehensions about whether this story could be published is indicative of how powerful a hold this combination of religion and patriotism has on people. Challenge those twin pillars of dogma and you become an outcast fast.

POST SCRIPT: Hunting endangered animals

Did you know that there is a hunting group that actually seeks as trophies endangered animals? And that one of its members was nominated last year to fill the position of acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?

The organization in question is the Safari Club International (SCI), described as "an extreme trophy hunting organization that advocates the killing of rare species around the world." A press release put out by the Humane Society of the US says:

The Arizona-based SCI has made a name for itself as one of the most extreme and elite trophy hunting organizations, representing some 40,000 wealthy trophy collectors, fostering and promoting competitive trophy hunting of exotic animals on five continents. SCI members shoot prescribed lists of animals to win so-called Grand Slam and Inner Circle titles. There's the Africa Big Five (leopard, elephant, lion, rhino, and buffalo), the North American Twenty Nine (all species of bear, bison, sheep, moose, caribou, and deer), Big Cats of the World, Antlered Game of the Americas, and many other contests.

To complete all 29 award categories, a hunter must kill a minimum of 322 separate species and sub-species—enough to populate a large zoo. This is an extremely expensive and lengthy task, and many SCI members take the quick and easy route to see their names in the record books. They shoot captive animals in canned hunts, both in the United States and overseas, and some engage in other unethical conduct like shooting animals over bait, from vehicles, with spotlights, or on the periphery of national parks.

What is the matter with these people? How can anyone be so competitive that they will actually increase the risk of extinction of rare animals just for the sake of getting a trophy?

July 04, 2006

The War Prayer by Mark Twain

Today, being independence day in the US, will see a huge outpouring of patriotic fervor, with parades and bands and flag waving. Coming at a time when the mood of the country is being whipped up to mobilize and support yet another attack on another country (this time Iran) I thought it might be appropriate to read one of Mark Twain's lesser known works.

I came across it during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was surprised by the fact that I had never even heard of it before, even though I have read quite a lot of Twain's work and about Twain himself. Tomorrow I will look at what Twain is trying to say in this piece and the background to it. For today, I'll let this remarkable piece of writing speak for itself.

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety's sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation – "God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!"

Then came the "long" prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher's side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal," Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!"

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said

"I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

"God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

"You have heard your servant's prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

"Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits."

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

POST SCRIPT: Strange statues

Take a look at this collection of strange statues from all over the world.

July 03, 2006

The devil in the details

In one of the classic Peanuts cartoons, Linus says that when he grows up he wants to become a great doctor and rid the world of illness. His sister Lucy tells him he can't because he doesn't care enough about humanity. An indignant Linus responds, "I love humanity! It's people I can't stand!"

I remembered that cartoon as I was writing the recent series of posts about the difficulties with believing that the mind/soul is a non-material entity that can exist independently of the material body and brain. I wrote about how Descartes struggled with how to understand the actual working of the model.

The thought struck me that it is often easy for us to accept the big picture as long as we ignore the details. For example, if you ask people whether they believe in a god who is all-powerful and can and will respond to people's prayers, most people will unhesitatingly answer yes. If you ask them whether there is a heaven, they will say yes. If you ask them whether they believe in the existence of an immortal soul, they will say yes. If you ask them if they have free will, they will say yes.

None of these things are really that hard to believe in, as long as you stay solely with the big picture. The problem comes when you try and work out the details. It is when you ask questions like: If God exists, where is he located? How does he act in the world? Why is it that his actions seem to be indistinguishable from random chance or the workings of natural law? Where is heaven? What happens there? What is the relationship of the soul to the brain? How does the soul influence the brain?

Such questions are very difficult to answer and despite the fact that religions have been around for thousands of years, no convincing answers have yet been provided. The religious believer is invariably reduced to saying that such things are impossible for mere mortals to comprehend and that they have to take it on faith that there are answers that will be revealed to people only after they are dead. So believers in religion are essentially told: Believe in the big picture and don't ask questions or expect answers about the details.

As a methodological attitude, this is what makes it hard for religion to be compatible with a scientific approach. Science, like religion, also deals with big questions: How did the universe get created? What is it made of? How did it become the way it is now? Science seeks answers to those questions and in the process creates universal laws and theories such as the conservation of energy or the theory of evolution.

As with religion, it is easy to believe in big picture ideas, even bizarre ones. Multiple and parallel universes? Going backwards and forwards in time? Access to unlimited energy from the quantum fluctuations in the vacuum? All these ideas have their appeal and are believed in by people.

But there the similarity with religion ends. Such broad beliefs do not become part of science if they remain purely at that level of generality. Scientific answers to the big questions and the universal laws themselves are found by looking at the details, at how these things manifest themselves in specific concrete situations which can be studied under controlled conditions. There is no question that is in principle seen to be beyond the scope of investigation or beyond human understanding. Any scientist who proposed a grand scheme and failed to articulate how it would play out in specific concrete isolated situations would not be taken seriously.

If one looks at the history of science, it is the accumulation of answers to questions of detail that have determined which theories of science should be retained and which should be overthrown. The transition from the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system to the Copernican heliocentric system did not occur because the latter model was seen as being clearly better. Conceptually, it is just as easy to believe in a geocentric model as it is in a heliocentric model. The change happened because over time, the detailed working out of the consequences of each model in specific instances (such as the motions of specific planets) seemed to be more compatible with the Copernican model than the Ptolemaic one.

This attention to detail characterizes academic discourse in general. I recall one historian saying that this is why they try to locate original documents, however boring and mundane they might seem. For a historian, a book of receipts and invoices from a store that was in existence three hundred years ago may allow her to piece together and corroborate a more reliable account of life in those times than (say) a book written during that time that seeks to describe life then. This is because books are written with a broad purpose in mind and this can distort its contents. But people doing their daily book-keeping in a store are simply recording actual events for their own use, not with an eye to history. Hence there is less chance of unconscious bias.

This is also why anthropologists and archaeologists focus so much on collecting raw data that to the rest of us seems like it has little value. The work of the people who painstakingly analyzed the layers of pollen and vegetation and bones deep in the soil of Easter Island enabled them to arrive at a more reliable and comprehensive accounting of how that community collapsed than the accounts of travelers to that island. (I will write about the fascinating story of Easter Island in a future posting.)

So while seeking the answers to big questions is the ultimate goal, in science and in most other areas of knowledge we arrive at those answers as a secondary consequence of finding answers to small, detailed questions. In religion, however, we are simply told by authorities the answers to the big questions and told not to expect answers to the detailed ones.

POST SCRIPT: The Mind and the Brain

I wrote recently (here and here) about the relationship of the mind to the brain and how the neuroscience community views this question. In a recent article, Paul Bloom, professor of Psychology at Yale talks about brain studies using fMRI and confirms my belief that the brain is all there is. He says:

But we know, scientifically, that the physical activity of the brain is the source of our mental processes. It's one of the first things the professor says in any intro psych course: The mind is what the brain does, and so every mental event, from falling in love to worrying about your taxes, is going to show up as a brain event. In fact, if anyone were to find an aspect of thought that did not correspond to a brain event, it would be the discovery of the century, as it would be the first ever proof of hardcore Cartesian dualism.

(Thanks to