Entries for April 2008

April 30, 2008

The end of god-1: The death of the three classical gods

God is still dead.

More than a hundred years after the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put those famous words "God is dead" into the mouth of one of his characters, implying that the Christian concept of god had become untenable, this statement has become even more true, the point driven home with new evidence from science and relentless logic by the advocates of the so-called 'new atheism'.

Much attention has been paid to the arguments made by the new atheists who have forcefully pointed out that not only are the evidentiary and intellectual foundations for the existence of god and the afterlife weak and shallow, but that religion is itself more of a force for evil than good in the world, either actively so or as an enabler. This group, whose public faces are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, and Sam Harris, have managed to bring these arguments to the forefront of the public debate.

The basic issue can be identified by the answers to two fundamental questions:

Is there any credible reason to think that god exists in any form? The answer is no.

Even if god is a fiction, does the concept have a net positive utilitarian value that makes it worth preserving? The answer is no.

The next series of posts will flesh out the developments since Nietzsche's time that have provided a more empirical basis for his conclusion.

To anticipate a common objection, it is perhaps necessary to first acknowledge that it is logically impossible to disprove the existence of a god whose properties are carefully defined so as to avoid detection, so believers can always seek refuge in the tiny loophole that logic provides them. But what has become increasingly clear is that to believe in god today is to make a willful decision to go against reason and evidence, and is clearly an irrational act.

The many powerful arguments against the existence of god and in favor of atheism have been around for a long time, going all the way back to the ancient Greek philosophers. (See my series of posts on the history of western atheism). So what exactly is new about the new atheism that has given it so much force that has enabled it to achieve such prominence?

To answer that question we need to look at the kinds of arguments advanced in favor of the existence of god. There are three different kinds of arguments, each one implying the existence of a different kind of god. In discussing with religious people about the existence of god, it is important to first clarify which god they arguing in favor of because otherwise, as I will discuss later, religious apologists tend to slide from one god to another, making a coherent discussion difficult.

Most of the arguments put forward by most religious people are in favor of the 'Personal God' theory. By pointing to admirable people who happened to be religious and arguing that they were directly influenced by god, by giving personal testimonies of experiencing the presence of god in their lives, by suggesting that singular events (alleged miracles) show god's existence by violating natural laws, appealing to the historical validity of religious texts, arguing that without god there would be no basis for morality or no explanation for altruism, etc., such arguments advance the idea of a peripatetic god who is always active everywhere, listening to each and every person, and responding to some of their prayers. The Personal God is credited with many good things that occur and although allegedly omnipotent, is curiously and inexplicably passive about preventing the many evils that occur on a daily basis.

A subset of Christian believers in the Personal God also believe in the literal truth of the Bible, that the Earth is 6,000 or so years old, that Adam and Eve were real people, that Noah's flood was a historical event, and so on.

The existence of another kind of god (the 'Ultimate Creator God') depends on the argument that it seems reasonable to suppose that for every complex thing in existence, one needs an even more complex thing to design it and bring it into being. Since many aspects of the world are complex, one could extend this argument up a ladder of ever increasingly complex designers and creators to assert that one needs an ultimate grand designer and creator, which is this particular god.

The third god (the 'God of the Gaps') is almost identical to the Ultimate Creator God conceptually, but instead of invoking a chain of causality ending up with god as a prime designer and creator, takes a more direct route by pointing to specific things in nature (such as the human eye, the wings of birds, etc.) that seem (to these believers at least) far too complex to have come about by natural laws and processes, these believers assert that these are exceptions to natural laws and required direct creation by god. In other words, god is not simply an ultimate explanation for all things but is instead an immediate and direct cause for the existence of many things, though far more selective in intervening in worldly affairs than the Personal God. The God of the Gaps is invoked to directly explain the existence of the hitherto otherwise unexplained.

The three kinds of god suggested by these arguments imply very different properties.

The Ultimate Creator God is one who is very hands-off. After initially carefully creating the universe and its laws with the goal of bringing the present form of life into being, he (for the sake of convenience I am going to treat god as being male) is assumed to leave things strictly alone. It is assumed that the Ultimate Creator God wanted, for some reason, to have humans in their present form eventually emerge from the initial cosmic soup, and thus had to carefully fine-tune the laws and initial conditions so that billions of years later conditions would be just right so that this is exactly what would happen. This is actually quite an incredible feat of planning and reverse engineering, but this is god we are talking about so this task is presumably a piece of cake for him.

The God of the Gaps has either inferior engineering skills to the Ultimate Creator God or is one of those perennial tinkerers who is never content with the original plans and ideas and keeps changing things as they go along. Either his initial plans had glitches that failed to produce important developments like the eye or the wings of birds and he had to step in and create them fresh, or such things were not in the initial plans at all and after observing his animal creations crashing into each other, this god suddenly had the brainwave that eyes would be a good eye and retrofitted them.

The Personal God seems to be the most inept of the three, a busybody who is constantly interfering in each and every person's life whether they want it or not. This god is the ultimate micromanager, never sticking to a plan but always stepping in to change things, violating his own rules if need be to achieve some immediate end, answering some prayers while ignoring others, preventing some bad things from happening while allowing colossal evils elsewhere, and creating such disorder and anarchy that it is hopeless to expect to find any pattern or reason in his behavior. As a result, many people just declare his intentions to be inscrutable, surrender their freedom and autonomy to him, and pray for him to tell them what to do about everything. Curiously, it is this seemingly most inept god of the three that most religious people seem to find appealing.

Next: The demise of each god

POST SCRIPT: The scandalous situation in Gaza

Juan Cole describes the inhumane sanctions imposed by Israel on the people of Gaza that is threatening over a million Palestinians with greater hunger.

The Israelis already have the Gaza Strip under military siege, carefully controlling what and who goes in and out of it. They have now cut off most fuel, and the United Nations has been forced to stop distributing food aid.

In addition, the Daily Telegraph reports that "The fuel blockade means pumps have already been turned off, causing water shortages and sewage problems, while the vaccination stocks at Gaza's main hospital were spoiled after it had to turn off its refrigerators."

As Cole comments, "This Israeli government action is an unvarnished war crime. It is known as collective punishment. There was already hunger and malnutrition among Palestinian children, which will now be worsened."

April 29, 2008

The emptiness of TV news shows

As I have repeatedly said, I rarely watch TV anymore, and don't have cable at home, still using rabbit antennas to receive a few broadcast stations on the rare occasions when I want to watch. The one exception is when I am traveling. Since I initially feel disoriented and lack access to the books, magazines, and normal activities I have at home, and since I initially find it hard to read or write in the unfamiliar surroundings, I tend to turn on the TV and flip through the vast number of stations. And each time, I am amazed that despite the large numbers of channels that there is so little I want to see.

A few months ago, the day after the 'Super Tuesday' primaries, I flew to San Francisco for a conference. Arriving at the hotel, I turned on the TV to CNN to find out what had happened in the elections. Wolf Blitzer was on in The Situation Room and the 'news' consisted of the endless repetition of half-baked analysis and idiotic speculation about what it all means and what might happen in the future, mixed in with advice on strategy for the candidates. It essentially consisted of one pair of commentators after another coming on to say essentially the same things. The commentators were carefully paired as 'liberal' and 'conservative' or 'Republican' and 'Democrat'. The reason for this careful labeling is that it is not what these so-called Villager commentators and analysts actually say that is important (in fact it is mostly inane speculation, pollspeak, and gratuitous dispensing of advice to candidates), but these labels give the viewer guidance on what the allowable range of 'respectable' opinion is and discourages them from thinking outside those boundaries. I think that the more you listen to such shows, the less likely you are to think independently.

Glenn Greenwald picks up on one of the most infuriating aspects of the Villager media that I have also noticed. "The single most dishonest and propagandistic tactic of establishment journalists is to take their own opinion and assert as a fact that "most Americans" agree with them, even when that assertion is indisputably false. David Brooks [of the New York Times] is probably the single most frequent purveyor of this deceit, but the bulk of establishment pundits regularly deploy the same method -- simultaneously holding themselves out as Spokesmen for the Regular People while showing complete contempt for what they actually think by lying about their views."

Greenwald goes on to describe the Villager mentality:

What the Beltway Establishment believes more than it believes anything else is that the U.S. should continue to intervene in other countries, dominate the Middle East, and rule the world by superior military force. Thus, no matter how many Americans come to reject that mindset, affirming that mentality will remain a prerequisite for Seriousness and for being approved of by the Beltway class. Any politician, Democratic or Republican, who rejects these basic orthodoxies, no matter how unpopular the orthodoxies become, will be relegated to "cuckoo land."

The real goal of the Beltway class is to eliminate all real differences, all meaningful debate, on these central questions. The Beltway class demands bipartisan agreement on the most important issues. Along with the belief that crimes committed by the revered Beltway elite should never be investigated and especially not prosecuted, they venerate this harmony above all else.

What amazes me, apart from the inability to of the hosts of these pundit programs ask these people on what basis they claim to know what "most Americans" think, is the vacuous nature of the commentary. Can people actually watch this stuff for more than, say, 15 minutes without throwing something at the TV? Thank goodness for the internet where I can get just the information I want without also having to listen to the drivel of the so-called political analysts.


Tom Tomorrow's cartoon captures the vacuity of the news programs in the way they have ignored the big story: that officials at the highest levels of this government knew and approved of the torture program.

April 28, 2008

An Atheist's Creed

In the course of writing many posts on science and religion and atheism, it struck me that I was tangentially making many statements about what I, as an atheist, believe. I decided to summarize those scattered thoughts into one coherent statement. Of course, I am not presuming to claim that all atheists subscribe to this statement. The creed is purely a personal one.

An important point of clarification is necessary. When the word 'believe' is used in the creed, it is in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence 'believe', some things such as that the universe is billions of years old or that the force of gravity exists. It is in this sense that the word 'believe' is used in the creed below, as an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty.

This use is in stark contrast to the way that the word is used by religious people. They not only believe things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.

Some religious apologists try to exploit the fact that the same word belief is used in both situations to suggest that atheism is as much an irrational act of faith as belief in god. This is sophistry and is simply false.

An Atheist's Creed

I believe in a purely material universe that conforms to naturalistic laws and principles.

I believe that the life we have is the only one we will have, that the mind and consciousness are inseparable from the brain, that we cease to exist in any conscious form when we die, and that it is therefore incumbent on us to enable each person to live their one life to the fullest.

I believe in the power of science and reason and rationality to further deepen our understanding of everything around us and to eventually overcome superstition and erase the petty divisions sown by religion, race, ethnicity, and nationality.

I am in awe of the beauty, vastness, and complexity of nature and the universe, and the fact that all arose purely by the working of natural laws.

I believe in the power of ideals such as peace and justice and shared humanity to inspire us to create a free and just world.

I believe in kindness, love, and the human spirit and their ability to overcome challenges and adversity and to create a better world.

I believe in the necessity for credible and objective evidence to sustain any belief and thus deny, because of the absence of such evidence, the existence of each and every aspect of the supernatural.

I refuse to bow, prostrate myself, or otherwise cower before the deities of any religion.

I am neither tempted by the fiction of heaven or any other form of eternal life nor fearful of the fiction of hell.

I choose to live the dignified and exhilarating life of a free-thinker, able to go wherever knowledge and curiosity takes me, without fear of contradicting any dogma.

April 25, 2008

Neoconservatives, Al Qaeda, and Curveball

A year ago ago, I wrote a series of three posts (part 1, part 2, and part 3) about a fascinating BBC documentary The Power of Nightmares that charted the parallel rise of two groups: the neoconservatives in the US (whose ideology was formulated by University of Chicago philosopher Leo Strauss) and the radical Islamists (led by an Arab intellectual Sayyed Qutb).

Both groups saw liberal ideas as leading to moral decay. Both saw themselves and their followers as an enlightened elite that was superior to the ignorant masses. They both felt that it was up to them to reverse this decay by any means necessary. They adopted the strategy of advancing myths such as religion and nationalism in order to keep the people 'virtuous'.

Both groups also believed in scaring the daylights out of ordinary people, in order to keep them fearful and thus easily manipulated. The radical Islamists used terror, including assassinations of political leaders and other forms of violence against their own people to intimidate their opponents. The neoconservatives and the US and British governments overplayed the strength of al Qaeda and the danger of terror posed to the West by the Islamists because that fantasy enabled them to frighten the public and carry out domestic policies at home and military actions abroad that otherwise might have been opposed.

The three-hour documentary shows how the neoconservative fantasy about threats was used to drive disastrous policies such as the attack on Iraq. It is quite amazing to see political leaders and opinion makers in the US and Britain flatly assert that they have convincing evidence for things that we now know to be absolutely false.

The documentary is now available online. It is well worth the time to watch it.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

It is by now firmly established that the US public was deceived into supporting the invasion of Iraq. Part of the propaganda was led by the neoconservatives, who have long sought American dominance in that region. What might be stunning to those less cynical about the lack of integrity of political leaders than I am is the extent to which the American and British governments lied to their own people about things they knew to be false, using the flimsiest of cover stories.

Perhaps the most disgraceful element of the fraudulent case was the role of the alleged Iraqi defector known by the codename 'Curveball'. His 'testimony' was used to build up lurid tales of the danger posed by Iraq.

Curveball was a liar who knew what the US wanted to hear and told his interrogators exactly that, knowing that they would run with it. He was the source for nearly all the lies in Colin Powell's speech at the UN, backed by the head of the CIA George Tenet. But even he must have been bemused by the lack of any attempt to verify his stories even though there were numerous warning signs that his story was not credible. Even more amazingly, Powell and Tenet based their public statements on this information even though American intelligence interrogators were not allowed access to Curveball by the Germans who were holding him. They simply passed on the information received from the Germans up to their superiors.

US weapons inspector David Kay, sent to Iraq by the Bush Administration after the invasion to find the alleged weapons of mass destruction, reveals in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel the extent of the deceit that was perpetrated by the government and its intelligence agencies.

In the interview Kay delivers a warning: "I feel disillusioned. I think that 'Curveball' was the biggest and most consequential intelligence fiasco of my lifetime. It shows how important effective civilian control of the intelligence services is, because non-transparency is extraordinarily dangerous for democracy. In an intelligence service, people who don't make waves are rewarded. I am worried that the same mistakes could be repeated all over again."

One error Kay makes is in labeling what happened as 'mistakes'. Those were not mistakes. They were deliberate acts of policy and will be repeated whenever it again becomes convenient to do so.

POST SCRIPT: Health care

Dr. Vincent Navarro has an excellent and informative article dealing with the politics and history of attempts at health care reform in the US.

Navarro is Professor of Health Policy, Public Policy, and Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He has written extensively on economics, health, and social policy, and has been advisor to many governments and international agencies. His books have been translated into many languages. He was the founder and president of the International Association of Health Policy, and for almost forty years has been Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Health Services. He is also a founding member of Physicians for a National Health Program.

April 24, 2008

Podi Singham, 1925-2008

(My mother Gnaneswari Singham, universally known by her childhood pet name of Podi, died on March 23, 2008 at the age of 83. A thanksgiving service was held for her at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Thimbirigasyaya. Colombo, Sri Lanka on Saturday, April 19, 2008, 5:30 pm. Below are two photographs of her, one taken in her late teens and the other in her mid-50s, followed by my tribute to her given during the service.)

Ma1945small.jpg Ma1980small.jpg

When my sisters Shanti and Rohini asked me to give one of the tributes to my mother, I wondered how I could condense a lifetime's relationship with someone so special into a few minutes. I decided not to talk about her international championship quality bridge playing, which you all know about. I also decided not to talk about the thousands upon thousands of hours she spent volunteering on behalf of so many organizations, trying to make the world a better place by helping others in need.

I decided that rather than tell you a lot of stories about my mother, stories that can be multiplied many times by all of the people here whose own lives have touched her and been touched by her, I would instead dwell on what I learned from her attitude about the big questions of life and death.

We are all familiar from childhood with Aesop's fable about the ant and the grasshopper. During the summer, the grasshopper sings and has a good time while the ant is busily building a home and storing away food for the coming winter. When winter comes, the grasshopper is cold and hungry and goes to the ant for help but the ant turns him away saying, "You sang all summer so now you can dance all winter."

When children are told this story, they are supposed to admire the thrifty little ant and to deplore the grasshopper's careless ways. But I must say that I always thought that the ant was a highly unlikable character. After all, what kind of person would turn away someone in dire need?

My sympathy for the grasshopper comes from my parents. If we think of the ant and the grasshopper as representing two extremes of behavior, my parents were definitely closer to the grasshopper than the ant. While they were not wasteful, my parents were more concerned with living fully here and now than preparing for the distant future. They never seemed to be too concerned about accumulating material wealth. And, most importantly, they never turned away other grasshoppers that came to them for help. My mother would always be willing to listen to those in need and try to help in any way she could.

My mother was a voracious reader, of newspapers, books, and magazines dealing with a wide variety of things so that you could carry on a conversation with her on almost any topic. I am not sure if she ever read the works of the philosopher Robert Ingersoll, but I am certain that she would have agreed with his philosophy of life when he said: "Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now. The way to be happy is to make others so." My mother lived according to that philosophy. She would try to help others be happy and then share in their joy.

I also learned from my mother the importance of being kind and friendly to others and treating everyone, without exception, with respect. It was a source of humor in our family that irrespective of what part of the world she was in, any time she was seated next to someone for more than five minutes, in a waiting room, on a train or bus or plane, whoever that person was or from whatever station in life, she would strike up a conversation and pretty soon they would be laughing together like old friends.

I learned from her that it is a waste of time whining to others about your own problems because they have problems too. It is better to just face up to whatever hand that life gives you, deal with it as best as you can, and then move on. Life is too precious to be spent on self-pity, and constantly complaining about your own misfortunes doesn't get you anywhere.

I think that it was this lack of self-absorption that attracted people to her. Here is one example. When I became seriously ill with polio at the age of six, my parents immediately set about trying to do the best for me which involved taking me to England for medical treatment as soon as possible. Since my father could not go immediately due to work demands, my mother by herself took my sisters and me to England to start my treatment. Imagine, back in the 1950s when overseas travel was a daunting challenge, here was a thirty year old woman setting off to a strange and distant country requiring a month long sea voyage, while taking care of three young children, one of whom was very sick and barely able to walk and another who was a one year old infant.

But almost immediately, my mother made many friends on that ship and pretty soon she had an army of volunteers eager to help her. For example, she told me that she would put our clothes in the washing machine in the laundry room and then go back to the cabin to take care of us. But when she returned later to complete the chore, she found that another passenger, a stranger, had taken all the clothes out of the washer, and dried, ironed, and neatly stacked them, because that person has seen that my mother had her hands full. Other people would volunteer to take care of her children for hours on end so that she could enjoy the voyage more, and my mother became a fixture at the captain's table. The friends she made on that trip remained friends all her life.

Just as she was always willing to help others, people helped her in all manner of ways. They did not do this out of pity. People enjoyed helping her because rather than being self-pitying or mournful, she faced up to life's challenges cheerfully. Her positive attitude to life, her graciousness, and her playful, even occasionally mischievous, good humor seemed to bring out the kindness and goodness in others.

Her attitude to death, like her attitude to life, was also very matter of fact. She saw death as part of the cycle of life and did not fear it. When I was in Sri Lanka in January, she and I spent many, many hours just talking. In most of our conversations, we recalled all the good times that we had shared. But we also spoke about death and she did not shy away from this topic that people tend to avoid, even though she sensed that it was imminent. My mother was a smart woman. She knew what the recurrence of her cancer meant. She knew that while surgery was unavoidable, it carried with it serious risks. But she reassured me many times that she was not afraid. She said that she had had a long and good life. She had done so much, traveled to so many places, seen so many things, had such good health until the very end, made so many friends, experienced so much of the richness of life that to wish for even more, to ask that it be extended indefinitely, was to be greedy and ungrateful. She said (using a metaphor from cricket, a sport of which she was a big fan) that she had had a very good innings and if the match was to end, then so be it.

Her faith in god undoubtedly played an important role in her ability to face death so matter-of-factly. She told me that she believed that god would not give her a challenge that she could not meet and so she had put her life in god's hands and was ready for anything.

Richard Dawkins begins his book Unweaving the Rainbow by saying: "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born." My mother would have agreed with him that we, all of us, are lucky just by virtue of having experienced life.

My parents, the grasshoppers, did in the end accumulate a lot of wealth. But it was not in the form of money or possessions. Their wealth took the far more valuable form of rich life experiences, precious memories, and treasured friends.

To the end, my mother was preparing us to not be sad when she died, typically worrying more about our happiness and welfare than her own. I know that she would want us to celebrate her life, not to mourn her death.

I would like to thank all of you here for being a part of that life. I know that all of you meant a lot to her. Each one of our lives is a thread that she used to weave the glorious tapestry of her own life.

We are all lucky to be alive and to have lived. Although we miss her terribly, I know I also speak for my sisters when I say that that the three of us had an extra share of luck to have had such a kind, generous, fun-loving, and altogether wonderful person as our mother.

April 23, 2008

The propaganda machine-15: The armies of the right

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this final post in the series, I want to look at the big picture.

If you think of the ideological wars as being fought by armies, then to understand the role of the third tier pundit class one has to see them as non-commissioned officers (NCOs), the sergeants if you will, the ones who actually lead the ordinary soldiers, which in this case is that segment of the public that agrees with them. The pseudo-scholars who occupy the think tanks are the middle level officers. The very top brass, the generals, are the corporate owners, other big business interests, and the extremely rich people who create and underwrite the think tanks and create the media outlets. One key difference between real armies and those involved in the propaganda wars is that in the real armies the very top brass are highly visible in the media while the NCOs are invisible. In the propaganda army, however, it is the NCOs who are visible with the top brass being invisible.

The third tier pundits are part of the public face of the propaganda machine, the ones who are constantly rallying the troops with incendiary language and ideas. They play important roles in the tactical day–to-day battles but they are also dispensable once they have served their purpose. The think tankers play more strategic roles, formulating the plans that the third tier pundits carry out.

But I think that, financially rewarding as it must be to sing the song that your corporate paymasters pay you to sing, there is a price paid by these hired guns. The think tank 'scholars' and third tier pundits are clearly academic wannabees who could not make the grade in academia, and it must eventually chafe them to not have the freedom that genuine academics have to freely go wherever their investigations take them. This is not to say that these people are saying things that are contrary to their beliefs. I think they are perfectly sincere, at least most of them for most of the time. The way the filtering system works is that it draws in people who already think the way that these right-wing funders want them to think, so initially at least there is compatibility.

But in general as people grow more mature and have more experience of life, they tend to realize that the world is a complex place and that the Manichaean worldview of good and evil and the simplistic sloganeering of their youth is rather childish. There surely must come a moment when even the most obtuse third tier pundits or think tank hacks realize that they are trapped in an intellectual prison. They cannot change their views or even take more nuanced positions because that would get them summarily ousted from their sinecures.

This must cause them to look longingly at academics who have much greater intellectual freedom and can modify or even switch positions without risking getting tossed out on their ear. If I am convinced otherwise, I can change my mind about any issue at all and say so. But the think tankers and third tier pundits can't. They are pretty much stuck in their one role, singing the same tune forever and ever. This must rankle the third tier pundits and think tank 'scholars' at some level, however much they may try to rationalize it, which may explain why they attack academia so much.

I think Michael Berube got it just right about third tier pundits when he analyzed the potential source of David Horowitz's unhinged ranting against universities. He said that it must be because Horowitz, someone who fancies himself as an intellectual, envies academics because he himself is not free to say what he wants the way that university academics can.

I think we're finally getting to the real reason David hates professors so much. It has nothing to do with our salaries or our working hours: he hates our freedom. Horowitz knows perfectly well that I can criticize the Cockburns and Churchills to my left and the Beinarts and Elshtains to my right any old time I choose, and that at the end of the day I'll still have a job - whereas he has to answer to all his many masters, fetching and rolling over whenever they blow that special wingnut whistle that only far-right lackeys can hear. It's not a very dignified way to live, and surely it takes its toll on a person's sense of self-respect.

I think that this same phenomenon must eventually drive all the hired-gun third-tier pundits and think tank ideological hacks to great frustration. It is really somewhat sad and pathetic, but it is the path they have chosen.

The world of academia is by no means idyllic. It has its own petty politics and its own ambitious people who seek to subvert its ideals for personal gain. But it is important to realize that the core value around which universities and academia is built is that of the disinterested search for truth, and all its structures (such as tenure and peer review) are designed to foster that goal. Anyone who wants to do otherwise has to willfully work to subvert the system. The core values of think tanks and their third tier pundit hangers-on is exactly the opposite. It is to produce propaganda and anyone who wants to do good research has to find ways to work around that system.

And that is a world of difference.

POST SCRIPT: The state of the economy

Paul Craig Roberts paints a rather gloomy picture of the fading US economy.

April 22, 2008

The propaganda machine-14: The role of the third-tier pundits

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

This fairly long series on how the propaganda machine was created and operates was necessary in order to understand the original question of how the phenomenon of third-tier pundits arose. The machine provides the soil that nurtures them and allows them to ply their trade. This is why there seems to be almost nothing that the third-tier pundits can say, however idiotic or offensive, that gets them booted off the media, as long as they faithfully advance the values of their sponsors.

The role of third-tier pundits like Goldberg, Coulter, D'Souza, and Malkin is to entertain and create noise and move the boundaries of the discussion to the right by saying the most outlandish things. Their arguments do not even have to make sense as long as they are out there fanning the flames on behalf of their paymasters. The crackpot ideas of the third tier pundits make other right-wing pundits who hold views similar to the third-tier pundits but express them in more sober voices (people like William Kristol, Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Bennett, etc.) seem reasonable.

It is also interesting that nepotism and cronyism run rampant in these circles. Jonah Goldberg's road was paved by his mother Lucianne Goldberg, who rose to fame as a gossip peddler in the Monica Lewinsky case, William Kristol rode the coattails of his famous father, the neoconservative icon Irving Kristol. John Podhoretz benefited from being the son of Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, and was recently appointed to the editorship of Commentary, the same journal his father edited. In fact, there seems to be a kind of entitlement welfare system at work for these people.

In the right-wing media world, third-tier pundits like Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Dinesh D'Souza, Frank Gaffney, and David Horowitz play the role of 'useful idiots'. By that I don't mean that they are stupid. Most of them have considerable formal education and some have advanced degrees. They are usually glib and have at least the intelligence to realize that if they are willing to play a particular role, they can secure well-paid employment. But they are essentially hired guns, disposable cogs in the machine, people who realized at a fairly early age that with their ideological bent, they could make a good living by using their rhetorical talents to sign on as low-level soldiers in the ideological wars.

Another advantage (to the pro-business/pro-war elite) of having a class of third tier pundits is that they are disposable because they are pretty much interchangeable. If any of them should become a liability for whatever reason or cease to be effective, they can be got rid of and easily replaced with fresh faces who have little baggage. There are recent signs that Coulter has outlived her usefulness and is falling out of favor, but she can and will be easily replaced.

As Juan Cole says about Goldberg (although his comments apply to all of the third tier pundits):

Goldberg is just a dime a dozen pundit. Cranky rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure generally that rightwing views come to predominate even among people who are harmed by such policies.

Previously, Goldberg with the arrogance of someone who lacks self-reflection, actually had the temerity to assert that he was a more credible analyst of Middle Eastern politics than Juan Cole, who is a political science professor whose field is the history of that region, who has lived for many years in the Middle East and speaks fluent Arabic, none of which Goldberg can boast of. This was too much for the usually mild-mannered Juan Cole who then proceeded to slap Goldberg silly, saying:

I think it is time to be frank about some things. Jonah Goldberg knows absolutely nothing about Iraq. I wonder if he has even ever read a single book on Iraq, much less written one. He knows no Arabic. He has never lived in an Arab country. He can't read Iraqi newspapers or those of Iraq's neighbors. He knows nothing whatsoever about Shiite Islam, the branch of the religion to which a majority of Iraqis adheres. Why should we pretend that Jonah Goldberg's opinion on the significance and nature of the elections in Iraq last Sunday matters? It does not.

Goldberg then tried to backtrack, saying that he did not claim to have more knowledge than Cole, just better judgment. This alone shows just how vapid and disconnected with reality these people are, and how their minds work, as Cole immediately pointed out:

Goldberg is now saying that he did not challenge my knowledge of the Middle East, but my judgment. I take it he is saying that his judgment is superior to mine. But how would you tell whose judgment is superior? Of course, all this talk of "judgment" is code for "political agreement." Progressives think that other progressives have good judgment, Conservatives think that other conservatives have good judgment. This is a tautology in reality. Goldberg believes that I am wrong because I disagree with him about X, and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong, and ipso facto lacks good judgment.

An argument that judgment matters but knowledge does not is profoundly anti-intellectual. It implies that we do not need ever to learn anything in order make mature decisions. We can just proceed off some simple ideological template and apply it to everything. This sort of thinking is part of what is wrong with this country. We wouldn't call a man in to fix our plumbing who knew nothing about plumbing, but we call pundits to address millions of people on subjects about which they know nothing of substance.

Cole is exactly right. The know-nothing pundit class is a menace to society, distorting public policy and advancing truly harmful actions. The sooner they get the ridicule they deserve and are laughed off the stage, the better.

POST SCRIPT: Wall Street gamblers

Recently I ran a series of posts titled The brave new world of finance about the financial mess caused by the subprime housing loan practices and how it exposed the rampant recklessness with which the big Wall Street financial interests were operating. In the following Terry Gross interview with Michael Greenberger, he provides one of the clearest explanations I have heard about the complex transactions that were going on. Essentially, all these people were gambling with other people's money.

I must warn you that the very clarity of Greenberger's explanations makes his prediction that things are even worse than we think somewhat depressing.

April 21, 2008

The propaganda machine-13: Why journalists perpetuate the myth of a liberal media

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Even a casual glance at the ownership structure of the media should be enough to dispel the notion that the media are 'liberal' in any meaningful sense. As for the owners, Robert McChesney writes in The Problem of the Media (2003):

Many prominent media moguls are rock-ribbed conservatives such as Rupert Murdoch, John Malone, former GE CEO Jack Welch, and Clear Channel CEO Lowry Mays. Although some media executives and owners donate money to Democrats, none of the major news media owners is anything close to a left-winger. Journalists who praise corporations and commercialism will obviously be held in higher regard (and given more slack) by owners and advertisers than journalists who are routinely critical of them. Media owners do not want their own economic interests or policies criticized. (p. 115)

The true colors of the media were on open display during the run up to the war in Iraq. The progressive Phil Donahue had his show cancelled by MSNBC in February 2003 despite being their highest rated show at that time. Even before that, Donahue had been tightly controlled by his bosses and told that he had to have two conservative guests for every liberal one.

Of course MSNBC is owned by General Electric, and since wars are always good for GE, they were not anxious to have a war critic like Donahue given too visible a platform. Similarly ABC is owned by Disney, CBS by Viacom, and Fox by NewsCorp. The main news program on PBS, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, is also underwritten by big corporations. Can we really expect any serious unbiased reporting on the power of corporations by such institutions?

Meanwhile, infantile right wing talk show hosts like Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, and John Gibson continued to have their shows on TV for long periods despite their low ratings. The last two only recently were cancelled.

One also has to distinguish to some extent between the real powers, which are the owners of the media and are behind the scenes, and the public faces of the media that consists of the journalists whose faces and bylines we are familiar with. Since the major media is located in urban centers, even though their employees are an integral part of the pro-business/pro-war Villager group, they also tend to be urban sophisticates and thus may be liberal on a few social issues such as gay rights and abortion, and are not likely to be rapture-ready fundamentalist Christians. These features are enough to make the right-wing charge of a 'liberal' media plausible in the public's eye.

Of course, it is not possible for the journalists employed by the corporate media to completely ignore the fundamental nature of corporate control of the media. But that situation is finessed by channeling the discussion away from issue of ownership, class, and privilege to a fake populism that panders to and fans the flames of division that do not impinge on the privileges of big business. Hence topics such as race, religion, and sexuality are readily seized on as they appeal to visceral feelings. When people are all fired up about these side issues, they have little energy left to ponder why the gap between the extremely wealthy and them is getting larger by the day, and why the media dwells obsessively on the health of the stock market and other Wall Street interests at the expense of covering (say) labor issues or the lack of access to adequate health care.

McChesney discusses this sleight of hand that diverts people's attention away from the real issues:

At its most effective, the conservative critique plays off the elitism inherent to professionalism and to liberalism. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the populist airs of the conservative criticism are strictly for show, as they tend to collapse as soon as class – the one unmentionable term in the conservative lexicon – is introduced. In fact, many right-wingers who swear allegiance to the working class hark from well-to-do families and oppose traditional policies to improve the conditions of the working class, even trade unions. The same conservative pundits and politicians who wrap themselves in the military and fire the starting gun at NASCAR races typically dodged the draft themselves, like most other upper-middle class and rich folk. And the same upper-class conservative pundits who galvanize working-class Christians to support right-wing politics with thunderous moral pronouncements sometimes turn out to be liars, philanderers, drug users, and chronic gamblers. (p. 113)

Why are these obvious contradictions not pointed out by journalists? Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (who once worked within mainstream media and has seen how it operates from the inside) made the interesting observation about the how media censors itself to produce mainly a right wing viewpoint.

So much of the imbalance and shallowness of press coverage today stems from a simple fact: reporters know they'll catch hell from the right if they say or write anything that can even remotely be construed as representing 'liberal bias'. (Often even that's not required.) Indeed, when you actually watch -- from the inside -- how mainstream newsrooms work, it is really not too much to say that they operate on two guiding principles: reporting the facts and avoiding impressions of 'liberal bias'.

Marshall says that the arrival of the internet and of bloggers has enabled a better sense of balance, because now there is an avenue for a wider group of people to make their displeasure known when the media acts in a way that is seen as biased or partisan. It is now possible for people without deep pockets to provide at least some countervailing pressure on the Villagers.

On the left or center-left, until very recently, there's simply never been an organized chorus of people ready to take the Howells of the press biz to task and mau-mau them when they get a key fact wrong. Without that, the world of political news was like an NBA game where one side played the refs hard and had roaring seats of fans while the other never made a peep. With that sort of structural imbalance, shoddy scorekeeping and cowed, and eventually compliant, refs are inevitable.

You would think that the journalists themselves would loudly defend their independence and assert that they are just doing journalism, not bending to ideological winds. But interestingly, the journalists seem to be some of the perpetuators of the myth that the media has a liberal bias. Why is this? McChesney points out the interesting fact that that it is to the advantage of journalists to propagate the myth of a liberal media, because it actually puts them in a good light.

In fact, it is hardly surprising that the conservative critique of the media is so prominent – given that this myth is cultivated to some extent by the so-called liberal media themselves. The conservative critique is in some respects the "official opposition" cultivated by professional journalism itself because in a sense journalists have to be viewed as "liberals," fiercely independent and out of step with their corporate owners, for the system to have any credibility. Were journalists seen as cravenly bowing before wealth and privilege, journalism would lose credibility as an autonomous democratic force. After all, the quest for autonomy played a significant role in the development of professional journalism in the first place. The conservative critique is also rather flattering to journalists; it says to them: you have all the power but you use the power to advance the interests of the poor and minorities and environmentalists (or government bureaucrats and liberal elitists) rather than the interests of corporations and the military (or Middle America). A political economic critique, which suggests that journalists have much less power and are too often the pawns of forces that make them agents of the status quo, is much less flattering and almost invisible. (When the "left" critique is on rare occasion presented in mainstream media, one suspects it is included so journalists can claim they are being attacked from both sides and therefore must be neutral, nonpartisan, and straight down the middle.) (p. 114)

Next: Back to the third tier pundits.

April 18, 2008

The changing problems of science and religion

(I will be away on travel this week so will be reposting an old series, edited and updated, that discusses the nature of science and the difference between science and religion. New posts start again on Monday, April 21, 2008.)

In the previous posting, I discussed some of the problems that arise is reconciling science and religion. These problems change with time as our understanding of science changes and the explanatory powers of science encompass more and more phenomena.

For example, in the pre-Copernican era, one could have had a plausible model of god that became much harder to sustain in the light of post-Copernican scientific developments. This was because the universe then was seen as consisting of a spherical Earth located at the center of a finite universe and surrounded by a concentric rotating sphere in which the stars were embedded. (See Thomas Kuhn's The Copernican Revolution for a detailed history.) People thought that the stars were very small objects, and thus the outer sphere containing them could be quite nearby.

In that model, it was possible to think of the heavens as lying beyond this outer sphere and this provided a home for god and angels and so on. There are no major conceptual problems in believing this model. This model enabled people to envision without much difficulty how god could intervene in the events on Earth. All that was required was to imagine god as having pretty much the same powers as human beings did, but just more powerful and extensive. Thus god has more refined senses, sees better, hears better, is more powerful, travels faster, etc. It was not hard to think of god in heaven actually seeing and hearing what was going on Earth, being able to send thunderbolts or other forms of signals from heaven to Earth, or even making a quick trip (either personally or by sending angels) to Earth. Believing that god intervened in everyday events was not that hard to conceive within the framework of a pre-Copernican cosmology.

But Copernicus' introduction of a heliocentric universe, and the more precise astronomical observations made possible by the invention of the telescope caused some serious problems for such early models, although the theological implications seemed to have taken some time to sink in.

As Kuhn points out (on page 193):

When it was taken seriously, Copernicus' proposal raised many gigantic problems for the believing Christian. If, for example, the earth were merely one of six planets, how were the stories of the Fall and of the Salvation, with their immense bearing on Christian life, to be preserved? If there were other bodies essentially like the earth, God's goodness would surely necessitate that they, too, be inhabited. But if there were men on other planets, how could they be descendents of Adam and Eve, and how could they have inherited the original sin, which explains man's otherwise incomprehensible travail on an earth made for him by a good and omnipotent deity? Again, how could men on other planets know of the Savior who opened to them the possibility of eternal life? Or, if the earth is a planet and therefore a celestial body located away from the center of the universe, what becomes of man's intermediate but focal position between the devils and the angels? If the earth, as a planet, participates in the nature of celestial bodies, it cannot be a sink of iniquity from which man will long to escape to the divine purity of the heavens. Nor can the heavens be a suitable abode for God if they participate in the evils and imperfections so clearly visible on a planetary earth. Worst of all, if the universe is infinite, as many of the later Copernicans thought, where can God's Throne be located? In an infinite universe, how is man to find God or God man?

Most of those new problems are metaphysical. The last point mentioned by Kuhn is the one I want to focus on because it represents a physical problem and the one that is of most interest to me as a physicist. If the universe if infinite, then where does god exist? Since telescopes can now observe vast sections of the universe, it strains the imagination to think of god occupying some part of the physical universe because if god is made of the same kinds of stuff as other things in the universe, then how is it that our telescopes and other devices don't detect anything?

I am not sure (not being an expert of the history of theology) but it may be that it was to solve this problem that popular ideas about god being a non-material entity (and hence undetectable by telescopes) who is everywhere began to gain ground. That way, it was possible to overcome the time and space problems associated with having a material god who necessarily has to occupy the same physical space as us.

But this raises yet other problems. If god is non-material and occupying a non-material space that co-exists with our more familiar material world, then how can he/she interact with the material world to influence it? After all, if (say) god intervenes to change the course of natural events, then it must involve changing the behavior of tangible physical objects and this requires the application of forces to those tangible objects, and such forces fall within the realm of the physical world.

One solution is to forego all interventions by god except in the form of changing people's minds, and postulate that human beings possess a mind that is independent of the body, and thus occupies a space similar to or identical with that occupied by god. Thus communication within this 'spirit world' can take place between god and people. Such models allow for the concept of an after-life.

But this just shifts the problem one step away, and does not solve it. Because then we have the problem of understanding the mind-body relationship of each person and this has all the problems associated with the god-people relationship. If the mind exists independently of the body, then where does it exist? If the mind is a non-material entity, then how does it influence the body (which is material)? And so on. Such concerns were articulated by the mathematician-scientist-philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650). Note that Descartes posed these concerns after Copernican ideas had taken hold and the potentially vast size of the universe became better appreciated, giving such problems a sense of urgency,

The way that I have formulated these questions obviously reveals my physics background. I treat space and time as meaningful physical entities and so cannot easily absorb platitudinous statements like "god is everywhere" without further exploration as to what that statement actually means. I am guessing that most people do not consciously consider these questions either because they do not occur to them or shy away from them because of the discomfort they can cause.

So how does one resolve all these problems created by the assumption of god's existence in the light of modern scientific knowledge about a vast universe? I think once again people have to resort to Ockham's razor and each person will choose a position that satisfies him or her. I found that using Ockham's razor resulted in my dispensing with the idea of god altogether.

Assuming the existence of god creates a vast number of contradictions and complications that can only be dealt with by pleading ignorance and invoking an inscrutable deity, neither of which is very satisfying.

April 17, 2008

Science, religion, and Ockham's razor

(I will be away on travel this week so will be reposting an old series, edited and updated, that discusses the nature of science and the difference between science and religion. New posts start again on Monday, April 21, 2008.)

A few days ago I was working in my backyard when I noticed that the outdoor thermometer that I had fixed to a fence had disappeared. The mountings were still there but had been pulled away slightly. I thought that maybe the wind had blown it off and so I looked at the ground underneath but the thermometer was not there. There is a bed of pachysandra nearby and I looked nearby in it but no luck. I was baffled.

I pondered the various options for explaining the missing thermometer. One was that the wind had been strong enough to rip the thermometer from its mounting and blow it farther away into the pachysandra. The other was that it had fallen to the ground below and had then been taken away by squirrels or the neighbor's cat. The third was that neighborhood children had borrowed it without permission for some experiment. The fourth was that the International Outdoor Thermometer Cartel (IOTC) had raised the price of these thermometers to such a high value that organized crime gangs were stealing them and selling them on the black market. The fifth option was that aliens had taken it away as a souvenir of their clandestine visit to Earth.

Given these options, I decided that #1 was the most likely one and looked in the pachysandra over a larger area and, sure enough, I found it.

The reason for this anecdote is that it illustrates that I used something that we all use all the time (whether we are consciously aware of it or not), and that is Ockham's razor to make choices among competing theories.

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, the principle behind Ockham's razor (also called the law of economy or the law of parsimony) was stated by the scholastic William of Ockham (1285–1347), as "Plurality should not be posited without necessity." The principle is also expressed as "Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity." Ockham did not himself use the word 'razor', that was added to his name later by others.

The principle gives precedence to simplicity, but there are two ways it can be used. In the first case (which is more closely aligned with Ockham's intent), it says that you should not postulate more elements for anything other than the minimum required. For example, in the case of my missing thermometer, if I postulated one theory that a cat had taken it and a competing theory was that a cat that had a striped tail and a scar on its forehead had taken it, then in the absence of any extra information, the former theory is to be preferred. The latter theory just adds elements that do not add any necessary information to the explanation. The application of this version of the principle is fairly straightforward. One seeks the smallest subset of elements of a theory that provides an adequate explanation of whatever you are trying to explain.

The more problematic (but common) use of Ockham's razor is when you try and apply it to a situation where there are two competing theories that share either no common elements or there exist at least some necessary elements of one theory that the other does not possess. We commonly interpret Ockham's razor in those situations as requiring us to choose the simpler of the two theories. But simplicity may well lie in the eye of the beholder and it may not be easy to get agreement.

So, for example, in the case of the thermometer that was found some distance away from its mountings, the simpler explanation (for me at least) was that of the wind. If called upon, I could cite Bernoulli's Principle and the laws of motion to support my preference. That explanation is enough to satisfy me.

But this may not be true for someone else. For someone who is a believer in the existence UFOs and space aliens, a theory that alien vandals landed in my garden, tore the thermometer from its moorings, threw it away in the pachysandra and left in their spaceship, might be the "simpler" explanation. After all, it does not involve the use of calculus.

That is exactly the problem in many of the science and religion discussions. Apart from those people who reject science altogether, the integration of science and religion into one coherent philosophical framework becomes one of the most difficult challenges and there is no simple solution to it. And all of us use Ockham's razor to resolve it, even though the results are not the same for everyone.

A belief in the existence of god implies that there must be at least some phenomena caused by the intervention of god that lie outside the purview of science. (I am not considering the point of view that god created the world and its laws in one instant of time long ago and then has had a completely hands-off policy since then.)

For example, Biblical literalists will start with the assumption that the Bible is a historical document and that the events described in it (the world was created in six days and is only 6,000 years old, Joshua caused the Sun to stand still, Noah's flood did occur, etc.) all actually occurred. They will then painstakingly and tortuously try and reinterpret all evidence to be consistent with these axioms. The website Answers in Genesis goes to extraordinary lengths to try and answer questions such as "Where did Cain find his wife?" and "Did dinosaurs live alongside humans?" These are questions that do not trouble anyone who does not treat the Bible as an authoritative source for science and history.

But even those who take the Bible less literally have to confront difficult questions because at some point, the question is going to arise about where you draw the line and ascribe something to the actions of god. Each person will draw the line between god's actions and the actions of natural laws differently, depending on their personal level of comfort with the explanation.

This is something that believers in any theistic religion have to confront. Some will believe that any event that does not have a ready explanation to hand (a death in the family, an escape from injury, an unexpected recovery from a serious illness) are directly due to god's intervention to change the course of events. In order to deal with the existence of evil in the presence of an omnipotent and loving god, believers usually end up having to postulate that god's actions are inscrutable and that we cannot know the answers to at least some of the events that occur in the world.

At the other end, others might believe that god does not actually cause a change in the natural sequence of events but instead exerts his/her influence by working through people. In other words, people are the agents of god's actions and the sole mechanism by which he/she influences events. So people are cured of illnesses because god inspires researchers and physicians, and so on.

There are also an infinite number of intermediate states between those two extremes. For example, people like the biochemist Michael Behe, who is an intelligent design advocate and author of the book Darwin's Black Box, accept natural explanations for everything except for a few selected phenomena at the biochemical level (such as the blood clotting mechanism or the creation of the bacterial flagellum) that he feels are unlikely to have been created by natural processes. (See the New Yorker article by H. Allen Orr for a clear description of what Behe's argument is. Cory also sent me a link to a nice article written by John Rennie, editor of Scientific American, that addresses some of the key points raised by ID advocates.)

Or one can use decide that there is no god (or supernatural entity of any kind), and all that exists is the material world. This is the position of philosophical naturalism or atheism. (I am treating the two terms as effectively synonymous, although professional philosophers might disagree).

So we are left with only Ockham's razor with which to make a decision but in this case, it is a very personal razor whose use will satisfy only us. I personally find that assuming no god exists makes everything simpler and much more meaningful.

But those who are committed to believing in the existence of god despite the lack of evidence for his/her existence will not agree with me that this is the simplest explanation. They will likely say that having an inscrutable god who for some reason allows unspeakable cruelties is a 'simpler' way of understanding the world.

Which position one ends up taking is thus largely determined by deciding which is 'simpler' to believe in, which usually means deciding which belief structure you want to believe in and find personally enriching and meaningful, since there is no unambiguous measure of simplicity for incommensurable theories.

April 16, 2008

Why scientific theories are more than just explanations

(I will be away on travel this week so will be reposting an old series, edited and updated, that discusses the nature of science and the difference between science and religion. New posts start again on Monday, April 21, 2008.)

At its heart, intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates adopt as their main strategy that of finding phenomena that are not (at least in their eyes) satisfactorily explained by evolutionary theory and arguing that hence natural selection is a failed theory. They say that adding the postulate of an 'intelligent designer' (which is clearly a pseudonym for god) as the cause of these so-called unexplained phenomena means that they are no longer unexplained. This, they claim, makes IDC the better 'explanation'. Some (perhaps for tactical reasons) do not go so far and instead say that it is at least a competing explanation and thus on a par with evolution.

As I discussed in an earlier posting, science does purport to explain things. But a scientific explanation is more than that. Scientific explanations also always carry within themselves the seeds of new predictions, because whenever a scientist claims to explain something using a new theory, the first challenge that is thrown invariably takes the form "Ok, if your theory explains X under these conditions, then it should predict Y under those conditions. Is the prediction confirmed?"

If the prediction Y fails, then the theory is not necessarily rejected forever but the proponent has to work on it some more, explain the failure to predict Y, and come back with an improved theory that makes better predictions.

Even if the prediction Y is borne out, the theory is still not automatically accepted but it gains a little bit of credibility and may succeed in attracting some people to work on it. Theories become part of the scientific consensus when their credibility increases by these means until they are seen by the scientific community as being sufficiently strong and robust that they become the exclusive framework, or 'paradigm', for future investigations.

A scientist who said things like "My new theory explains X but makes no new predictions whatsoever" would be ignored or face ridicule because such theories are easy to manufacture and of no practical use for science. And yet this is precisely the kind of thing that IDC proponents are saying. To see why this cannot be taken seriously, here is something abridged from the book Physics for the Inquiring Mind by Eric Rogers (p. 343-345), written way back in 1960. In it Rogers looks at competing claims for why an object set in motion on a surface eventually comes to rest:

The Demon Theory of Friction

How do you know that it is friction that brings a rolling ball to a stop and not demons? Suppose you answer this, while a neighbor, Faustus, argues for demons. The discussion might run thus:

You: I don't believe in demons.
Faustus: I do.
You: Anyway, I don't see how demons can make friction.
Faustus: They just stand in front of things and push to stop them from moving.
You: I can't see any demons even on the roughest table.
Faustus: They are too small, also transparent.
You: But there is more friction on rough surfaces.
Faustus: More demons.
You: Oil helps.
Faustus: Oil drowns demons.
You: If I polish the table, there is less friction and the ball rolls further.
Faustus: You are wiping the demons off; there are fewer to push.
You: A heavier ball experiences more friction.
Faustus: More demons push it; and it crushes their bones more.
You: If I put a rough brick on the table I can push against friction with more and more force, up to a limit, and the block stays still, with friction just balancing my push.
Faustus: Of course, the demons push just hard enough to stop you moving the brick; but there is a limit to their strength beyond which they collapse.
You: But when I push hard enough and get the brick moving there is friction that drags the brick as it moves along.
Faustus: Yes, once they have collapsed the demons are crushed by the brick. It is their crackling bones that oppose the sliding.
You: I cannot feel them.
Faustus: Rub your finger along the table.
You: Friction follows definite laws. For example, experiment shows that a brick sliding along a table is dragged by friction with a force independent of velocity.
Faustus: Of course, the same number of demons to crush however fast you run over them.
You: If I slide a brick among a table again and again, the friction is the same each time. Demons would be crushed on the first trip.
Faustus: Yes, but they multiply incredibly fast.
You: There are other laws of friction: for example, the drag is proportional to the pressure holding the surfaces together.
Faustus: The demons live in the pores of the surface: more pressure makes more of them rush out and be crushed. Demons act in just the right way to push and drag with the forces you find in your experiments.

By this time Faustus' game is clear. Whatever properties you ascribe to friction he will claim, in some form, for demons. At first his demons appear arbitrary and unreliable; but when you produce regular laws of friction he produces a regular sociology of demons. At that point there is a deadlock, with demons and friction serving as alternative names for sets of properties - and each debater is back to his first remark.

Faustus's arguments are just like those of the IDC advocates, and the reason why they are consistently rejected by the scientific community. Scientists ask for more than just explanations from their theories. They also need mechanisms that make predictions. They know that that is the only way to prevent being drowned in an ocean of 'explanations' that are of no practical use whatsoever.

You can't really argue with people like Faustus who are willing to create ad hoc models that have no predictive power. Such explanations as he gives have no value to the practicing scientist. At some point, in order to save your time and your sanity you have to simply walk away and ignore them. This explains why so many scientists refuse to get involved in the IDC battles.

But when you walk away from this kind of fruitless pseudo-debate, you do allow the other side to charge that you are afraid to debate them, at which point, they may jump up and down and shout "See they cannot refute us. We win! We win!", however illogical the charge.

It reminds me of the duel scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which King Arthur chops off the arms and legs of the Black Knight, leaving just his torso and attached head on the ground, totally vanquished. The Black Knight refuses however to concede defeat and offers a compromise: "Oh? All right, we'll call it a draw." When Arthur and his assistant walk away from this offer, the Black Knight starts taunting him saying "Oh. Oh, I see. Running away, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to you. I'll bite your legs off!"

You can see the scene from the film here:

The IDC people are the Black Knights of the science-religion debate. Despite their arguments suffering one devastating refutation after another, they think they are invincible because god is on their side, will not concede that they have lost the battle, and refuse to go away. All that they have left is bluster.

April 15, 2008

Why intelligent design creationism is not science

(I will be away on travel this week so will be reposting an old series, edited and updated, that discusses the nature of science and the difference between science and religion. New posts start again on Monday, April 21, 2008.)

In a previous posting, I pointed out that if one looks studies the history of science, all the theories that have been considered to be science are both (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive. Thus these two things constitute necessary conditions for a theory to be considered science.

This is an important fact to realize when so-called intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates argue that theirs is a 'scientific' theory. If so, the first hurdle IDC must surmount is that it meet both those necessary criteria, if it is to be even eligible to be considered to be science. It has to be emphasized that meeting those conditions is not sufficient for something to be considered science, but the question of sufficiency does not even arise in this case because IDC does not meet either of the two necessary conditions.

I issued this challenge to the IDC proponents when I debated them in Kansas in 2002. I pointed out that nowhere did they provide any kind of mechanism that enabled them to predict anything that anyone could go out and look for. And they still haven't. At its essence, IDC strategy is to (1) point to a few things that they claim evolutionary theory cannot explain; (2) assert that such phenomena have too low a probability to be explained by any naturalistic theory; and (3) draw the conclusion that those phenomena must have been caused by an 'unspecified designer' (with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink to the faithful that this is really god) whose workings are beyond the realm of the natural world explored by science.

Thus they postulate a non-natural cause for those phenomena and cannot predict any thing that any person could go and look for. (This is not surprising. The designer is, for all intents and purposes, a synonym for god and it would be a bit bizarre to our traditional concept of god to think that his/her actions should be as predictable as that of blocks sliding down inclined planes.) When I asked one of the IDC stalwarts (Jonathan Wells) during my visit to Hillsdale College for an IDC prediction, the best he could come up with was that there would be more unexplained phenomena in the future or words to that effect.

But that is hardly what is meant by a scientific prediction. I can make that same kind of vague prediction about any theory, even a commonly accepted scientific one, since no theory ever explains everything. A truly scientific prediction takes the more concrete form: "The theory Z encompassing this range of phenomena predicts that if conditions X are met, then we should see result Y."

IDC advocates know that their model comes nowhere close to meeting this basic condition of science. So they have adopted the strategy of: (1) challenging the naturalism and predictive conditions, arguing that these are not necessary conditions for science and that they have been adopted to specifically and unfairly exclude IDC from science; and (2) tried to create a new definition of science so that IDC can be included. This takes the form of arguing that a scientific theory is one that 'explains' phenomena.

(There are, of course, variations and expansions on these arguments by the various members of the IDC camp but I have tried to reduce it to its skeletal elements. These variations that IDC proponents adopt are designed to blur the issues but are easy to refute. See this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow (thanks to Daniel for the link) and this funny post by Canadian Cynic about the possible consequences of using IDC-type reasoning in other areas of life.)

The rejection by IDC advocates of naturalism and predictivity as necessary conditions for science goes against the history of science. Recall, for example, that in the struggle between the Platonic and Copernican models of the universe, both sides of this debate involved religious believers. But when they tried to explain the motions of the planets, both sides used naturalistic theories. To explain the retrograde motion of Mercury and other seemingly aberrant behavior, they invoked epicycles and the like. They struggled hard to find models that would enable them to predict future motion. They did not invoke god by saying things like "God must be moving the planets backwards on occasion." Or "This seemingly anomalous motion of Mercury is due to god." Such an explanation would not have been of any use to them because allowing god into the picture would preclude the making of predictions.

In fact, the telling piece of evidence that ended the dominance of the geocentric model was that the Rudolphine Tables using Kepler's elliptical orbits and a heliocentric model were far superior to any alternative in predicting planetary motion.

While it may be true that the underlying beliefs that drove people of that time to support the Platonic or Copernican model may have been influenced by their religious outlook, those earlier religious scientists did not seem to invoke god in a piecemeal way, as an explanation for this or that isolated unexplained phenomenon, as is currently done by IDC advocates. Instead they were more concerned with the question of whether the whole structure of the scientific theory was consistent with their understanding of the working of god. In other words, they were debating whether a geocentric model was compatible with their ideas of god's role in the world. They seemed to feel that detailed motions of specific planets, however problematic, were too trivial for them to invoke god as an explanation, although they would probably not have excluded the possibility that god was capable of routinely adjusting the motion of planets.

It may also well be true that some scientists of that time thought that god might be responsible for such things but such speculations were not part of the scientific debate. For example, Newton himself is supposed to have believed that the stability of the solar system (which was an unexplained problem in his day and remained unsolved for about 200 years) was due to god periodically intervening to restore the initial conditions. But these ideas were never part of the scientific consensus. And we can see why. If scientists had said that the stability was due to god and closed down that avenue of research, then scientists would never have solved this important problem by naturalistic means and thus advanced the cause of science. This is why scientists, as a community, never accept non-natural explanations for any phenomena, even though individual scientists may entertain such ideas.

So the attempts by IDC advocates to redefine science to leave out methodological naturalism and predictivity fly completely in the face of the history of science. But worse than that, such a move would result in undermining the very methods that have made science so successful.

In the next posting, I will discuss why just looking for 'good' explanations of scientific phenomena (the definition of science advocated by the IDC people) is not, by itself, a useful exercise for science.

April 14, 2008

What is science?

(I will be away on travel this week so will be reposting an old series, edited and updated, that discusses the nature of science and the difference between science and religion. New posts start again on Monday, April 21, 2008.)

Because of my science training and my interest in its history and philosophy I am sometimes called upon to answer the question "what is science?" Most people think that the answer should be fairly straightforward. After all science is such an important and integral part of our lives that everyone feels that they already know what it is and think that the problem of defining science is purely one of finding the right combination of words that captures their intuitive sense.

But as I said in an earlier previous posting, strictly defining something means having demarcation criteria for it, which involves developing a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, and this is extremely hard to do even for seemingly simple things like (say) defining what a dog is. So it should not be surprising that it may be harder to do for an abstract idea like science.

But just as a small child is able, based on its experience with pets, to distinguish between a dog and a cat without any need for formal demarcation criteria, so can scientists intuitively sense what is science and what is not science, based on the practice of their profession, without any need of a formal definition. So scientists do not, in the normal course of their work, pay much attention to whether they have a formal definition of science. If forced to define science (say for the purpose of writing textbooks) they tend to make up some kind of definition that sort of fits with their experience, but such ad-hoc formulations lack the kind of formal rigor that is strictly required of a philosophically sound demarcation criterion.

The absence of an agreed-upon formal definition of science has not hindered science from progressing rapidly and efficiently. Science marches on, blithely unconcerned about its lack of self-definition. People start worrying about definitions of science mainly in the context of political battles, such as those involving so-called intelligent design creationism (or IDC), because advocates of IDC have been using this lack of a formal definition to try to define science in a self-serving way so that their pet idea can be included as science, and thus taught in schools as part of the science curriculum and as an alternative to evolution.

Having a clear-cut demarcation criterion that defines science and is accepted by all would settle this question of whether IDC is science once and for all. But finding a satisfactory demarcation criterion for science has proven to be remarkably difficult.

To set about trying to find criteria that distinguishes between one class of ideas from another class, we do what we usually do in all such cases, we first set about finding all the unambiguous members of each class and see if we can extract common properties of each class.

In the case of science, we look at all the knowledge that is commonly accepted as science by everyone, and see if we can identify what is common among these areas. For example, I think everyone would agree that the subjects that come under the headings of astronomy, geology, physics, chemistry, and biology, and which are studied by university departments in reputable universities, all come under the heading of science. So any definition of science that excluded any of these areas would be clearly inadequate, just as any definition of 'dog' that excluded a commonly accepted breed would be dismissed as inadequate.

This kind of exercise is exactly we do when trying to define other things, like art (say). Any definition of art that excluded paintings hanging in reputable museums would be considered an inadequate definition.

Similarly, there is a general consensus that astrology, fortune-telling, and the like are not science. Any definition of science that resulted in those topics being considered science would be considered inadequate.

When we look at the history of the topics studied by people in those named disciplines that are commonly accepted as science, the first thing that we notice is that for a theory to be considered scientific it does not have to be true. Newtonian physics is commonly accepted to be scientific, although it is not considered to be universally true anymore. The phlogiston theory of combustion is considered to be scientific though it has long since been overthrown by the oxygen theory. And so on. In fact, since all knowledge is considered to be fallible and liable to change, truth is, in some sense, irrelevant to the question of whether something is scientific or not, because absolute truth cannot be established.

(A caveat: Not all scientists will agree with me on this last point. Some scientists feel that once a theory is shown to be incorrect, it ceases to be part of science, although it remains a part of science history. Some physicists also feel that many of the current theories of (say) sub-atomic particles are unlikely to be ever overthrown and are thus true in some absolute sense. I am not convinced of this. The history of science teaches us that even theories that were considered rock-solid and lasted millennia (such as the geocentric universe) eventually were overthrown.)

But there is a clear pattern that emerges about scientific theories. All the theories that are or have been considered to be science are (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive.

By naturalistic I mean methodological naturalism and not philosophical naturalism. The latter, I argued in an earlier posting where these terms were defined, is irrelevant to science.

By predictive, I mean that all theories that are considered part of science have the quality of having some explicit mechanism or structure that enable the users of these theories to make predictions, of being able to say what one should see if one did some experiment or looked in some place under certain conditions.

Note that these two conditions are just necessary conditions and by themselves are not sufficient. (See this earlier posting for what those conditions mean.) As such they can only classify theories into "may be science" (if it meets both conditions) or "not science" (if it does not meet either or both conditions.) As such, these two conditions by themselves do not make up a satisfactory demarcation criterion. For example, the theory that if a football quarterback throws a lot of interceptions his team is likely to lose, meets both naturalistic and predictive conditions, but such theories are not usually considered part of science.

But even though we do not have rigorous demarcation criteria for science, the existence of just necessary conditions still has important implications, which I shall explore in later postings.

April 11, 2008

The propaganda machine-12: Thinks tanks and the media

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The main goal of the think tanks and the third tier pundits has always been to control the public discussion on major issues to make sure that the pro-war/pro-business view dominates to the virtual exclusion of other views, while at the same time hiding its ideological basis. As Robert McChesney writes in The Problem of the Media (2003):

The campaign to alter the media has entailed funding the training of conservative and business journalists at universities and bankrolling right-wing student newspapers to breed a generation of pro-business Republican journalists. It has meant starting right-wing print media such as the Washington Times and the Weekly Standard and supporting existing right-wing publications such as the National Review, not only to promote conservative politics but also so that young journalists have a farm system to develop their clips. It also includes conservative think tanks flooding journalism with pro-business official sources and incessantly jawboning coverage critical of conservative interests as reflective of "liberal" bias. A comprehensive Nexis search for the twenty-five largest think tanks in the U.S. news media in 2002 showed that explicitly conservative think tanks accounted for nearly half of the 25,000 think-tank citations in the news, whereas progressive think-tanks accounted for only 12 percent. Centrist groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution accounted for the rest. (p. 111)

The most recent rankings of think tank citations by the media shows that, to a considerable extent, this strategy is still succeeding, although overall citations to think tanks as a whole is declining, perhaps due to the rise of alternative sources of information on the internet. Thanks to blogs, it is now possible for people with specialized information to get their message out quickly without having to depend on the support of think tanks.

Another function of the propaganda machine is to hide the class nature of American society and its power structure by assuming pseudo-populist language and airs.

To the general public the conservative critique is not packaged as an effort by the wealthiest and most powerful elements of our society to extend their power, weaken labor and government regulation in the public interest, and dramatically lower their taxes while gutting the public sector, aside from the military. To the contrary, this conservative critique, much like the broader conservative political movement, is marketed as a populist movement. It is the heroic story of the conservative masses (Pat Buchanan's "peasants with pitchforks") battling the establishment liberal media elite. In this righteous war, as spun by right-wing pundits such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett, and Sean Hannity, conservatives are the blue-collar workers (white, of course, though that is only implied) and self-made business leaders while the liberals are Ivy League snobs, intellectuals, hoity-toity limousine riders, and journalists who hold power. (McChesney, p 113)

A good example of the propaganda role of think tanks in influencing public perceptions on an issue was provided by Ken Silverstein in a July 2007 article in Harper's Magazine (subscription required) which revealed how Washington lobbyists work. Silverstein went undercover and pretended to be someone hired by the leader of Turkmenistan to improve the awful reputation of himself and his country. Silverstein approached various lobbying firms and they all enthusiastically promised to do this, saying that they had access to the leaders of both parties and thus could arrange suitable meetings and photo-ops between those figures and leaders of Turkmenistan. And the lobbyists said they would use think tanks as a means of laundering public relations material favorable to Turkmenistan.

Silverstein writes of his meeting with the lobbying firm APCO Associates whose senior vice president Barry Schumacher had invited Robert Downen, a 'fellow' (note the academic sounding title) at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (a conservative think tank) that shows how the propaganda machine operates:

In addition to influencing news reports, Downen added, the firm could drum up positive op-eds in newspapers. "We can utilize some of the think-tank experts who would say, 'On the one hand this and the other hand that,' and we place it as a guest editorial." Indeed, Schumacher said, APCO had someone on staff who "does nothing but that" and had succeeded in placing thousands of opinion pieces.
. . .
One possibility, Downen said, would be to hold a forum on U.S.-Turkmen relations, preferably built around a visit to the United States by a Turkmen official. Possible hosts would include The Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations. "Last week I contacted a number of colleagues at think tanks," Downen went on. "Some real experts could easily be engaged to sponsor or host a public forum or panel that would bring in congressional staff and journalists." The only cost would be refreshments and room rental . . .and could yield a tremendous payoff. "If we can get a paper published or a speech at a conference, we can get a friendly member of Congress to insert that in the Congressional Record and get that printed and send it out," Schumacher said. "So you take one event and get it multiplied."

So there you have it: A clear and revealing exposition of how think tanks function in the propaganda machine from someone who works in that world.

Next: Why journalists themselves perpetuate the myth of a liberal media.

POST SCRIPT: Cuba after Castro

US policy towards Cuba has been horrendous, held hostage by cold war paranoia and the Miami-based exile community, and fed by a mean-spirited retaliation towards a country that had the temerity to not grovel before its superpower neighbor. The trade embargo and other economic measures taken against Cuba have caused immense hardship to the people of that country and yet it has not capitulated.

Tony Karon has a nice article on the complex nature of Cuban politics and society and what might happen now that Fidel Castro has stepped down from the presidency there.

April 10, 2008

Food and energy

I am not a picky eater. There are things that I like and things that I don't like to eat, if given the choice and the opportunity to choose, but ultimately I don't really care. And of course I have no religious taboos about food. I am also somewhat casual about health factors. I tend to eat what I like without too much concern about what the latest medical research has said is good or bad for you. I figure that if I eat in moderation and have a varied diet, then the occasional heavy dose of transfats, sugar, salt, fat, and cholesterol are unlikely to do serious harm.

But some people are really careful and I am amazed at the amount of time and attention they devote to what they eat. A friend of mine knows the exact caloric value of everything she eats and if she exceeds her daily quota, will calculate how much exercise she needs to do that day to neutralize the balance sheet.

Other people go even further. At breakfast at one hotel I stayed in during a recent conference, the menu listed 'freshly squeezed orange juice' but this was not sufficient reassurance for the woman at the next table. She asked the waitress whether it really was fresh squeezed and was assured that it was. Still somewhat suspicious, the woman then got hold of another waitress and asked again, and this time the waitress admitted that they did not personally squeeze the oranges but got the juice from a vendor. The woman then called the manager and asked him the exact status of the orange juice and he assured her that although the oranges were not squeezed on the premises, he had every confidence that the vendor who supplied them was squeezing them.

I was frankly impressed at this woman's dedication to making sure that she was drinking nothing but freshly squeezed orange juice. But I was also baffled. Is there something really good about it that makes it worth all this effort? Conversely is the orange juice made from concentrate really bad for you?

One thing about food that I cannot stand is wasting it. And it frustrates me to see so much food wasted in the US. People here do not seem to realize how precious an item food is. Maybe my sensitivity to food waste became enhanced because I grew up in a developing country where the importance of food was manifest and governments could fall if they did not ensure adequate supply of basic food items.

Americans are used to the fact that if they have money, they can buy any thing they want. Underlying this is the fact that the US dollar is the world's reserve currency. Hence if the US runs a budget deficit, as it has for decades, it can always ways to fund it by various means, with the negative consequences not being felt until later. At the worst, it can simply print more money.

The governments of many countries do not have this luxury because their currency is not accepted in the world commodities markets. Their budgets are more like that of individual families. If your expenditure is more than your income, you have to cover the difference with loans or cut back your expenses.

During the time I was in college in Sri Lanka, the government decided to improve its balance of trade by severely restricting the imports of basic food items like rice, flour, and sugar. The goal was to stimulate local production of such staples which had a hard time competing against cheap imports. As a result of these restrictions, there were major shortages and rationing of all these items, which meant that we could not take food for granted. Although we never went hungry, we too were affected by food politics and had to be careful about its use. For these and other reasons, I now hate to see food wasted. In my home, I will eat leftover food that I really dislike or which has become stale rather than throw it away uneaten.

I also hate it when food is used for things other than consumption. I find abhorrent things like butter sculpture contests, or making the world's largest cake or contests where people compete to eat the most hot dogs, or even food fights. Wasting food for the sake of entertainment seems just wrong. Using grains to feed animals for slaughter is another hugely inefficient and wasteful use of food.

This is why I also have serious problems with the increasing popularity of ethanol and other grain-based fuels. The idea of using food to make fuel in order to enable our wasteful energy use is infuriating. We are currently witnessing a worldwide decline in the availability of grains and a corresponding rise in the price of basic foods like bread, pasta, and tortillas, because of the diversion of food away from human consumption to being a raw material for fuel production.

As the Christian Science Monitor reports: "In 2008, about 18 percent of grain in the US will go to make ethanol and, according to the Earth Policy Institute, such production over the past two years could have fed nearly 250 million people." Food riots have already occurred in Haiti, unrest is rising in many other countries, and analysts expect conflicts to erupt over the next year as the rapidly rising cost of basic staples of life rise steeply.

We are at present capable of producing enough food to feed a lot more people in the world and greatly reduce malnutrition from its current levels. What prevents us from doing so is purely economics, profits, and politics, and an insatiable demand for more energy. It is a scandal.

POST SCRIPT: William F. Buckley vs. Noam Chomsky

William F. Buckley, often referred to as a conservative icon, died recently. He used to have a public TV show called Firing Line. I found Buckley to be quite irritating. He had a sneering manner with a darting, snake-like tongue, would slouch languidly in his chair as if contemptuous of his guest, and speak in pompous language using esoteric, polysyllabic words. It seemed to me that he was trying to adopt the affectations of a stereotypical member of the British aristocracy. The thing I disliked most, though, was his habit of using verbal tricks, snide asides, and digressions to distract attention when he was losing a point.

He met his match when he had Noam Chomsky on his show during the Vietnam war. Chomsky had the facts at his fingertips and stuck doggedly to the main point, refusing to be sidetracked, and Buckley's frustration as all his tricks failed was evident.

Part 1:

Part 2:

April 09, 2008

The propaganda machine-11: Becoming a think tank 'expert'

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Part of the role of think tanks is to take people with a specific ideological viewpoint and transform them into 'experts' (at least in the eyes of the media and the public) on the cheap, without having them go through the hard work of studying a subject for a long time, doing original research, and publishing in peer-reviewed academic research journals. For example, who were the architects of the 'surge' plan in Iraq? It was a small coterie of war-hungry neoconservatives led by someone called Frederick Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute and backed by William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Kagan is the person credited with coming up with this plan that conveniently coincided with what the Bush administration had wanted to do all along. Glenn Greenwald documents how these two people relentlessly led the public relations effort to escalate the war in Iraq.

Kagan is often introduced in the media as a 'military historian' suggesting that he has considerable expertise with the kind of challenges currently faced by the US in Iraq. But what exactly is Kagan's expertise? Is he a scholar of the Middle East? Of counter-insurgency? Of civil wars? A reader at Talking Points Memo looked into Kagan's background:

Just a note on Fred Kagan – the guy is not an expert on insurgency, civil war, or stability ops. He has a Ph.D in history, with a focus on the 19th century Russian military. His major scholarly book is on Napoleon from 1801-5. From what I can tell, he has no serious background studying the issues that are at the core of his "surge" plan (his AEI bio page is below). So I am completely baffled by the extent to which the media has given him credibility as a "military expert"; one imagines how the surge would have been received if Kagan was accurately identified as "an expert on Napoleon and the early 19th century Russian army." His CV reveals no publications in refereed history or political science journals in the last decade. Basically the intellectual architect of the surge is an oped/Weekly Standard writer whose only substantive expertise is on Napoleon.

A diarist at DailyKos did look closely at Kagan's CV and concluded that the above critique had a couple of errors but that the main point was correct. Kagan definitely had not provided any evidence that he had the expertise necessary to take seriously his advice on the most serious military and political challenge facing the US today:

What makes Kagan's different, is that virtually all of his work is not peer-reviewed (or, refereed). For those who haven't suffered through graduate school, this means that his work has little to no academic merit.
. . .
First, Kagan has actually authored four peer-reviewed journal articles since earning his Ph.D. [in 1995], though this is a paltry number for any respectable academic. Three have been published in the last decade, but none have been published in the last nine years.

Of course, people can and do become very knowledgeable about areas outside their formal academic training. It is not at all rare in universities to find academics that have become specialists is areas far removed from their doctoral work. In fact physics Nobel prize winner S. Chandrasekhar used to change research fields every ten years or so in order to create new challenges for himself and to recharge his intellectual batteries. But again, they have to earn their credibility afresh in the new area by doing research and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

While people can become knowledgeable in new fields even if they choose not to publish in peer-reviewed journals, they still have to struggle to earn their credibility somehow or other. The ideologically-driven think tanks, however, by virtue of their contacts in the political and media alone, can give the people who work there an easy route to credibility in the minds of the public, which is all that they care about. None of Kagan's published works dealt with insurgencies or the Middle East. But because he was affiliated with the AEI, that provided the veneer of scholarly support for him to say what the Bush administration had wanted to do anyway, so his credentials as an 'expert' or 'military analyst' went unquestioned and no searching questions were posed by the major media as to why we should take his words with any degree of seriousness. No one seemed to ask what his track record was. In fact, he, his brother Robert Kagan, and William Kristol have a stunning record of being wrong on practically everything concerning the war in Iraq.

For example, on Monday, March 24, 2008 at an event hosted by AEI that also featured fellow war boosters Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution (another think tank), Fred Kagan began his speech by saying, "The first thing I want to say is that: The Civil War in Iraq is over. And until the American domestic political debate catches up with that fact, we are going to have a very hard time discussing Iraq on the basis of reality." This was less than 24 hours before Iraq exploded in a renewed upsurge of sectarian violence.

But Kagan and other warmongers' record of failed predictions is irrelevant to the administration, which can use him and the AEI 'studies' to suggest that what they are doing has been supported by serious people who have examined the issue in some depth. And the media, by giving uncritical credence to these people, are effectively accomplices.

Next: How think tanks influence the media

POST SCRIPT: The role of US military bases abroad

The US military empire continues to grow with new bases being created around the world and old ones expanded. Some time ago, I wrote about the protests over the US base in Vincenza, Italy that had been written about by Paul Iversen, a professor of classics at Case, who visits that town regularly.

In relation to that, Andrea Licata, President of the Center For The Research and Study of Peace at the University of Trieste, Italy will be giving a talk on War Without Limits: The Global and Local Impact of NATO and US Military Bases.

The talk is on Thursday, April 10, 2008, 4:30-6:00 PM in Rockefeller 309 at CWRU and is free and open to the public. The abstract of the talk is given below.

Andrea will speak about NATO's new policies to wage what he calls "war without limits." He will note the ways in which existing and planned US and NATO military bases in Italy are aimed at current and future conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. He will also talk about the local political, economic and environmental impact of foreign military bases, particularly the impact of a new controversial air base being planned to host the US Army's 173rd Airborne in the northern Italian town of Vicenza, which is home to many of the masterpieces of the great neo-classical architect Palladio. He will also share with us the ways in which many diverse groups in Italy, Europe and the world are fighting the construction of new military bases and how they are proposing peaceful alternative projects and economic opportunities for existing ones. There will time for questions and discussion afterwards.

For more information about the speaker, see here.

April 08, 2008

Strolling into geezerhood

I have noticed that slowly and surely I am becoming a geezer. Ok, I have not reached the stage where I go out in my bathrobe and shake a newspaper and yell at the neighborhood children to get off my lawn. In fact, the situation is the opposite. Children living on my block spend a lot of time on my lawn in the summers, since our dog Baxter has been adopted by all of them as their common pet and they come over to play with him.

No, what suggests to me that I am becoming a geezer is that I find myself increasingly unaware of popular culture celebrities. And what is more, I don't care. The change has been gradual. It used to be that I knew a lot about popular culture which made me a force to be reckoned with when playing Trivial Pursuit. Not any more. Since I stopped watching TV (except for the occasional special program), my knowledge of actors and performers has decreased dramatically.

This was brought home most forcefully by the Hannah Montana phenomenon. The local newspapers suddenly had a major front-page news story about the fight to get tickets for a show to be given by her in Cleveland. The news report seemed to assume that readers knew who she was but I had not even heard of her name until that day.

I used to read the celebrity 'news' (gossip, really) section and other items in the newspaper that described TV shows and programs, so I felt that I knew what was going on even if I had never seen the shows or the actors referred to. But now I read about people who are supposed to be 'stars' (except that title inflation has set in and now even journeymen performers are routinely referred to as 'superstars' or 'megastars') and I have never heard of them before, so I have stopped reading those sections of the paper. There was a time when I would be concerned that I was losing touch but now I don't care. I have no desire whatsoever to learn about celebrities and I am not in the least interested in the troubles they have with their parents, their children, their spouses or special friends, their sex lives, their fights, and their struggles with alcohol and drug addictions. In other words, Britney Spears' life is of no interest to me. Of course, I feel sorry for her in a general way, just as I would feel sorry for any person whose life seems to be spiraling out of control. But the fact that she is a celebrity does not make her troubles any more important than those of any other person, and I don't see why I should keep abreast of them.

I have also stopped following sports, except to occasionally take a quick look at the headlines and the standings.

Sherlock Holmes told Watson that the reason he did not spent time learning about whole areas of knowledge was that the brain could only store so much information and the more he filled it up with things that were not necessary for him to practice his detective skills, the less room he had to store the knowledge he needed.

Of course, that is rubbish. There is no reason to think that human brains are operating at anywhere close to capacity. But time is a zero sum entity and I find that the less time I spend on trivial things, the more I have for what is valuable. I must say that deciding these things are not worth reading about has released an enormous amount of time. I now zip though the daily newspaper in less than half the time I used to spend before.

The reason that I associate these things with geezerhood is that I think age plays such an important role in setting priorities about how time is used. When I was younger, I thought nothing of wasting time watching films that I knew would very likely be junk or watching hours and hours of sporting events that might contain at most a few minutes of genuine exciting athleticism. Now that I am older, I tend to be much more choosy about how I spend my time. I only watch films or read books for which there is a high probability that I will enjoy and hence am much more dependent on strong recommendations from people who share my tastes.

I don't regret the 'wasted' time of my youth however. It was fun. But there is no doubt that what gives me enjoyment has changed a lot with time and I have gone with the flow rather than try and preserve the past.

POST SCRIPT: An atheist call to arms

People tend to think of Richard Dawkins as militantly hostile to religion since the recent publication of his book The God Delusion. But in this Ted Talk he gave in 2002, he comes across even stronger. If anything, it seems like he has actually mellowed since then.

April 07, 2008

The propaganda machine-10: How some think tanks operate

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While some of the people at some of the think tanks do actual research following the same protocols used in academia, many others are simply hired guns, pursuing an ideological agenda under the guise of scholarship.

The latter kind of people do things like arrange for books and policy articles and op-eds to be published under the names of political and other public figures, so that those people do not have the chores of actually doing any writing. If you ever wondered how politicians and other public figures manage to write so many books given the other demands on their time, there is your answer. Many of them are ghostwritten, like those of sports figures and other celebrities. All the nominal author has to do is to provide some information and interviews and generally agree with the premise of the material in the books and articles.

Such think tanks also organize 'conferences' and 'workshops' that are meant not to actually study an issue but to get the message they want out. In that capacity, they publish propaganda materials written by others, giving those materials a veneer of respectability they would not otherwise have. The best way to think of such think tanks is as an arm of the public relations industry. The audience for their work is not fellow researchers, as is the case with academics, but politicians and business leaders.

Of course, not all think tanks are just shills for this or that ideological point of view. Some do research in a serious way and may even publish studies that are genuinely useful. But it is important to realize that there is nothing built into the structure of think tanks that requires them to conform to the canons of good research practice, the way that peer review does for academia. The reward structure of think tanks tend to favor ideological hacks rather that true scholars. Any good research that comes out of them is purely due to the integrity and conscientiousness of the individual researcher, not to any institutional safeguards.

Some right wing think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute, have been around for a long time and are large operations with many people working on a wide range of subjects. Thus by virtue of age and size, they have acquired a respectability that they might not have if measured by the quality of their scholarship alone. Some align themselves with universities to add credibility. For example, the Hoover Institute has an affiliation with Stanford and is housed on their campus. But some other think tanks are little more than one-person operations, consisting of just one high profile individual who is the public face of some specific agenda, an office, a few office staffers, a letterhead listing its Board comprising some well-known names, and maybe a couple of researchers.

For example, David Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture is one such outfit. His mission is to rant against universities and academics, alleging liberal and left-wing bias in every classroom. For these services, he receives millions of dollars from various right wing foundations such as the Bradley, Olin, Sarah Scaife and Smith Richardson (now called Randolph) Foundations (all of whom also fund Hoover).

Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy, which advocates strongly for neoconservative warmongering policies, is another largely one-person operation that is similarly funded by right-wingers to push the neoconservative agenda.

Jonathan Schwarz investigates to see who is underwriting Gaffney, and reports on this general phenomenon of spurious experts.

This brings us to Frank Gaffney, third-string neocon and founder of the Center for Security Policy. In a healthy country, Gaffney would spend his days arguing with his enormous collection of Star Wars action figures. Here in America, we constantly put him on TV as an "expert" on foreign policy and give him an organization with a $2 million budget.

I emphasize once more that it's a mistake to focus on Gaffney and all the people like him. They don't matter, just as the crazy individuals at the Tehran Holocaust denial conference don't matter.

What matters is that Iran has nutty, powerful rich people willing to fund that kind of garbage, and a society that acts like it's part of legitimate debate. And what matters is that we have nutty, powerful rich people willing to fund this kind of garbage, and a society that acts like it's legitimate.

And who exactly are the nutty rich people behind Frank Gaffney? According to tax documents, his organization received $2.2 million in tax-deductible donations in 2004. About $600,000 appears to have come from various right-wing foundations.

I don't think it's possible to find out for sure who provided the rest of the donations; while organizations like Gaffney's have to file this information with the IRS, it's blacked out when the documents are made public. (One thing we can learn from the forms is that CSP is basically Gaffney alone. His 2004 salary was $272,850. The rest of the expenses were for rent, events, a few consultants, etc.)

But we can make some educated guesses. According to Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, CSP is funded by "defense contractors and far-right Zionists associated with Israel's Likud Party." One person on the CSP board of directors is Charles Kupperman, Vice President of Space and Strategic Missiles Sector at Boeing. Another is an investment banker named David P. Steinmann, who's also on the board of JINSA. And the Chairman is Terry Elkes, who used to be CEO and president of Viacom, and now runs an equity firm "deeply engaged in the media industry." (I assume Elkes is in charge of keeping the media so liberal.)

It's these people—along with billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Sun Myung Moon, who give Gaffney his prominent platforms—who are the source of the craziness. Gaffney himself is essentially irrelevant."

Other think tanks are bigger and employ more people but the basic mission is the same – to propagate some particular point of view. For example, the battle against evolution is fought by people at the Center for Science and Culture in the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. The Institute is funded by "millions of dollars from foundations run by prominent conservatives like Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, Philip F. Anschutz and Richard Mellon Scaife" and other right wing foundations and industrialists who seek to advance Christianity and discredit evolution.

Incidentally the argument by the so-called intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates that scientists are victimizing IDC advocates and secretly conspiring to suppress their revolutionary theory because it goes counter to the dominant theory of evolution provides a revealing window into the mindset of the people in think tanks. In their world, it makes perfect sense that someone who goes against the ideology of the institution they work for would be silenced or fired.

But in academia, any scientist who thought he or she had good evidence to overthrow a dominant theory (like the theory of evolution) would jump at the chance to do so. As biologist Richard Lewontin says, "[S]cientists are always looking to find some theory or idea that they can push as something that nobody else ever thought of because that's the way they get their prestige. . . . they have an idea which will overturn our whole view of evolution because otherwise they're just workers in the factory, so to speak. And the factory was designed by Charles Darwin."

Right now, there are scientists who are challenging the idea that natural selection is a sufficient mechanism to explain the full complexity and diversity of life and they are by no means losing their jobs or suffering all kinds of persecutions. The problem with intelligent design creationism is not that it challenges the dominant theory of evolution. It is that it does not come even close to meeting the threshold to be considered science.

But such questions are irrelevant for such think tanks. They have a goal and will do whatever necessary to achieve it.

POST SCRIPT: They are just job applicants

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow reminds us of what elections are really about.

April 04, 2008

The propaganda machine-9: How think tanks advance ideological agendas

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One of the oldest right-wing think tanks is the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), started in 1943. It started out promoting more mainstream conservative views but in recent years it has become effectively the headquarters of the neoconservative movement, relentlessly pushing that particular agenda. If you look at the list of 'Scholars and Fellows' of the AEI, you will find a who's who of neoconservative thought. It also acts as a kind of way station between government jobs for people like Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and David Frum, who are now there after they left, or were forced to leave, the Bush administration. Other leading neoconservative warmongers like Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, Irving Kristol, and Fred Kagan have been long-time residents there.

One of the main agendas of the AEI and its financial backers seems to be to promote US attacks on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and any other country they dislike, especially in the Middle East, and in pursuing that agenda almost anything goes. This is why you can have bizarre 'arguments' (I use the word loosely) put forward by people like Ledeen, who says that launching a military strike at Iran is justified as an act of self-defense because Iran has been at war with the US since 1979! I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how he arrives at this weird conclusion.

The pro-business/pro-war foundations and financial interests backing these kinds of views will provide their in-house think tank 'scholars' with friendly subsidized publishers for their books that do not go through the peer review that academic presses require, they provide them media exposure for their books (since they own the media), get them reviewed in friendly publications (since they own the publications) provide them with generous travel budgets so that they can go everywhere and give talks to publicize their books and ideas at little or no cost to the hosts, and will often sell their books at deep discounts or give away large numbers of them to book clubs, political organizations, and the like so that these books get on 'best-seller' lists, thus generating buzz. The actual quality or scholarship of the books is largely irrelevant. What is important is to get a specific message out that looks like it is a thoughtful scholarly work.

While most magazines lose money and need to be subsidized to some extent, the extent of the subsidies for these propaganda outlets can be seen by the fact that the new neoconservative mouthpiece the Weekly Standard, edited by William Kristol was subsided by $3 million annually by Rupert Murdoch (owner of Fox News). This was a huge amount for such a small niche magazine, but it enabled it to make its presence felt quickly. As Scott McConnell writes in The American Conservative magazine:

The subsidy Murdoch accorded the Standard assured the new venture would be highly visible by the standards of start-up political magazines. It could afford a wide newsstand presence: it is costly for any new magazine to print issues that will in most cases not be sold. The Standard not only passed out thousands of complimentary issues around Washington, it had them personally delivered to Beltway influentials as soon as they were printed. Above all, the new journal provided employment for a small coterie of neoconservative essayists and a ready place to publish for dozens of apparatchiks who held posts at the American Enterprise Institute and other neocon-friendly think tanks.

With the fledgling Fox News network, the Standard soon emerged as the key leg in a synergistic triangle of neoconservative argumentation: you could write a piece for the magazine, talk about your ideas on Fox, pick up a paycheck from Kristol or from AEI. It was not a way to get rich, but it sustained a network of careers that might otherwise have shriveled or been diverted elsewhere. Indeed, it did more than sustain them, it gave neocons an aura of being "happening" inside the Beltway that no other conservative (or liberal) faction could match.

Similarly, the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon has subsidized the Washington Times to the tune of nearly $3 billion since its inception in 1982.

(In an ironical turn of events, some of the authors at Regnery, one of these ideological presses that publish the output of these people, sued the press for doing just these kinds of things, saying that because the press was practically giving these books away, they were getting royalties of only ten cents a book, instead of the $4.25 or so based on the list price of the book. This fact alone gives you a good sense of how deeply the books were discounted, by as much as 97%! Of course, since few people would pay list prices for these books, the press was actually doing the authors a favor by practically giving them away, since that boosted their 'sales' numbers and made them into 'best sellers'. A judge dismissed the suit.)

These expensive policies are made possible because wealthy right wing interests are willing to pour money into this kind of venture, through the intermediaries of foundations and think tanks. George Lakoff says that the conservative funding strategy works well at creating a propaganda machine but requires a lot of money to implement. The liberal end of the political spectrum cannot match it because it does not have either the deep pockets or the necessary attitude.

As Lakoff says:

They have a huge, very good operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.
. . .
Conservative foundations give large block grants year after year to their think tanks. They say, 'Here's several million dollars, do what you need to do.' And basically, they build infrastructure, they build TV studios, hire intellectuals, set aside money to buy a lot of books to get them on the best-seller lists, hire research assistants for their intellectuals so they do well on TV, and hire agents to put them on TV. They do all of that.
. . .
Meanwhile, liberals' conceptual system of the "nurturant parent" has as its highest value helping individuals who need help. The progressive foundations and donors give their money to a variety of grassroots organizations. They say, 'We're giving you $25,000, but don't waste a penny of it. Make sure it all goes to the cause, don't use it for administration, communication, infrastructure, or career development.' So there's actually a structural reason built into the worldviews that explains why conservatives have done better."

Robert McChesney adds in his book The Problem of the Media (2003):

Around half of all the expenditures of the twelve largest conservative foundations have been devoted to moving the news rightward. During the 1990s, right-wing think tanks, almost all of which were not established until the 1970s, were funded to the tune of $1 billion. By 2003, the Heritage Foundation had an annual budget of $30 million, 180 employees, and its own television studios in its eight-story Washington, D.C. headquarters. Brent Bozell's Media Research Center has an annual budget in the 15 million range and some 60 employees. These conservative groups tend to coordinate their propaganda with that of the Republican Party. (p. 111)

This is how the people who work at think tanks and the third tier pundits get promoted in the public eye. They are groomed and subsidized. After these people have published a few books and articles, they appear on the more rabidly partisan media outlets like Fox News or the Washington Times or the Weekly Standard and start identifying themselves as 'experts' on some topic. They then get to work on the most important job of all, the really big prize: getting their names into the Rolodexes of the people who book guests for talk shows on the more mainstream media.

And thus is born a pundit.

Next: How think tanks operate

POST SCRIPT: April Fool's day hoaxes

In general I am not a fan of the entire idea of playing hoaxes on ordinary people. Sometimes they can be mean or cruel, but most often they are unimaginative and merely annoying.

But once in a while you get one that is elegantly executed that one can enjoy even after realizing that one was duped. Such was the case with the beautiful video about flying penguins that I linked to that was produced by the BBC.

You can read more about this and other April Fool's day hoaxes here.

April 03, 2008


I hate staying in hotels.

The worst experiences for me are work-related travel. In addition to this involving the discomfort of flying, one also usually has to stay in hotels. I have to do this to attend conferences and give talks but I hate it and try to minimize the number of occasions. After just one day of staying in hotels and eating out in restaurants, I become fed up and am eager to return home.

I find something vaguely alienating about hotels. The hotels I stay in on my travels are very clean and comfortable, sometimes even luxurious, and have all the amenities one needs. But it is not like staying in one's own home or the home of one's family and friends, where one feels freer, even if far less luxurious. I actually prefer to use a sleeping bag on the floor of a good friend or relative than stay in an elegant hotel.

Another problem that I have with staying at conference hotels is that one is stuck most of the time with eating at the hotel restaurants. These tend to be very expensive and limited in their menus. In particular, they have very few items that are suitable for light eaters like me, for whom appetizer-sized portions is sufficient for a meal. Sometimes all I want for a meal is a simple sandwich or some fruit but those things are almost impossible to get.

The hotels know that most people staying there are having their expenses paid by their employer and they try and force you to choose large, expensive entrees. Even though I am not personally paying for the food, I resent the waste that is being imposed on me. I don't mind paying high prices if I feel that a reasonable portion of it is going towards paying the employees reasonably well. But I know that the high prices being charged are not going towards paying good wages for the low-level employees, who are often working for minimum or even sub-minimum wages.

Part of my dislike of hotels may be due to my growing up in Sri Lanka, which is a small country and where everyone has wide network of friends and extended family. It was rare that one stayed in hotels. People were really hospitable and sociable and one almost always stayed with friends and family when one traveled. If friends or relatives knew that you were coming to their area, they would insist on you staying with them as their guests so that one could have long conversations well into the night. That was how we kept in touch with each other and got to know one another well.

Perhaps that is why even now, I rarely like to just travel for its own sake or to see places. For me, the best reason to travel is to visit friends and relatives.


John Cusack is one of the most interesting actors around and he is the actor-writer-producer of a new film about the Iraq war called War, Inc, which looks like a dark comedy about the unholy alliance of politicians, the military, and war profiteers. Here is the trailer for it.

Bill Maher interviews Cusack, where he has strong words for the present administration and its actions.

April 02, 2008

The propaganda machine-8: The difference between academia and think tanks

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The right-wing think tanks are awash in money since there are many wealthy business people eager to portray themselves in a positive light. A lot of them channel their contributions to the think tanks through conservative foundations.

In the previous post in this series, I argued that one function of 'think tanks' is to serve specific business interests by muddying the waters about (say) whether tobacco smoking causes cancer or whether global warming is a problem. But over and above all these specific issues, one key goal is to persuade the public that the media and academia have a pervasive liberal bias, and the strategy for doing that is repeating that message over and over again.

And this strategy seems to be working. As Robert McChesney says in his book The Problem of the Media (2003), "One study of press coverage between 1992 and 2002 finds that references to the liberal bias of the news media outnumber references to a conservative bias by a factor of more than 17 to 1." (p. 113) As a result, "a 2003 Gallup poll found that 45% of Americans thought the news media were "too liberal," while only 15% found them "too conservative." (p. 114) . . . Punditry and commentary provided by corporate-owned news media almost unfailingly ranges from center to right. According to Editor & Publisher, the four most widely syndicated political columnists in the United States speak from the Right. TV news runs from pro-business centrist to rabidly pro-business right, and most newspaper journalism is only a bit broader. Perhaps most important, the explicitly right-wing media are now strong enough and incessant enough to push stories until they are covered by more centrist mainstream media." (p. 115). A survey in 2003 "showed that 22 percent of Americans considered talk radio their primary source for news, double the figure for 1998." (p. 116)

It is in the creation of that kind of environment that the shoddy scholarship produced by the think tanks can survive scrutiny. For example, if one points out, as many academics did the travesty of scholarship that was Charles Murray's and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve (see for example, The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, Steve Fraser, (Ed.), 1995), the substantive criticisms can be ignored by dismissing the critics as merely operating from a liberal bias.

There is a crucial difference between the papers and books produced by academic scholars and those produced by the people in think tanks. Scholars in universities have to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals. The academic presses that usually publish their books also send the manuscripts out for peer review. This imposes some major hurdles on getting one's words into print. One has to do real research, get data, construct coherent theories, and make arguments that are reality-based and defensible. This does not mean that the research publications are always right. One can easily find any number of examples of peer-reviewed publications that have subsequently been shown to be wrong. But such papers, whatever their faults and even if they are wrong, have to be grounded in reality. One cannot simply shoot off one's mouth or manufacture conclusions out of whole cloth.

When the accusation is made that universities are 'liberally biased', that is misleading. Contrary to the criticisms that university academics live in an ivory tower that is far removed from the real world, the research done in universities has to be based on reality and is thus more accurately described as 'reality biased'. But, as Stephen Colbert said in his brilliant speech at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

But while academic scholars are restricted by reality, the rules of operation of their disciplines, and their research protocols, they are not restricted in what their conclusions are. If I do good research and find a result that goes counter to the dominant ideas in my field, I am not banished or dismissed from my job for publishing it. In fact, if my results are replicated by others and seem to hold up, that could be my ticket to major advancement in my career.

But the pseudo-scholars in think tanks are under no such constraints as academic rigor in their methods. In fact, the situation for them is exactly reversed from that of academics. They are constrained by their conclusions but not by their methods. Their conclusions are largely pre-ordained because, since they work for institutions that (unlike universities) are pursuing a specific agenda, they have to say what their paymasters want them to say, but they are free to make any crackpot arguments they wish in support of their conclusions.

POST SCRIPT: Flying penguins?

I came across this item yesterday.

April 01, 2008

Airports and plane travel

I hate traveling by plane. The only thing in its favor (and it is an admittedly big advantage) is that it enables one to travel enormous distances quickly.

There was a time when air travel was fairly pleasant but not anymore. Going to the airport hours early, parking in distant lots, dragging one's luggage around, standing in long lines to get checked in, the ridiculous process at security where one has to take off one's shoes and show your toothpaste in little baggies, all these make plane travel a tedious chore. And then one has to hang around in airport terminals where one is surrounded by TVs with their inane chatter, repeated announcements over the speakers, and where everyone around you seem to be constantly using their cell phones as a means of combating their boredom.

And after all that, when one gets on the plane, one sits in cramped seats where you cannot fully stretch out my legs, and where your arms are restricted by the arm rests on either side. And when the person in front reclines their seat fully, the sense of being trapped, hemmed in on all sides, is complete. I think that, as a small measure to improve flying comfort, planes should do away with reclining seats altogether, or greatly reduce the amount by which they can move back. The minor increase in comfort provided to the recliner seems to be far outweighed by the major annoyance caused to the person behind.

This is why I prefer to stay at home or if possible, drive to places, even if it takes longer. The silence of the car is conducive to quiet reflection in a way that plane travel is not. Unfortunately, I often have no choice but to travel by plane, often long distances to places like Sri Lanka and New Zealand just to visit family.

I have also noticed on my foreign travels that US airports seem to be the only places where one has to pay for the use of luggage carts. On my last trip, I noticed that the airports in Frankfurt, Germany and Colombo, Sri Lanka had plenty of free carts available all over the airport so one could always get one as needed. So one could take one right up to the security checkpoint, abandon it there as you go through the scanners, and then get another one on the other side. It looks kind of tacky in the US to charge people for this basic airport convenience.

Where the US comes out ahead is in airport bathrooms. They are easily the best in terms of the number of public toilets available and their cleanliness. I was surprised at how poorly the ones in Frankfurt, a major international hub, compared with almost any airport in the US.

US carriers on international flights tend to compare unfavorably to foreign carriers in amenities once on board the plane. In general, foreign carriers provide better food and free alcohol. They also have much more varied in-flight entertainment with little individual TVs embedded in each seatback to give individual choice. Their ability to provide these superior in-flight amenities may be because many of the foreign carriers are state run and thus may be more concerned about projecting a good image of their country and less concerned about squeezing maximum profit. Whatever the cause, when it comes to international travel, flying on a foreign national carrier is usually a better experience than traveling on a US carrier,

Some of these extra features are wasted on me, though, since I never watch the in-flight films and don't drink alcohol. The one thing I sometimes watch is the feature that I have found only on Sri Lankan Airlines, which is the view from a camera facing forward and mounted just below the cockpit. This gives you a view close to that seen by the pilots and is terrific, especially during landing and take off. It gives everyone a better view than even those fortunate enough to have a window seat.

When approaching Sri Lanka for example, because of this camera, you first see the deep blue of the Indian Ocean, then you cross over sandy yellow beaches and then you see the tops of coconut trees, which look like a continuous sea of waving green fronds, similar to the blue ocean waves you just left behind. The palm fronds get closer and larger and just as you get the feeling that you are going to land on the tops of the trees, suddenly there is a break in the canopy, the runway appears ahead, and you land. It is spectacular. I have experienced this many times and it is an exhilarating experience.

So maybe there are some advantages to plane travel after all.

POST SCRIPT: Stupid Design

Believers in god try to make the case that the universe looks like it was made with just the right conditions for life, especially human life, and that this is evidence for the existence of a designer god.

This is a very silly argument, as pointed out by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium.