Entries for March 2007

March 30, 2007

"Bong hits 4 Jesus"

The US Supreme Court heard arguments last week in the case where a high school student was suspended by the principal for unfurling a 15 ft banner that said "Bong hits 4 Jesus." (The transcripts of the oral arguments can be seen here.)

In 2002, the student (Joseph Frederick) had revealed his banner on a public street in Juneau, Alaska during a parade where the torch for the winter Olympics was being carried, and the school had allowed students out to watch the parade. The student involved had wanted to get on the TV news programs covering the parade and had decided that this phrase would do the trick in drawing attention to him.

I must congratulate the student on showing remarkably accurate judgment on what local TV news finds newsworthy. The phrase he used is inane and meaningless but had the right combination of concepts (drugs and Jesus) put into a snappy sound bite that is fun to say and very memorable, making it perfect for TV news. Say "Bong hits 4 Jesus" and you will see what I mean.

(There are some words that are funny just because of the way they sound and "bong" is one of them. It reminds me of a Monty Python joke where one person asks another "What is yellow and sounds like a bell?" The respondent says "I don't know. What?" And the first person says "Dung." The whole joke depends upon the person drawing out the 'ng' sound of "Dung" like it was a church bell.)

The case is being tried as a free speech issue. The school principal (Deborah Morse) defends her action as being an appropriate response to a student who was advocating an action (drug use ) that is against the law and school policy. The student (who has now got publicity that must have exceeded his wildest dreams) is defending his action on free speech grounds.

I don't want to get into that argument but instead focus on a different issue and that is the need for teachers to have a sense of humor when it comes to dealing with students. One of the enjoyable things about teaching students is that many have a sense of fun. Sometimes it is silly, sometimes clever, and sometimes irreverent. Almost always it is harmless and not meant to humiliate the teacher or bring the institution into disrepute. Very often the students may not have completely thought through the consequences of their humor or considered how it might look from a different perspective. Teachers need to be aware of this and be able to see the silliness for what it is, laugh it off, not take offense so easily, and even use such incidents as teaching moments.

But apart from the apparent lack of humor on the part of the principal, there is also another aspect of this case that has intrigued me. Why had the principal taken such strong offense and gone to the (to me) extreme step of ordering the banner be taken down and suspending the student? I suspect that the real trigger was not the stated one that the phrase was advocating illegal drug use (which strikes me as a bit of a stretch) but that the principal was offended at the suggestion that Jesus was being called a pothead, and thus Frederick was making fun of Christianity. If the sign had said "Bong hits 4 Joe" I do not think it would have caused anywhere near the ruckus. It probably would also not have got the student on TV because the meaninglessness of the phrase would have been apparent.

Inserting the name Jesus was the real cleverness on the student's part, showing that he has a shrewd instinct for how to push people's buttons.

POST SCRIPT: Kucinich on Iraq occupation and Iran clouds

US congressman and Case alumnus Dennis Kucinich will be speaking "Iraq and Iran: The Way Forward", followed by Professor Pete Moore of the Political Science department. Professor and chair of History Jonathan Sadowsky will moderate as well as give some introductory remarks.

The talks are promised to be brief leaving a lot of time (50 minutes) for questions and discussion.

When: Tuesday, April 3 at 4:00pm
Where: Strosacker Auditorium

The event is sponsored by Case for Peace, and co-sponsored by the Center for Policy Studies of the Department of Political Science.

The event is free and open to the public.

March 29, 2007

God in the supermarket

Long time readers of this blog will recall the famous banana argument for the existence of god put forward by an evangelist named Ray Comfort, accompanied actor by Kirk Cameron. The design of the banana is so exquisite, he said, that it could not have evolved according to Darwinian natural selection. He asserted that the existence of the banana was the 'atheist's nightmare.' (This clip has to be seen to be believed. Move the cursor to the 3:25 minute mark to get to the good stuff.)

Well, another 'atheist's nightmare' has surfaced, this time to show why life could not have originated naturally by the action of energy on inorganic matter. The evidence? To appreciate it, you have to move from the fresh fruit section a few aisles over to where the peanut butter is.

(Thanks to MachinesLikeUs.)

Oddly enough, the argument used in this video is the very same 'absence of evidence is evidence of absence' argument that I wrote about before, but used incorrectly. There is so much wrong in how this reasoning is used here that one scarcely knows where to begin.

But what I would like to warn the person in the video who is making the case based on peanut is that this kind of argument can be fatal, not for atheists (unless they get a heart attack and die from laughing), but for religious beliefs, because it falls into the trap of ad hoc thinking which can be so easily demolished.

From back when religious believers realized that they could not assume that the idea of god was obviously true and needed some supporting evidence, they have cast around for things that they thought 'proved' some religious idea. Initially they have sought to provide evidence of things that could not have occurred except for the action of god.

First it was "Look, the human being! It is so perfect that it has to have been created in the image of god." Then later it was "Look, the eye! It's so perfect it cannot have evolved!" And when that fell apart, it was intelligent design creationism with its more sophisticated "Look, the bacterial flagellum!" Now it is degenerating to "Look, the banana!" and even "Look, its Skippy extra smooth peanut butter!"

The flaw is that the proposers of these ideas never seem to explore the implications of their ideas and this is where they differ fundamentally from the scientific approach. All scientists realize that any idea to explain anything has consequences that extend well beyond the thing being immediately explained, and that these consequences must be investigated.

Charles Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection is quite simple and the main argument can be stated in a few hundred words. But his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species consists of nearly 500 pages where he carefully explores a huge number of the possible consequences of that idea, looking both for corroborating evidence and for weaknesses in his theory. He examines animals, birds, insects, fish, and plants from all over the world, looking for patterns. It is an exhaustive and encyclopedic effort, of which I will write more later.

The person making the peanut butter argument has obviously not thought things through. If he thinks that finding an organism in a peanut butter jar or in any other processed food item is evidence of how life originated without god, then he has lost the case because I think almost everyone has at some time bought some item of food that seemed to be 'spoilt', i.e., contaminated by some bacteria. We put this down to a fault in the manufacturing process. It is not unknown for foreign matter to creep into food products, and court cases resulting from such events are legion. But for this person, such an event would be a sign of life being created by the action of energy on matter, without the need for god.

I wish it were that easy to show how life originally came into being. Then all scientists would have to do is fan out into the world's supermarkets and systematically examine each jar of processed food to see if any living organism is found. But instead scientists continue to do it the hard way, in the laboratories, under controlled conditions.

POST SCRIPT: Evolution in cartoons

Here's a quick summary of Darwin's ideas from The Simpsons.

And while we're at it, here's a compilation of religion related clips from The Family Guy.

And here's another clip from The Simpsons.

March 28, 2007

The US attorney purge reveals demonstrates the power of blogs

As a blogger, I have been curious about the evolving role of blogs in public discourse, especially with regard to politics. Its role in broadening the range of perspectives and analysis that is available is quite obvious. Readers are no longer limited to the stale and vapid choices of the editorial page editors of their newspapers for commentary. But what about the role of blogs in actual reporting? Do they add anything there?

The flap over the firing of US attorneys has revealed the special role that blogs can play in creating actual news. Although the mainstream media have only brought the story into public consciousness the last two weeks, those of us who read blogs, especially Talking Points Memo (TPM), have known that this was brewing for a long time.

Josh Marshall, founder of TPM, back in December first flagged the fact that the US attorney in Arkansas had been fired and replaced by a Karl Rove crony, and he suspected that political patronage was at play. Then on January 13, 2007 he noted the firing of Carol Lam, the US attorney in California who had successfully prosecuted and sent to jail Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham for bribery, and was in the middle of prosecuting another lobbyist/briber Brent Wilkes and was investigating the role of the former number two person at the CIA Kyle "Dusty" Foggo.

It turned out that other attorneys around the country were being similarly fired around the same time but since each event was considered local news it did not garner attention outside each region. But Marshall's readers, alerted by his posts in these two cases, sent in information about local firings from all over, making it clear that there was a pattern. TPM thus became a kind of clearing house for information on this story.

Although these firings looked suspicious, the story was not picked up by the major news outlets. In fact the mainstream media actually dismissed this as conspiracy theorizing. Jay Carney who is the Washington bureau chief of Time magazine initially dismissed the charges coming from TPM that there was a coordinated plan to fire US attorneys and replace them with appointees who did not have to undergo Senate confirmation. It was only on March 13, 2007 that he acknowledged that there was a major story that had been unfolding right under their noses.

But what is interesting about the story is that it shows the strength of the blogs, which can unleash the power of thousands of passionate individuals to go out and do some research. While each person has a day job and can do little, the collective result can be quite significant. We saw this happen before in somewhat less significant stories like the Kaloogian photo episode and the Ben Domenech plagiarism expose. In both those cases, swarms of amateur investigators built on one another's information to rapidly expose the truth.

These volunteers are not trained journalists and thus may miss some things or get things wrong, but they have other advantages. For one, there exist a large number of them. Since they are around the world in different time zones, you have effectively a 24/7 news analysis operation going on. They also have a passion for the issues (often aided by a partisan mindset) and are willing to expend the time to dig up information and not care about getting any recognition or credit. They constitute a new breed of citizen-journalists.

I have written before that the notion of an unbiased, non-partisan reporter is a myth. The best journalism is done by passionate but reality-based people and as long as you have a multiplicity of people pursuing stories from a variety of perspectives, we are more likely to get at the truth, or at least useful information. For each TPM reader anxious to find some nugget of information that is harmful to Alberto Gonzalez, there are others who are equally anxious to find exculpatory evidence. That leaves things as it should be, with the evidence out in the open for us to judge and the professional investigators to pore over.

Legendary muckraking reporter I. F. Stone pointed out that much of the news is in open view (if you know where and how to look for it) or in publicly available documents (if you have the time and energy to rummage through them). But that information is often buried in voluminous documents. There are only a few ways to cut through that dense brush and get at the few real pieces of news buried. You either need readers who are expert in that area and know where to look, or you need a tip, or you need lots of time. But modern newspapers are cutting back on reporters and thus do not have the ability or the desire to pore over such document dumps. Instead they practice 'access journalism' where they are dependent on sources feeding them information, or they need high-level politicians to be out in front of the story.

Josh Marshall at TPM has tried to find a way to meld the two models. He has a background in traditional journalism and has three full-time reporters who do traditional investigative work like cultivating sources and making calls. But his readers are the ones who give him tips and provide a lot of analyses and insights.

Right now, Josh Marshall has asked his readers to look at the over 3,000 pages of emails that have been released by the Justice Department in several document dumps, and has provided links to them and guidance on what to look for and how to report it. Since his readers have been following the story from back in December, they are much better informed about what is relevant and important than the reporters in the mainstream media who are scrambling to catch up. Given the large number of readers TPM has, this may be the most efficient investigation underway, better than the reporters and the congressional investigative staff. One TPM reader already was the first to note an 18-day gap in the emails in the crucial period November 15-December 4, just before the firings.

Of course, blogs and their readers can never match the full resources that major news outlets can bring to bear to advance the story once it makes it into the spotlight. But blogs and their readers are increasingly able to make sure that important stories do not go unnoticed. And more importantly, they are much more willing to take a publicly skeptical attitude towards what politicians say, because bloggers tend to have stronger relationships with their readers than with politicians, while the opposite is true for the journalists in the mainstream media.

The role of TPM in breaking this story is now receiving greater attention with an article written in the Los Angeles Times and featured on NPR.

In the new evolving world of internet news, TPM may be providing a model for how to use the distributed power of readers to create actual news.

POST SCRIPT: Richard Dawkins interview on BBC

Another good interview of Dawkins. It is interesting how these interviews grapple with serious questions, with the interviewers asking probing and challenging questions with little of the shouting or the 'gotcha' style. As a result, one can really learn something from them.

March 27, 2007

Scientific proof of god's non-existence

There were a couple of interesting (anonymous) comments in response to my post on what constitute rational and irrational beliefs. The writer said that I was overstepping the line that divided science from philosophy when I argued that religious beliefs were irrational. The arguments took a familiar form and went something like this:

1. We cannot prove that god does not exist.
2. Hence it is rational to believe that god exists.
3. Scientists should stick to the world of data and not venture to question god's existence since that enters the realm of philosophy, not science. The author states that if a scientist is asked: 'In your scientific opinion, does God exist?' the proper answer should always be, 'I don't know. I don't have any data on the subject.'

I will readily concede the first point, and in fact have done so previously (See here, here, and here.)

But the other two statements do not follow from the first. Just because we cannot prove, using data, the negation of some entity does not mean that it is reasonable to believe in that entity. Scientists constantly make judgments in the absence of data and act on those judgments. In fact, it is essential that they do so, as science could not proceed otherwise.

The only time that you can prove a negative is if you have the ability to do an exhaustive examination of every possible situation. As an example, I can prove to everyone's satisfaction that no unicorns exist in my office because I can search every nook and cranny and show that none are there. But I cannot similarly prove that no unicorns exist anywhere on the Earth or elsewhere in the universe.

I also cannot prove the non-existence of magic unicorns in my office, that only materialize when I am not present and are capable of hiding all evidence of their visits before they disappear again. It seems to me that arguments for the existence of god are of this nature.

But there is another point about the word 'proof' that needs to be emphasized. When scientists use the word 'proof' they use it in a slightly differently way from the way mathematicians use it. In mathematics, a proof is a construct based on an agreed set of axioms and rules of logic. If someone challenges the validity of any of the axioms or one of the rules, then the proof is also called into question. But since the axioms are usually few in number and do not necessarily have to be based on data, mathematicians can agree on the validity of more things as working hypotheses than scientists can.

Scientific 'proofs' do not have the same level of rigor as a mathematical proofs because the axioms themselves are not simply assumptions but are also expected to justified based on evidence. Also there are far more explicit assumptions that go into scientific conclusions than go into mathematical proofs, thus opening them up to far more challenges. This greater degree of challenge that scientific assumptions receive makes scientific 'proofs' different from mathematical proofs. So although I and other scientists use the word proof frequently, we do understand that it is being used in a slightly different sense than a mathematical proof. The word proof is used to signify a reasoned judgment based on the merits of the evidence.

But just because scientific proofs do not have the same status as mathematical proofs does not mean that scientific conclusions cannot be extremely robust. Let me give an example. Most people readily accept that there are just two kinds of electric charge, positive and negative. This is about as well-established a 'fact' as one is likely to find in science. This is one of the most firmly held beliefs in all of science and the entire modern world is constructed on the basis of this two-charge model. No one even thinks of questioning this fact. (Note that 'positive' and 'negative' are just labels and the charges could just as well have been called things like 'green' and 'blue'.)

The interesting question is how it is that we are so certain that there are just two kinds of charges that we base our entire society on it. Do we have certain proof that there are only two kinds of charges? Do we have direct data that no more charges exist? Have we looked everywhere and convinced ourselves of this? The answer to all three questions is no. So how is it that we are so sure that only two kinds of charges exist? It is because of the absence of certain kinds of data.

Here's how that argument works. Suppose you have three charged objects A, B, and C. What scientists find is that if the charges are such that A and B attract each other and A and C attract each other, then it is always found that B and C repel each other. This set of three observations can be explained by (1) postulating that there exist just two kinds of charges, and (2) adopting a rule that says that like charges repel and unlike charges attract. No data has ever been seen that contradicts the consequences of these two assumptions.

Because of the absence of any data that contradicts any predictions based on those two statements , scientists will say that they are extremely confident that there are only two kinds of charges and this is all the 'proof' they need. But note that haven't actually proved it in a mathematical sense. It is just a powerful inference based on the absence of certain kinds of data, but it is sufficient proof to convince scientists.

Notice though that even this 'proof' can be challenged. After all, we have done such experiments with just a few sets of charges. We have not exhaustively repeated them with every single charge that exists in the universe because it would be impossible to do so. As a result, someone can come along and say that scientists are wrong, that there does exist a third kind of charge but that either it has not been found yet or that it does not interfere with the experiments that scientists do. There is no way that scientists can prove this person wrong. How could they? But what they will do is ignore this argument as not worth responding to because that kind of argument has the same standing as magical unicorns in my office or a god who is determined to avoid leaving evidence of his/her existence.

A belief that has no observable consequences is of no use to scientists and they will work on the assumption that this third charge does not exist and that would be perfectly rational behavior. A person who clings to the belief in a mysterious third charge that has no observable consequences will be treated as somewhat eccentric.

Historians and philosophers of science have long pointed out that there is no proposition in science, however idiotic, that cannot be made immune from refutation by the addition of a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses to shield its weaknesses. But if you want to convince scientists that something like a third kind of charge exists, you will have to provide positive evidence, some actual data that cannot be explained by a two-charge theory. For scientists, the absence of such evidence or data is taken as evidence of absence.

It seems to me that the arguments put forward by believers for the existence of god are of the same kind as those that might be put forward for a third charge: It exists but its effects cannot be observed. But just as scientists are perfectly justified in rejecting as irrational that kind of hypothesis when applied to a third charge and confidently proceeding on the basis that it is false, so it is that we can confidently reject the arguments currently given for the existence of god.

So although you may not be able to prove exhaustively that god does not exist, you cannot obtain a stronger scientific proof than what we currently have.

So if someone should ask me 'In your scientific opinion, does God exist?', I would answer 'No' with the same degree of confidence that I would say 'No' to the question as to whether a third type of electric charge exists.

POST SCRIPT: More lists of famous atheists

Some more lists of well-known atheists and agnostics, along with quotations from them justifying their inclusion in these lists, can be found here and here.

Although it should be obvious, I should add that the mere fact that someone famous is an atheist is not being offered as an argument in favor of atheism. Lists of this kind are simply to identify the members of an affinity group. One could do the same thing with lists of vegetarians or Bassett hound owners.

March 26, 2007

Murder at the World Cup

March madness in the cricket-loving world is the World Cup currently being played in the West Indies. But the big story has not been the game itself but the murder of the coach of the Pakistan national team who was found dead in his hotel room the day after the shocking elimination of his team, which failed to qualify for the second round of the tournament.

Initial reports said that 58-year old Bob Woolmer, a diabetic who had once played for England, had died from a heart attack. But authorities started backing way from this and rumors began to swirl of suspicious circumstances, first of suicide, before the authorities said that he had been strangled. There was no sign of forcible entry into his room and nothing was stolen.

This news has stunned everyone and cast a serious pall over the event with some calling for the canceling of the tournament altogether. The authorities have decreed that it will continue but there is no doubt that this terrible event has destroyed the exuberant atmosphere that characterizes these quadrennial events.

The charge of murder naturally raises the question of the identity of the culprit. There are several motives possible. One is that Woolmer was killed by an enraged and disappointed fan of the Pakistani team. Another is that he was killed by angry gamblers who had lost a lot of money because of Pakistan's surprising early elimination from the tournament. And now there are allegations that he was killed because he was about to level serious charges of match fixing, where individual players are bribed to deliberately throw a game in order to benefit gambling interests.

In recent years five players (three from Pakistan, one from India, and one from South Africa) have received lifetime bans for throwing matches at the behest of gamblers, while other players have received lesser punishments for other infractions. Suspicions of players putting in sub-par performances in return for bribes are so pervasive that almost any string of surprisingly poor performances, or a poor performance in a crucial game, has come under suspicion.

To understand these charges, one has to realize that like most major sports competitions, international cricket now is a big business with lots of sponsorship money involved and players (at least from the major teams) earning huge amounts. Gone are the days when even international cricket was either a part-time or at most a seasonal occupation for players. Now they play year around all over the world and huge amounts of money are bet on the games. The games also arouse tremendous passions among the fans, sometimes leading to riots when home teams do badly. The South Asian subcontinent countries of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are particularly prone to having such over-enthusiastic fans, with people even committing suicide because of disappointment over their team's loss.

In the current tournament, 16 teams are taking part. They are split into four groups of four each in which each team plays every other team in their group with only the top two teams going to the second round. Of the 16 teams, only eight (England, West Indies, Australia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and South Africa) are considered serious contenders for winning the championship. These eight teams were split equally into the four groups and thus were expected to be the teams to advance to the second round while the other eight (Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ireland, Scotland, Bermuda, Netherlands, and Canada) were expected to head for the exits.

But Pakistan, a perennial powerhouse in international cricket (winning the World Cup in 1992) and one of the favorites to win the tournament, suffered an unbelievably shocking defeat to Ireland in their group, which was key to them failing to qualify for the second round. It was on the day following their elimination that their coach Woolmer was killed.

This loss is not the only surprise in the tournament. India, another cricket powerhouse and 1983 winner, suffered a surprising defeat to Bangladesh in their group match and now will also not make it to the second round either. But Bangladesh is the best team of the eight lower-ranked teams and so while this was a major upset, the result was not as sensational as the loss by Pakistan to the complete outsiders Ireland.

Sri Lanka (who won in 1996) has put in strong showings in its group matches, winning all of them, thus advancing to the second round of eight teams. Starting on March 27, these eight teams play six games each, after which the top four advance to the next round beginning April 24, which has a sudden-death format. The championship game is on April 28.

But hanging over the whole tournament will be the question: Why was Bob Woolmer killed and by whom?

POST SCRIPT: Physics demonstrations

No, not the kind a physics teacher does in class. These demonstrations are by students in Nepal who chanted "We want physics!" and clashed with riot police because they want to be allowed to enroll in physics classes, which is apparently severely restricted.

The thought that there are students in the world willing to go to the mat for the chance to study physics has to warm the heart of any physics teacher.

March 23, 2007

Why belief in god is irrational

In yesterday's post I argued that there are conditions under which it is not irrational to believe in things for which there is no evidence at all. The example was given of extra-terrestrial life or space aliens. Since the universe is very large and very old and we know contains a vast number of galaxies, there exists a plausible argument that life, even intelligent life, could exist elsewhere in the universe that we are unaware of.

But believing in other things, such as that space aliens are buzzing around us mysteriously all the time or that dragons and unicorns and the like are roaming in some secret regions of the Earth, is irrational because to retain such beliefs requires one to create very complicated and implausible scenarios to explain the absence of any evidence in favor of them.

Similarly, the idea that that there exists an afterlife is also irrational because having that belief requires one to construct a whole superstructure of auxiliary beliefs in order to sustain that belief, and these auxiliary beliefs are themselves implausible and not supported by evidence and also depend on some kind of willful attempt at concealment of evidence, so one ends up building a whole house of cards of implausible theories just in order to sustain that one belief.

What about belief in god? Is that rational or irrational? Some have argued that it is no harder to believe in a god than that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, since both have no convincing evidence in support of the belief.

But with god, the kinds of explanations for the absence of evidence that can rescue intelligent extra-terrestrial life and place it in the realm of rationality no longer apply. The problem is caused by the very qualities that religious people ascribe to god. With intelligent extra-terrestrial life, we assume that they, like us, are limited by space and time and the laws of nature. In particular, they cannot travel faster than the speed of light, which puts a real crimp on being able to get around this vast universe. After all, even if their technology was so advanced that they could travel at speeds approaching the speed of light, it would still generally take years for them to reach even the nearest neighboring star, so exploring beyond their our own galaxy becomes an enormously time consuming activity. So believing that there exists intelligent life in some remote part of the universe that is so far inaccessible to us is not an outlandish belief because the auxiliary beliefs that are necessary to sustain it (such as a very large universe and limits to travel) are supported by evidence. So the Raelians actually have a more plausible belief structure than mainstream religions.

If (hypothetically) the universe was quite small and could be traversed in a brief time, and people started invoking ideas like that extraterrestrial life existed but they were deliberately and cleverly hiding from us, then that belief starts becoming irrational.

But in the case of god, he/she is not supposed to be not limited by space and time. He/she can be everywhere all the time and has infinite powers to boot. So there is no reason at all why god should not be able to provide us with the kind of convincing evidence that I outlined earlier that would remove all doubts once and for all.

In order to overcome this problem, religious believers have to construct auxiliary hypotheses, similar to the ones that become necessary to sustain a belief in the afterlife. It is postulated that god does not want to be seen by us and has the ability to stay hidden, choosing to be seen in highly selective situations, although those situations seem to be becoming increasingly trivialized and bizarre, such as appearing in grilled cheese sandwiches, damp spots in highway overpasses, and the like.

In such situations, the absence of convincing evidence casts serious doubts on god's existence and lifts the belief in god into the realm of irrationality. However, the faithful continue to remain devout. It does not seem that they wonder why god goes to all that trouble to provide just tantalizing glimpses. Those who do wonder about this have to, at this point and as a last resort, invoke the inscrutability argument: We cannot presume to understand why god does these things, we just have to believe that there is a good reason that is being hidden for us.

I think that this could be used as a test as to whether a belief that is sustained in the absence of evidence is rational or irrational:

• For a belief to be irrational, in order to sustain it one must argue for the existence of something that is in principle unknowable and also requires a deliberate scheme to conceal evidence of existence.
• For a belief to be rational it needs to be something that is unknown only in practice due to limitations of time or technology, but may become known in the future, and the absence of evidence is not due to willful deception by the very entity whose existence we seek.

This is not how most people seem to view rationality. People tend to view a belief is rational simply because a large number of people believe in it and if it has been around for a long time. But those two arguments really have no merit since it is quite possible for large numbers of people to believe false things for a long time.

But numbers and time seem to be the only thing that belief in god has going for it.

POST SCRIPT: Famous atheists

The online magazine MachinesLikeUs has compiled a long list of famous atheists that makes for interesting reading. There were some names on the list that were a surprise to me.

It contains scientists (Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin), writers (Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy), popular culture celebrities (Angelina Jolie, Woody Allen), political figures (Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony), and even people who are not famous (me).

March 22, 2007

Rational and irrational beliefs

Some time ago, I wrote a post wondering if the Pope was an atheist. Of course, I do not know the Pope personally and he has never made a public statement to that effect. It would not really be a good career move on his part.

My point was that the more one thought seriously about god and studied religious texts, the more likely that it was that the whole idea of there being a god and heaven would be seen to be preposterous. All the logical fallacies and lack of evidence would become transparent. Hence I argued that it was amongst clergy and theologians that one was most likely to find atheists because those people are not stupid and they do study religion in depth. The higher one went in the hierarchy, the more intellectual were the clergy and theologians and so, given that logic, I argued that the Pope was a prime candidate for atheism.

Some commenters to that post did not find my reasoning compelling, arguing that such religious people either truly believed what they did or had devised various forms of subconscious rationalizations to protect their beliefs from challenges. The comments were very stimulating and well worth reading.

But I thought about this topic again when discussing the question of what would constitute definite proof of an afterlife. Just as for that case, the only proof that I can think of that one can have for the non-existence of god is the absence of evidence for god. Unlike the famous assertion made by Donald Rumsfeld when he was flailing around trying to explain away the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence", absence of evidence for god or the afterlife or the paranormal is evidence for their absence. (If anyone, especially religious believers, can suggest an alternative that they would consider compelling proof for the non-existence of god, I would be very interested in hearing it.)

As far as I can see, convincing proof for the existence of god would have to be something along the lines of the convincing proof I outlined earlier concerning the afterlife: god would have to appear in public to a random group of people, provide tangible proof of existence, and re-appear at a designated time and place that would allow for skeptics to be present. In short, it would have to be similar to the encounter that King Arthur and his knights have with god in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), right after the song in Camelot in the following clip.

It is clear that we have never had anything close to this level of proof. All we have are the claims of ancient texts of highly questionable authenticity, and the personal, uncorroborated testimony of individuals that they have 'felt' some presence in their lives that they think is god. Of course, just as in the case of the afterlife, such testimonies have many natural explanations, from dreams to hallucinations to misunderstandings to lying.

The willingness of people to believe in things for which there is no evidence is not always irrational. For example, take the case of extraterrestrial life or space aliens. A fairly plausible reason can be postulated why they might exist even in the absence of any convincing proof that they do. The universe is a big place that has been around for a long time. The Earth is a tiny speck and reliably recorded human history has only been around for a few thousand years. So it is possible that aliens can live in distant parts of the universe unknown to us or that they have even visited Earth before the evolution of humans. So belief in extra-terrestrial life is not completely irrational.

There are still some difficulties to be overcome. If aliens came a long time ago, surely they would have left some tangible markers of their presence, like we have left stuff recording the visit to the Moon? It is possible to answer that objection by saying that if they came a long time ago, then any clues they left behind could have easily been swallowed up by vast geological changes that have occurred over time. It may be that the movement of continental plates due to drift or the advance of glaciers has resulted in the evidence being taken deep underground and lost to us or that earthquakes and floods and tidal waves have removed their alien artifacts from the surface of the Earth

So a plausible reasons exist as to why space aliens could exist somewhere in the cosmos, and even visited us at some time even though we have not seen them. Although no evidence exists for that ever having happened, it is not irrational to not exclude that possibility.

What is irrational, however, is the belief that aliens are still around and mysteriously come and go in UFOs with flashing lights. The idea that an advanced civilization that is capable of interstellar travel has nothing better to do with its expertise than tease us by playing hide and seek is preposterous.

Most people, because of the similar lack of evidence, do not believe in things like dragons and unicorns, and do not even think of demanding more proof of their non-existence. Why is this? One obvious reason is that with large land animals like dragons, there are not many places where they can be unobserved for long and we assume that these animals are not smart enough to hide their existence from us even if they wanted to do so. After all, for a species to survive over a long period it has to have a large enough number to avoid going extinct. For so many of them to exist and remain unobserved would imply the existence of a fairly large unknown habitat. So the long-term absence of sightings of such animals implies non-existence and it would be irrational to believe in them and most people would accept that. It would not be irrational to postulate the existence of some forms of deep sea life that we are not aware of, because that region of the Earth is still relatively unexplored.

Next: What about belief in god?

POST SCRIPT: Evolution of creationism

British comedian Robin Ince captures the essential difference between intelligent design creationism and science.

March 21, 2007

Charlatans of the paranormal

The magician James Randi (whose stage name is 'The Amazing Randi') is quite a remarkable person. In addition to his day job as a professional magician, he has a secondary career debunking those whom he sees as charlatans and who use ordinary magic trickery to enrich themselves by fooling gullible people into thinking that they have supernatural powers.

I saw Randi in person when I was in graduate school where he gave a performance of his magic to the student body, and then gave a colloquium in the physics department. In each case, he first did various impressive tricks such as bending spoons and changing the time on people's watches without seemingly touching them, and escaping after being chained and put into a sack. He ended with a talk warning everyone that what he did was due to pure sleight of hand and deception, and that anyone who claimed to be using powers such as telekinesis, spiritual energy, and the like to do such things was simply lying.

At that time, one of Randi's targets was Uri Geller who claimed that he had paranormal powers that enabled him to bend spoons without touching them, to see what was inside sealed envelopes, identify which of several closed identical containers had water inside, and so on. Geller had made quite a name for himself and was invited in 1973 to show his prowess on NBC's The Tonight Show, then hosted by Johnny Carson. But Carson was no fool. He had started his own entertainer career at age 14 as a magician called "The Great Carsoni" and was well aware of the possibility of trickery. So Carson hired Randi as a consultant for the show and Randi advised him what he should do to make sure that if Geller did what he claimed he could do using paranormal powers, they were not due to simple trickery. You can see the clip of Geller's appearance here. Thanks to Randi's advice and Carson's vigilance, Geller's performance was a total bust. He could not do anything and ended up pleading that he was 'feeling weak' that day. He disappeared in disgrace for awhile but seems to be coming back again, hoping that people have forgotten that fiasco.

Another Randi/Carson expose in 1987 was that of preacher Peter Popoff who bilked gullible and poor religious believers out of millions of dollars by claiming that god spoke to him and told him things about them that enabled him to heal them. It turned out that the voice he heard was not that of god but that of his wife speaking through a receiver hidden in his ear who was telling him things that she had learned about the people Popoff was supposedly healing. After being exposed on Carson's show, Popoff too lay low for awhile but recently he is also back with the same swindle, preying on the gullible.

In his long-term quest to show that people's claims of having paranormal powers are a fraud, Randi has set up an educational foundation, and an anonymous donor has offered a $1 million reward to anyone who passed a test to identify the genders of the authors of 20 diaries by touching the covers, and getting at least 16 right. In 10 years, no one has succeeded with the best result being 12 right. Some prominent psychics have stayed away and one can understand why. Their fame and fortune depends on gullible people believing in them and they are unlikely to risk being exposed as frauds.

But suppose someone did come along who got 16 right? Would that prove that they had paranormal powers? No. Since there is a 50-50 chance of guessing right for each diary, the probability of getting at least 16 out of 20 right is 0.006 or 6 in 1,000 or about one chance in 167. This is unlikely but not that rare. To convince a skeptic like me to believe in the paranormal would require evidence that approaches certainty. To provide convincing proof of the paranormal, a person claiming to have such powers should be able to get everything right and be able to do it at any time.

This question of repeatability of such proofs is important. It is quite possible to have even an extremely unlikely event occur by chance and that would prove nothing. It is possible to get hit by lightning even if Zeus is not deliberately aiming thunderbolts at you.

What is interesting is that psychics around the world keep claiming to have supernatural powers but can never produce them under scrutiny. In Sri Lanka, we had our own rationalist champion named Abraham Kovoor who in his day also offered a monetary reward to the many 'god-men' in the region (people who claimed that they had supernatural powers because they were an incarnation of god) if they could read the serial number of a currency note in a sealed envelope. Kovoor went to his death at a ripe old age with his money safe.

Because of the lack of any confirmed positive evidence, I think that the logical and rational thing to do is to assume that every kind of paranormal phenomenon that has been postulated simply does not exist, just as an afterlife does not exist.

Of course, true believers in the existence of the supernatural will find all kinds of excuses for the absence of any evidence for it. For example, a common demonstration used by the 'god-men' in India and Sri Lanka to convince their devotees that they had supernatural powers was to wave their hands and produce, seemingly out of thin air, 'holy ash', the kind which devotees rub across their foreheads, similar to what some Christians do on Ash Wednesday. I have friends who believe in one of these 'god men' (famous in South Asia) called Sai Baba and they tell me stories like this to persuade me that their belief is rational. (See this site for exposes of Sai Baba.)

I recall a time when Kovoor staged a public demonstration where he did the very same thing that the 'god men' claimed they could do using divine powers. But true believers were unfazed. One person wrote to the newspaper that Kovoor's display did not prove anything at all because while the 'god-men' produce holy ash, Kovoor had only succeeded in producing ordinary ash!

As the old saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

POST SCRIPT: How the ten commandments came about

Sometime ago, I wrote that the ten commandments looked like something cobbled together by a frustrated committee struggling to come up with a round number of items. It turns out that this is exactly how they came about, with the committee consisting of god, his personal assistant Larry, and Jesus.

For all the Mr. Deity clips, see here.

March 20, 2007

The war propaganda machine grinds on . . .

And so year five begins . . .

Today marks the beginning of the fifth year of the endless war of death and destruction that is destroying Iraq and its people. It is an appropriate time to focus attention on all those responsible for this atrocity, starting with the entire Bush administration, the neoconservative clique that surrounds the administration, the war cheerleaders in the so-called 'think tanks' like the American Enterprise Institute, and the pundits in the media who provided the intellectual cover for them. Robert Parry looks at how "the four-year-old conflict resulted from a systemic failure in Washington – from the White House, to congressional Republicans and Democrats, to an insular national news media, to Inside-the-Beltway think tanks."

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has to be one of the worst culprits of the pundits in the media and Matt Taibbi of the Village Voice has repeatedly skewered both his ideas and his writing style. The latest salvo lobbed by Taibbi is well worth reading as he points to how the apologists for wars are always alert to the need to fix blame for past war failures on everyone but themselves, and to lay the foundations to justify future wars. He points out that Tom Friedman is always ahead of the curve when it comes to the workings of this particular propaganda machine.

What we have to remember about America's half-baked propaganda machine is that, dumb as it is, it always keeps its eye on the ball. The war in Iraq is lost, everyone knows that, but there are future wars to think about. When a war goes wrong, the reason can never that the invasion was simply a bad, immoral decision, a hopelessly f------up idea that even a child could have seen through. No, we always have to make sure that the excuse for the next war is woven into the autopsy of the current military failure. That's why to this day we're still hearing about how Vietnam was lost because a) the media abandoned the war effort b) the peace movement undermined the national will and c) the public, and the Pentagon, misread the results of the Tet offensive, seeing defeat where there actually was a victory.

After a few decades of that, we were ready to go to war again -- all we had to do, we figured, was keep the cameras away from the bloody bits, ignore the peace movement, and blow off any and all bad news from the battlefield. And we did all of these things for quite a long time in Iraq, but, maddeningly, Iraq still turned out to be a failure.

That left the war apologists in a bind. If after fixing all of the long-held Vietnam excuses Iraq could still blow up in our faces, that must mean that we not only misjudged Iraq, but we were wrong about why Vietnam failed, too. Now, if we're ever going to pull one of these stunts again, we're going to need to come up with a grander, even more outlandish excuse for why both wars were horrible, bloody failures.
. . .
[B]oth Vietnam and Iraq failed not because they were stupid, vicious occupations of culturally alien populations that despised our very presence and were willing to sacrifice scads of their own lives to send us home. No, the problem was that we didn't make an effort to "re-evaluate tax and spending policies" and "shift resources" into an "all-out" war effort.

The notion that our problem in Iraq is a resource deficit is pure, unadulterated madness. Our enemies don't have airplanes or armor. They are fighting us with garage-door openers and fifty year-old artillery shells, sneaking around barefoot in the middle of the night around to plant roadside bombs. Anytime anyone dares oppose us in the daylight, we vaporize them practically from space using weapons that cost more than the annual budgets of most Arab countries to design. We outnumber the active combatants on the other side by at least five to one. This year, we will spend more on the military than the rest of the world combined -- more than six hundred billion dollars. And yet Tom Friedman thinks the problem in Iraq is that we ordinary Americans didn't tighten our belts enough to support the war effort.
. . .
This being tax season, I want you all to think about this Friedman column as you prepare your returns, because I'll bet anything he's surfing ahead of a trend here. If the next president is John McCain, or even if it isn't, you can be damn sure that we're going to hear a lot about how we blew Iraq because there weren't enough troops or resources shifted into Iraq.

You're going to hear that we didn't have money to pay for body armor, when the reality is that the reason troops didn't have body armor in recent years is that congressmen robbed the operations and maintenance accounts of the defense budget to pay for earmarks/pork projects (they took $9 billion in pork and earmarks out of the O&M allotment in 2005, for instance). They robbed the part of the budget that paid for ordinary soldiers‚ gear so they wouldn't have to touch the F-22 Raptor, the CVN(X) aircraft carrier, or any of the other mega-expensive and mostly useless weapons programs. I mean, think about it -- how else can you spend $600 billion dollars on the military every year and not have body armor for the soldiers deployed at war? Somewhere, someone who doesn't need it has to be sucking up that money.

But trust me, the myth is going to be that you didn't cough up enough for the war. It's your fault we failed, not Tom Friedman's.

I think Taibbi is right, but only partially, that the American people are being set up to be blamed for the Iraq failure. Another blame target is the Iraqi people themselves who are increasingly being portrayed as being ungrateful for the 'sacrifices' the US has made on their behalf and as lazy and incompetent and corrupt and not worthy of the great gift of democracy that god (through his chosen agent George Bush) generously decided to bestow on them.

POST SCRIPT: Harrison and Simon

This anniversary is too depressing, so I thought I would try and provide an uplifting note by linking to George Harrison and Paul Simon together singing two songs that each had made famous. Here comes the sun is of hopeful new beginnings and the other Homeward bound is about the yearning for home and the little things in life that signify normalcy. (Thanks to Crooks and Liars.)

March 19, 2007

Proof of the afterlife

Recently a friend of mine posed an interesting question. She said that none of us really know for sure if there is life after death or not, although all of us have our own beliefs. She wondered how differently we would live our lives if we could have conclusive proof either way. This led to an interesting discussion about what would constitute proof in such situations.

This brings us back to the whole problem of what constitutes proof in such cases. The negative is particularly tricky. As far as I can see, to prove that life after death does not exist, the only thing we can have is the absence of proof that life after death does exist. I cannot see how there could be any other kind of proof for such a thing and would be genuinely interested in hearing from anyone (especially from those who do believe in the afterlife) what kind of evidence would convince them beyond a shadow of a doubt that no afterlife existed.

As far as I can tell, the very fact that there has been no convincing proof for thousands of years that life exists after death is all the proof we are ever going to have that it does not exist. So in my opinion, having convincing proof that there is no life after death would not change people's behavior much, since that is pretty much the state of affairs that currently exists. People may say that they believe in it but they really have no basis for believing it and I suspect that its absence would not, deep down, really surprise them. It is only having convincing proof that the afterlife does exist that would change anything dramatically.

Notice that I say 'convincing' proof. There are people who claim to have had near-death experiences where they saw something of the after life. Others claim to talk to or even see dead people. But none of these things really constitute proof because they are all individual reports in the absence of corroborating witnesses. There is a whole range of completely natural explanations that can explain the testimonies of such people, from dreams to hallucinations to misunderstandings to lying.

A real proof of the existence of the afterlife would have to consist of something incontrovertible, that simply could not be denied. If asked to be more specific, I would say that it would have to consist (say) of an event in which someone who was well known and whom we know was definitely dead (say Albert Einstein) appeared in public and spoke to a large number of people who had no vested interest in collectively lying. There would also have to be tangible evidence of the event occurring. Furthermore, to rule out any chance of fraud or misunderstanding, this dead person should promise to reappear at a designated time and place under conditions that rule out trickery so that any and all skeptics could be on hand to check the phenomenon out. Albert should also be able to bring along other well known people from the world beyond, like say Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. If something like that happened, I think everyone would be convinced.

We have never had anything even close to such a level of proof. So basically, the current state of affairs is such that there has been no convincing proof of the existence of an afterlife. That means that we have all the proof we can possibly get that there is no afterlife.

The only way that people can sustain a belief in the afterlife given the current absence of any evidence in its favor is to argue that there must be an impenetrable barrier that prevents any kind of communication at all between the afterlife world and this one, with no exceptions. In other words, there is a one-time opening between the two worlds that allows the souls or spirits of dead people to cross over but the door closes immediately afterwards preventing any return or communication. But this implies that everyone who claims to speak with the dead is either a fraud or delusional and that all the supposed encounters that people claim to have had with the dead are false. So we are back to having zero evidence for the existence of an afterlife.

If we want to believe at least some of the reports of dead people having communicated with the living, then we have to allow just some people to be able to speak to just a few of the dead. That means the barrier separating the two worlds can be crossed and this raises a whole host of problems. Why is it that the dead don't contact us more often? Why doesn't Thomas Jefferson drop by for regular chats and maybe give the current occupant of the White House some desperately needed advice on what the US Constitution says? Why don't all murdered people whose deaths were unsolved come back and tell us who their killers were?

In fact, believing in an afterlife is much harder than believing in a god. After all, with god, one is presumably dealing with a single entity. People always have the option of assigning inscrutability to god's actions and say that for reasons beyond our ken, god has chosen to keep his/her existence unproven except for highly oblique hints.

But with the afterlife, if it exists, there must be billions of dead souls out there. It is hard to argue that all of them are determined to prevent us from finding out for sure that they exist. Why would they care? Is it a crime in that world for someone to show themselves openly in our world? Is this other world like a prison in which just a few dead people are given permission to occasionally speak to a few living people under extremely controlled circumstances?

Given the overwhelming logical difficulties with postulating the existence of such a spirit world, one wonders why people continue to believe in it. One reason that I can think of is that people have a deep sense of existential loneliness that makes it comforting to think that they are surrounded by the spirits of dead friends and family and that they will join them in the future. It is such a deep psychological need that it overcomes all reason and logic.

POST SCRIPT: Citizen Kane

The classic film Citizen Kane will be screened on Tuesday, March 20 at 7:15pm in Strosacker Auditorium at Case Western Reserve University. It is free and open to the public. (Thanks to Heidi for the info.)

March 15, 2007

The Power of Film

Films can have an enormous emotional impact on a viewer, swaying them emotionally in ways that their intellect would oppose. I was reminded of this recently when I watched two films from the silent era, Buster Keaton's The General (1927) and D. W. Griffiths' Birth of a Nation (1915). The latter was one of the earliest American feature films (the first being made in 1912) with the very first being made in Australia in 1906.

It was purely a coincidence that I happened to watch two films from the silent era so close to each other because the reasons were quite different. I had always wanted to see a Buster Keaton film because I had read that he was a pioneering genius of the silent film comedy genre. I watched Griffiths' film as part of the College Scholars Program that I help teach.

Coincidentally, both films involved the Civil War and were told from a viewpoint that was sympathetic to the Confederacy. The first thing that struck me about both was how modern they were in the way they told their stories. They did have obvious signs of being old, such as the lack of sound and color and special effects, and poor quality film stock. But apart from these purely physical factors, the narrative structure was surprisingly familiar with flashbacks being the only modern feature of films that was missing.

Because of the lack of spoken dialogue, the actors had to exaggerate their gestures a little in order for the viewer to get a sense of their emotions and what they were saying, but apart from that, these were both films that kept the viewer engrossed in their respective stories. Despite the fact that the films had no spoken words (or because of it?), they were both fast-moving and kept the viewer engaged.

But there the similarities ended.

The General is a comedy in which the two warring sides were just a backdrop for a simple story of a train engineer (Buster Keaton) whose girl friend and train (named The General) were captured by the other side. The entire film dealt with the engineer's foray into enemy territory to get them both back home.

This is not a political film. The entire film could have been done with the two sides interchanged and all that would have been necessary would have been to switch the army uniforms. The fact that it was the Civil War was also immaterial. Any two warring factions would have served equally well. In fact there was not a single black person in the whole film (at least as I recall). The fact that the engineer and girl were from the South was seemingly due to the idea for the film coming from an actual incident in the war. This film is worth watching, if only to see how well Keaton did all the stunts himself.

Birth of a Nation, on the other hand, is a very political film, determined to drive home a very specific message. I had heard of the film before and the comments were of two kinds: (1) that it was a landmark in the development of modern film; and (2) that it was terribly racist. After seeing the film, I have to agree with both judgments.

The film (which runs a little over three hours, surprisingly long for that period) consists really of two parts. The first part starts just prior to the Civil War and deals with events leading up to its end and Lincoln's assassination. The second part deals with the period of Reconstruction in the south immediately afterwards.

The first part starts with an idyllic portrayal of life before the Civil War, with the stories of two large happy white families - one from the north, the other from the south – who are friends and visit one another, and the budding romances of one son and daughter from one family with son and daughter from the other. The war then pits the boys against each other in battle and produces deaths in each family.

This first part of the film is not too offensive and if the film had ended at this point there would not have been much controversy. The chief criticism that would have been leveled at it would have been the portrayal of all blacks as 'happy slaves,' either cheerfully loyal to their masters as house servants or happily working in the cotton fields and waving to the masters as they walk by. Lincoln is portrayed as a good man who did not want to seek vengeance in the South after the North's victory.

But the second part is set entirely in the south and deals with the Reconstruction following Lincoln's death. This is where the film's highly disturbing treatment of race becomes manifest. This period is portrayed as a time when blacks took complete control of life in the South, shutting out white voters in elections and thus getting majorities in the legislatures. The southern whites are portrayed as a horribly oppressed people, being pushed aside by blacks in the streets and suffering various other indignities. The blacks are entirely caricatured, with white actors in blackface portraying them as lazy and drunken and evil, shuffle-dancing in the streets, lecherously leering at the demure white women, and always rubbing it in to the whites that they were now the bosses. Only the faithful house slaves stayed loyal to the whites, to the extent of rescuing them from black mobs at great peril to themselves.

The first part of the film, by showing scenes of these two loving, courteous families, with children playing and puppies and kittens frolicking, suffering the tragedies of their family members being killed in the war, etc., had already created sympathy for them in the minds of the viewer. The only black people who emerged as recognizable characters appeared in the second part, and were two-dimensional portrayals of evil so that the viewer had no sympathy for them at all.

But the real shocker is that the film portrays the creation of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction as a response by these decent, law-abiding whites to the lawlessness created by black rule. It is started by one of the family members we have already identified with, who is appalled by the breakdown of order and merely seeking to right wrongs. The KKK's reign of terror is also not portrayed. Only one black person is shown being 'tried' and found guilty by the KKK and has his body later dumped at the home of the evil black leader. Instead the people of the KKK were protrayed like comic-book heroes, 'respectable' citizens who adopt secret identities to fight crime and injustice. Only in this case the costumes that hide their identities are the notorious white sheets.

There is no surer way of gaining an audience's sympathy than setting up a scene in which a plucky little band of good people (including the elderly, women, children, and pets) heroically fight overwhelming odds against an evil and faceless enemy. This is a time-tested method of swaying the viewer's sympathies and is a staple of cowboy films. Griffiths heavily exploits this towards the end of Birth of a Nation. So powerfully had the deck been emotionally stacked in favor of the white families that in the climactic scene, when the tiny group of white people is trapped in a small house and surrounded by a large number of advancing hostile black Union soldiers, I found myself rooting for their rescue, even though the rescue was going to be by the KKK.

The spell cast by Griffiths was broken whenever the scene cuts to show the KKK riding in to save this group because the sight of people covered in white sheets now has an overwhelmingly negative emotional impact. But one can imagine how in 1915, just fifty years after the Civil War ended, this film could be seen a huge propaganda coup for the KKK, showing them in an entirely positive light. Although the KKK had been dormant for some time, 1915 saw the second resurgence of this group and the timing of that had to have something to do with the release of this film.

The fact that Griffith was able to portray a group like the KKK in such a sympathetic light is a warning about the dangerous power that films can have in shaping attitudes and sympathies. It illustrates the importance of having people realize that films and other forms of video can never be taken as the only source of knowledge. We cannot avoid the hard work of reading about and around important events, both historical and contemporary, if we are to piece together a reasonably accurate understanding of events.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity returns

Mr. Deity is taken on a tour of hell by Lucifer.

For all the Mr. Deity clips, see here.

How the media patronizes us

The presidential election campaign for 2008 has already started with a whole host of declared and undeclared candidates running. George Bush's performance seem to have persuaded people that anyone can do a better job than him.

On the Democratic side, we have Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama, and Bill Richardson. (Tom Vilsack has already dropped out.)

On the Republican side, there is Rudy Giuliani, Duncan Hunter, John McCain, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Tom Tancredo, and possibly Newt Gingrich, Chuck Hagel, and Fred Thompson.

All the candidates face stiff hurdles in getting their respective nominations. But the reality is that almost all of them have no chance. It is not because they are not good candidates or are incapable of being president or have unsavory histories but because they have two inter-related issues that work against them right form the start.

One of those issues is the ability to raise money. It requires a lot of money to run a presidential campaign. This is something that everyone is aware of. The less obvious but related issue is that the media has already made a judgment about who is 'worthy' and capable of being president and some of the candidates have already been written off. The coverage of their campaigns will reflect this bias against them and this will adversely affect those candidates' ability to raise money and gain name recognition.

It is clear that the media has already chosen the following as the 'viable' candidates based on nothing more than their own preferences. For Democrats they are Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. For the Republicans, they are Giuliani, McCain, and Romney.

The media will be either dismissive of the others, or treat them as distractions, or use them as fodder to provide 'color' to the campaigns. For example, Michael McIntyre says Kucinich's in his 'Tipoff' column in the Plain Dealer on January 20, 2007 described Kucinich's campaign as 'futile.' On what basis? He does not say. The fact is that Kucinich and Paul are the only Congresspeople running for president who had the foresight to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, the disastrous law that George Bush used to wage his illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq. But that seems to count for nothing in the minds of the media who continue to give prominence to the politicians and pundits who have been consistently wrong on everything concerning this war. (Obama was also against the war but not in Congress at that time.)

This is not a new phenomenon. The pack of media journalists that follow campaigns as a group has long tended to decide early on which candidates 'deserve' serious consideration, or even are worthy of being president and slant their coverage accordingly. Jonathan Schwarz describes an experience he had many years ago that illustrated to him that "the government and corporate media self-consciously see themselves as a governing elite that runs things hand in hand."

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen came to talk at Yale in 1988, just after I arrived. Following schmancy Yale tradition, he had tea with a small group of students and then ate dinner with an even smaller group. I weaseled my way into attending.

Gary Hart had recently flamed out in the '88 presidential race because of Donna Rice. And at dinner Cohen told all us fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty youths this:

The Washington press corps had specifically tried to push Hart out of the race. It wasn't because Hart had had extramarital affairs—everyone knew this was the norm rather than the exception among politicians. So Hart wasn't at all unusual in this respect. Instead, Cohen said, it was because the press corps felt that Hart was "weird" and "flaky" and shouldn't be president. And when the Donna Rice stuff happened, they saw their opening and went after him.

(I wish I remembered more about what Cohen said about the specific gripe of the press corps with Hart, but I don't think he revealed many details.)

At the time, I remember thinking this:

1. How interesting that the DC press corps knows grimy details about lots of politicians but only chooses to tell the great unwashed when they decide it's appropriate.

2. How interesting that the DC press corps feels it's their place to make decisions for the rest of America; ie, rather than laying out the evidence that Hart was weird, flaky, etc., and letting Americans decide whether they cared, they decided run-of-the-mill citizens couldn't be trusted to make the correct evaluation.

3. How interesting that Cohen felt it was appropriate to tell all this to a small group of fresh-faced, ambitious, grotty Yale youths, but not to the outside world. And how interesting that we were being socialized into thinking this was normal.
. . .
If you're not part of their little charmed circle, believe me, all your worst suspicions about them are true. They do think you're stupid. They do lie to you. They do hate and fear you. Most importantly, they think you can't be trusted with the things they know—because if you did know them, you'd go nuts and break America.

CBS News's Dick Meyer confirms the fact that the media often decides to not tell the public the truth about political leaders:

This is a story I should have written 12 years ago when the "Contract with America" Republicans captured the House in 1994. I apologize.

Really, it's just a simple thesis: The men who ran the Republican Party in the House of Representatives for the past 12 years were a group of weirdos. Together, they comprised one of the oddest legislative power cliques in our history. And for 12 years, the media didn't call a duck a duck, because that's not something we're supposed to do.

The situation now is not unlike that which existed earlier when Thomas Jefferson said:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests.

It seems clear to me that the members of the mainstream media and the political classes today tends to fall into the first group. But for a healthy democracy, it is important that we advocate belonging to the second group. This is why I think that citizenship means that we do not accept what is given to us by the media but be active seekers of knowledge.

March 14, 2007

Life is coarse grained, research is fine grained

In a celebrated remark in the case Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) involving "hard core pornography", US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."

This is a common problem that we all face. There are things that we "know" in a general sense but which we cannot strictly define. Pornography is just one of an infinite class of problems for which we have broad brush definitions (i.e. we think we know it when we see it) but which almost always break down under close examination, and exceptions to the definitions we create can always be found.

I am becoming convinced that this is a general feature of life. Questions have simple answers only when we don't examine them too closely. Suppose, for example, I asked the question "What is the length of my desk?" you would expect that there is a definite length to it and that there should be a straightforward way to get the answer.

At the simplest level, you could take a ruler and measure it and call this the length. But is that the most accurate measurement? A ruler is, after all, a pretty coarse measuring instrument. You could get fancier and use more sophisticated devices such as laser beams and high precision timers to get increasing levels of precision. But at some point you reach a limit to precision because at a fundamental level, because of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the length of the desk is not a well-defined quantity. This is because although the desk looks like an object with sharp boundaries, when you get to the sub-atomic level, we know that the atoms on the surface are quantum mechanical systems and so the edges of the desk are not sharply defined but instead are fuzzy and a blur. How do you measure the length of a blur?

At the large scales with which we normally work, we can ignore this and think of the desk as having a definite length but that is because we are not looking too closely.

For another example, although we all have a general intuitive idea about what is science and non-science, I have previously discussed how, when you look closely at the question, it is hard it is to strictly demarcate science from non-science. This is because the problem of finding necessary and sufficient conditions that demarcate one class of objects from another class of objects is very hard, and perhaps impossible.

While in everyday life we tend to be coarse-grained in our outlook, universities tend to be places where things are examined in fine-grained detail This is partly the reason why universities have received the label of "ivory towers." To those outside the university it can seem like academics are engaged in research at a level of detail that seems pointless and the 'ivory tower' label is sometimes intended as an insult. But the reality is that universities are one of the few places where people try to examine things closely, to see how far we can go in defining things before we reach the limits at which things break down. While to outsiders this may seem like nitpicking, it is important to do this because the consequences of such fine-grained analyses can have practical consequences.

For example, most people have a clear idea of (say) what is alive and what is dead, of what is human and what is not. But those classifications are not as clear-cut as they can seem. What is considered dead for example, has changed over time, from 'heart dead' to 'brain dead' to 'persistent vegetative state.' Knowing the precise limits of knowledge in this area has important practical consequences. (See part 1, part 2, and part 3 of that series.)

It seems to be the case that as much as we might like to have certainty, we can never have it. At some point, we reach a level of detail where we have to make a decision, a judgment, as to what something is and what we need to do. This is why we often delegate to people (judges, doctors, academics, and other experts in each field) who have studied these things the right to make such judgments on our behalf. It is not that they are infallible and cannot be wrong, but because at least they work with an awareness of the limits of knowledge and of the ambiguities that exist at the fine-grained level.

March 13, 2007

The undogmatic dogmatism of scientists

In a recent online discussion about whether intelligent design creationism should be taught as part of science, one of the participants took exception to a statement by someone else that the theory of evolution is so well established that it was of no use to allow for the inclusion of intelligent design creationism. The challenger asked, quite reasonably: "On what things is there no room for debate? Of what things are we so certain that we're willing to close the door to possibilities? If academics allow themselves to appear dogmatic about their theories, we legitimize dogmatism. We should be careful that scientists themselves do not become the new proselytizers to claim they hold absolute truth."

This puzzlement is not uncommon and not unjustified. Seen from the outside, scientists must seem as if we either cannot make up our minds as to what we know for certain and what we are unsure of, or we are accused of cynically shifting our position for polemical advantage, sometimes arguing that evolution is a fact beyond dispute (in order to exclude intelligent design creationism as a viable competitor) while also asserting that intelligent design creationism is not scientific because it is not falsifiable. On the surface, those two positions seem inconsistent, applying different criteria to the two theories.

It is true that scientists assert that "evolution is a fact," just as they assert that "gravity is a fact." They also acknowledge the "theory" of evolution and the "theory" of gravity. And they also assert that ALL knowledge is provisional and subject to change.

How can all these things be simultaneously true? How can something be at the same time a fact and a theory, certain and yet subject to change? These are deep questions and ones that can lead to heated discussions since they affect deeply held core beliefs about science and religion.

These also happen to be questions that form the core of the seminar course I teach to sophomores. We discuss all kinds of things in my course including science and religion, intelligent design etc. and it is remarkable that in the four years that I have taught it, there have been absolutely no blowups or confrontations or unpleasantness, although colleagues have told me that these very same questions have caused problems in their classes. The relative harmony of my class exists despite the fact that I know that many of my students are quite religious, from a variety of traditions, and they know that I am an atheist. These personal beliefs are not things that we keep secret because they shed important perspectives on the discussions.

Perhaps the reason for the lack of friction is that my course starts with looking closely at what science's knowledge structure is. We read Pierre Duhem, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Larry Laudan and other historians and philosophers of science and see how it is that science, unlike other areas of knowledge, progresses rapidly because of the commitment of its practitioners to a paradigm in which the framework in which problems are posed and solved are well defined. The paradigm consists of a scientific consensus about which theory (or a set of closely related theories) should be used for analyzing a problem, rules for determining what kinds of research problems are appropriate, the kinds of evidence, arguments, and reasoning that are valid, and the conditions that solutions to these research problems must satisfy if they are deemed to be satisfactory. That complex paradigmatic framework is sometimes loosely and collectively referred to as a "theory" and students quickly realize that the popular meaning of the word "theory" as some sort of simple hypothesis or guess does not apply in the scientific realm.

As long as that paradigmatic framework (or "theory") is fruitful and brings forth new problems and successes, it remains inviolate from challenges, and practitioners strenuously resist attempts at overthrowing it. The "theory" is thus treated and defended as if it were a "fact" and it is this that is perceived by some outside of science as dogmatism and an unwillingness to change.

But as Kuhn so persuasively argues, it is this very commitment to a paradigm that is the reason for science's amazing success, because the scientist working on a problem defined within a paradigm can be assured a priori that it is legitimate and important, and that only skill and ingenuity stands between her and the solution. Solving such problems within a paradigm is a sign of superior skill and brings rewards to the scientist who achieves it. Such conditions ensure that scientists will persevere in the face of challenges and adversity, and it is this kind of dogged determination that has resulted in the scientific breakthroughs from which we now benefit.

Kuhn likens this commitment of scientists to a paradigm to that of an industrialist to the manufacturing process that exists to make a particular product. As long as the product is made well, the manufacturer is not going to retool the factory because of the enormous effort and costs involved. Similarly, learning how to successfully exploit a scientific paradigm involves a long period of scientific apprenticeship in a discipline and scientists are unlikely to replace a working paradigm with another one without a very good reason. Learning to work well within a new paradigm is as costly as retooling a factory, and one does not do so cavalierly but only if one is forced into it. The dogmatism of science is thus pragmatic and not ideological.

But we do know that scientific revolutions, both major and minor, occur periodically. Very few of our current paradigms have a long history. So how and why do scientific paradigms change? They occur when the dominant paradigm shows signs of losing its fruitfulness, when it fails to generate interesting new problems or runs out of gas in providing solutions. It is almost never the case that one (or even a few) unsolved problems result in its overthrow because all scientific paradigms at all times have had many unsolved problems. A few counterexamples by themselves are never sufficient to overthrow a paradigm, though they can be a contributing factor. This is the fundamental error that advocates of intelligent design creationism (IDC) make when they argue that just because evolution by natural selection has not as yet explained some phenomena, Darwin's theory must be rejected.

To be taken seriously, a new paradigm must also promise to be more fruitful than its predecessor, open up new areas of research, and promise new and interesting problems for scientists to work on. It does that by postulating naturalistic mechanisms that make predictions that can be tested. If it can do so and the predictions turn out to be successful, the commitment to the existing paradigm can be undermined, and the process begins by which the paradigm may be eventually overthrown. IDC has never come even close to meeting this requirement.

Some people have challenged the idea that scientific theories have to have as necessary conditions that they be naturalistic and predictive, arguing that insisting they be so is to impose dogmatic methodological rules. But the requirement that scientific theories be naturalistic and predictive are not ad-hoc rules imposed from outside. They follow as a consequence of needing the paradigm to be able to generate new research programs. How could it be otherwise?

This is why IDC, by pointing to a few supposedly unsolved problems in evolutionary theory, has not been able to convince the biology community of the need to change the way they look at things. Intelligent design creationism does not provide mechanisms and it does not make predictions and has not been able to produce new research.

When we discuss things in the light of the history of science, the students in my class understand why science does things the way it does, why it determinedly holds on to some theories while being willing to abandon others, and that this process has nothing to do with dogma in the traditional religious sense. Religious dogma consists of a commitment to an unchanging core set of beliefs. Scientific "dogma" (i.e. strong commitment to a paradigm and resistance to change) is always provisional and can under the right conditions be replaced by an equally strong commitment to a new "dogma."

Almost all my students are religious in various ways, and while some find the idea of IDC appealing, they seem to have little difficulty understanding that its inability to enter the world of science is not a question of it being right or wrong, but is because of the nature of science and the nature of IDC. IDC simply does not fit into the kind of framework required to be a fruitful scientific theory.

March 12, 2007

Torture on 24

The willingness of our so-called intellectuals to use fiction as a basis for justifying barbaric policy decisions is truly astounding.

I have written before about how people who should know better (and probably do) continue to evoke the TV program 24 to justify the use of torture because the main character routinely uses it to extract information from captives. It should come as no surprise that the creator of that program Joel Surnow describes himself as a "Bush fan" and plans to continue to use torture even though people who do interrogations professionally say that such practices are actually harmful.

In a recent New Yorker article (Whatever it takes by Jane Mayer, February 19, 2007), some senior army interrogators and trainers of soldiers tried to get the program to not push this idea so much because it was giving army recruits the wrong idea of what kinds of interrogation techniques work, let alone are legal.

This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind "24." Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming. At first, Finnegan—wearing an immaculate Army uniform, his chest covered in ribbons and medals—aroused confusion: he was taken for an actor and was asked by someone what time his "call" was.

In fact, Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show's central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country's security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. "I'd like them to stop," Finnegan said of the show's producers. "They should do a show where torture backfires."

Finnegan told the producers that "24," by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country's image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by "24," which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, "The kids see it, and say, 'If torture is wrong, what about "24"?' " He continued, "The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do."

Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, "Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted."
. . .
The third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He told the show's staff that DVDs of shows such as "24" circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, "People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they've just seen."

But Surnow does not care for the testimony of experts in interrogation because, like his hero George W. Bush, what matters is what he feels in his gut: "We've had all of these torture experts come by recently, and they say, 'You don't realize how many people are affected by this. Be careful.' They say torture doesn't work. But I don't believe that."

So we have TV program creators helping to create a mindset in the country where illegal and immoral acts are considered just fine. When combined with media commentators and academics who also advocate barbaric acts, it is depressing but perhaps not surprising that there is little outcry when we hear of the torture of people held in the war on terror.

As Austin Cline points out in his essay Medicalizing torture and torturing medicine, the widening rot that is produced by encouraging and condoning torture extends to the medical profession. Torture cannot take place without the complicity of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel who have to treat the tortured and hide the evidence that it has occurred. Although the recent revelations about conditions at Walter Reed hospital had nothing to do with torture, he points out that it could not have escaped notice for so long without the complicity of medical personnel as well and he argues that it is due to a public mindset that is becoming increasingly comfortable with people being dehumanized.

Once we shrug our shoulders at people being tortured and rationalize it by saying that they would be treated worse by other countries, it is not that far a step to view mistreated hospital patients as whiners who should be grateful for what they get rather than complain about what they don't get.

March 09, 2007

A low-brow view of books

In yesterday's post, I classified the appreciation of films according to four levels. At the lowest level is just the story or narrative. The next level above that is some message that the director is trying to convey and which is usually fairly obvious. The third level is that of technique, such as the quality of dialogue and acting and directing and cinematography and sound and lighting. And then there is the fourth and highest level, which I call deep meaning or significance, where there is a hidden message which, unlike the message at the second level, is not at all obvious but which has to be unearthed (or even invented) by scholars in the field or people who have a keen sensitivity to such things. I classified people whose appreciation does not get beyond the first two levels as low-brow.

The same classification scheme can be applied to books, especially fiction. In recent years I have started reading mostly non-fiction, but when it comes to fiction, I am definitely low-brow. To give an example of what I mean, take the novels of Charles Dickens. I like them because the stories he weaves are fascinating. One can enjoy them just for that reason alone. The second level meanings of his books are also not hard to discern. Many of his books were attempting to highlight the appalling conditions of poor children at that time or the struggles of the petite bourgeoisie of England. That much I can understand and appreciate.

What about his technique, the third level that I spoke of? The fact that I (and so many others over so many years) enjoy his books means that his technique must be good but I could not tell you exactly what his technique is. It is not that I am totally oblivious to technique. His habit of tying up every single loose end at the conclusion of his books, even if he has to insert extraordinary coincidences involving even minor characters, is a flaw that even I can discern, but this flaw of structure is not something fatal enough to destroy my enjoyment of his the work.

There is probably the fourth level to Dickens that scholars have noticed but which I will never discover by myself. Here we get into the writer's psyche such as whether certain characters reflect Dickens's own issues with his family's poverty and his father's time in a debtor's prison and his relationship to his mother and so on. This is where really serious scholars of Dickens come into their own, mining what is known of his life to discover the hidden subtext of his novels.

My inability to scale these heights on my own is the reason why there are some writers who are stated to be geniuses whom I simply cannot appreciate. Take William Faulkner. I have read his novels The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying and his short stories A Rose for Miss Emily and Barn Burning but I just don't get his appeal.

In fact, I find his writing sometimes downright annoying. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the many zealous Faulkner fans out there, I think that Faulkner does not play fair with his readers, deliberately misleading them seemingly for no discernible reason. In The Sound and the Fury, for example, he abruptly keeps switching narrators on you without warning, each with their own stream of consciousness, but you soon get the hang of that and can deal with it. But what really annoyed me was that he has two characters have the same name but be of different genders and of different generations but this fact is not revealed until the very end. Since this character is central to the story and is referred to constantly by the different narrators, I was confused pretty much all the way through as to what was going on, since I had naively assumed that the references were to the same person, and the allusions to that person did not fit any coherent pattern. As a result, I found it hard to make sense of the story and that ruined it for me. I could not see any deep reason for this plot device other than to completely confuse the reader. I felt tricked at the end and I had no desire to re-read the book with this fresh understanding in mind.

This is not to say that writers should never misdirect their readers but there should be good reasons for doing so. I grew up devouring mystery fiction and those novels also hide some facts from their readers and drop red herrings in order to provide the dramatic denouement at the end. But that genre has fairly strict rules about what is 'fair' when doing this and what Faulkner did in The Sound and the Fury would be considered out of bounds.

More sophisticated readers insist to me that Faulkner is a genius for the way he recreates the world of rural Mississippi, the people and places and language of that time. That may well be true but that is not enough for me to like an author. When my low-level needs of story and basic message are not met, I simply cannot appreciate the higher levels of technique and deep meaning. Furthermore, there is rarely a sympathetic character in his stories. They all tend to be pathological and weird, which makes it even harder to relate to them.

I had similar problems with Melville's Moby Dick. For example, right at the beginning there are mysterious shadowy figures that board the ship and enter Captain Ahab's cabin but they never appear afterwards although it does not appear that they left the ship prior to its departure. What happened to them? What was their purpose? And what do all the details about whaling (that make the book seem like a textbook on the whaling industry) add to the story? Again, the main characters were kind of weird and unsympathetic and I finished the book feeling very dissatisfied.

James Joyce's Ulysses seems to me to be a pure exercise in technique and deep meaning that is probably a delight for scholars to pick through and interpret and search for hidden meanings, but that kind of thing leaves me cold. I simply could not get through it, and also failed miserably with The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his book Love in the Time of Cholera pulls a stunt similar to Melville. His opening chapter introduces some intriguing and mysterious characters who then disappear, never to appear again or be connected with the narrative in even the most oblique way. I kept expecting them to become relevant to the story, to tie some strands together, but they never did and I was left at the end feeling high and dry. Why were they introduced? What purpose were they meant to serve? Again, people tell me that Marquez is great at evoking a particular time and place, and I can see that. But what about the basic storytelling nature of fiction? When that does not make sense, I end up feeling dissatisfied.

I also have difficulty with the technique of 'magic realism' as practiced by Marquez in his A Hundred Years of Solitude and Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses. In this genre you have supernatural events, like ghosts appearing and talking to people, or people turning into animals and back again, and other weird and miraculous things, and the characters in the books treat these events as fairly routine and humdrum. I find that difficult to accept. I realize that these things are meant to be metaphors and deeply symbolic in some way, but I just don't get it. These kinds of literary devices simply don't appeal to me.

This is different from (say) Shakespeare's plays, which I do enjoy. He too often invokes ghosts and spirits in some of his plays but these things are easily seen as driving the story forward so it is easy to assimilate their presence. Even though I don't believe in the existence of the supernatural, the people of his time actually believed in those things and the reactions of the characters in his plays to the appearance of these ghosts and fairies seem consistent with their beliefs. But in a novel like The Satanic Verses that takes place in modern times, to have a character turn into a man-goat hybrid and back to fully man again with the other characters responding with only mild incredulity and not contacting the medical authorities, seems a little bizarre.

I would hasten to add that I am not questioning the judgment of experts that Faulkner and Melville and Joyce and Marquez and Rushdie are all excellent writers. One of the things about working at a university is that you realize that the people who study subjects in depth usually have good reasons for their judgments and that they are not mere opinions to be swept aside just because you happen to not agree with them. One does not go against an academic consensus without marshalling good reasons for doing so and my critiques of these writers are at a fairly low level and come nowhere close to being a serious argument against them. What I am saying is that for me personally, a creative work has to be accessible at the two lowest levels for me to enjoy it.

I think that there are two kinds of books and films. One the one hand there are those that can be enjoyed and appreciated by low-brow people like me on our own, and others that are best appreciated when accompanied by discussions led by people who have studied those books and authors and films and directors and know how to deal with them on a high level.

March 08, 2007

A low-brow view of films

Although I watch a lot of films, I realized a long time ago that my appreciation of films (or plays or books or concerts) was decidedly at a 'low brow' level. To explain what I mean, it seems to me that there are four levels in which one can appreciate a film (or play). At the lowest level is just the story or narrative. The next level above that is some message that the writer or director is trying to convey and which is usually fairly obvious. People whose appreciation does not get beyond these two levels are those I call low-brow. And I am one of them.

But I am aware there are higher levels of appreciation and criticism that can be scaled. The third level is that of technique, such as the quality of writing and things like acting and directing and cinematography and sound and lighting. And then there is the fourth and highest level, which I call deep meaning or significance, where there is a hidden message which, unlike the message at the second level, is not at all obvious but which has to be unearthed (or even invented) by scholars in the field or people who have a keen sensitivity to such things.

I almost never get beyond the first two levels. In fact, if the first level does not appeal to me, then no level of technique or profundity will rescue the experience. This does not mean that the items in the third level do not matter. They obviously are central to the enjoyment of the experience. It is just that I rarely notice the third level items unless they are so bad that it ruins the storytelling aspect. If the dialogue or acting (for example) is really rotten, then I will notice it but if I don't notice these things at all, then it means that they were good.

But I don't even consider these things unless the first two levels are satisfactory. If the first two levels are bad, nothing at the higher levels can salvage the experience for me. I never leave a film saying things like "The story was awful but the camerawork was excellent."

As an example, I really enjoy Alfred Hitchcock's films and have seen nearly all of them, many multiple times. But I just enjoy the way he tells the stories. Since I enjoy reading about films after I have watched them, I often find people pointing out subtle effects of technique such as how he uses lighting or sets up a camera angle or how he creates a mood, and so on. While I enjoy having these things pointed out to me, I would never notice them on my own.

The same thing holds with the music soundtrack. When friends tell me that they enjoyed the soundtrack of a film that is not a musical, my usual response is "what soundtrack?" The only films in which I notice the soundtrack are those in which there are obvious songs, such as in (say) The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy, the latter having a wonderful theme song Everybody's Talkin' by Harry Nillson and a beautifully haunting harmonica score that so pervades the film that even I noticed it.

The same happens with the fourth level of analysis, which is even more inaccessible to me. Just recently I read that in several of Hitchcock's films, he was exploring homosexual themes. I had no idea and would never have figured that out on my own. While I have no talent for exploring these deeper levels of meaning, I appreciate the fact that there are people who can do so and are willing to share that knowledge. Reading them and talking about films with such knowledgeable and keenly observant people is a real pleasure.

I once had pretensions to 'higher criticism' (which deals with the third and fourth levels) myself but that ended one day when it became dramatically obvious that I had no clue how to do it. It was in 1975 when I watched the film If. . . (1968) by director Lindsay Anderson. I like Anderson's films a lot. He creates strange and quirky films that deal with class politics in Britain, such as This Sporting Life (1963) and O Lucky Man (1973). The last one has an absolutely brilliant soundtrack and I noticed it because it consists of songs sung by British rocker Alan Price and he and his group periodically appear in the film to sing them, so you can't miss the music. It is one of the rare CDs I bought of a film soundtrack, it was so good.

Anyway, my friends and I watched If. . . and we noticed that while most of the film was in color, some of the scenes were in black and white. We spent a long time afterwards trying to determine the significance of this, with me coming up with more and more elaborate explanations for the director's intent, trying to make my theories fit the narrative. By an odd coincidence, soon after that I read an article that explained everything. It said that while making the film, Anderson had run low on money and had had to complete shooting with cheaper black and white film. Since films are shot out of sequence, the final product had this mix of color and black and white footage. That was it, the whole explanation, making laughable my elaborate theories about directorial intent. It was then that I gave up on the higher criticism, realizing that I would simply be making a fool of myself.

There are some films that are self-consciously technique-oriented, and I can appreciate them as such. For example Memento and Mulholland Drive are films that are clearly designed by the director to have the viewer try and figure out what is going on. They are like puzzles and I can enjoy them because they are essentially mystery stories (one of my favorite genres) in which the goal is to determine the director's intent and methods used. Both films were a lot of fun to watch and grapple with.

But except in those special cases, I leave 'higher criticism' to those better equipped to do so. That is the nice thing about creative works of art. One can appreciate and enjoy them at so many different levels and each viewer or reader can select the level that best suits them.

Next: A low-brow view of books.

March 07, 2007

Morality and 'people of faith'

Former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney has declared himself a candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 2008. I argued earlier that Romney's religion (he is a Mormon) should be immaterial to whether he is qualified to be President.

But at a recent campaign event, he was challenged by someone who called him a "pretender" because as a Mormon he did not believe in Jesus Christ. Instead of answering that a person's faith was a private affair that did not belong in the public sphere and closing the discussion on that topic, Romney responded that "We need to have a person of faith lead the country."

Obviously I disagree with that but it also strikes me that Romney has opened himself up a can of worms because once you say that faith is necessary for being president, you have to deal with the issue of what kinds of faiths are allowed. This means that questions about the suitability of a person's faith can become part of the political discussion. What about Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism? Are believers in those religions considered 'persons of faith'? What about a person who has faith in tree spirits or voodoo or Satan or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Are those faiths good enough? There is no question at all that the leaders of al Qaeda are 'persons of faith' by any reasonable definition of the term. So are their faiths acceptable?

A good question to ask Romney, which has been made legitimate by his response, is what criteria he uses to determine what constitutes an appropriate faith. Of course, no candidate or the media is going to discuss these kinds of questions because it would be too awkward. They know that there is no answer that can be given that does not (at best) contradict the US constitution that religious beliefs cannot be a test for public office or (at worst) comes across as rank bigotry. Both media and candidates tend to use 'person of faith' as code for 'people just like us.'

As Atrios says:

It's become vogue for politicians to make their religious beliefs, their "faith," central parts of their campaigns. If they do so, it's quite fair for people take a look at just what those beliefs are.

Romney says only a "person of faith" can be president. Plenty of people are going to say they don't want a Mormon to be president. Is this bigotry, an objection to belief (or lack), or both?

Want to make personal religious beliefs a central issue in politics? Fine, bring it on. You guys can fight it out.

"We need to have a person of faith lead the country."

"We need to have a Christian to lead the country."

"We need to have a member of the Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915 to lead this country."

Where's the line?

The phrase 'person of faith' has come to mean someone who believes in some supernatural entity, but more importantly, believes in things similar to what you believe. In particular, it is used to signify a particular stance on certain moral issues.

For example, in response to an earlier post on this topic, a reader emailed me the following:

To me, without a presumption of a Divine Creator, objective morality is impossible. How will we judge anyone, if their retort is effectively, "my behavior might not seem right to you, but it's right for me"? Unless we can state some objective ground for morality, all our law goes out the window, and anarchy must result. That conclusion seems inevitable.

I am always puzzled by the assertion that belief in a god leads to an 'objective morality.' How can that be squared with the blatant contradictions that are so easily observable? After all, we have all kinds of different religions that believe in a 'Divine Creator' and yet they all have different moralities. We even have within religions (be they Christianity, Judaism or Islam) different moralities even though they claim to believe in the same version of god. And even within each tradition morality has changed with time, so that what Christians and Jews and Muslims consider moral now is quite incompatible with what was considered moral in the past. To belabor the obvious, owning slaves and the ritual sacrificing of animals was considered quite moral at one time.

Rather than belief in a Divine Creator being the basis of morality, it seems pretty clear that people use their ideas about morality to decide what version of god they would like to believe in. In other words, ideas about morality are prior to belief in a god.

This idea that belief in a god is the basis of morality is so obviously contradicted by the facts that I can only conclude that this is an example of the power of religion to blind people to logic and reason.

March 06, 2007

Tennessee: The state that never gives up

Readers will recall that Dayton, TN was where the celebrated Scopes trial on the teaching of evolution was held back in 1925. Well, that state is still fighting against the teaching of evolution.

The latest effort is chronicled in the newspaper the Nashville Postwhich reports on a resolution proposed by State Sen. Raymond Finney (R-Maryville). The senator, a retired physician, clearly thinks he has come up with a clever way of putting the state's Department of Education on the spot, presumably because they teach evolution without mentioning god. So Finney is asking the Senate to endorse certain questions that he would like to pose to the Department of Education. The department has to provide a response by January 15, 2008.

A Tennessee State Senate member has filed a resolution asking the Tennessee Department of Education to address a few basic questions about life, the universe and all that:

(1) Is the Universe and all that is within it, including human beings, created through purposeful, intelligent design by a Supreme Being, that is a Creator?

Understand that this question does not ask that the Creator be given a name. To name the Creator is a matter of faith. The question simply asks whether the Universe has been created or has merely happened by random, unplanned, and purposeless occurrences.

Further understand that this question asks that the latest advances in multiple scientific disciplines –such as physics, astronomy, molecular biology, DNA studies, physiology, paleontology, mathematics, and statistics – be considered, rather than relying solely on descriptive and hypothetical suppositions.

If the answer to Question 1 is "Yes," please answer Question 2:

(2) Since the Universe, including human beings, is created by a Supreme Being (a Creator), why is creationism not taught in Tennessee public schools?

If the answer to Question 1 is "This question cannot be proved or disproved," please answer Question 3:

(3) Since it cannot be determined whether the Universe, including human beings, is created by a Supreme Being (a Creator), why is creationism not taught as an alternative concept, explanation, or theory, along with the theory of evolution in Tennessee public schools?

If the answer to Question 1 is "No" please accept the General Assembly's admiration for being able to decide conclusively a question that has long perplexed and occupied the attention of scientists, philosophers, theologians, educators, and others.

I am always happy to help out people. So in the spirit of pure charity, I offer free-of charge to the Tennessee Department of Education, the answers to the senator's questions.

1. This is a question that cannot be answered scientifically. (This answer corresponds to his option of "This question cannot be proved or disproved" but I changed it slightly because his wording is awkward since you cannot prove or disprove a question.) So following the senator's flow chart, we move on to question 3.

2. Not applicable

3. Because creationism is not science, it should not be taught in science classes.

No need to thank me, Senator Finney and the Tennessee Department of Education. I am happy to oblige.

This has been an edition of simple answers to questions.

POST SCRIPT: Editorial cartoons

Bob Geiger has the latest roundup.

March 05, 2007

Macho Christianity

It had to happen some time. I have written before about how most people's knowledge of the Bible is a CliffsNotes version, just the sketchiest of outlines of what is says. This is convenient because it enables each group or individual within Christianity and Judaism to pretty much adopt any lifestyle and morals and values and claim that it is how god would want them to live.

But in actual practice there are some restrictions. In contemporary America, there has grown up the consensus that to be a religious means at the very least avoiding drunkenness and profanity and promiscuous sex. Dressing nicely, going to church on Sundays, being polite and nice to others, and shaking hands with strangers in the pews are highly recommended. This has to be limiting to people who like to think of themselves as 'real' men and want to drink and swear and run around but still want to be considered Christian. Such people are worried that Christianity is becoming a religion for wusses.

But not to worry. If there is one thing that capitalism has taught us, it is that if there is enough of a market for something, then that need will be filled. And a January 12, 2007 article in the Los Angeles Times titled Manliness in next to Godliness suggests that a new movement for unwussy Christianity has appeared that says that exhibitions of raw testosterone are completely compatible with the Bible. Here's a description of a church service for this new manly religion. (I give an extended quote so that you get the full flavor.)

The strobe lights pulse and the air vibrates to a killer rock beat. Giant screens show mayhem and gross-out pranks: a car wreck, a sucker punch, a flabby (and naked) rear end, sealed with duct tape.

Brad Stine runs onstage in ripped blue jeans, his shirt untucked, his long hair shaggy..."It's the wuss-ification of America that's getting us!" screeches Stine, 46.

A moment later he adds a fervent: "Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!"

In daybreak fraternity meetings and weekend paintball wars, in wilderness retreats and X-rated chats about lust, thousands of Christian men are reaching for more forceful, more rugged expressions of their faith.

Stine's daylong revival meeting, which he calls "GodMen," is cruder than most. But it's built around the same theory as the other experimental forums: Traditional church worship is emasculating.

Hold hands with strangers? Sing love songs to Jesus? No wonder pews across America hold far more women than men, Stine says. Factor in the pressure to be a "Christian nice guy" -- no cussing, no confrontation, in tune with the wife's emotions -- and it's amazing men keep the faith at all.

"We know men are uncomfortable in church," says the Rev. Kraig Wall, 52, who pastors a small church in Franklin, Tenn. -- and is at GodMen to research ways to reach the husbands of his congregation. His conclusion: "The syrup and the sticky stuff is holding us down." John Eldredge, a seminal writer for the movement, goes further in "Wild At Heart," his bestselling book. "Christianity, as it currently exists, has done some terrible things to men," he writes. Men "believe that God put them on earth to be a good boy." (my italics)

Says Christian radio host Paul Coughlin, author of "No More Christian Nice Guy": "The idea of Jesus as meek and mild is as fictitious as anything in Dan Brown's `Da Vinci Code.' "

So what's with the standard portraits of Jesus: pale face, beatific smile, lapful of lambs?

"He's been domesticated," says Roland Martinson, a professor of ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn. "He's portrayed now as gentle, loving, kind, rather than as a full-bodied person who kicked over tables in the temple, spent 40 days in the wilderness wrestling with his identity and with God, hung out with the guys in the street. The rough-hewn edges and courage ... got lopped off."

Stine's wife, Desiree, says she supports manly leadership; it seems to her the natural and God-ordained order of things. As she puts it: "When the rubber hits the bat, I want to know my husband will protect me."

But some men at the conference run into trouble when they debut their new attitudes at home. Eric Miller, a construction worker, admits his wife is none too pleased when he takes off, alone, on a weekend camping trip a few weeks after the GodMen conference this fall.

"She was a little bit leery of it, as we have an infant," he reports. "She said, `I need your help around here.' "

Miller, 26, refuses to yield: "I am supposed to be the leader of the family."
. . .
The virility crusade is, in part, a response to a stark gender gap. More than 60 percent of the adults at a typical worship service are women. That translates into 13 million more women than men in the pews on any given Sunday, according to David Murrow, author of "Why Men Hate Going to Church."

Women are also significantly more likely than men to attend Sunday school, read the Bible and pray regularly, according to the Barna Group, a Christian polling firm.

Murrow blames men's lackluster attitude on the feminization of mainline churches: "Lace curtains. Quilted banners on the wall. Pink carpet. Fresh flowers at the podium."

Even in evangelical mega-churches, which tend to use more neutral decor, the mood is hardly alpha male. Dancers wave flowing banners as the choir sings. TV screens glow with images of flowers and sunsets
. . .
Stine argues that the genteel facade of a Christian nice guy inhibits introspection and substitutes cliches for spiritual growth. GodMen is his attempt to encourage men to get real. His speakers admit to masturbation and adultery. Such honesty, Stine contends, molds better, more godly men than a typical Sunday service.

"We want to force you out of the safe places that have passed for spirituality," Stine says. "Maybe worship could be hanging out with a bunch of guys, admitting we like blowing crap up."

I have to thank the ever-vigilant Jesus' General for alerting me to this trend. The good General, whose blog proudly claims that he is an "11 on the manly scale of absolute gender," is always ahead of the curve when it comes to manly expressions of Christianity.

I wanted to end this post on a very manly note and what could be more appropriate than the Village People singing their hit Macho Man?

March 02, 2007

The creeping immorality in public discourse

Sometimes I wonder what passes for brains and morals among some of our so-called 'respected' journalists. Take Ted Koppel, former host of ABC's Nightline and now an analyst for NPR. In a recent op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, he starts by taking a fairly sensible stand, that any sanctions imposed against Iran can be easily subverted and that the US does not have a realistic chance of preventing that country from obtaining nuclear weapons if it is determined to do so. Koppel says "What, then, can the United States do to prevent Iran from developing nuclear technology? Little or nothing. Washington should instead bow to the inevitable." He continues: "If Iran is bound and determined to have nuclear weapons, let it."

But it turns out that this seemingly reasonable acknowledgment of reality is merely the foundation for suggesting something truly outrageous:

But this should also be made clear to Tehran: If a dirty bomb explodes in Milwaukee, or some other nuclear device detonates in Baltimore or Wichita, if Israel or Egypt or Saudi Arabia should fall victim to a nuclear "accident," Iran should understand that the U.S. government will not search around for the perpetrator. The return address will be predetermined, and it will be somewhere in Iran.

Pause for a moment and consider the horror of what he is proposing. If a nuclear weapon explodes anywhere in the US or a country that is considered an ally of the US, then the US should drop a nuclear bomb on Iran, without any attempt to find out who the guilty party is. Evidence doesn't matter. Actual guilt doesn't matter. All that matters to him is that hundreds of thousands of people be killed and maimed, and residual radiation effects lasting for generations be released in order to satisfy his desire to lash out.

Apart from the blatant immorality of the suggestion, surely the adverse implications of such a stated US policy are obvious? It gives a free hand to anyone to carry out an attack, knowing that they will get off scot-free since Iran will bear the retaliation. Such a policy, rather than deterring an attack, actually encourages one.

To see the implications, suppose that someone who feels threatened by an opponent hires a private security team. Suppose that this team announces that if the person they are protecting is killed, they will shoot and kill the pre-identified opponent without bothering to do any investigation. The result of this policy is that rather than reducing the danger to the protected person, it is actually increased because every other person who wishes to see him or her dead now has a free hand to act, knowing that retribution will be delivered elsewhere.

So from where did Koppel get this brilliant brainwave, that sounds like something out of a gangster film? From an actual gangster film, The Godfather! He says that this is the message the US should give the leaders of Iran:

"You [i.e. the Iranians] insist on having nuclear weapons," we should say. "Go ahead. It's a terrible idea, but we can't stop you. We would, however, like your leaders to view the enclosed DVD of 'The Godfather.' Please pay particular attention to the scene in which Don Corleone makes grudging peace with a man - the head of a rival crime family - who ordered the killing of his oldest son."

In that scene, Don Corleone says, "I forgo my vengeance for my dead son, for the common good. But I have selfish reasons." The welfare of his youngest son, Michael, is on his mind.

"I am a superstitious man," he continues. "And so if some unlucky accident should befall my youngest son, if some police officer should accidentally shoot him, or if he should hang himself in his cell, or if my son is struck by a bolt of lightening, then I will blame some of the people here. That I could never forgive."

That is by no means the only example of establishment types seemingly becoming unhinged by how badly their various wars are going. Recently Glenn Reynolds, a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and a popular blogger known as Instapundit, made another outrageous suggestion that the US should not invade Iran or try diplomacy with that country and instead "We should be responding quietly, killing radical mullahs and iranian atomic scientists."

Imagine that, a professor of law casually advocating the murder of civilians in another country.

Paul C. Campos, another professor of law at the University of Colorado, wrote an op-ed pointing out the enormity of this suggestion, and that what was being suggested was unequivocally a war crime.

How does a law professor, of all people, justify advocating murder? “I think it’s perfectly fine to kill people who are working on atomic bombs for countries - like Iran - that have already said that they want to use those bombs against America and its allies, and I think that those who feel otherwise are idiots, and in absolutely no position to strike moral poses,” Reynolds says.

Now this kind of statement involves certain time-tested rhetorical techniques. First, make a provocative claim that happens to be false. In fact, no Iranian government official has ever said Iran wants to use nuclear weapons against the United States. Then use this claim to defend actions, such as murdering civilians, which would remain immoral and illegal even if the claim happened to be true. Finally, condemn those who object to using lies to justify murder as “idiots,” who don’t understand the need to take strong and ruthless action when defending the fatherland from its enemies.

Upon being called to account, Reynolds, in trying to defend himself, managed to dig himself even deeper into a hole. The fascinating back and forth can be read here and some good commentary can also be seen here.

In a long and detailed essay, Norman Finkelstein takes another academic Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to task for his willingness to provide rationales for actions that would be considered horrendous crimes if done by people he disapproves of. Finkelstein says at the end:

After all the hard-won gains of civilization, who would want to live in a world that once again legally sanctioned torture, collective punishment, assassinations and mass murder? As Dershowitz descends into barbarism, it remains a hopeful sign that few seem inclined to join him.

I have written many times before, but it bears repeating again, that war does not simply bring death and destruction to those immediately involved. It also makes barbarians of us all. It makes people think of the immoral as necessary and evil acts as desirable.

March 01, 2007

How relations with Iran were sabotaged

The surprising statement by Condoleeza Rice yesterday that the US was reversing course on its previously adamant insistence against having talks with Iran and Syria, and was willing to attend six-party talks next month hosted by Iraq that will include both countries, is being hailed as a welcome sign of change by the Bush administration to try diplomacy instead of war. I wish I could feel as hopeful but I have become deeply cynical of the motives of this administration.

My skepticism is because there are reasons why this could be just a feint. Some members of Congress, alarmed by the war-like rhetoric coming out of the White House, have introduced a resolution expressly prohibiting an attack on Iran without their explicit approval. The suggestion of talks with Iran may be aimed at defusing those moves. Or it may be that the Bush administration thinks that before it initiates an air assault on Iran, it needs to show that it tried diplomacy and failed, and these talks are meant to suggest that they tried everything.

Whatever the reason behind this abrupt switch, this marks the latest shift of a turbulent relationship between the US and Iran. The February 19, 2007 issue of Newsweek has an informative article by Michael Hirsch and Maziar Bahari on how the US relationship with Iran has see-sawed. It had been clear for some time that Iran had sought closer ties with the US, after the low-point caused by the student takeover of the US embassy in 1979. Perhaps the best chance came at improving relations after the events of 9/11. Iran had arrested members of al Qaeda in that country and an Iranian official said:

"We wanted to truly condemn the attacks but we also wished to offer an olive branch to the United States, showing we were interested in peace," says Adeli. To his relief, Iran's top official, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, quickly agreed. "The Supreme Leader was deeply suspicious of the American government," says a Khameini aide whose position does not allow him to be named. "But [he] was repulsed by these terrorist acts and was truly sad about the loss of the civilian lives in America."

Iran was opposed to the Taliban and thus did not oppose the American invasion of Afghanistan and even offered $500 million dollars (twice what the US was offering) in reconstruction aid for the country. They also worked with the US in November and December of 2001 in setting up the post-Taliban Afghan government structure.

But that was the high point of the collaboration and things fell apart soon after that. The trigger for the decline was Bush's State of the Union speech in January 2002 that included the infamous 'axis of evil' phrase. Michael Gerson, Bush's speechwriter at the time, said that the Bush administration had already decided to invade Iraq but did not want to single out Iraq alone in his 2002 speech as that would make things too obvious. So they looked for other countries to include in the speech to camouflage their true intent and Condoleeza Rice suggested that North Korea and Iran be added. This labeling stunned the Iranians, completely discrediting those in the Iranian government who were pushing for closer ties with the US, and confirming the view of the chief Iranian cleric Ali Khamenei that the US simply could not be trusted. Relations never recovered after that.

The Newsweek article implies that this feint strategy to include Iran in the axis of evil was purely for domestic public relations purposes that had unintended and disastrous foreign policy consequences but I find that hard to believe. The neoconservative clique that has such a stranglehold on the Bush administration has always wanted to attack Iran and they must have been concerned at the rapprochement between the two countries. I suspect they were instrumental, through Rice, in including Iran, knowing that it would completely sour relations and increase the chances of hostilities.

But even after this there was a glimmer of hope when, after the 2003 attack on Iraq, Iran sent a fax to the US State Department offering talks on a wide range of issues. I wrote about this sometime ago but the actual fax is now available. Iran probably felt vulnerable because of the swift sweep of US forces into Iraq and thus offered to make concessions on almost everything, including its nuclear program. Condoleeza Rice now says that she cannot remember seeing the fax, an extraordinary admission about such an important development. It frankly seems far-fetched that Rice would not be aware of such a thing. One can only conclude that this administration, or at least key people in it, had decided that they were going to war with Iran and wanted to have nothing to do with anything that might deflect them from that course.

But this was another squandered opportunity, confirming to the Iranians that the US was not interested in improving relations.

I hope I am wrong in my cynicism about the latest warming trend, and that there will genuinely be a move back from the brink of another war and towards a better relationship between the US and Iran.

POST SCRIPT: The dark world of Dick Cheney

It used to be thought that Dick Cheney was the "grown-up" in this administration, there to provide gravitas and advise the inexperienced Bush. What has actually emerged is that Cheney is a man of appallingly bad judgment, almost paranoid in his fears about the threats to the US, and the most belligerent advocate for the neoconservative agenda of more and wider wars. It is suggested that it is no accident that the latest diplomatic overture by the US towards Iran occurred when he was out of the country and that on his return he might try and scuttle it.

There is now a growing awareness that Cheney is a dangerous and reckless man, who is willing to disregard evidence and say anything to further his agenda. Matthew Yglesias argues that Cheney has become both a national joke and a national nightmare, "a man whose track record of dishonesty, catastrophically poor judgments, and world-historical stubbornness makes the rest of the Bush administration look reasonable." And Josh Marshall adds that "outside of the hardcore of Bush dead-enders, people know he's at best an incompetent fool."

This telling cartoon suggests that more and more people are coming round to the kind of view.