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Entries for August 2006

August 31, 2006

Keeping creationism out of Ohio's science classes

Recall that the pro-IDC (intelligent design creationism) forces in Kansas received a setback in their Republican primary elections earlier this month. Now there is a chance to repeat that in Ohio.

I wrote earlier about a challenge being mounted to the attempt by Deborah Owens-Fink (one of the most pro-IDC activists in Ohio) to be re-elected to the Ohio Board of Education from Ohio District Seven. It seems as if the pro-science forces have managed to recruit a good candidate to run against her. He is Tom Sawyer, who is a former US congressman. I received the message below from Patricia Princehouse who has been tireless in her attempts at keeping religious ideas out of the science curriculum.

The worst creationist activist on Ohio's Board of Education is up for re-election (Deborah Owens Fink).

But now she has competition! And with your help, we can win!

We have recruited former congressman Tom Sawyer to run against her. His website is here.

Contributions are urgently needed for Congressman Sawyer's campaign.

(Credit cards accepted here or send check to address below.)

Fink has pledged to raise lots of money & we have no doubt that creationists across the country will pour tens of thousands of dollars into her campaign. We may not be able to match them, but Sawyer is an experienced politician who can make wise use of what he gets. We need to see he gets as much as possible.

HOW MUCH SHOULD I GIVE?

1) Remember that almost every Ohioan that pays Ohio income tax, can take as a
TAX CREDIT (not just a deduction) up to $50 ($100 married couples filing jointly) in donations to Board of Ed candidates. So, please try to give at least the free $50 that you can get back on your taxes.

2) How much would you give if you could erase the past 4 years of damage to Ohio's public schools? $100? $1000? $5000? Please seriously consider giving more than you've ever given before. You stand poised to prevent worse damage over the next 4 years...

Fink is circulating a fund-raising letter in which she thumbs her nose at science & refers to America's National Academy of Sciences as a "group of so-called scientists."

We can protect Ohio from another 4 years of retrograde motion and put someone on the Board who can move Ohio forward toward solving real problems like school funding, literacy, and the achievement gap.

But your help is urgently needed...

www.votetomsawyer.com

I WANT TO DO MORE:

Great! Please spread the word about the web site --in & out of state! (Remember, what happens in Ohio gets exported around the country, so defeating creationism in Ohio benefits the entire country) You can do even more as a volunteer (at home, on the phone, or on the street, even 1 hour of your time can make a difference, especially as we get closer to the election) To volunteer, email Steve Weeks at eul1993@hotmail.com

For info on what Fink has done to science education in Ohio, see here.
For more info on Sawyer, see here.
For more info on other races in Ohio see the HOPE website.
For more info on races nationwide, see here.

To mail donations: Send a check made out to: Vote Tom Sawyer

and mail to:
Martin Spector, Treasurer
4040 Embassy Pkwy, Suite 500, Akron, OH 44333

I was not aware of this provision in Ohio's tax code that effectively gives you a full refund for up to $50 for contributions to campaigns like this. I have not been able to check this information myself and see what, if any, restrcitions apply and if it applies only to school board elections or other elections as well.

For more information on other School Board elections where the pro-science HOPE (Help Ohio Public Education) organization is supporting candidates, see their website.

It would be nice if Ohio voters take the lead from Kansas voters and also reject IDC-promoting candidates.

POST SCRIPT: Saying what needs to be said

Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's Countdown delivers a blistering commentary on Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush Administration. You can see it here.

August 30, 2006

The benefits of "unbalanced" media coverage

Since I am interested in how the media operates, I regularly go to the annual Susie Gharib Distinguished Lectureship series sponsored by the English Department at Case where they invite journalists to talk about their work.

It is always interesting to listen to journalists from the big newspapers such as the Washington Post describe how they work. One thing that always strikes me is how confident they are that the media and journalism in the US is far superior to that in other countries. They seem to accept this as an unquestioned truth.

Two years ago, two journalists from the Washington Post (a husband and wife team) described how they were in Iraq just prior to the US attack on that country, and he somewhat disdainfully spoke of the practices of their British journalistic counterparts. During the questions, I asked them why they thought they were superior. The husband replied that the US editors seemed to exercise much more oversight to make sure about getting the facts just right than the British newspapers. But if that was so, I said, how was it that the US media completely failed to discover the fact that the case being made at that time for Iraq having weapons of mass destruction was totally bogus. The US mainstream media pretty much accepted the administration's arguments largely uncritically, whereas the supposedly inferior media in many other parts of the world were very skeptical.

He became very defensive and said that this was just one case where the US media dropped the ball but that in general it was much better than the rest of the world. He said unlike much of the world's press, the US media was "objective" and "unbiased" in its coverage. My response was that this massive failure in what was the biggest story that any of them was likely to ever cover, and one that had momentous consequences, could not be dismissed as a mere aberration but pointed to a fundamental problem in the way that the media operates here.

Last year, Pulitzer prize winningWashington Post journalist Dana Priest (who won for her story on the secret prisons operated by the CIA to hold prisoners in foreign countries) was here and during the question time someone else brought up the deficiencies of the coverage leading up to the Iraq war, and brought up some examples of what he felt were stories that the US media missed.

Priest replied that the media did cover them. But the questioner persisted saying that saying something once was not enough in the face of repeated false assertions to the contrary by the Bush administration. He asked why the journalists did not periodically (say every week or month or so) keep raising the same issues again so as to act as an effective counter to the misleading propaganda pushed by the White House. She replied that they could not do so because that would imply that the journalists were pushing an agenda. She said that they had to be "objective" and "impartial."

This exchange clearly highlights the fundamental problem. Priest was right that if you look carefully in the US media, you can probably find some journalist somewhere who did ask the right questions and did report on the facts of almost any issue. She is also right that many US reporters, especially those in the quality media, think that they should strive for some kind of impartiality and objectivity in their reporting.

But the key question is not the validity of some abstract ideal of journalism. The real question is what kind of system will end up with the general public having a good sense of the truth. And I think that a strong case can be made that partisan journalism is more likely to deliver the goods.

I grew up in Sri Lanka with partisan journalism. My father subscribed to three daily morning papers and two evening papers. These papers were much slimmer than the papers in the US, with far fewer ads and feature articles, and a greater percentage devoted to news and political commentary. The political affiliations of the papers were quite clear. There were the government-controlled papers, those that were sympathetic to each of the main political parties, plus those that were run by private entrepreneurs (kind of like Rupert Murdoch) who had their own agenda of using their newspapers as clout to further their business or political interests. There were also smaller circulation papers that had their own political leanings, representing trade unions and smaller political parties.

Everyone knew the partisan leanings of each paper. These were not secrets and readers factored them in when reading the news. So what kind of journalism was produced by this system?

What happened is that the newspapers, whatever the leanings, could not publish outright falsehoods. Newspapers rarely made flat out untrue statements because those are easily refuted by the other newspapers and there existed libel laws to prevent that, as well as a Press Council which could investigate charges of serious distortions What the newspapers did do was downplay the negative news about the people they favored and highlight their successes, while doing the opposite for the people they opposed. They would give wide coverage to political events of their side and to the speeches of the people they favored while downplaying those of their opponents.

They also used biased language. It was not unusual to see a photo of someone they disliked in an unflattering pose accompanied by a snide caption. You would never see such things in the US press and whenever I go back to Sri Lanka, it is always a bit of a jolt initially to see such blatant editorializing mixed in with the "hard" news.

As a reader, it was not hard to figure out what was going on. If one paper made a major allegation, and the other paper did not deny it but tried to ignore it or downplay it, the chances are that the story was credible. If a story was serious, a paper could keep harping on it day after day, making sure that it was not forgotten or buried, and forcing the people concerned to respond to it in one way or another.

Since it was clear to everyone what each paper's agenda was, there was no point in really trying to hide it under cover of neutrality.

Of course this kind of media required the reader to do some of the intellectual heavy lifting, to read multiple sources, factor in their biases, and infer the real facts of the case. If you read only one newspaper, you were definitely missing important information. So people became adept at news interpretation and filtering.

This kind of partisan journalism is, I think, the norm in most countries. England's newspapers are like this to some extent and so are the French. The US is unusual in its big media feeling that they have to be "neutral" and "objective" and "unbiased."

Next: Is the US media actually unbiased? And how did it get to value "neutrality"?

August 29, 2006

Fundamental rights eroded even more

The federal government has prevented a 45-year old California man and his 18-year old son, both US citizens, from re-entering the country after a visit to Pakistan.

The two men are "the uncle and cousin of Hamid Hayat, a 23-year-old Lodi cherry packer who was convicted in April of supporting terrorists by attending a Pakistani training camp." That case was itself a scandal (see here and here) relying largely on a paid informant and dubious confessions to obtain a conviction.

As Glenn Greenwald says about the blocking of the return of the two men:

[T]he two Americans have already submitted to an FBI interview, but one of them -- the American-born 18-year-old -- "had run afoul of the FBI when he declined to be interviewed again without a lawyer and refused to take a lie-detector test. " For those actions -- i.e., invoking his constitutional rights to counsel and against self-incrimination -- he is being refused entry back into his country. And the Bush administration is now conditioning his re-entry on his relinquishing the most basic constitutional protections guaranteed to him by the Bill of Rights.

Since neither of the two Americans are citizens of any other country, they are in a bizarre legal limbo where the only country they have the right to enter, the U.S., is refusing to allow them to return home.
. . .
But what possible authority exists for the Bush administration -- unilaterally, with no judicial authorization, and no charges being brought -- to bar U.S. citizens from entering their own country? And what kind of American would favor vesting in the Federal Government the power to start prohibiting other American citizens from entering the U.S. even though they have been charged with no crime and no court has authorized their exclusion?

Over the past five years, this administration and its supporters have advocated empowering the Government to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely in military prisons without a trial, eavesdrop on their telephone conversations without any warrants, track and chronicle all of their telephone calls, and now bar their entry into the U.S. -- all without any criminal charges being filed and without any opportunity to contest the accusations, all of which are formed in secret.

I wonder when Americans are going to realize that this administration has no respect at all for the rule of law or the constitution, that all it wants is unchecked power over everyone?

POST SCRIPT: It happened when? Really?

Amazingly, 30% of Americans cannot name the year in which the September 11 World Trade Center attacks took place.

Interestingly enough, 95% of those who could not do so were aged 55 and over. The media loves to highlight stories that indicate that young people are clueless idiots who cannot even find the US on a world map. But for some reason they are not hailing this as a good news item showing that younger people are more on the ball than their elders.

August 28, 2006

Is Bush an Idiot?

This was the startling title of a controversial segment in August on the MSNBC talk show Scarborough Country, in which host Joe Scarborough moderated a discussion between two guests who debated the possibility that it was true. The show also had a clip of some of Bush's incoherent ramblings on important topics, a montage which has to be seen to be believed. It seemed to me that Scarborough had concluded that Bush was an idiot and was using the common rhetorical device of posing his conclusion as a question as a defensive strategy to protect himself.

(Most of the Bushisms in the montage were familiar golden oldies but there were some new ones. My personal favorite was when he says: "I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully." I became curious as to what possible context could have prompted him to express this heartwarming sentiment about interspecies harmony. Perhaps he said it during one of those summer shark attack news frenzies and he was calling for dialogue between the two species to end the bloodshed, his reworking of Rodney King's "Can't we all just get along?" The website Snopes says that Bush said these memorable words when he departed from the text of a campaign speech about dams in Saginaw, Michigan in September 2000. He did not elaborate on what he meant.)

The Scarborough Country program was remarkable not because of what the final verdict was on Bush's mental capabilities but because such a question was even being asked at all by the mainstream media. Just a short while ago, they would have been debating the question "Is George Bush a god or is he simply the smartest, bravest man who has ever lived?"

If you think I am exaggerating, then take a look at this passage written by John Hinderaker just one year ago:

"It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can't get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile."

Bear in mind that Hinderaker is not some small-time nincompoop who suffers from an acute case of Bush worship. He and two others, all attorneys, are the authors of the Power Line blog which was voted by Time magazine as Blog of the Year in 2004. They are major players in the world of big-time nincompoops, the kind that populate the talking head shows on cable TV. Hinderaker is also someone who has access to the White House.

Scarborough came in for some heavy criticism from Bush cultists because of the program and he defended himself in a later program by showing even more clips of Bush's idiocies. But he also said something significant. He pointed out that he himself is a proud conservative, who once served as a Republican congressman from the south, and that the question that he was posing was one that widely, but privately, being discussed among conservatives in the nation's capital.

The reason that conservatives have become so uneasy about Bush is that his approval ratings have sunk to the thirties and remained there for some time. The Harriet Myers debacle, and Katrina fiasco, the continuing disaster that is Iraq, the unexpected disintegration of Afghanistan, and the horrendous events in Lebanon and Gaza have made it obvious to all but the most die-hard Bush supporters that this administration has completely botched almost everything it touched, with no end in sight to the steady ruination of the country.

It is clear that the White House is uneasy about this negative re-evaluation of Bush's mental abilities. While they have been eager to cultivate the image of Bush as a folksy, plain-spoken, brush-clearing, mountain-bike riding 'man of the people', being seen as a total doofus would be going too far. So they have counterattacked, giving out, like the proud parents of a precocious child, what they claim is Bush's summer and annual book reading lists that includes up to 60 titles including Albert Camus' The Stranger, with the Press Secretary even saying that he and Bush had discussed that novel's existentialist themes.

This attempt at intellectual rehabilitation has strained credulity among observers. Some have looked closely at the list and cranked out the numbers. Here is one analysis from the The Carpetbagger Report:

Of the twelve books listed, I come up with a total page count of 5,356 pages, including 1,585 pages not available until at least 4/2006 of this year. That is an average page count of 450 pages per book. Multiply by his 60 books so far this year for a total page count of 27,000. 27,000 pages means the President would have to average a little over 115 pages per day. Reading a quick pace of a little over a minute per page, that is two hours a day of reading, and let's be honest, longer if you want to retain information in these types of books. And this from a man who prides himself in not reading the paper. I don't buy it.

As the Carpetbagger reports: " The fact that the White House gang is experimenting with a new persona — Bush, the reader — is embarrassing. He's not supposed to be about book learnin'; he's about governing by instinct and relying on the advice of educated people who tell him what he wants to hear. Switching gears now is not only literally unbelievable, it's pointless. The die is already cast."

But for an even more embarrassing display at damage control, one can reliably return to Hinderaker who is still determined to portray Bush as the obvious heir to Aristotle and Kant and Einstein and that it is only we who are the idiots for not being able to see the dazzling mind that is on display right in front of us. In an August 22, 2006 post, it is clear that while even other conservatives may see Bush as a low-power night light among the bright chandeliers in the showroom of great thinkers, Hinderaker, perhaps because of the special night vision goggles he wears, is still dazzled by the brilliance that is hidden from the rest of us.

I had the opportunity this afternoon to be part of a relatively small group who heard President Bush talk, extemporaneously, for around forty minutes. It was an absolutely riveting experience. It was the best I've ever seen him. Not only that; it may have been the best I've ever seen any politician. . .The conventional wisdom is that Bush is not a very good speaker. But up close, he is a great communicator, in a way that, in my opinion, Ronald Reagan was not. He was by turns instructive, persuasive, and funny. . . It was, in short, the most inspiring forty minutes I've experienced in politics.

There are many thinkers I admire greatly and have no hesitation in saying so. But I can never imagine myself writing about anybody using the words that Hinderaker habitually uses to describe Bush. There is an obsequiousness to them that is cloying and repulsive. Frankly, I cannot see how anyone, other than a total sycophant who has completely lost his self-respect and is angling for a job from a powerful person, could write in public in such an obviously ingratiating way.

Hinderaker is not, unfortunately, an isolated case. The disease that afflicts him can be found among many politicians and journalists who continue to assure us that the public still likes Bush and sees him as a great leader, when the polls have for a long time indicated that the country has turned away from him. And that raises an interesting issue. What exactly it is about Bush that makes so many men (and they do tend to be men) go weak in the knees and not see him clearly for what he is: a man who is completely out of his depth and desperately treading water, waiting for the clock to run out on his presidency before he drowns?

This intriguing question will be addressed in a future post.

August 25, 2006

Thoughts on the book Soul of a Chef

(Here are my remarks to the class of incoming first year students at Case's Share the Vision program held in Severance Hall which featured the common reading book Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman.)

They say that two things in life are inevitable – death and taxes. To this, you have to add a third and that is that at you will have to serve on many committees. Most committees, even in universities, tend to be routine and boring affairs but one of the best committees that I have served on for the past two years is that which selects the common reading for the incoming class and which this year selected the book Soul of a Chef. The reason that I enjoy this particular committee assignment is that I love books and reading, and this committee brings together students and staff and faculty who share that interest to talk about books and ideas. This exercise is what lies at the heart of a university. So you never have to twist my arm to get me to serve on this committee.

Having said all that, I must say that when this book was first selected, I had some personal misgivings about it. Let me explain why. How the selection process works is that any member of the university community is welcome to nominate books, so we get a huge number of nominations. Of those, some are immediately eliminated for various practical reasons that I won't go into but that still leaves a lot of books remaining. Of course each person on the committee cannot all read all the books that make the final cut, so each person selects a few books to read and reports back to the committee on their merits. We then compare notes, whittle down the list even more, and then make the final selection.

I did not select Soul of a Chef as one of the books that I would personally read. It deals with material that is of no real interest to me. Food to me is largely just a means of sustenance and little more. The world of high cuisine is not my world. In fact, I have never ever even eaten in a fancy restaurant and have no real desire to do so, except as a curiosity, and only if somebody else is paying the expensive bill. I rarely ever cook and when I do no one else wants to eat what I make. I have no ambitions of rising to the level of being even a mediocre cook. So the book basically dealt with a world that was completely foreign to me and which I had no real desire to enter.

But I went along with the choice because the students on the committee were very enthusiastic about it and I respected their judgment. But now I had to read the book. How do you set about reading a book that one is unenthusiastic about? When I flipped open to the very first page, there were already three new words, cooking terms that I had never heard before in my life, which was also kind of discouraging.

It then occurred to me that the situation I was in was a reversal of the typical teacher-student roles. Usually, it is the teacher who selects a book and is really enthusiastic about it, while students are completely baffled as to what is so great about it, groan at the choice, and wonder how on Earth they are going to work their way through it. Those of you who had to read Moby Dick for high school English know exactly what I am talking about. The teacher excitedly announces that you are going to read the greatest novel in American literature and then hands out what initially seems to you like 500 pages of very small type of a textbook dealing with the whaling industry, a subject about which you never had the slightest interest.

So I told myself to follow the suggestions that I give my students when I assign a book for them to read and know that they may not be as enthusiastic as I. Rather than simply read the book and absorb all of it, I tell them to read it with an attitude, with the following four questions in mind, and to focus on those parts of the book that provide answers to them. The four questions are:

1. What is the author trying to convince me of?
2. What is the author assuming that I already think about the topic?
3. Was the author successful in getting me to change my mind?
4. Does the book provide any insights to things that I care more about?

Reading a book with this kind of attitude makes it much more enjoyable because then you are effectively engaging in a dialogue with the author, and sure enough I became very engrossed in the book that I had been initially hesitant to read. It also helped that it is a far easier read than Moby Dick.

So here are my answers to those four questions.

1. What is the author trying to convince me of?

It seemed to me that the author was trying to make the case that being a chef was very demanding and requires one to be very tough, both physically and mentally. There was a macho, even sexist, strain to being a chef that was revealed in the book, especially the first part where the cooks were taking the certified master chef exam. Recall the sole woman who was tearfully eliminated early on. Basically the author was implying that it takes a 'real man' to be a chef.

2. What is the author assuming that I already think about the topic?

It seemed to me that the author was assuming that the reader thought cooking was a pretty wimpy activity, a hobby, a pastime, something that anybody could do by just picking up a cookbook and following a recipe.

I will address question 3 after I discuss question 4 about the relevance to things I care about.

4. There were other important educational lessons from the book that relate closely to the academic experience you will have here at Case:

1. Many times students complain that what they learn in class is not related to "real" life. You would think that training to be a chef would not be like this, that it would involve only making real dishes that people eat. But in the certification exercises, I found it interesting that the training of chefs involved having students master highly contrived dishes that they would never actually make as chefs, but which were meant only to develop specific skills that would come in useful in actual cooking situations.

You will find the same thing in college. If you take an introductory physics course, you will study the behavior of blocks sliding down inclined planes and do a lot of problems about them. Here is a secret. No physicist really cares about blocks sliding down planes. The only reason we ask students to study this type of problem is because it is a very good method of learning important basic physics principles that can be applied in real situations.

Often you need to learn things that are artificial and contrived because they highlight important basics that you can then use for real-life complex problems. Many of the things you will do as students may seem arbitrary (just like the timed tests and the pressure that is put on the chefs) but they have a deeper purpose that may not be apparent at first.

I admit that this can be irritating. Following strict rules can seem tiresome especially when you see experts breaking the very rules that they tell you to follow. You too may want to rebel and break them. But great chefs break the rules only after learning all the rules, because only then do they know what rules to break and when, and what the consequences are. Michael Symon is quoted as an example of someone who knows how to break cooking rules to good ends. Professional physicists are also like that.

2. What may seem trivial or irrelevant to a student can, to the expert, be an important sign of understanding. This was the case of the student crying after failing buffet on page 59. To us, a buffet may seem trivial but not being able to handle it was considered a big deal by the examiners. Things that seem like petty details can contain deep subtleties.

3. Sometime students think that the only kinds of objective judgments that one can make are those to numerical problems on multiple-choice tests. Assessments of essays are thought to be subjective and thus inferior. But the reality is that all assessments are judgments and that expert professionals in the field can often make precise and consistent assessments of things that we might think are purely subjective and opinion. You might think that whether a dish is good or not is largely opinion, just like whether a painting is good or not. But experts in those fields can make surprisingly precise and consistent judgments. For example, Brian gets scores of 62.82 on classical cuisine and 62.55 on mystery basket (p. 115). OK, going to the second decimal point is a bit over the top, but the fact remains that the examiners had little difficulty is agreeing as to the quality of the dishes and rating it on a 100-point scale. The main difference in judgments between cooking and something that appears more objective like physics is that in physics, the judgments that need to be made are buried more deeply and not as easily visible to students until they get to the more advanced levels. But they are still there.

4. When teachers set high standards, it is usually meant to challenge students to reach excellence, not to cause them to fail. Teachers in college are sad when their students fail to do well, just like the examiners were sad when the chefs dropped out at various stages of the exam. Very, very few teachers delight in deliberately failing students and such people do not belong in the teaching profession. Most teachers want their students to succeed and delight when they do so, but at the same time want to ensure that students are challenged so that they grow.

5. The final insight that I got is that the key to success in any thing in life is discovering some aspect of the task that you want to do really well and using that as a gateway to other things. In the case of Thomas Heller, it started with his obsession with making a perfect Hollandaise sauce (p. 266). In repeatedly trying to perfect it, he realized that he wanted to be a chef and used that as his entry point.

Of course, you may not agree with me on any of these answers. That is the beauty of books. They do not have a unique meaning, even to the author. A writer of novels tells of how his book was assigned as a high school text and as a result he would occasionally get phone calls from students who had tracked him down. The students would say that their teacher wanted them to write about what a particular passage means and they thought that the author would know the 'real' answer. He tells them that he does not know what it means any better than they do.

All knowledge is obtained by taking the words that are 'out there' in books and other sources and combining them with our own life experiences to construct our own meanings. This is why the discussions that you have in seminars and with your friends and companions at other times is so important to learning, because that is how we best figure what we believe and what books are saying to us. If your experience at Case ends up as a four-year long in-depth conversation about ideas with other students and faculty, then you have got a real education.

For the third question, was the author successful in convincing me to change my mind? All I want to say is that while reading the book, especially the first part dealing with the grueling certification exam, Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket kept coming to my mind. The first half of that film dealt with the brutal and grueling training that new recruits to the marines undergo.

So I guess the author did manage to persuade me that being a chef required real toughness.

August 24, 2006

The language of science

Good scientists write carefully but not defensively. By carefully, I mean that they strive to be clear and to not over-reach, i.e., reach conclusions beyond what is warranted by the evidence. But they are not overly concerned with whether their words will be taken out of context and misused or subject to other forms of manipulation. It is an unwritten rule of scientific discourse that you do not score cheap debating points. Scientists are expected to respect those who oppose them and deal with the substance of their arguments and not indulge in superficial word games.

This is a why a scientist like Niels Bohr, who was notoriously obscure in his speech and writing, could still became a giant in the field. Scientists like Einstein who thought Bohr quite wrong about quantum mechanics, recognized the value of his insights, and took the trouble to pierce through the verbal fog and clarify Bohr's own ideas and make him understandable to others.

But scoring points using debating tricks such as selective quotation and word play is the norm in the political arena. Hence political speech requires people learn to speak defensively, so that an unfortunate choice of words will not be used to imply that they said something that they did not intend to.

As long as these two worlds of science and politics remain separate, there is no problem. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain that line. Scientists who, intentionally enter the political arena or inadvertently do so by getting involved in questions that have political implications (say global warming or intelligent design) often find themselves blindsided because they have not learned to use the kinds of defensive circumlocutions that politicians use.

For example, scientists will often use anthropomorphic language when describing phenomena. They will say things like "the electron wants to go here" or "this organism is designed to survive in this ecosystem." Scientists do not actually mean that there is some consciousness behind these things. But this breezy language livens up the subject and it serves as convenient shorthand for the more correct but convoluted consciousness-free language. Fellow scientists understand this custom.

But those who wish to pursue a broader agenda often use this casual language to imply things that the authors never intended. For example, intelligent design creationists (IDC) carefully scour the scientific literature to look for the word "design" and pounce on it to imply that the scientist writers are implicitly acknowledging that there the world is designed. They try to imply that many members of the scientific community secretly believe that the world is intentionally designed but try to hide it because of their secular political agenda, and that their language often inadvertently reveals their true beliefs.

For example, in a science article on butterflies physicist Pete Vukusic, is quoted as saying: "It's amazing that butterflies have evolved such sophisticated design features which can so exquisitely manipulate light and colour. Nature's design and engineering is truly inspirational."

This was seized on by IDC advocate William Dembski on his website where he highlights the phrase Nature's design and engineering is truly inspirational as if Vukusic was implying that butterflies were the work of a designer. This is just nonsense borne out of desperation.

The more politically savvy scientists, veterans of these wars, have learned to play this game. For example, I am currently reading an excellent book called The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins (more on this fascinating book in later postings) and in it, whenever there is a chance that what he says maybe misconstrued as implying intent in nature, he repeatedly warns intelligent design creationists to not take those sentences out of context and imply that they mean something other than what he intends. He sometimes takes the same ideas and writes it defensively to show how to translate between popular and very precise scientific writing.

But others have to learn the hard way. Consider for example, the experience of Peter Doran, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In 2002, he and his colleagues published a paper in Nature that " found that from 1996 to 2000, one small, ice-free area of the Antarctic mainland had actually cooled. Our report also analyzed temperatures for the mainland in such a way as to remove the influence of the peninsula warming and found that, from 1966 to 2000, more of the continent had cooled than had warmed. Our summary statement pointed out how the cooling trend posed challenges to models of Antarctic climate and ecosystem change."

That paper was immediately seized upon by opponents of global warming to argue that the Earth was actually cooling, even though Doran tried to explain that his paper said no such thing.

Doran said that this legend has only grown in the four years since, despite his efforts to kill it. He says "Our results have been misused as “evidence” against global warming by Michael Crichton in his novel “State of Fear” and by Ann Coulter in her latest book, “Godless: The Church of Liberalism.” Search my name on the Web, and you will find pages of links to everything from climate discussion groups to Senate policy committee documents — all citing my 2002 study as reason to doubt that the earth is warming. One recent Web column even put words in my mouth. I have never said that “the unexpected colder climate in Antarctica may possibly be signaling a lessening of the current global warming cycle.” I have never thought such a thing either."

He ends with this plea. "I would like to remove my name from the list of scientists who dispute global warming. I know my coauthors would as well."

It would be too bad if scientists, like politicians, had to also begin to carefully parse words so as to avoid even the remotest possibility of being misconstrued. It would be sad if they had to pepper their writings with the kinds of disclaimers one sees on medications ("This statement should not be taken to imply that we are supporting the following positions:. . ."). Scientific writing already suffers from various maladies: an overdose of passive-voice, jargon, and formulaic style are among the sins that immediately come to mind. To add defensiveness to the list would make scientific writing even more difficult to read.

August 23, 2006

Why "balanced coverage" does not always lead to good science journalism

In a previous post, I showed how George Monbiot of the Guardian newspaper provided an example of good science reporting, distinguishing the credible from those who indulge in wishful thinking. But unfortunately, he is an exception. And Chris Mooney writing in 2004 in the Columbia Journalism Review describes how the more common journalistic practice of attempting to provide "balanced coverage" of a scientific issue tends to allow the scientific fringe elements to distort reality.

As the Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of citizens and scientists, and other critics have noted, Bush administration statements and actions have often given privileged status to a fringe scientific view over a well-documented, extremely robust mainstream conclusion. Journalists have thus had to decide whether to report on a he said/she said battle between scientists and the White House — which has had very few scientific defenders — or get to the bottom of each case of alleged distortion and report on who's actually right.
. . .
Energy interests wishing to stave off action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have a documented history of supporting the small group of scientists who question the human role in causing climate change — as well as consciously strategizing about how to sow confusion on the issue and sway journalists.

In 1998, for instance, John H. Cushman, Jr., of The New York Times exposed an internal American Petroleum Institute memo outlining a strategy to invest millions to "maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours with Congress, the media and other key audiences." Perhaps most startling, the memo cited a need to "recruit and train" scientists "who do not have a long history of visibility and/or participation in the climate change debate" to participate in media outreach and counter the mainstream scientific view. This seems to signal an awareness that after a while, journalists catch on to the connections between contrarian scientists and industry.
. . .
In a recent paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change, the scholars Maxwell T. Boykoff and Jules M. Boykoff analyzed coverage of the issue in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times between 1988 and 2002. During this fourteen-year period, climate scientists successfully forged a powerful consensus on human-caused climate change. But reporting in these four major papers did not at all reflect this consensus.

The Boykoffs analyzed a random sample of 636 articles. They found that a majority — 52.7 percent — gave "roughly equal attention" to the scientific consensus view that humans contribute to climate change and to the energy-industry-supported view that natural fluctuations suffice to explain the observed warming. By comparison, just 35.3 percent of articles emphasized the scientific consensus view while still presenting the other side in a subordinate fashion. Finally, 6.2 percent emphasized the industry-supported view, and a mere 5.9 percent focused on the consensus view without bothering to provide the industry/skeptic counterpoint.

Most intriguing, the Boykoffs' study found a shift in coverage between 1988 — when climate change first garnered wide media coverage — and 1990. During that period, journalists broadly moved from focusing on scientists' views of climate change to providing "balanced" accounts. During this same period, the Boykoffs noted, climate change became highly politicized and a "small group of influential spokespeople and scientists emerged in the news" to question the mainstream view that industrial emissions are warming the planet. The authors conclude that the U.S. "prestige-press" has produced "informationally biased coverage of global warming . . . hidden behind the veil of journalistic balance."
. . .
Some major op-ed pages also appear to think that to fulfill their duty of providing a range of views, they should publish dubious contrarian opinion pieces on climate change even when those pieces are written by nonscientists. For instance, on July 7, 2003, The Washington Post published a revisionist op-ed on climate science by James Schlesinger, a former secretary of both energy and defense, and a former director of Central Intelligence. "In recent years the inclination has been to attribute the warming we have lately experienced to a single dominant cause — the increase in greenhouse gases," wrote Schlesinger. "Yet climate has always been changing — and sometimes the swings have been rapid." The clear implication was that scientists don't know enough about the causes of climate change to justify strong pollution controls.

That's not how most climatologists feel, but then Schlesinger is an economist by training, not a climatologist. Moreover, his Washington Post byline failed to note that he sits on the board of directors of Peabody Energy, the largest coal company in the world, and has since 2001.

Eldan Goldenberg, who has long been concerned with the way science is reported, kindly sent to me a report put out by the Stratfor group about a conference of journalists and scientists convened last month to discuss this very issue. Some excerpts:

Panels of journalists and scientists gathered July 25 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington to discuss the mainstream media's reporting on climate change. The consensus was that the media have not covered the issue well.

According to both panels, the greatest shortcoming has been in persistent portrayals of the issue as one of contentious scientific debate: In reality, the assembled scientists said, man-made climate change is generally accepted throughout the scientific community as a reality.

Most of the time at the conference was dedicated to examining the media's portrayal of the issue and explaining how it came into being. The root of the problem, most participants agreed, is that climate change has been covered primarily as a political rather than a scientific issue -- and thus, the media have focused on the political debate rather than the science behind it.

In the background of this discussion loomed a larger issue: The mainstream media, recognizing that there is more to the story, now are struggling with ways to change their portrayal of the climate change issue. Arguments are emerging that the scientific debate ha now been concluded, "industry" has lost and the new debate is about policy options. Though this line of thinking is nearer to the truth, it does not entirely close the gap. The fact is that industry all but stopped contesting the premise of man-made climate change two years ago, but the media's preoccupation with the traditional battle lines -- industry versus environmentalists -- continues to obscure the complexity of the issue and the positions of various players.
. . .
Because the media continue to write about these matters as political issues -- debates between two interested parties – the scientific questions at the center of campaigns on climate change, the relative risk of various chemicals and substances and the risks posed by genetically modified organisms have been relegated to the backburner. Rather than being the focus in the policy debates, the science is used as a tactic in a communications and public relations battle.

The proposed solution to this problem is that journalists should eschew the goal of "balanced coverage" when it comes to science. This, I believe, is unworkable in practice because it would be singling out science for different kind of treatment than other topics. Journalists are generalists, sometimes doing science, sometimes shifted to other beats. It is unreasonable to expect them to radically shift their mode of operation depending on the topic.

In fact, I believe that this problem is not limited to global warming or to scientific issues generally. Instead, I feel that this idea of "balanced coverage," that has become the journalistic ideal in the US, produces lower quality of journalism in general.

But that is a topic for another day.

August 22, 2006

How science reporters should do their job

About a year ago, Eldan Goldenberg had a post complaining about the lousy job that reporters do when covering science. (They do an even worse job when covering the government's fraudulent case for going to war, but that's a post for another day.)

The way that they cover global warming is a good example of the problem. But before we get to the bad news, let's first look at how a good science reporter should do the job, and for this there is an excellent example in George Monbiot of the London Guardian newspaper.

The story begins with a letter that was published in the New Scientist magazine on April 16, 2005 by a well known botanist David Bellamy in which he said that many of the world's glaciers "are not shrinking but in fact are growing . . . 555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980". His letter was instantly taken up by climate change deniers and used to argue that global warming was not happening.

That this letter received such wide circulation was not surprising. After all, as Monbiot says "Because Bellamy is president of the Conservation Foundation, the Wildlife Trusts, Plantlife International and the British Naturalists' Association, his statements carry a great deal of weight. When, for example, I challenged the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders over climate change, its spokesman cited Bellamy's position as a reason for remaining sceptical."

But something about the numbers cited by Bellamy bothered Monbiot and he tried to find out more. So he contacted the World Glacier Monitoring Service and asked them about Bellamy's claim. The response was unequivocal: "This is complete b---s---." They went on that "Despite his scientific reputation, he makes all the mistakes that are possible." Bellamy had, they said,

"cited data that was simply false, he had failed to provide references, he had completely misunderstood the scientific context and neglected current scientific literature. The latest studies show unequivocally that most of the world's glaciers are retreating."

So Bellamy was directly contradicted by the very people he was quoting. But where had he got his numbers? After all, scientists rarely make up stuff out of whole cloth. Monbiot contacted Bellamy and asked him for his sources. After several requests, Bellamy replied that he had got the information from the website THE NEXT ICE AGE - NOW! constructed by someone called Robert W. Felix to promote his book about the coming ice age.

The catch was that Felix is an architect, not anyone with any kind of background in climate studies. But in his site was this item: "Since 1980, there has been an advance of more than 55% of the 625 mountain glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring group in Zurich." Bellamy told Monbiot that the source for this information was the latest issue of 21st Century Science and Technology.

What is this impressive sounding publication? Monbiot looked it up and found that it is published by none other than Lyndon LaRouche. This alone should have immediately sent up warning flags to anybody that the information may not be reliable. But from where did they get their numbers? The publication (whose website seems to be pushing the case for a coming ice age) does not specify but Monbiot says that the same information was first published by Professor Fred Singer (an actual environmental scientist) on his website, SCIENCE & ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY PROJECT and is constantly quoted all over the web as evidence that man-made climate change is not happening.

So where did Singer get his information? Singer only says that it is from a paper published in the journal Science in 1989. So finally Monbiot had arrived at a source that is a peer-reviewed science journal, and a highly prestigious one at that. But there is a catch. Monbiot combed "through every edition of Science published in 1989, both manually and electronically. Not only did it contain nothing resembling those figures, throughout that year there was no paper published in this journal about glacial advance or retreat."

(I too searched on the SEPP website using the keyword "55%" but the link that was returned to the relevant article leads nowhere, perhaps as a result of Monbiot's questioning. But I found it in Google cache and it says "The World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, in a paper published in Science in 1989, noted that between 1926 and 1960 more than 70 percent of 625 mountain glaciers in the [mid-latitude] United States, Soviet Union, Iceland, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy were retreating. After 1980, however, 55 percent of these same glaciers were advancing." But as Monbiot says, the cited Science article does not exist and the World Glacier Monitoring Service spokesperson flatly (and profanely) contradicts this statement.)

The alert reader would have noticed that Bellamy said 555 of 625 glaciers (or 89%), while the sources he cites said 55% of 625 glaciers. Where did that final discrepancy come from? Monbiot wondered whether, since % and 5 are on the same key, Bellamy may not have made a simple error by missing the shift key while typing.

He went back to Bellamy with this hypothesis and the latter admitted that there had been "a glitch in electronics." But interestingly enough, Bellamy has not requested New Scientist magazine to publish a correction, seemingly content to let that error, which suits his own agenda, remain in currency.

The magazine Mother Jones pithily sums up the situation: "So there you have it – a 16 year old article that was never written, fraudulently cited by a climate skeptic, re-printed in a publication owned by Lyndon Larouche which was cited by a former architect, and finally misrepresented by a credible scientist."

And yet, as Monbiot says, the "555 figure is now being cited as definitive evidence that global warming is a "fraud", a "scam", a "lie"."

Monbiot sums up the state of affairs this way:

It is hard to convey just how selective you have to be to dismiss the evidence for climate change. You must climb over a mountain of evidence to pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates in the palm of your hand. You must ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world's most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals.

This was a nice piece of reporting by Monbiot showing why the "controversy" keeps getting fuel for its continuation. But how many reporters are like him, willing to peel back the layers of a story to get to the core, to reveal the actual data, or in this case, the lack of data?

The eagerness with which global warming skeptics picked up and passed around this highly dubious claim by Bellamy is a good example of what Bertrand Russell said in his book Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndication. (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote.)

"What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires - desires of which he himself is often unconscious. If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence."

Russell's admonition applies equally to those of us who believe that global warming is a serious issue. We should not be too eager to seize on any piece of data that seems to support those claims either, but need to look the credibility of the claim, the nature of the evidence supporting it, and corroborating evidence.

Next: Why reporters like Monbiot are, sadly, the exception.

August 21, 2006

Taking steps to avoid global warming

One of the curious features of the debate over what should be done about global warming is what we should be done about it. I can actually understand the position of those who are skeptical about whether things like the Kyoto treaty will solve the problem. I can understand those who worry that government regulations might not work.

What puzzles me are those people who somehow see the actions taken to reduce the production of greenhouse gases as some sort of affront that has to be opposed.

In actuality, what we are being asked to do, as individuals, can hardly be considered to be a major sacrifice. We are not being asked to live in caves and eat our food raw. All that is asked from us is that we tone down out lifestyles by just a little bit. Driving more energy efficient cars is not a hardship. Why do people feel that driving a gas guzzler is somehow a right that they should enjoy? Requiring better energy efficiency standards from the manufacturers of cars and other goods may result in a slight increase in prices for them. But why is that seen as a violation of free enterprise when we have all kinds of other regulations in place already that also result in higher prices? Turning the thermostats slightly down in winter and up in summer, or using fans more than air-conditioners do not really affect our lives in a major way.

Reducing the amount of packaging that is used, or getting in the habit of recycling items, may result in slight inconveniences but are hardly major issues. Maybe because I grew up in a third world country, the idea of reusing things comes more naturally to me. In Sri Lanka, people took their own shopping bags with them to the stores. The small shops down the street would wrap their items for their customers in old newspapers. They bought the newspapers from people like us. Every week or so, a man would comes down our street to buy our old newspapers and bottles and then resell them to the shops for reuse.

(A memory from my childhood. The newspapers were bought and sold by the pound. My grandmother suspected that the scales used by the recycling merchant for weighing were rigged so she developed an independent measure of the weight. My grandmother figured out exactly how many sheets of newspaper made up a pound. As a little boy, it was my job to carefully count out the pages and create one pound stacks of them.)

Everything was used many times before it was thrown away. Something had to become broken or torn beyond repair before it was thrown away. In my recent trips, though, I noticed Sri Lanka has become "modern" now. The bigger stores and supermarkets have everything highly packaged, and put items in plastic shopping bags to take home, just like here.

I noticed that by living in America these many years, I had slowly abandoned many of my instinctive reuse/recycle habits that I once had, but am trying to get back to that now that I believe that global warming is a threat and resources are limited. For example, I noticed that in New Zealand, a lot of people took their own cloth shopping bags to the supermarkets to bring their groceries home in. Since my return, I have also adopted this practice. It is one of those things that are easy to do. I also tell cashiers at bookstores and elsewhere to not put stuff in paper or plastic bags unless I have to carry a lot of stuff and it becomes really necessary. I heard that in Ireland, they charge 25 cents for each flimsy plastic bag in order to discourage people from unthinkingly getting them.

Some of the wasteful things we do are simply lifestyle choices that consume energy and resources, provide little or no benefits to us, but are harmful to the environment. For example, take the bottled water craze. Larry Lack in his article Bottled Water Madness points out the huge negative impact this particular industry has had on the environment and people's health for no discernible benefit.

Unless you live somewhere where the water actually tastes bad or is known to be impure (and there are just a few places like these in America) or tap water is not easily accessible, there is no real reason to buy bottled water. Municipal tap water is monitored for quality and safety more often and with higher standards than bottled water, so it is actually better for you. In addition, the amount of plastic used in packaging bottled water is enormous and it fills up landfills even faster. And drinking tap water will save you money.

Giving up bottled water is hardly a hardship. It actually makes your life easier. Drinking tap water is so much easier than going to the store, buying cases of water, storing it, getting rid of empty bottles, etc. that I am truly puzzled by bottled water's commercial success, and impressed at the advertising industry's ability to persuade people to buy it in such large quantities.

While each conservation measure that we adopt helps, we need to have large numbers of people doing it in order to have an impact and this is where the problems arise. It is not clear that purely voluntary actions are sufficient. As we saw with the demise of Easter Island, entire communities can stand by while their environment is destroyed. Are people willing to demand, let alone merely allow, governments to legislate more actions that conserve energy and resources? Are we willing to simply buy less stuff?

The industries that produce the greenhouse gases know that most people, being reasonable, are not going to balk at taking these very minor steps (they cannot even be called sacrifices) to conserve resources and reduce emissions if the risk of not doing so is to destroy the environment. So the debate has been framed as one of rights. How dare people be told what car they should drive! How dare they be asked to turn off the lights when they leave the room! How dare they be asked to save energy by adjusting the thermostats! It is each person's right to be able to do whatever they can afford!

It seems strange to me that a public that is so unconcerned about their violations of privacy, civil rights, and age old constitutional and legal protections, can get so riled up about what are basically minor consumer issues.

I can understand why people get fired up about evolution. It does, after all, go against many people's deeply held religious beliefs. But the vehemence with which some people oppose any measures to reduce greenhouse gases is truly puzzling to me. Even if we suppose scientists are wrong in their consensus beliefs that there is no global warming. All that would mean is that our greenhouse gas reduction strategies were unnecessary.
But why is that such an awful fate to contemplate, so much so that some people are willing to fight it with such vehemence? I just don't get it.

POST SCRIPT: I'm back!

I had a terrific drive across the country to California last week with my daughter, taking her (and her car) to start graduate school there. I enjoyed it so much that I am wondering when I can do it again, taking a different route. To create another excuse, I am already urging my younger daughter to think about also going to graduate school on the west coast.

I'll write more about the trip later.

August 18, 2006

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

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 17, 2006

The journey to atheism

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006.)

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

It's also interesting to note that most theists are also in the game of declaring nonexistence of deities, just not their own. This quote has been sitting in my quote file for some time, and it seems appropriate to unearth it.

"I contend we are both atheists - I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you reject all other gods, you will understand why I reject yours as well." - Stephen F. Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 16, 2006

Agnostic or atheist?

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006.)

I am sure that some of you have noticed that you get a more negative response to saying you are an atheist than to saying that you are an agnostic. For example, in a comment to a previous posting, Erin spoke about finding it "weird that atheism is so counter-culture. Looking back at my youth, announcing your non-belief in God was a surefire shock tactic." But while I have noticed that people are shocked when someone says that he/she is an atheist, they are a lot more comfortable with you saying that you are an agnostic. As a result some people might call themselves agnostics just to avoid the raised eyebrows that come with being seen as an atheist, lending support to the snide comment that "an agnostic is a cowardly atheist."

I have often wondered why agnosticism produces such a milder reaction. Partly the answer is public perceptions. Atheism, at least in the US, is associated with people who very visibly and publicly challenge the role of god in the public sphere. When Michael Newdow challenged the legality of the inclusion of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance that his daughter had to say in school, the media focused on his atheism as the driving force, though there are religious people who also do not like this kind of encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

In former times, atheism was identified with the flamboyant and abrasive Madalyn Murray O'Hair whose legal action led in 1963 to the US Supreme Court voting 8-1 to ban "'coercive' public prayer and Bible-reading at public schools." (In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as the most hated woman in America.) I discussed earlier that the current so-called intelligent design (ID) movement in its "Wedge" document sees this action as the beginning of the moral decline of America and is trying to reverse that course by using ID as a wedge to infiltrate god back into the public schools. Since O'Hair also founded the organization American Atheists, some people speculate that the negative views that Americans have of atheism is because of the movement's close identification with her.

I think that it may also be that religious people view atheism as a direct challenge to their beliefs, since they think atheism means that you believe that there definitely is no god and that hence they must be wrong. Whereas they think agnostics keep an open mind about the possible existence of god, so you are accepting that they might be right.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is a bit ambiguous. For example, if we go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

Atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

Agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable. I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative. It is like claiming that there is no such thing as an extra-terrestrial being. How can one know such a thing for sure?

The definition of agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to me to be too soft, as if it grants the existence of god in some form, but says we cannot know anything about she/he/it.

To me the statement that makes a good starting point is the phrase attributed to the scientist-mathematician Laplace in a possibly apocryphal story. When he presented his book called the System of the World, Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that "I have no need for that hypothesis."

If you hold an expanded Laplacian view that you have no need for a god to provide meaning or explanations and that the existence of god is so implausible as to be not worth considering as a possibility, what label can be put on you, assuming that a label is necessary? It seems like this position puts people somewhere between the Oxford Dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic. But until we have a new word, I think that the word atheist is closer than agnostic and we will have to live with the surprise and dismay that it provokes.

August 15, 2006

Shafars and brights arise!

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006)

Sam Smith runs an interesting website called the Progressive Review. It is an idiosyncratic mix of political news and commentary with oddball, amusing, and quirky items culled from various sources thrown in. Mixed with these are his own thoughtful essays on various topics and one essay that is relevant to this series of posts on religion and politics is his call for "shafars" (an acronym he has coined that stands for people who identify with secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, or rationalism) to play a more visible and assertive role in public life and to not let the overtly religious dominate the public sphere.

Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins have started a similar effort, more serious than Smith's, to have people identify themselves as "brights". Who or what is a "bright"? The bright website says that a bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview; a bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements; and the ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview.

Smith playfully refers to the "faith" of shafarism and says that "Shafars are 850 million people around the globe and at least 20 million at home who are ignored, insulted, or commonly considered less worthy than those who adhere to faiths based on mythology and folklore rather than on logic, empiricism, verifiable history, and science." He goes on:

As far as the government and the media are concerned, the world's fourth largest belief system doesn't exist. In number of adherents it's behind Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but ahead of Hinduism. Globally it's 85% the size of Catholicism and in America just a little smaller than Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans put together. Perhaps most astoundingly, given today's politics, in the U.S. it is roughly the size of the Southern Baptist congregation.

Its leaders, however, are not invited to open Senate sessions. Our politicians do not quote them and our news shows do not interview them. And while it is a sin, if not a crime, to be anti-Catholic or anti-Semitic, disparaging this faith is not only permitted, it is publicly encouraged.

He argues that the overtly religious are given prominence in the media out of proportion to their actual numbers.

Further, omnipresent evocations of American religiosity ignore some basic facts. Such as the Harris poll that shows about half of Americans go to church only a few times a year or never. In other words, they are at best what is known in some Latin American countries as navi-pascuas, attending only at Christmas and Easter. And among these, one reasonably suspects, are numerous closet shafars, silenced by the overwhelming suppression of skepticism and disbelief. In fact, the same poll found that 21% of Catholics and 52% of Jews either don't believe in God or are not certain that God exists.

Such facts are blatantly ignored by a media which happily assigns absurdly contradictory roles to God in stories such as the recent shootings in Atlanta. In that case one was led to believe that religious faith saved the hostage, even though the abductor professed belief in the same almighty, as presumably did at least some of those killed by the perpetrator. But who needs journalistic objectivity when such cliches are so handy?

Smith makes the important point that there is nothing intrinsically virtuous about being a shafar. "None of which is to say that mythology and folklore are necessarily evil or that the non-religious necessarily earn morality by their skepticism. I'd take a progressive cardinal over Vladimir Putin any day. The thoughtfully religious, expressing their faith through works of decency and kindness, are far more useful, interesting and enjoyable than lazy, narcissistic rationalists."

But the key point is that there is no reason to give the leaders of traditional faiths any more respect than anyone else when they make pronouncements on public policy. As long as they stick to their pastoral and spiritual roles, they can enjoy the benefits of being treated deferentially by their congregants. But if they want to step into the political arena they should expect to receive the same amount of slapping around that any politician or (for that matter) you or I can expect. This is something that seems to be lost on our media who treat the statements of people like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, etc. with an exaggerated deference, even when they say things that are outrageous.

For example, in a program on the Christian Broadcast Network just after the events of September 11, 2001, Falwell and Robertson suggested that the events were God's punishment on America for the sins of its usual suspects, especially the gays, abortion rights supporters, and the shafars. Falwell said:

"The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the thing in their face and say you helped this happen."

Robertson said, "I totally concur, and the problem is we've adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government, and so we're responsible as a free society for what the top people do, and the top people, of course, is the court system."

(See an interview with Pat Robertson on ABC's This Week on May 1, 2005 for another example of the kinds of things he says on national TV.)

Falwell and Robertson can think what they want and say what they want on their own media outlets. The question is why the rest of the media take people who have such bizarre views seriously and invite them over and over again to give the "religious" perspective on political matters, and treat them with excessive deference.

As Smith says:

If the Pope wants to tell Africans not to use condoms, then he has left religion and deserves no more respect than George Bush or Bill Clinton. If Jews encourage Israel to suppress the Palestinians then they can't label as anti-Semitic those who note the parallels to South Africa. And if the Anglican church wants to perpetuate a second class status for gays, then we should give the Archbishop of Canterbury no more honor than Tom DeLay.

In other words, if you want to pray and believe, fine. But to put a folkloric account of our beginnings on the same plain as massive scientific research is not a sign of faith but of ignorance or delusion. And if you want to play politics you've got to fight by its rules and not hide under a sacred shield.

Smith also makes an important point about the different standards that are applied to different groups.

After all, is it worse to be anti-Catholic than anti-African? Is it worse to be anti-Semitic than to be anti-Arab? Is it worse to be anti-Anglican than anti-gay? Our culture encourages a hierarchy of antipathies which instead of eliminating prejudices merely divides them into the acceptable and the rejected. Part of the organization of some 'organized' religion has been to make itself sacred while the devil takes the rest of the world.

Smith's essay is thought provoking. You should take a look at the whole thing.

August 14, 2006

"I know this is not politically correct but...."

(This week I will be on my long-anticipated drive across the country to San Francisco. During that time, I am reposting some of the very early items from this blog.

Thanks to all those who gave me suggestions on what to see on the way. I now realize that I must have been crazy to think that I could see more than a tiny fraction of the natural sights of this vast and beautiful country, and will have to do many more trips.

I will start posting new items on Monday, August 21, 2006)

One of the advantages of being older is that sometimes you can personally witness how language evolves and changes, and how words and phrases undergo changes and sometimes outright reversals of meaning.

One of the interesting evolutions is that of the phrase "politically correct." It was originally used as a kind of scornful in-joke within Marxist political groups to sneer at those members who seemed to have an excessive concern with political orthodoxy and who seemed to be more concerned with vocabulary than with the substance of arguments and actions.

But later it became used against those who were trying to use language as a vehicle for social change by making it more nuanced and inclusive and less hurtful, judgmental, or discriminatory. Such people advocated using "disabled" instead of "crippled" or "mentally ill" instead of "crazy," or "hearing impaired" instead of "deaf" and so on in an effort to remove the stigma under which those groups had traditionally suffered. Those who felt such efforts had been carried to an extreme disparaged those efforts as trying to be "politically correct."

The most recent development has been to shift the emphasis from sneering at the careful choosing of words to sneering at the ideas and sentiments behind those words. The phrase has started being used pre-emptively, to shield people from the negative repercussions of stating views that otherwise may be offensive or antiquated. This usage usually begins by saying "I know this is not politically correct but...." and then finishes up by making a statement that would normally provoke quick opposition. So you can now find people saying "I know this is not politically correct but perhaps women are inferior to men at mathematics and science" or "I know this is not politically correct but perhaps poor people are poor because they have less natural abilities" or "I know this is not politically correct but perhaps blacks are less capable than whites at academics." The opening preamble is not only designed to make such statements acceptable, the speaker can even claim the mantle of being daring and brave, an outspoken and even heroic bearer of unpopular or unpalatable truths.

Sentiments that would normally would be considered discriminatory, biased, and outright offensive if uttered without any supporting evidence are protected from criticism by this preamble. It is then the person who challenges this view who is put on the defensive, as if he or she was some prig who unthinkingly spouts an orthodox view.

As Fintan O'Toole of The Irish Times (May 5, 1994) noted this trend early and pithily said:

We have now reached the point where every goon with a grievance, every bitter bigot, merely has to place the prefix, "I know this is not politically correct but.....'" in front of the usual string of insults in order to be not just safe from criticism but actually a card, a lad, even a hero. Conversely, to talk about poverty and inequality, to draw attention to the reality that discrimination and injustice are still facts of life, is to commit the new sin of political correctness......... Anti-PC has become the latest cover for creeps. It is a godsend for every sort of curmudgeon or crank, from the fascistic to the merely smug.

Hate blacks? Attack positive discrimination - everyone will know the codes. Want to keep Europe white? Attack multiculturalism. Fed up with the girlies making noise? Tired of listening to whining about unemployment when your personal economy is booming? Haul out political correctness and you don't even have to say what's on your mind.

Even marketers are cashing in on this anti-PC fad, as illustrated by this cartoon.

Perhaps it is my physics training, but I tend to work from the principle that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we should assume that things are equal. For example, physicists assume that all electrons are identical. We don't really know this for a fact, since it is impossible to compare all electrons. The statement "all electrons are identical" is a kind of default position and, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, does not need to be supported by positive evidence.

But the statement "some electrons are heavier than others" is going counter to the default position and definitely needs supporting evidence to be taken seriously. Saying "I know this is not politically correct but I think some electrons are heavier than others" does not make it any more credible.

The same should hold for statements that deal with people, because I would like to think that the default position is that people are (on average) pretty much the same in their basic needs, desires, feelings, hopes, and dreams.

August 11, 2006

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-4

(Continued from yesterday.)

Strong allegiance to a tribe, and the belief that one's tribe is better and more virtuous than others may actually cause members of your own tribe to act in worse ways than they might otherwise do. First of all, people who have a high sense of self-righteousness and an inflated sense of their own virtue are capable of committing the most heinous of crimes because they think that just because they belong to a good group, the acts they commit for the benefit of that group must be in the service of good too. They lack the questioning doubt and self-reflection that lies behind truly ethical behavior.

I am sure that the inquisitors of the Catholic Church who tortured and killed the alleged heretics, and the Puritans of New England who killed the alleged witches, were convinced that because they were high officials of religious groups, what they did was good. After all, they were serving god by advancing the interests of their group.

Furthermore, knowing that others will support them uncritically, and find all kinds of justifications for them whatever they do, will remove some of the restraints on people's behavior. Surely some of the reasons that the soldiers at Abu Ghraib behaved so abominably must be due to their feeling that as Americans, they were automatically the 'good guys' and their Iraqi charges were the 'bad guys' and that therefore anything done to the bad guys was acceptable. And further, as we have seen so many times before and is shown in the Vietnam cases, the fact that superior officers and colleagues are willing to cover up their actions and shield them from repercussions, and that their family and friends and communities would make excuses for them, can breed the mentality that they can do anything with impunity.

The only way that we are ever going to be rid of the kind of tribal warfare that we are seeing is if we stop idealizing some groups and demonizing others. The progress on this front is not encouraging.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, the level of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment in the US has been nothing less than appalling. We thus have commentators like Michelle Malkin (who approves of the internment of US citizens of Japanese ethnicity during World War II) now advocating the profiling of Muslims and Arabs, and columnist John Podhoretz suggesting that the US may have been able to avoid the current insurgency in Iraq if only 'we' had just killed many more 18-35 year old Muslim males during the initial invasion of Iraq. Podhoretz says: "What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?" (His column uses the old device of phrasing things as questions so that he can later deny that he was actually advocating such a barbaric genocidal policy, but merely raising an issue.) Such people can say these things (and worse) against Muslims or Arabs and people do not recoil in horror. Instead they continue to be given high visibility platforms to voice their truly disgusting views.

The attitude towards Israel and the Jews in the US is more complex and ambivalent. As far as the elected representatives in Congress and the major mainstream media goes, there is hardly any serious criticism of the policies of the Israeli government or its military. The kinds of things said routinely about Arabs and Muslims would, if said about Jews, result in loss of either their positions or their public platforms. Spirited debates about the merits of Israeli policies are much more likely to be found in the Israeli press, in newspapers like Ha'aretz, than in the US.

But while there is strong official support in the US media and government for the policies of the governments of Israel, there has long been hostility to Jews as an ethnic or religious group. This used to be more overt in the past but is now latent. The recent incident involving Mel Gibson is an illustration of this. An even more disturbing example can be found in this video in which British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, as his alter ego "Borat Sagdiyev from Kazakhstan" (his other famous alter ego is Ali G.), manages to get all the people in a bar somewhere in the US to join him in a rousing rendition of "Throw the Jews down the well." It is disturbing to see how easy it is for him to get the crowd to sing along with him.

Most well-meaning people do not want to feed this kind of anti-Jewish sentiment and thus are reluctant to criticize the actions of the Israeli government. This same reluctance can be found among well-meaning expatriates from Sri Lanka who hesitate to criticize the actions of the Tamil Tigers, even when they commit the most appalling acts of brutality against civilians, because they fear giving ammunition to the anti-Tamil Sinhala chauvinists.

But not criticizing the actions of a government or organized entity because of fears that this will embolden that group's enemies is not a good thing. The fact that Tamils have undoubtedly been discriminated against in the past does not, and should not, give the Tigers any immunity or absolution for committing atrocities against others.

We cannot overcome racism simply by praising the tribal groups who are discriminated against or avoiding criticizing them. We should recall that the way that people feel towards specific ethnic or religious or national groups is a very fickle thing. Being in the 'in' group now is no guarantee that one will not be in the 'out' group in the future. Admiration one day can easily turn to hate the next. Recall how American views towards Germans, Italians, Japanese, French, Poles, and Jews (to name just a few groups) have changed dramatically, and even see-sawed back and forth, over the past century.

The fundamental problem does not lie in the nature of our current attitude towards this or that particular tribe, but with the tribal mentality itself, the need to feel that one's group allegiance is paramount over everything else, even to the sense of shared humanity. We need to realize that we are not really all that different from others. The only way to do that is to realize that ethnicity, religion, and nationality differences are purely cultural and superficial, just accidents of birth. Making them out to be anything more than that is to help perpetuate the historical cycle of tribal warfare.

It is heartening that there are examples of people overcoming their tribal allegiances, even in the heat of tribal battles. I am reminded of American pilot Hugh Thompson who risked his life to save some Vietnamese from being murdered by his fellow troops. I think of those Iraqis who, in the heat of the invasion of Iraq, risked their lives to treat US soldier Jessica Lynch for her wounds and return her to her American unit. I think of the Israeli pilots who defied their orders and deliberately missed their targets in Lebanon because they did not trust that their superiors had given them correct targets which housed guerillas, and they feared killing civilians by mistake. Such people should be inspirations to us all, showing us that it is possible for us to see ourselves as human first, and as tribe members last or, better still, not at all.

The current conflicts in the Middle East undoubtedly have their roots in many long historical and secular causes. The political and government leaders who perpetuate these wars may well have cynical non-tribal reasons for doing so. But goals such as oil and land and power and geostrategic calculations are usually not enough to keep the general public supportive of wars over long periods. To keep the people willing to fight and die, you have to inflame their tribal instincts, and there is no doubt that tribal allegiances to such things as religion are the fuel that keeps the true believers perpetually up in arms.

In order to counteract the negative image of religion that arises from these religion-based conflicts, apologists for Christianity and Judaism and Islam (the religions at play in the Middle East, but the same applies to religions in general) often argue that each of these religions is inherently peaceful and that it is extremists who have distorted their message.

At one time I would have been sympathetic to this point of view and have even espoused it myself in the past. But this benign view of religion is becoming, at least for me, increasingly hard to sustain. There seem to be too many people, even the majority, in each of these religions who feel that their religion approves of the killing of people of other religions. There seem to be too many priests and rabbis and imams of each of these religions, even the majority, who are eager to trot out doctrines of 'just wars' that happen to conveniently justify the current war of 'their' side and are thus willing to condone and support and even encourage actions that at other times would be considered murder. As Voltaire said, "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets." (See also Mark Twain's The War Prayer.)

Religious leaders often condemn wars in general and even criticize past wars and the wars conducted by other countries, but somehow find reasons to justify the current war engaged by their own country or religion or nationality. All these suggest that a good case can be made that these religions are actually enabling and even inducing wars.

Nobel-prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg puts the dangers of tribal allegiances perfectly, at least in relation to religion. He says:

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

I would also add unthinking allegiance to ethnicity and nationality as additional drivers that cause good people to do evil things.

We need to get beyond these tribal allegiances if we are to have peace in the world. If god existed, the best thing he/she could have done for us to further the goal of peace would have been to answer Robert Burns' appeal:

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us

But since god does not exist, we have to learn to do this ourselves.

POST SCRIPT: V for Vendetta

Some time ago I wrote a very positive review for this film when it came out. It was just released on DVD last week and a kind reader of this blog sent me a copy as a gift. I do not often see films more than once but I found this one very enjoyable even the second time around. I was able to see more nuances and appreciate better the points it was trying to make. There is no question in my mind that it is an excellent political allegory for our times, a film not to be missed.

August 10, 2006

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-3

(Continued from yesterday)

Learning to apply the same standards of judgment to actions, whether done by 'them' or 'us', is important if we are to get beyond tribal ways of thinking.

Take the actions of Hezbollah. Since they are part of the 'them' group, their rocket attacks into Israel are portrayed as deliberate attempts to kill Israeli civilians. If this was indeed their goal, it has been a massive failure. After all, we are told that they have been firing rockets at a rate of over one hundred per day, which means that about three to four thousand have been fired so far. But National Public Radio reported on August 6, 2006 that the number of Israelis killed as of that date was 94, of whom 58 were soldiers and 36 were civilians. If the goal of Hezbollah is to kill Israeli civilians, then on a purely callous and cynical cost-benefit analysis, this is an extraordinarily ineffective way of doing so, since it works out to about a hundred missiles for each civilian death.

Lobbing low precision munitions into cities is not the best way of inflicting large numbers of civilian casualties because most of the time they will land in empty places causing property damage and perhaps fires but few deaths. It is more likely that the goal of this barrage is to terrorize the civilian population by showing them that the Israeli military cannot protect them. Of course, when some Israeli civilians inevitably die due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, some Hezbollah supporters will rejoice, just as some of 'us' do when Arabs and Muslims are killed.

But what if a Hezbollah spokesperson were to say that they regretted the death of civilians, that it was an accident, that they were not targeting them but were merely trying to show that they had missiles that could reach these towns? Such an explanation would be rejected summarily, as it should be, because when you lob bombs into cities, you are displaying a callous disregard for civilian life. But why it is that we uncritically accept that same rationale when offered by US or Israeli government spokespersons?

Joseph Palermo makes as similar point, commenting on the fact that Fox News commentators like Michelle Malkin were saying that the Qana bombing was not such a big deal and the world-wide outrage over it was being deliberately manufactured by those seeking to discredit Israel:

What would be the response if Hezbollah fired a rocket into a shelter killing fifty-six Israeli civilians ranging in age from a ten-month-old baby to a 95-year-old woman as happened in Qana? What if Hezbollah apologized, saying it was a "mistake," but had made a similar "mistake" ten years earlier in the same Israeli village, killing 106 civilians? Would Ms. Malkin and others like her be on the public airwaves spewing forth such brutish views of the innocent dead?

In modern warfare, the majority of casualties are civilians. While this is perhaps not deliberate, it is also not an accident. This pervasive callous disregard for civilian lives has, I suspect, arisen as a result of the advent of air power and long-range missiles which enables governments to rain destruction on enemy populations with minimal risk to themselves.

There are ways in which civilian casualties can be minimized and that is by having ground troops engage in close-range combat, where you can actually see the person you are fighting against and are less likely to kill children and other innocents. Police forces, for example, are trained to never to fire their weapons until they are sure that the target is who they think it is, in order to minimize the risk to noncombatants.

But this approach has a cost. It puts your own soldiers in harm's way and runs the risk of having them being killed and injured. This might make the public less supportive of wars, which is what governments really fear the most. What government and other non-governmental warring agents have determined is that civilian casualties of the 'other' side are much preferable as a policy option to the deaths of 'our' soldiers, and so using air power and long-range missiles have become the preferred mode of warfare. A cynical calculation has been made that 'we' can live with casualties, as long as they are not 'ours'.

In order to do this and still retain a sense of 'our' own nobility, 'they' have to be dehumanized, made to look as if 'they' do not share the same noble values as 'we' do and thus either deserved to die or that their lives are somehow worth less than 'our' lives. And we see this happening over and over again. I remember General William Westmoreland, commander of the US forces in Vietnam where about 500,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed. He downplayed these deaths and casually 'explained' in front of cameras why this was not so bad. He said, "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient." Once again, we see the 'we/they' formulation of tribalism, used to justify our actions but condemn the identical actions of the opponents.

(If you ever get the chance, see the Oscar winning 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds where the Westmoreland clip can be seen. I saw it decades ago and that chilling scene of casual racism still reverberates within me, especially since immediately afterwards the film cut away to a scene of a Vietnamese village woman sobbing uncontrollably over the death of a loved one.)

This is why I am skeptical of the regretful apologies that are made by 'our' leaders whenever 'their' civilians are killed, the pieties that 'we' do not target civilians, and the aggrieved attitude that is adopted if anyone should think otherwise. 'We' may not have targeted the particular individual civilians who happened to die as a result of 'our' actions, but the decision to wage long-range warfare by planes or missiles ensured that large numbers of civilians would die just as surely as deliberately lining them up and shooting them.

The idea that by dropping leaflets from the air urging civilians to leave an area (as Israel has sometimes done) one has absolved oneself from guilt for their subsequent deaths from bombing attacks is another argument that has no merit. For one thing, as the events of Hurricane Katrina showed, telling people they should leave their homes does not mean they can leave even if they want to. There are whole host of reasons why people, especially the poor, very old, very young, or infirm, do not leave, even if you accept the dubious morality that it is acceptable to order people to abandon their homes so that they can be bombed later. As Juan Cole points out:

The Israelis don't say, however, how desperately poor hardscrabble farmers including the aged and infirm and children are supposed to travel to Beirut over the roads and bridges that the Israelis have bombed out, and on what they are supposed to live when they get there.

Turning the argument around, what if Hezbollah said that all Israelis must leave Haifa and other cities in northern Israel because they are targeting the city with their missiles. Does that mean the deaths of Israeli civilians due to subsequent rocket attacks is justified? What if Hezbollah claims that since it is obvious by now that the northern towns of Israeli are targets of their rockets, that all civilians should leave those areas and that they are not responsible for the deaths of any civilians still remaining? Would we accept that? The answer to these questions is obviously no. Telling people who are living in their own homes, in their own communities, minding their own business, that they must leave or risk being killed is wrong, irrespective of who does it to whom.

The power of tribal allegiances is so strong that those who are determined to see their own side only in a virtuous light will not agree with me. Those with a tribal allegiance to Israel will find a way to justify the killing and displacement of Lebanese civilians, while similarly those with a tribal allegiance to Hezbollah will justify the killing and displacement of Israeli civilians.

I forget who it was that said that the hardest thing for any one of us to accept is that we are just like other people. This is not to deny that there exists diversity or certain distinguishing characteristics for individuals and even groups. But it is hard for many people to accept that no single individual or group has a monopoly on either the virtues or the vices. And yet, the sense of tribal allegiance is so strong that people desperately want to find some way to believe that their own tribe is morally superior to other tribes. It is as if they feel that their own sense of self-worth is inextricably linked with that of their tribe. They can feel good about themselves only if their tribe is also seen as good.

As examples, we find people who say that some things make them 'proud to be American' or 'proud to be an Arab' or 'proud to be an Israeli.' Statements such as these seem to me to be exceedingly meaningless. I am an ethnic Tamil and the nationality of my birth is Sri Lankan. Am I proud to be either? No. Conversely, am I ashamed to be either? No. Attaching those emotions to such labels is absurd, and is as meaningless as saying that I am proud to be brown-eyed. One's ethnicity, nationality, and religion are accidents of birth, and I could just as easily have been born a Tibetan or an Inuit or a Swede. These labels provide a shorthand description of one's history and all they indicate is which cultures one has grown up and is familiar with. There is no deeper significance, however much we may wish there was.

There is no particular virtue to be acquired because of the tribe one belongs to. It is what one does with one's life, how one treats others, what kind of steward one is for the Earth, that determines one's worth and value.

To be continued. . .

August 09, 2006

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-2

(Continued from yesterday.)

Examples of people's willingness to believe the best about their own tribe and the worst about the tribe opposing them are not hard to find.

For example, I remember when the Iranian airbus civilian plane was shot down by a US navy warship in the Persian Gulf in 1988. Some people in the US went so far as to suggest that this was a diabolical plan by the Iranians, that they actually ordered a plane full of civilians to pretend as if it were a fighter plane dive-bombing a US navy cruiser so that it would be shot down and thus cause the US to look bad. The only reason such a story would be believed (or even proposed) by anyone was if they started out with the view that Iranians were completely evil and diabolical and viewed their own citizens as expendable.

On the other side, some Iranians felt that the US deliberately shot down the plane, knowing full well that it was a civilian commercial flight, because in their view that's what Americans are like, a bloodthirsty and cruel people with a long history of violence, and who particularly dislike Muslims. This kind of we/they thinking is characteristic of tribal chauvinism.

For another example, in the current Israeli offensive in Lebanon, we recently had the killing of 28 people, mostly women and children, by an Israeli bomb while they were hiding in a shelter in Qana. Incredibly, there were those who suggested that the horrific pictures of dead children being pulled from the rubble were staged for the benefit of the foreign press or that the building may have been destroyed by Hezbollah itself to create sympathy for the Lebanese and antipathy towards Israel. Take this commentary:

The Palestinians, and by extension their rollicking sidekicks around the Muslim world, are the masters of dead-child porn. Looking at the recent releases from this sick culture is like watching a very unfunny Monty Python clip from the Holy Grail movie where the cart is pulled through the city with the chant, "Bring out your dead!"

And the dead are brought out -- once they are determined to be photo-op worthy. The Killed-Kids of the Palestinians film series, like all standard porn films or magazines, almost never varies in its presentation. What you see is almost always dead children presented to the world on a platter like some grim roasted entree to be grabbed up and consumed by the ever-voracious cameras of the media and played in an endless looping celebration of carnage to a world. . ."

Dead child porn? Only people who have committed themselves wholeheartedly to this sick narrative that 'our' side has to be good and the 'other' side has to be evil could take such a scenario seriously. The subsequent killing of 33 farm workers in northeastern Lebanon also resulted in further speculation that perhaps they might not be 'genuine' farmers and thus deserved to die. This is the kind of calculus that people like Alan Dershowitz indulge in, to show that some people are 'less civilian' than others and thus killing them is not so bad.

Let me be brutally frank. Modern warfare has civilian terror as a central part of its strategy. The idea that warring entities consider civilians to be an inconvenience, that they would prefer it if armies faced each other directly without bystanders around, the noble warriors fighting each other mano a mano, is a quaint throwback to the Napoleonic days, so well described by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace. Tolstoy describes soldiers fighting each other on open plains while civilian spectators observed the progress of the battles from the safety of hillsides. The idea that this is what modern day governments and armies would prefer but that pesky civilians get in the way is a bedtime story to lull the gulllible, so that they can sleep better at night while their government wages war, supposedly on their behalf.

The planners of modern warfare have the impact on civilians as central elements of their strategizing. It does not matter if it is the US, Israel, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan government, India Pakistan, or any other entity that engages in war. They all do this and to think that only the 'bad' people do so is to indulge in wishful tribal thinking.

When Hezbollah sends in wave after wave of rockets into Israeli cities, their goal is to disrupt normal life in Israel, to show that they have the ability and will to strike inside Israel. By terrorizing the civilian populations of the towns in northern Israel (and there are now an estimated 300,000 Israeli refugees forced to flee their homes and head further south), they are trying to make the point that all the military might of the Israeli armed forces is incapable of protecting the Israeli people.

When Israel unleashed its massive air assault on Lebanese cities such as Beirut, Tyre, Sidon, when it deliberately destroys the Lebanese infrastructure such as roads, ports, bridges, hospitals, and power stations, they are deliberately punishing the people of Lebanon for the actions of a few amongst them, and hoping that their terror and severe hardship and deprivation will cause them to turn on the Hezbollah and disarm them.

Those who see things in tribal ways will find it hard to accept my contention that 'their' side is very much like the 'our' side when it comes to warfare, and will try and find ways to make discriminations. For example, one hears over and over again that 'we' do not target civilians and that when civilians do die as a result of some action taken by us, it is an 'accident' or 'collateral damage; or some such soothing bromide. It is the 'other' side that is deliberately targeting civilians.

There are clearly some cases, such as when bombs are set off in marketplaces and theaters and other places where people crowd, when civilians were obviously the targets. This charge can be validly applied to the daily killings that occur daily due to suicide bombers in crowded city centers in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, to the bombing by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, or to the attacks on the World Trade Center.

But most events during wars cannot be the 'accidents' their apologists make for them. For me, 'accidental deaths' are where one or two people die due to an unfortunate and unexpected turn of events (such as a policeman inadvertently shooting a bystander during a robbery) or even when many people die in a single event due to an error (as often happens in airplane crashes). But when hundreds and thousands of people die or are injured due to a large number of separate events, then we are way past the point where "Oops, I'm sorry, my bad, I did not mean it." is a satisfactory explanation. As Auric Goldfinger says to James Bond in the film Goldfinger "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action."

Right now, nearly a thousand Lebanese are dead, one third of them children under 12 years of age, three thousand are injured, and a million people (about a quarter of the population) are refugees, fleeing their homes to escape the bombing. This cannot be excused as accidents or inadvertent.

I think it is true that the US and Israeli military does not deliberately target civilians. This is not because of the blatant immorality of such an action, since morality is not the deterrent that many people like to think it is when it comes to warfare engaged by governments or other state-like entities like Hezbollah. Governments are notoriously cynical and callous about the deaths of civilians. The reason I do not believe civilians are being deliberately targeted is because there would be no point in doing so. You do not have to actually kill people to produce the required terror in the civilian population, and it is only the terror that serves any strategic or tactical purpose. Killing civilians is also not desirable politically because it turns public opinion against you and weakens public support for wars.

What has happened is that civilians in modern wars have ceased be considered as human beings, each of whose lives are valuable, and are now merely public relations props. Consider this exchange between CNN's Howard Kurtz and Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks on August 6, 2006:

RICKS:. . . I think civilian casualties are also part of the battlefield play for both sides here. One of the things that is going on, according to some U.S. military analysts, is that Israel purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they're being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon.

KURTZ: Hold on, you're suggesting that Israel has deliberately allowed Hezbollah to retain some of it's fire power, essentially for PR purposes, because having Israeli civilians killed helps them in the public relations war here?

RICKS: Yes, that's what military analysts have told me. 


KURTZ: That's an extraordinary testament to the notion that having people on your own side killed actually works to your benefit in that nobody wants to see your own citizens killed but it works to your benefit in terms of the battle of perceptions here. 


RICKS: Exactly. It helps you with the moral high ground problem, because you know your operations in Lebanon are going to be killing civilians as well.

When people order the bombing of cities and buildings, they do so with full awareness that civilians are going to die and be injured. When Israel fires a missile at one apartment in an apartment building which supposedly is the residence on a Hezbollah official, they have to be aware that the subsequent collapse of the building is going to result in ordinary people being killed. When they bomb the suburbs of crowded cities like Beirut, it should be no surprise that civilians are going to die. When the US, in its 'shock and awe' invasion of Iraq, unleashed a massive assault on the cities and infrastructure of Iraq, they knew very well that they would kill many, many civilians, even if they were not deliberately targeting them.

The issue here is not whether there is deliberate targeting of civilians. That misses the point. What we have is the callous disregard for the deaths and injuries of civilians. All governments and other entities (like Hezbollah) that wage modern warfare, with no exceptions, are guilty of this. What we may argue over, if we are inclined to do so and are still concerned about having 'our' tribe be considered morally superior to 'their' tribe, are questions of the degree of callousness to the death of civilians. We may, if we wish to follow Dershowitz, construct an elaborate calculus to determine a scale of callousness. Dershowitz seems to have a follower in John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, who seems to hold the view that the deaths of Lebanese civilians are not morally equivalent to the deaths of Israeli civilians. To me, they are equally undeserving of dying and yet equally dead.

But such exercises in creating models of differential culpability are just cynical games of one-upmanship and self-justification, used to remove the shroud of guilt from one's own tribe and place it over the opposing tribe. In modern warfare, no one occupies the moral high ground anymore. That position, like the hills overlooking the battle plains of yesteryear, has long since been abandoned.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: This Modern World

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, on target as usual.

August 08, 2006

Why we must learn to see ourselves as others see us-1

(I have been thinking a lot about the violence that is engulfing the Middle East and the horrific loss of life and homes and other property that is taking place. What follows is a long essay that reflects my thoughts and feelings on it. I have serialized it into four parts and will post one part each day for the rest of this week.)

As the ghastly events in the Middle East keep unfolding, it becomes imperative that we need to radically change the way we view ourselves and others if we are to have any hope of saving the world from an endless cycle of death and brutality.

Robert Burns' poem To a Louse contains a much-quoted passage that is a good starting point for such a transformative approach.

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us

It wad frae monie a blunder free us

An' foolish notion

(My feeble attempt at a translation into modern English that loses the charm, appeal and rhythm of the Scottish dialect of the original is:

O for a gift that God would give us
To see ourselves as others see us
It would from many a blunder save us
and foolish thoughts)

Truer words were never spoken. The hardest thing for us to do is to put ourselves in another person's shoes and see how we, and our actions, might look to them. Instead, as has often been pointed out, our tendency is to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. As a result, the bad actions of others are taken at face value and their protestations of good intentions are often dismissed as excuses and rationalizations, or even bad faith lies. But when others do the same thing to us, we are deeply offended and become aggrieved. Can't they understand that we meant well? Shouldn't our intentions count for something? Such unbalanced approaches cannot help but lead to conflict between people.

The tendency to have such a blinkered view becomes worse when the actions of entire groups of people are involved because the tribal instinct also then kicks in and those blinders provide an even narrower perspective. The worst examples occur when groups go to war against each other. When the 'we,' 'us,' or 'ourselves' becomes our clan or tribe (labeled by religion or ethnicity or nationality) and 'they' or 'others' becomes members of a different tribe with whom we are at war, the blindness to our own tribe's faults and mistakes, and the harshness of our judgments of the other side's actions become pronounced to the point of losing touch with reality.

Take as examples the many current conflicts going on in the Middle East region, be it the US forces battling the insurgency in Iraq or the clashes between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon or between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

If you live in the US, there is a dominant storyline that most people, especially elected officials and the media subscribe to for these conflicts. In this narrative, 'we' represent either the US or Israel, and 'they' are Muslims or Arabs. 'We' are intrinsically good people and 'they' are not as good as us, and harbor many bad people. '

'We' use force only when we have no alternative, and when we do so we are very judicious, careful to make sure that only the guilty are targeted. When innocent civilians are hurt or killed by 'our' actions, it is purely inadvertent and accidental. We are quick to express regret and expect that 'they' will immediately accept those apologies as genuine, because after all, we are good, humane, decent people.

At the very worst, when some massacre or other atrocity of 'their' civilians occurs because of some actions by 'our' people, and there seems to be no way of explaining it away as an accident, we are quick to say that these were gross aberrations, the work of a 'few bad apples' that in no way represent official policy, or our usual behavior. The actions are portrayed as deviations from our normal high ethical and moral standards. We insist that, as a matter of fair play, the accused must be given all the benefits of due process, be viewed as innocent until proven guilty, and strongly urge everyone to withhold judgment until 'all the fact are in.' We then hold extended inquiries and trials, find all kinds of mitigating factors for the actions of 'our' errant people, and give the culprits relatively minor punishments.

It is easy to find examples of this. The official responses to the My Lai massacres and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal immediately spring to mind.

The Los Angeles Times of August 6, 2006 has an explosive article by reporters Nick Turse and Deborah Nelson, based on recently declassified secret documents, that this kind of condoning of bad behavior by 'our' soldiers during the Vietnam war was much more widespread than originally thought. The long article goes into shocking details of the casual brutality perpetrated on the Vietnamese. Here is just a brief excerpt of the article but you have to read the full story with its details to appreciate the immensity of the crimes committed:

The documents detail 320 alleged incidents that were substantiated by Army investigators — not including the most notorious U.S. atrocity, the 1968 My Lai massacre.

Though not a complete accounting of Vietnam war crimes, the archive is the largest such collection to surface to date. About 9,000 pages, it includes investigative files, sworn statements by witnesses and status reports for top military brass.

The records describe recurrent attacks on ordinary Vietnamese — families in their homes, farmers in rice paddies, teenagers out fishing. Hundreds of soldiers, in interviews with investigators and letters to commanders, described a violent minority who murdered, raped and tortured with impunity.

Abuses were not confined to a few rogue units, a Times review of the files found. They were uncovered in every Army division that operated in Vietnam.
. . .
Ultimately, 57 of them were court-martialed and just 23 convicted, the records show.

Fourteen received prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years, but most won significant reductions on appeal. The stiffest sentence went to a military intelligence interrogator convicted of committing indecent acts on a 13-year-old girl in an interrogation hut in 1967.

He served seven months of a 20-year term, the records show.

Despite the fact that this kind of thing has happened repeatedly in the past and still continues to happen, 'we' are still amazed when 'they' see our behavior as approving of, if not condoning, the actions of the perpetrators.

But what happens if 'our' civilians are killed and hurt by 'them'? Then our perspective shifts by 180 degrees. The actions by 'them', even if by a few individuals, are not treated as aberrations, but instead are taken as official policy by the opposing government or group because, after all, they are not as good as we are, and are thus capable of not only committing the most heinous crimes, but actually desiring to do so. No apologies or expressions of regret are accepted. Judgment is not withheld but the actions are immediately condemned as wrong and the accused are assumed to be guilty. No calls for due process now. Instead, summarily killing the accused is seen as acceptable, if not desirable. Only swift revenge will appease us, either in the form of military action, quick and severe justice for the perpetrators, sanctions against the offending nations, or financial restitution.

Seeing the world and people in such a weirdly dualistic way is only possible if one values one's tribal allegiance above all other allegiances, and is willing to ignore reality to maintain the belief that 'we' must be inherently better then 'they.' Many people clearly think like this. So strong are people's tribal allegiances that they will hold onto the narrative of the essential goodness and purity of their own side, and the essential evil of the other side, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. Even the starkest of facts will not shake their faith.

To be continued. . .

August 07, 2006

Global warming-9: The demise of Easter Island

Easter Island tends to grip the imagination of people. But the things that people remember most about it (even perhaps the only thing) are the giant stone statues of faces that exist on the island.

Jared Diamond tells the sad story of this island as a warning to us all in a chapter of his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, but an earlier essay by him can be seen here. Thanks to MachinesLikeUs.com for the link.)

The reason that Easter Island, more than any of the other examples given by Diamond, strikes me as being relevant to global warming is because the island, being remote from the rest of the world, comes closest to the Earth in being an almost isolated system.

Easter Island, with an area of only 64 square miles, is the world's most isolated scrap of habitable land. It lies in the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles west of the nearest continent (South America), 1,400 miles from even the nearest habitable island (Pitcairn).

All the other examples of collapse cited by Diamond were linked more closely to the rest of the world, and so it is possible to speculate that outside forces contributed to their decay and demise. But the Easter Islanders seemed to have clearly done it all by themselves. Diamond poses the question of how and why "In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism."

As this extended except from Diamond points out, initially Easter Island had a lot going for it.

Its subtropical location and latitude - at 27 degrees south, it is approximately as far below the equator as Houston is north of it - help give it a rather mild climate, while its volcanic origins make its soil fertile. In theory, this combination of blessings should have made Easter a miniature paradise, remote from problems that beset the rest of the world.
. . .
The earliest radiocarbon dates associated with human activities are around A.D. 400 to 700, in reasonable agreement with the approximate settlement date of 400 estimated by linguists. The period of statue construction peaked around 1200 to 1500, with few if any statues erected thereafter. Densities of archeological sites suggest a large population; an estimate of 7,000 people is widely quoted by archeologists, but other estimates range up to 20,000, which does not seem implausible for an island of Easter's area and fertility.
. . .
For at least 30,000 years before human arrival and during the early years of Polynesian settlement, Easter was not a wasteland at all. Instead, a subtropical forest of trees and woody bushes towered over a ground layer of shrubs, herbs, ferns, and grasses. . . . The most common tree in the forest was a species of palm now absent on Easter but formerly so abundant that the bottom strata of the sediment column were packed with its pollen. The Easter Island palm was closely related to the still-surviving Chilean wine palm, which grows up to 82 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. The tall, unbranched trunks of the Easter Island palm would have been ideal for transporting and erecting statues and constructing large canoes. The palm would also have been a valuable food source, since its Chilean relative yields edible nuts as well as sap from which Chileans make sugar, syrup, honey, and wine.
. . .
Among the prodigious numbers of seabirds that bred on Easter were albatross, boobies, frigate birds, fulmars, petrels, prions, shearwaters, storm petrels, terns, and tropic birds. With at least 25 nesting species, Easter was the richest seabird breeding site in Polynesia and probably in the whole Pacific.
. . .
Such evidence lets us imagine the island onto which Easter's first Polynesian colonists stepped ashore some 1,600 years ago, after a long canoe voyage from eastern Polynesia.
. . .
The first Polynesian colonists found themselves on an island with fertile soil, abundant food, bountiful building materials, ample lebensraum, and all the prerequisites for comfortable living. They prospered and multiplied.

But the inhabitants then set about creating a lifestyle that slowly but surely destroyed the very environment around them.

Eventually Easter's growing population was cutting the forest more rapidly than the forest was regenerating. The people used the land for gardens and the wood for fuel, canoes, and houses - and, of course, for lugging statues. As forest disappeared, the islanders ran out of timber and rope to transport and erect their statues. Life became more uncomfortable - springs and streams dried up, and wood was no longer available for fires.
. . .
By the time the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived there on Easter day in 1722 (thus giving the island its modern name) his first impression was not of a paradise but of a wasteland. What he saw was grassland without any trees or bushes over ten feet in height.

This is the description of the island given by Roggeveen:

"We originally, from a further distance, have considered the said Easter Island as sandy; the reason for that is this, that we counted as sand the withered grass, hay, or other scorched and burnt vegetation, because its wasted appearance could give no other impression than of a singular poverty and barrenness."

When scientists catalogued life on the island, they found the range of flora and fauna a shadow of its former rich variety and abundance.

Modern botanists have identified only 47 species of higher plants native to Easter, most of them grasses, sedges, and ferns. The list includes just two species of small trees and two of woody shrubs. With such flora, the islanders Roggeveen encountered had no source of real firewood to warm themselves during Easter's cool, wet, windy winters. Their native animals included nothing larger than insects, not even a single species of native bat, land bird, land snail, or lizard. For domestic animals, they had only chickens.

In another extended except, Jared Diamond poses the key questions, provides the answers, and lays out their chilling significance.

As we try to imagine the decline of Easter's civilization, we ask ourselves, "Why didn't they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?"

I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn't simply disappear one day - it vanished slowly, over decades. Perhaps war interrupted the moving teams; perhaps by the time the carvers had finished their work, the last rope snapped. In the meantime, any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs, whose jobs depended on continued deforestation. Our Pacific Northwest loggers are only the latest in a long line of loggers to cry, "Jobs over trees!" The changes in forest cover from year to year would have been hard to detect: yes, this year we cleared those woods over there, but trees are starting to grow back again on this abandoned garden site here. Only older people, recollecting their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents' tales than my eight-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife's and my tales of what Los Angeles was like 30 years ago.

Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm.

By now the meaning of Easter Island for us should be chillingly obvious. Easter Island is Earth writ small. Today, again, a rising population confronts shrinking resources. We too have no emigration valve, because all human societies are linked by international transport, and we can no more escape into space than the Easter Islanders could flee into the ocean. If we continue to follow our present course, we shall have exhausted the world's major fisheries, tropical rain forests, fossil fuels, and much of our soil by the time my sons reach my current age. (my italics)

Every day newspapers report details of famished countries - Afghanistan, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Zaire - where soldiers have appropriated the wealth or where central government is yielding to local gangs of thugs. With the risk of nuclear war receding, the threat of our ending with a bang no longer has a chance of galvanizing us to halt our course. Our risk now is of winding down, slowly, in a whimper. Corrective action is blocked by vested interests, by well-intentioned political and business leaders, and by their electorates, all of whom are perfectly correct in not noticing big changes from year to year. Instead, each year there are just somewhat more people, and somewhat fewer resources, on Earth.

It would be easy to close our eyes or to give up in despair. If mere thousands of Easter Islanders with only stone tools and their own muscle power sufficed to destroy their society, how can billions of people with metal tools and machine power fail to do worse? But there is one crucial difference. The Easter Islanders had no books and no histories of other doomed societies. Unlike the Easter Islanders, we have histories of the past - information that can save us. My main hope for my sons' generation is that we may now choose to learn from the fates of societies like Easter's.

It was this story that alarmed me personally and made me realize that we cannot assume that collective self-interest alone will result in environmental problems being recognized and addressed. We need to take global warming seriously, even if we are not 100% certain that it is on an irreversible course. Unlike the people of Easter Island, we have knowledge of the past. We have the ability, via science, to understand the environmental problems facing us. We have the technology to solve the problems.

The only remaining unanswered question is whether we have the will to take the requisite steps. Or, like the Easter Islanders, whether we will drive ourselves, literally and metaphorically, into near oblivion.

August 04, 2006

Global warming-8: The danger of complacency

The documentary An Inconvenient Truth provides a good introduction to the problem of global warming. The film has three interwoven threads: (1) a documentary showing a slide-show talk that former Vice-President Al Gore gives around the world on the facts of global warming, mixed with film footage of the impact of warming on the environment; (2) the story of Gore's own interest in this topic; and (3) some self-promotion by Gore.

While I could have done without the last and was not particularly interested in the second, the first part was done very well. It captured most of the state of the science accurately and presented it in a visually captivating way. The film is sobering and well worth seeing to get an introduction to the science behind the problem and a sense of the gravity of the situation we are facing.

The August 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine has an interview with scientist James Hansen, of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Scientists and a leading expert on global warming. He was referred to as the Paul Revere of global warming because of his very early alarm sounding, and was the scientist whom the Bush administration tried to gag.

Hansen has been relentless in trying to get people to care about what is happening to the planet. In 1981, Hansen and his colleagues were the first to introduce the term "global warming" in the scientific context in an article in the journal Science. Hansen's lab monitors 10,000 temperature gauges around the world to get the average temperature and this value has been steadily rising. He says that further warming of more than one degree Celsius "will make the Earth warmer than it has been in a million years."

He says that we have a decade, maybe two, to do something before we reach the tipping point where irreversible changes set in and we are consigned to a world vastly different from the one we are used to. He says that we have to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions within the next decade and cannot wait for new technologies like capturing emissions from burning coal. He says that we have to focus on energy efficiency and renewable sources and move away from carbon burning.

I had already been convinced for a few years that global warming was real and serious. But although I was concerned about the problem, I was not alarmed. I felt that since it was a serious problem, and one that affected everyone, political leaders would have no choice but to eventually address it. Although individual political leaders like George W. Bush or the Australian Prime Minister John Howard might choose to ignore the scientific consensus and do nothing that might harm the financial interests of their political supporters, I felt that eventually public alarm about their deteriorating environment would be so great that pressure would be brought on political leaders, whoever they were and whatever their own inclinations, that they would have no choice but to take appropriate action.

I was basically putting my faith in people taking action when a serious threat to their own lives was created. Simple self-preservation, and the desire to leave the world a better place for one's children and grandchildren and generations to come, were such strong emotions that I was sure they would reflexively kick in when people realized that the planet was being threatened, and they would do whatever it takes to address the problem.

I now realize that I was far too naïve. I think that my complacent attitude (which I suspect is not uncommon) is totally mistaken.

Like many things, what caused me to change was something that was seemingly tangential. I attended Jared Diamond's excellent talk at Case last year where he spoke about the ideas in his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. He spoke of past civilizations (some great ones) that allowed their societies to be destroyed by not taking actions to halt the processes that destroyed them. He gave examples from Montana, Pitcairn Island, the Anasazi, the Mayans, Norse Greenland, Rwanda, and Haiti

The entire populations of these past and present communities seemingly did nothing as they destroyed their own environments. Even when the signs of decay and impending catastrophe had reached levels that seem, at least to us now, staggeringly obvious, they still did nothing, continuing to pursue short-term benefits at the expense of long-term protection of the very environment that sustained them and had allowed them to prosper.

Looking at them now, we wonder how the people and leaders of those societies could have been so blind to the fate that was so slowly but surely engulfing them and how stupid to not see the warning signs. Listening to his talk, I realized that I should not be so sanguine that people are any wiser now, and think that they will recognize and address problems that directly affect them. Self-delusion seems to be a hazard that afflicts entire societies.

Of all the examples that Diamond gave, the one that was most poignant and gripped my imagination was the case of Easter Island. For most people, the big mystery and romance associated with the island lies with its famous statues. Diamond describes them:

Easter Island's most famous feature is its huge stone statues, more than 200 of which once stood on massive stone platforms lining the coast. At least 700 more, in all stages of completion, were abandoned in quarries or on ancient roads between the quarries and the coast, as if the carvers and moving crews had thrown down their tools and walked off the job. Most of the erected statues were carved in a single quarry and then somehow transported as far as six miles - despite heights as great as 33 feet and weights up to 82 tons. The abandoned statues, meanwhile, were as much as 65 feet tall and weighed up to 270 tons. The stone platforms were equally gigantic: up to 500 feet long and 10 feet high, with facing slabs weighing up to 10 tons.

The number, size, and quality of the statues seemed to indicate that there existed, at least at one time, a fairly large population that had the tools and resources and ingenuity to create them. And yet, travelers who arrived at the Island in the 18th century found quite a different situation, and that created a puzzle.

[T]he islanders had no wheels, no draft animals, and no source of power except their own muscles. How did they transport the giant statues for miles, even before erecting them? To deepen the mystery, the statues were still standing in 1770, but by 1864 all of them had been pulled down, by the islanders themselves. Why then did they carve them in the first place? And why did they stop?

The puzzle of the statues is just one of the many that involve the island. Unraveling them has resulted in a chilling story of how an isolated community managed to destroy its own environment.

Next: The demise of Easter Island

POST SCRIPT: The Simpsons

For all of us fans of the show, here is a live action version of the opening sequence. (Thanks to the editor of MachinesLikeUS.com for the link.)

Which just proves my contention that we all benefit from the fact that there are a huge number of talented people out there in internetland with way too much time on their hands.

August 03, 2006

Intelligent Design Creationism movement loses support in Kansas

Back in November 2005, a 6-4 majority of Republicans on the Kansas State Board of Education inserted pro-IDC language into the state's science standards, going so far as to even write a definition of science to include supernatural explanations for phenomena. (For some background, I wrote earlier about this when I was asked to testify at hearings in Kansas in May 2005 that were being boycotted by the scientific community.)

The standards state that high school students must understand major evolutionary concepts. But they also declare that some concepts have been challenged in recent years by fossil evidence and molecular biology.

The challenged concepts cited include the basic Darwinian theory that all life had a common origin and the theory that natural chemical processes created the building blocks of life.

In addition, the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.

But yesterday, that policy received a setback in primary elections when two seats of that six-person majority group went to Republicans who opposed what their party colleagues had done.

Moderate Republicans scored key primary victories in State Board of education races, wrestling control from conservatives in a battle shaped by the debate over the teaching of evolution.

Conservative Republicans began Tuesday with a 6-4 board majority. However, one of their incumbents lost, and a pro-evolution moderate won the GOP nomination for a seat held by a retiring conservative.

The results left only four board members who voted last year to adopt science standards that questioned the validity of evolutionary theory.

In one of the most watched races on the ballot, Sally Cauble, of Liberal, defeated anti-evolution incumbent Connie Morris, of St. Francis. With 99 percent of the precincts reporting early Wednesday, Cauble held a 54 percent to 46 percent lead in the 5th District, which covers 41 western counties.

Morris, a former teacher, has described evolution as "an age-old fairy tale" and "a nice bedtime story" unsupported by science. She also had drawn criticism for her outspokenness on teaching children of immigrants and sex education. [For more on the colorful Morris, see here.]

Pro-evolution candidate Jana Shaver, an Independence Republican, defeated conservative Brad Patzer of Neodesha, who supported the new standards. Patzer is the son-in-law of incumbent Iris Van Meter, of Thayer, who is not seeking re-election. Shaver won 58 percent of the vote, to 42 percent for Patzer.

Two other conservatives fared better, but face challenges in November, where victories by Democrats could leave the conservative bloc with just two members.

This is the latest domino that has fallen since the Dover, PA court decision, driving the IDC forces back even more. I wrote about these Dover dominoes back in May 2006.

I had thought that the Kansas issue would also end up in the courts. But it seems like the voters have decided to pull the plug first. If the new board in November reverses itself and removes the pro-IDC language, then the people of Kansas will have saved themselves a long and probably losing court battle. I am not sure what the IDC forces will do now. One of their chief architects, law Professor Phillip Johnson of Berkeley, in an interview given after the Dover decision, sounded discouraged:

"I think the fat lady has sung for any efforts to change the approach in the public schools. . .the courts are just not going to allow it. They never have. The efforts to change things in the public schools generate more powerful opposition than accomplish anything. . .I don't think that means the end of the issue at all." "In some respects," he later goes on, "I'm almost relieved, and glad. I think the issue is properly settled. It's clear to me now that the public schools are not going to change their line in my lifetime."

It is clear that he thinks the battle had a better chance of being won in the court of public opinion, rather than in the courts of law. But the Kansas primary results are an ominous sign that the tide may be turning there too.

POST SCRIPT: The terrorists have won

The congressional cafeterias on Capitol Hill have quietly gone back to calling them "French fries" and "French toast." Those congressional superpatriots who felt that they had struck a decisive blow against Islamojihadifascistiterrorism by renaming them "Freedom fries" and "freedom toast" were strangely unavailable to comment on why they had made such a major retreat.

August 02, 2006

Global warming-7: The current status of the scientific consensus

So what is the scientific consensus about the answers to the key questions concerning global warming?

The British magazine New Scientist gives a review of the state of affairs concerning climate change, along with a handy summary sheet of the main points, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (thanks to Brian Gray of the Kelvin Smith Library who runs the blog e3 Information Overload for the link) provides more detailed information. Here are some tentative answers to the five key questions I raised in a previous post.

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

Here we have to distinguish between the more recent period (starting in 1861) when we have direct measurements of temperature and the prior periods, for which we have to infer temperatures using proxy measures such as using tree rings or bubbles trapped in ice cores that date back 750,000 years.

For the recent past, the IPCC report says that "The global average surface temperature has increased by 0.6 ± 0.2°C since the late 19th century".

For the period prior to that, the report says "It is likely that the rate and duration of the warming of the 20th century is larger than any other time during the last 1,000 years. The 1990s are likely to have been the warmest decade of the millennium in the Northern Hemisphere, and 1998 is likely to have been the warmest year."

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?

Some skeptics have pointed to relative warm periods associated with the 11th to 14th centuries, and relative cool periods associated with the 15th to 19th centuries in the Northern Hemisphere as evidence that the kinds of warm temperatures we have witnessed recently are part of global cyclical patterns. However the IPCC reports says that "evidence does not support these “Medieval Warm Period” and “Little Ice Age” periods, respectively, as being globally synchronous." In other words, these were likely regional phenomena.

If we go back even further the report says that "It is likely that large rapid decadal temperature changes occurred during the last glacial and its deglaciation (between about 100,000 and 10,000 years ago), particularly in high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. In a few places during the deglaciation, local increases in temperature of 5 to 10°C are likely to have occurred over periods as short as a few decades. During the last 10,000 years, there is emerging evidence of significant rapid regional temperature changes, which are part of the natural variability of climate."

So while rapid localized changes in temperature have occurred, there is little evidence that these were global in scope.

But there are also suggestions that temperature swings in the past may have been greater than originally thought.

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)?

The answer to these important questions, of course, depend on projections for the future which in turn depend on what actions are taken. The IPCC report outlines possible scenarios here. But some things, such as the reductions in the polar ice caps and snow cover generally are already visible.

One of the most dramatic consequences of snow and glacier melting is a rise in sea levels. It is estimated that a 30 cm (one foot) rise in sea levels results in shorelines receding by 30 meters. Some recent studies suggest that the IPCC report estimates of possible rise in sea levels were low, and more recent estimates are that sea levels could rise by six feet, which would result in massive flooding of highly populated areas the world over. Again, there is limited data so these are still rough estimates. But to my mind, the state of the large ice and snow areas (the polar caps, Greenland, glaciers, and mountain tops) are things that we should watch carefully, and the signs there are not good.

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

The IPCC report points out that "The basic understanding of the energy balance of the Earth system means that quite simple models can provide a broad quantitative estimate of some globally averaged variables." But only numerical models can provide the kinds of detailed quantitative projections into the future that we need in order to make informed decisions. "The complexity of the processes in the climate system prevents the use of extrapolation of past trends or statistical and other purely empirical techniques for projections." In other words, just having data about the past is insufficient to project to the future. We also need computer models based on the science and mathematics of climate change. "Climate models can be used to simulate the climate responses to different input scenarios of future forcing agents. . .Similarly, projection of the fate of emitted CO2. . .and other greenhouse gases requires an understanding of the biogeochemical processes involved and incorporating these into a numerical carbon cycle model." (For details on how the computer models used to predict future trends in climate work, see here.)

The IPCC report concludes that "In general, [the computer models] provide credible simulations of climate, at least down to sub-continental scales and over temporal scales from seasonal to decadal. Coupled models, as a class, are considered to be suitable tools to provide useful projections of future climates."

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

Several of the greenhouse gases that influence global temperatures, referred to as "climate forcing agents" (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) have recently shown dramatic increases in concentrations in the atmosphere. This graph is perhaps the one that alarms me the most.

figts-8.gif

These sharp increases in greenhouse gas concentrations are clearly correlated with rapid increases in the rate of industrialization and energy consumption within the two last centuries. It seems to me that while individual changes in behavior (such as using less stuff and reusing and recycling more) are important, they must be accompanied by concerted international governmental actions to reverse the trends.

We have a precedent for this kind of concerted international action to solve an important environmental problem. Recall the recent time when there was concern that the ozone layer was being damaged by the extensive use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). International action led to the complete ban on its use worldwide. Now there is some good news.

While ozone degradation continues despite global bans on ozone-depleting pollutants imposed more than a decade ago, the rate has slowed markedly enough in one layer of the atmosphere that scientists believe ozone could start to be replenished there within several years.

"There is compelling evidence that we are seeing the very first stages of ozone recovery in the upper atmosphere," said Michael Newchurch, an atmospheric chemist with the National Space Science and Technology Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Evidence suggests that international efforts to reduce chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) pollution are working.

Of course, greenhouse gases are produced by a much more extensive and powerful group of industries than those producing ozone depleting ones, and require greater changes in our own lifestyles. So achieving international cooperation on this will not be easy, as the difficulties implementing the Kyoto treaty suggests. That treaty committed industrialized nations to commit to reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases within the next decade to a level of about 5% below their 1990 levels. Although the US produces about 36% of the world's output of greenhouse gases (the largest single producer), George W. Bush said in 2001 that the US would not sign the treaty.

Next: The danger of complacency

POST SCRIPT: And sure enough, right on cue. . .

Just last week, I said that the lack of public understanding that climate questions such as global warming only deal with averages over long times and large areas inevitably lead to people drawing the wrong conclusions from short term fluctuations.

Sure enough, yesterday's Plain Dealer has the following letter to the editor:

We constantly are subjected to news about the coming devastating effects of global warming, which includes the recent story on how it is going to dramatically change Lake Erie and its shoreline. So it's a bit perplexing to me to see in my most recent FirstEnergy electric bill that during my past 30-day billing cycle, the average temperature in Cleveland was 69 degrees, versus 72 degrees last year. Now, if we are to believe the global-warming doomsayers, a three-degree swing in temperature is cataclysmic. So when will The Plain Dealer begin printing articles about how Cleveland is at risk of entering an ice age if we don't change our behavior?

Why does the Plain Dealer even print such nonsense? Either they know it is flat out wrong, which means they are deliberately propagating erroneous information, or even the editors don't know the basics about climate. I don't know which is more disturbing.

August 01, 2006

Global warming-6: The public and the paradigm

In the previous post, I discussed how after a paradigm is adopted, scientists tend to communicate only with each other. They are now 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. This results in them developing a more technical, insider language and jargon that is opaque to nonscientists, and the technical paper addressed to similarly trained scientists and published in specialized journals becomes the chief means of communication.

But while this rapidly speeds up the pace of scientific progress, the general public gets left behind and unable to comprehend the language of the scientists. This can result in a disconnect arising between what the public knows and understands about the topics that scientists are investigating. Communicating with the general public and explaining the science to them in laymen's terms now becomes delegated to a new class of people, the popularizers of science, who are either journalists or scientists (like Carl Sagan) who have chosen to play that role. In scientific quarters, such people are in danger of not being considered 'real' scientists, the sole yardstick by which to identify the latter being the publication of technical papers in technical journals.

But these popularizers play a valuable role as translators, by taking the papers that are written in esoteric and mathematical language and published in technical journals, and making at least the results intelligible to lay people, even if the complex science and mathematics that lead to those results remain incomprehensible.

Eventually, the general public becomes used to the ideas underlying scientific paradigms and goes along with them. For example, no nonscientist today really questions the scientific paradigm that the Earth revolves around the Sun, even though their senses argue the opposite. People have just accepted that piece of scientific knowledge as a fact. Similarly, no one contests the paradigm that there exist positive and negative electric charges and that electric current consists of the flow of these charges, even though they cannot see it and really have no reason to believe it. People also do not question the fact that continents move, even though that idea is really, on the surface, quite preposterous and it is quite amazing that people nowadays accept it without question.

This just shows that eventually people will believe anything if they are told it over and over again by authority figures. In this case, they have been told something by scientists, who have based their assertions on data and evidence. But data and evidence are not necessary to achieve these ends. Religions get the same result simply by repeatedly telling people myths that have no basis.

But it does take some time for the general public to come to terms with the scientific consensus and during that transition there can be tensions, especially if the scientific paradigm goes counter to strong beliefs based on non-scientific sources. For example, the initial reaction to Darwinian ideas was negative as the mutability of species is not something readily seen in everyday life, and the idea that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor is anathema to those who see human beings as special creations of god. In the rest of the world, the scientific paradigm in biology that is called the neo-Darwinian synthesis was eventually largely accepted, but this is not the case in the US where a particular variant of Christianity-based thinking challenges the very premise of that paradigm.

The global warming paradigm is in its infancy, barely a decade old, and one should not be surprised that it encounters considerable resistance. Just a couple of decades ago, global warming was only slightly better than a conjecture. The coalescing of scientists around the consensus view has only occurred very recently so one should not be surprised that the general public is still lagging behind. This lag-time had little consequence when it came to ideas such a planetary motion or evolution or continental drift, since nothing could be done about those phenomena and there were no adverse consequences associated with whether the public accepted them or not. But getting the public on board quickly on the global warming issue is important because it is only action by them that can solve the problem. Scientists can study the problem and suggest how it can be fixed but it is only mass action that can produce changes.

The global warming paradigm is being resisted by some not because of strong pre-existing beliefs (who really knew or cared about the average temperature of the planet before this became a topic of conversation?) but because it goes counter to the economic interests of some powerful groups, notably the energy, automobile, and other greenhouse gas producing industries. They are well aware of the power of public opinion on this issue and they have attempted to try and argue that there is a scientific controversy in order to forestall any government action that might have a negative impact of their financial interests.

We have seen before these kinds of attempts to create in the public's mind the idea that scientists have strong disagreements on an issue and that therefore no action should be taken until further studies are done to 'resolve' the outstanding questions. This strategy is similar to what the tobacco industry tried to do with the health hazards of smoking. There too the paradigm that smoking is responsible for a whole variety of health problems took some time to be accepted and it took repeated litigation and legal losses by the tobacco industry to show the fraudulence of their claims that there was a scientific controversy about whether smoking caused cancer and other diseases. Their attempts to deny that scientific consensus eventually failed and hardly anyone anymore questions that smoking causes cancer, emphysema, and a host of other diseases.

We have also seen such an attempt at creating a fictitious scientific controversy in the case of evolution. This attempt has been more successful, partly because the fundamentalist religious mindset in much of America makes people predisposed to wanting to believe that evolution is not a fact.

In both smoking and evolution, the courts have played a major role in the discussions, The attempts by the industries to challenge the scientific consensus on global warming may not end up in courts because the impact is not on individuals or in the short term but on the long-term health of the planet as a whole. So it is not clear who has the legal standing to sue governments and industries to do something about the problem.

Hence the debate is going to have to be fought in the public and political arena and that is why is so important that the general public understand the science behind it.

Next: The current status of scientific knowledge on global warming.

POST SCRIPT: Ohio Board of Education, district seven

Many members of the Ohio's state Board of Education are elected. District Seven (comprising Summit, Portage, Ashtabula and Trumbull Counties) is currently represented by Deborah Owens Fink, one of the most ardent advocates of inserting intelligent design creationism into Ohio's science standards and curriculum. She is being challenged by Dave Kovacs who opposes her on this issue.

I have been asked to help publicize Kovacs' challenge. I don't know anything about him other than what is on his campaign website so this is not an endorsement. All I know, from my past experience with Ohio's science standards advisory board, is that Owens Fink has been a very negative influence on the Board.

Those who live in that region and care about this issue might want to look more closely into this contest.