Entries for May 2009

May 29, 2009

On torture-11: Invoking the extreme hypothetical

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's look at the final excuse on the list put out by torture apologists.

Excuse 11: Finally, the emotional appeal that takes various forms but one of the strongest is: If your children were being held hostage by terrorists, wouldn't you want any suspects to be tortured if that would save your child?

Before I directly address this question, let me make one thing clear. My unequivocal opposition to torture is based on the principle that I will not approve of any measures against other people that I would not accept if it were done to my own loved ones. There is no circumstance under which I would EVER consent to have my own child tortured. My opposition to torture is on the same grounds as my opposition to corporal punishment of children and the death penalty, that whatever I find objectionable when applied to my loved ones is also objectionable when applied to the loved ones of other people whom I don't know personally.

Not only am I opposed to torture on principle, I also oppose it because governments and security services have no compunction about lying about what evidence they have or have obtained that justifies torture, and will try and justify their contemptible actions using such lies. Read this appalling account of how the FBI coerces confessions from the innocent and how the courts help them cover it up.

Furthermore, we should never specify in advance the conditions when things like torture, murder, and corporal punishment are acceptable because doing so inevitably leads to abuse.

To explain, let's take murder, since that case is the easiest to understand but the action itself is the most extreme. We all say that killing someone is bad but we do excuse some people who do it. The mitigating factors may be self-defense or insanity. But such a judgment is always made on a case-by-case basis AFTER the fact of the killing. We should not specify in advance the conditions under which murder will be excused by saying, for example, that you can kill with impunity someone who enters your house. To do so would be to invite people to escape a murder conviction by creating the conditions under which he/she knows it will be excused. We want the system to be such that any person who kills another is never sure if they will be found guilty of murder and will thus hesitate before taking such an extreme step. Of course, psychopaths will kill anyway, as will those who cannot control their raging impulses, and such people will not be deterred by any laws from doing damage. But what we seek to do is to deter cold-blooded killers who try to calculate what they can get away with.

The danger of specifying the conditions under which you are allowed to kill someone leads to things like the tragedy in Texas where a couple shot and killed a seven-year old child who had apparently unwittingly trespassed on their property, though even the fact of trespassing is in doubt. Apparently Texas has a so-called 'Castle Doctrine' law that provides "civil immunity for a person who lawfully uses deadly force in any of the circumstances spelled out in the bill.". The couple seemed to take delight in using that license to shoot and kill the child even though they had to know that the child was not a threat to them in any way.

The only time we issue an almost blanket advance immunity for killing is for soldiers during wars (which can be argued are a form of collective insanity). But since we know that even this license can open the door to the committing of atrocities, we have instituted conventions that regulate even war time killings, setting out limits in conventions and treaties, so that stepping over those boundaries can result in charges of war crimes, though in practice only the losers get charged with those crimes. In World War II, Germans and Japanese were tried and executed for war crimes but not the Allied forces, although the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the blanket bombing of Dresden should have been tried as war crimes too.

It is the same thing with corporal punishment. I am opposed to it under every circumstance. Under extreme circumstances some parents will do extreme things like hitting a child. We may judge that such an action was excusable under the circumstances, but only after the fact. But we should never give categories of people (whether parents or teachers or priests or school administrators) advance blanket immunity to administer such punishment or let them know in advance the conditions under which they will escape punishment, by specifying which acts are justifiable and which are not. Doing so inevitably leads to abuse as sadistic people invoke their 'rights' to viciously attack helpless children.

The revelations of the long-term and systematic severe abuse of children by Catholic institutions in Ireland is an example of what happens when people think they have the right to discipline children using force, because they are parents or clergy or teachers. Another example is where people think it is allowed to subject others to humiliation during the process of ritualized hazing, and where some take this license to resort to cruelty.

There should always be a blanket prohibition against corporal punishment and hazing, like there is against killing. People who commit such acts must always have to justify their actions after the fact, aware that they may be found guilty of abuse. Without that restraint, we let loose those sadists who will exploit the conditions.

Next: What if my own child could be saved using only torture?

POST SCRIPT: Lewis Black on politics and religion and torture

From February 2008:

May 28, 2009

On torture-10: Christians and torture

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Before I get to the last of the excuses for torture on the list put out by apologists, I want to make a slight digression and comment on the curious reaction of Christians to torture.

As this series of posts has, I hope made clear, torture is a barbaric practice irrespective of who does it for whatever reason. So what does one make of recent poll results that says that the more you go to church, the more likely you are to approve of torture, while the less religious you are, the more you disapprove?

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified -- more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.

The religious group most likely to say torture is never justified was Protestant denominations -- such as Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians -- categorized as "mainline" Protestants, in contrast to evangelicals. Just over three in 10 of them said torture is never justified. A quarter of the religiously unaffiliated said the same, compared with two in 10 white non-Hispanic Catholics and one in eight evangelicals.

In a way, I can understand this result, based on the story of Jesus's crucifixion, an intrinsically barbaric form of death penalty. In my experience, those who are the most fervent in their Christian beliefs are the ones who seem to take the most delight in wallowing in the most gruesome imaginings of this story, adding on layers and layers of blood and gore and violence as Jesus makes his way to the cross. The so-called passion of Christ is spelled out and dragged out in the most sickening way, as can be seen in the re-enactments of the event every Easter. Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, tend to not dwell so much on the gory aspects of the death, skipping pretty quickly to the happy ending of the resurrection.

I refused to go and see Mel Gibson's hit film The Passion of the Christ because of its reportedly relentless gruesomeness but a colleague of mine, a professor of religious studies, went to see it out of a sense of professional obligation and he told me that the reports I had heard were true, that the film consisted mostly of Jesus being repeatedly tortured in novel ways in sickening and graphic detail. And evangelical Christians loved the film, making it box office smash. In the film Religuous (see POST SCRIPT below), Bill Maher goes to a holy land theme park in (where else?) Orlando, Florida and we see a reenactment of the passion and the audience actually applauds as the Jesus actor, covered in fake blood and staggering under the weight of the cross, is assaulted by the guards.

Even the whole idea of the communion representing the eating of Jesus's flesh and the drinking of his blood must be contributing to the coarsening of one's natural revulsion against mutilation.

Surely there must be some relationship between evangelical Christians glorifying the torturing of Christ and seeing it as a good thing, and their thinking that torturing people in general cannot be that bad if Jesus chose to experience it?

The conservative website Red State, using some truly weird logic, argues that torture is completely consistent with Christian values. It first tries to argue that the actions that the US indulged in, such as waterboarding, was not torture, saying "Torture involves extreme physical pain or even death, such as the cutting off of appendages, gouging of eyes, use of shredders to the body, electrical shock—you name it. Blood is usually involved." As we have seen, this claim is impossible to sustain and is counter to all treaty and consensus judgments of what constitutes torture. It then goes on, "It’s likely even Jesus would have OK’d water boarding if it would have saved his Mom. He would’ve done the same to save his Dad, or any one of His disciples. For that matter, He even died to save all humans."

This does not even make sense since why would Jesus, being god and omniscient and all, need to torture anyone to get information? He would simply know everything, no? After all, he can hear millions of simultaneous silent prayers, which must mean that he can read minds. And why would he need to save his "Dad", since his "Dad" was also god and could probably take care of himself perfectly well, thank you very much?

Perhaps the explanation for this casual acceptance of such barbaric practices by those who undoubtedly consider themselves to be good Christians lies in the words of Clarence Darrow, the defense lawyer in the Scope evolution trial of 1925. Darrow had contempt for religion and once told a group of convicts, "It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment."

POST SCRIPT: Religulous

I recently saw the Bill Maher film Religulous and it was a riot. He looks at the religious practices of the major western religions, talks to religious people, and shows how idiotic their beliefs are. Religious sophisticates will complain, as they usually do, that he has not engaged with religion on a sophisticated plane and talked with theologians about Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine or discussed the anthropic principle and the like. Instead he spoke with preachers and believers. They made the same kind of criticism of Richard Dawkins and his book The God Delusion. (In interviews, Maher and the film's director say they tried to interview the heads of major religions but were turned down.)

But that is the point. He, like Dawkins, is dealing with the kinds of beliefs that religion gives most people, and showing that they are preposterous. What a few academic theologians believe has almost no resemblance to what almost all religious people believe, serving only as intellectual cover for gross superstitions. Maher asks people concrete questions, the kind that should be asked. Basically he asks people what they believe and why which results in hilarious, if sometimes mind-boggling, results.

The film is available on DVD. Here's the trailer:

The DVD has the usual bonus features that include scenes that were cut out and one of them was an interview with Rael himself, one of the latest in the line of prophets who say they were told in secret by a higher power that they are to be special messengers to humanity. And, of course, people believe them. (I have written about the Raelians and their founder before here, here, and here.)

May 27, 2009

On torture-9: The "everybody knew about it" excuse

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 9: Top Democrats were told what was going on and approved of it so that makes it ok.

This is a truly curious argument, evidenced in the absurd fuss over what Nancy Pelosi was told about torture and when she was told it. Some Republican politicians are putting the Attorney General on notice that if he takes actions against the Bush torturers, they will force him to widen the investigation to take into account the fact that the illegal practice of the "rendition" of prisoners to countries that torture also took place during the Clinton administration.

Some opponents of torture investigations advance this argument as if it were a checkmate move, as if the possibility of involvement of Democrats in torture will shut up those seeking action against torturers. They don't seem to realize that there are many of us who don't give a damn if the people prosecuted for torture are Democrats or Republicans. This is why we want a full investigation and prosecution of torture practices wherever it may lead and whomever it may lead to. If it turns out that top figures in the Democratic Party were complicit, they should also be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I myself strongly suspect that key Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate were complicit in at least condoning torture policies and they should be exposed and tried as well.

Eric Posner, whom we saw yesterday argues that the Attorney General has the discretion not to prosecute torture (a claim that Glenn Greenwald dismisses as both 'frivolous' and 'lawless'), also argues that the bipartisan complicity on torture will be sufficient to prevent prosecution. In other words, that the Obama administration would be well-advised not to prosecute those who committed torture since it might embarrass members of his own party.

One can easily imagine the defense strategy, which will start by calling to the stand various Democratic senators and representatives who had been informed of the interrogation tactics and did not publicly object to them at the time. The testimony would surely be entertaining, as the politicians would be put in the impossible position of either admitting their moral complicity, which would make the entire trial look like a political show trial designed to punish Republicans but not Democrats, or looking like cowards who knew that the government was breaking the law but despite their oath to the Constitution were unwilling to do anything about it. Do Obama and Holder really want to put leaders of their own party in Congress in this position?

They obviously don't but they should. In any event, this is an irrelevant point to anyone who cares about the rule of law. Let us never lose sight of the fact that crimes against humanity, and torture is one, does not allow countries the discretion to not prosecute those suspected of committing them.

The Bush administration clearly took advantage of their ability to selectively brief Congressional leaders in secret about things like torture, knowing that this would make them complicit. What I don't understand is why people agree to be given classified briefings if they cannot do anything about things they hear that they find objectionable. The only reason I can think is that people, especially political leaders, seem to love to be told secrets, to feel that they are the holders of privileged information that the general public is not privy to. It gives them a sense of self-importance.

This underscores the pernicious effect of secrecy which is why the widespread use of background briefings and off-the-record interviews between politicians and journalists should be condemned, and why even politicians should never agree to be confidentially briefed on policies that they have no power to change. While agreeing to listen may make them feel important, they should realize that they are also being co-opted to tacitly support things they may not agree with.

Excuse 10: We need to focus on solving urgent problems like the financial and housing crisis and torture investigations will be divisive and distract us.

Does this excuse really need to be dignified by a response? Have we sunk so low, become so crass, that we trivialize and shunt aside deeply moral issues like torture that truly identify us as people, to focus only on money issues? Apart from the immorality of even making such a comparison, it is absurd to think that a nation as big as the US cannot handle more than one thing at a time.

POST SCRIPT: Obama's hypocrisy

While Obama gives uplifting speeches and says many of the right things about human rights and the rule of law, the fact is that his actions often don't match up to the rhetoric.

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May 26, 2009

On torture-8: The 'partisan politics' excuse

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 8: If we prosecute those who authorized torture, then this would be for purely partisan reasons for retribution by Democrats against Republicans.

The fundamental principle that is involved is that nobody is above the law. If this requires the prosecution of the officials of one party by the occupants of another party, that is just incidental. In fact, it is the very fact that the ruling party tends not to prosecute their own people that makes such cross-party prosecutions necessary. Of course, in a pro-war/pro-business oligarchy like the US, both parties are really one on issues like this, as can be seen in the way that the Obama administration is desperately trying to get out of its treaty obligations to take action against torturers. As is characteristic of oligarchies, each party protects the other when it comes to major issues, which is why other countries might step in to prosecute top US officials for torture if the US does not do so.

The idea that laws and treaties do not apply to actions by the US and its leaders is widely promoted by the oligarchy. Condoleeza Rice recently said that "by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture". John Dean says that Obama is also guilty if his Justice Department does not prosecute because Geneva Conventions and the torture treaty require actions be taken against those who both torture and authorize torture. There is an affirmative obligation for governments to take action against those who commit torture. It does not give countries the choice, as some people think, to "let bygones be bygones", to "look forward and not backward" and let torturers avoid prosecution and punishment. They do not have discretion in this matter. Since Attorney General Eric Holder has already conceded that waterboarding is torture, he is obliged to pursue prosecutions of those who committed torture.

Glenn Greenwald lays out the case for prosecutions clearly:

The U.S., under Ronald Reagan, legally obligated itself to investigate and prosecute any acts of torture committed by Americans (which includes authorization of torture by high level officials and also includes, under Article 3 of the Convention [against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment], acts of "rendering" detainees to countries likely to torture, as the Bush administration unquestionably did).

All of the standard excuses being offered by Bush apologists and our political class (a virtual redundancy) -- namely: our leaders meant well; we were facing a dangerous enemy; government lawyers said this could be done; Congress immunized the torturers; it would be too divisive to prosecute -- are explicitly barred by this treaty (i.e., binding law) as a ground for refusing to investigate and prosecute acts of torture.

This is also why the standard argument now being offered by Bush apologists (such as University of Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner, echoing his dad, Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner in Chicago) as to why prosecutions are unnecessary -- namely: there is "prosecutorial discretion" that should take political factors into account in order not to prosecute -- are both frivolous and lawless. The Convention explicitly bars any such "discretion": "The State Party in territory under whose jurisdiction a person alleged to have committed any offence referred to in article 4 is found, shall . . . submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution." The principal purpose of the Convention is to remove the discretion involved in prosecuting acts of torture and to bar the very excuses which every torturing society proffers and which our own torturing society is now attempting to invoke ("we were dealing with real threats; there were 'exceptional circumstances' that justified it; we enacted laws legalizing the torture; our leaders meant well; we need to move on")

By deciding not to pursue actions against torturers, Obama himself is violating international law, in addition to politically interfering with the actions of the Justice Department. Although people seem to have become accustomed to the Justice Department being seen as a political arm of the White House (thanks to the post of Attorney General being filled with political hacks like Alberto Gonzalez), we must not forget that it is supposed to be an independent agency, free of political control and obliged to take actions purely on the legal merits of the cases that come before it. To take direction from the political leadership, as is happening now with Obama trying to quash prosecutions of torture and illegal wiretapping, is itself wrong.

The fundamental principles involved here are really quite simple. There are certain things that civilized societies should not do, and torture is one of them. Anyone who tortures or authorizes torture has violated the law and committed a crime against humanity and can be prosecuted in any country. Nobody is above the law. Nobody.

POST SCRIPT: Bipartisan whitewash on torture

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on how Obama is morphing into Bush/Cheney when it comes to torture, warrantless wiretapping, and other illegal activities.

May 25, 2009

Language and Evolution

(Due to the Memorial Day holiday, I am reposting an old item.)

I have always been fascinated by language. This is somewhat ironic since I have a really hard time learning a new language and almost did not make it into college in Sri Lanka because of extreme difficulty in passing the 10th-grade language requirement in my own mother tongue of Tamil! (How that happened is a long and not very interesting story.)

But language fascinates me. How words are used, their origins, how sentences are structured, are all things that I enjoy thinking and reading about. I like playing with words, and enjoy puns, cryptic crosswords, and other forms of wordplay.

All this background is to explain why I recommend an excellent book The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, who used to be a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley but is now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In the book he discusses the complexity of language and points out that the evolution of language is very similar to that of biological life. He suggests that there was originally just one spoken, very primitive, language and as the people who spoke it fanned out across the globe, the various languages evolved as separated communities formed. And in the process the languages became more complex and sophisticated, and evolved intricate features in their vocabulary and grammar that now seem to have little functional purpose, in a manner very analogous to biological systems.

The precise origin of spoken language is hard to pin down. McWhorter argues that it probably arose with the evolution of the ability to form complex sounds and roughly synchronous with the arrival of homo sapiens about 150,000 years ago. Others have suggested a more recent date for the origins of language, about 12,000-15,000 years ago, but pinning this date down precisely is next to impossible given that spoken language leaves no traces. What we do know is that written language began about 5,000 years ago

McWhorter points out that purely spoken languages evolve and change very rapidly, resulting in an extremely rapid proliferation of language leaving us with the 6,000 or so languages that we have now. It was the origin of writing, and more importantly mass printing, that slowed down the evolution of language since now the fixed words on paper acted as a brake on further changes.

He also makes an important point that the distinction between standard and dialect forms of languages have no hierarchical value and is also a post-printing phenomenon. In other words, when we hear people (say) in rural Appalachia or in the poorer sectors of inner cities speak in an English that is different from that spoken by middle class, college-educated people, it is not the case that they are speaking a debased form of 'correct' or 'standard' English. He argues that dialects are all there is or ever was, because language was always mainly a local phenomenon. There are no good or bad dialects, there are just dialects.

We can, if we wish, bundle together a set of dialects that share a lot in common and call it a language (like English or French or Swahili) but no single strand in the bundle can justifiably lay any intrinsic claim to be the standard. What we identify as standard language arose due to factors such as politics and power. Standard English now is that dialect which was spoken in the politically influential areas near London. Since that area was then the hub of printing and copying, that version of language appeared in the written form more often than other forms and somewhere in the 1400s became seen as the standard. The same thing happened with standard French, which happened to be the dialect spoken in the Paris areas.

McWhorter points out that, like biological organisms, languages can and do go extinct in that people stop speaking them and they disappear or, in some cases like Latin, only appear in fossilized form. In fact, most of the world's languages that existed have already gone extinct, as is the case with biological species. He says that rapid globalization is making many languages disappear even more rapidly because as people become bi-lingual or multi-lingual, and as a few languages emerge as the preferred language of commerce, there is less chance of children learning the less-privileged language as their native tongue. This loss in the transmission of language to children as their primary language is the first stage leading to eventual extinction. He points out that currently 96 percent of the world's population speaks at least one of just twenty languages, in addition to their indigenous language. These languages are Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portugese, Japanese, German, French, Punjabi, Javanese, Bihari, Italian, Korean, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, and Vietnamese and thus these are the languages most likely to survive extinction. It is noteworthy that the population of India is so large and diverse that seven of these languages originated there, and two others (English and Arabic) are also used extensively in that country.

He also points out that languages are never 'pure' and that this situation is the norm. Languages cross-fertilize with other languages to form language stews, so that language chauvinists who try to preserve some pure and original form of their language are engaged in a futile task. For example, of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary, more than 99 percent were originally obtained from other languages. However, the remaining few that originated in Old English, such as and, but, father, love, fight, to, will, should, not, from turn out to be 62 percent of the words that are used most.

McWhorter is a very good writer, able to really bring the subject to life by drawing on everyday matters and popular culture. He has a breezy and humorous style and provides lots of very interesting bits of trivia that, while amusing, are also very instructive of the points he wishes to make. Regarding the ability of language to change and evolve new words, for example, he explains how the word 'nickname' came about. It started out as an 'ekename' because in old English, the word 'eke' meant also, so that an 'ekename' meant an 'also name' which makes sense. Over time, though, 'an ekename' changed to 'a nekename' and eventually to 'a nickname.' He gives many interesting examples of this sort.

Those who know more than one language well will likely appreciate his book even more than me. It is a book that is great fun to read and I can strongly recommend to anyone who loves words and language.

POST SCRIPT: Rhythm of Life

I didn't care much for the musical Sweet Charity but there was one song by Sammy Davis, Jr. that was terrific.

That song was used in a great advertisement for Guinness Beer that linked it to evolution.

May 22, 2009

On torture-7: The 'acting in good faith' excuses

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 4: Even if it did violate binding laws and treaties, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

See the response to excuse #2 ("Even if it was torture, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.")

Excuse 5: The people who committed torture should not be prosecuted because they were told it was legal and they were merely following orders.

People who bring up this argument are either extremely ignorant, being willfully obtuse, or lying. Is there anyone in this day and age who does not know that this so-called "Nuremberg defense" is not valid? The defense that people should not be punished for obeying orders was not allowed during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war crimes after World War II and which has set the modern standard for how such crimes should be treated. Neither was the defense that the accusing parties were also guilty of the same crimes as the accused. "Just following orders" and "Others did it too" cannot be used to justify war crimes.

This principle was further reinforced in article 2, section 3 of the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which states that: "An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture."

Excuse 6: If we prosecute those who committed torture, then in future they will be "always looking over their shoulders" when conducting interrogations and be hesitant to take strong actions for fear of prosecution.

That is the whole point. People with the power of life or death over others should always be concerned about stepping over the line. They should always be looking over their shoulders, and take into account that if they commit excesses, they might face prosecution. This is what keeps atrocities in check. We want police and other security personnel to be keenly aware that there are lines that must not be crossed and that if they do, they will face the consequences. They may go ahead and do it anyway, but they should not assume while doing so that they have immunity for any and all actions. That have to be conscious of the fact that they will be called to justify why they chose the actions they did. And if they cannot justify it, they should expect to be prosecuted.

Excuse 7: The people who told the torturers that it was acceptable to torture were acting in good faith and trying to protect the country, so they should not be prosecuted.

This is the same kind of argument given by any dictator, autocrat, tyrant, or sadist, that they were doing it for the "greater good", to "defend the country against its enemies", to "save lives". This argument was again rejected at the Nuremberg trials where the top leadership of Nazi Germany was found guilty of war crimes for just setting policy and issuing orders. Hermann Goering said that the concentration camps were necessary to preserve order: "It was a question of removing danger." This argument was rejected, and even those who merely gave the orders were sentenced to death. It can well be argued that the people who are in command positions and give such orders are more culpable than the lower ranks that carried them out, though the latter are not excused from culpability.

Noam Chomsky and Tom Englehardt point out that the people who excuse US torture practices on the grounds of 'saving the country from attacks' never seem to consider the logical extensions of that argument.

There is still much debate about whether torture has been effective in eliciting information – the assumption being, apparently, that if it is effective, then it may be justified. By the same argument, when Nicaragua captured U.S. pilot Eugene Hasenfuss in 1986, after shooting down his plane delivering aid to U.S.-supported Contra forces, they should not have tried him, found him guilty, and then sent him back to the U.S., as they did. Instead, they should have applied the CIA torture paradigm to try to extract information about other terrorist atrocities being planned and implemented in Washington, no small matter for a tiny, impoverished country under terrorist attack by the global superpower.

By the same standards, if the Nicaraguans had been able to capture the chief terrorism coordinator, John Negroponte, then U.S. ambassador in Honduras (later appointed as the first director of national intelligence, essentially counterterrorism czar, without eliciting a murmur), they should have done the same. Cuba would have been justified in acting similarly, had the Castro government been able to lay hands on the Kennedy brothers. There is no need to bring up what their victims should have done to Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and other leading terrorist commanders, whose exploits leave al-Qaeda in the dust, and who doubtless had ample information that could have prevented further "ticking bomb" attacks.

Such considerations never seem to arise in public discussion.

The documentary Standard Operating Procedure (which I have not been able to see as yet) apparently argues that the low-level soldiers who carried out the atrocities at Abu Ghraib were merely scapegoats for the higher ups, cynically blamed for every wrong that happened while those who set the policy and encouraged these acts escaped. All the Bush administration principals discussed torture in detail so that they cannot now claim ignorance and conveniently put the blame on lower ranking 'bad apples'.

The Nuremberg principle that leaders 'acting in good faith' should not escape punishment for the acts that result from their orders was further reinforced in article 2, section 2 of the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which states that "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." This is about as unequivocal a rejection of the 'good faith' or 'extreme circumstances' excuses as one is likely to find.

We did not accept this argument of imminent danger to justify the authorization of torture by Nazi leaders, we would not accept such a defense from (say) North Korean leaders, and we should not accept it from US leaders.

POST SCRIPT: The frightened and dangerous clown

I have been bemused by the media paying such respectful attention to the ravings of Dick "Vice President for Torture" Cheney. Josh Marshall gives an excellent evaluation of him and why his utterances should be mercilessly mocked.

This is an extremely gullible man who has just come off being the driving ideological force in an administration that most people can already see produced more fiascos and titanic, self-inflicted goofs than possibly any in our entire history. By any standard the guy is a monumental failure -- and not one whose mistakes stem in some Lyndon Johnson fashion from tragic overreach, but just a fool who damaged his country through his own gullibility, paranoia and bad judgment. Whatever else you can say about the Cheney story it ain't Shakespearean.

So as we see the big reporters trying to put him on some sort of equal footing with President Obama today, let's remember that the great majority of Americans see Dick Cheney, accurately, as a clown. And mockery isn't just the most effective but also the most morally apt response to the man.

I have always thought that Cheney is a very frightened man, something that Marshall and other commentators miss, perhaps because they have been taken in by Cheney's tough guy talk. His entire life history, from dodging fighting in Vietnam by getting five deferments to building a secure and secret underground bunker to hide in, are all clear signs of someone who lives in fear. It is the combination of fear and power that made him so dangerous.

The words that William Shakespeare put in the mouth of Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene II) describe Cheney perfectly:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.

May 21, 2009

On torture-6: The legal excuse

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 3: These actions did not violate any laws or treaties binding on the US.

Yes they do. That crazy, soft-on-terror ideologue Ronald Reagan signed the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 1984, and such international treaties have the power of law. In a signing statement, Reagan said the following: "Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today. The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called "universal jurisdiction." Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution."

Some have argued that these treaties only apply to prisoners of war, uniformed soldiers of another country captured on the battlefield, and that the so-called 'enemy combatants' do not warrant such protections. Charles Krauthammer who, like fellow-torture advocate Alan Dershowitz, starts from the ends he wants (the freedom for the US to torture others but not allow others to torture US citizens) and argues back to the premises, says that a captured terrorist "is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians, and he deliberately targets innocents. He is entitled to no protections whatsoever." (my italics)

Apart from the incredibly barbaric nature of the assertion that anyone who is detained by security forces for whatever reason has no protection whatsoever against any brutality inflicted on them merely because someone claims that he is a terrorist, this argument is not even legally sustainable. The above-mentioned Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment says that protection against torture applies to all persons, not just those formally designated as prisoners of war.

We also need to distinguish between the third Geneva Convention which refers to prisoners of war and the fourth Geneva Convention which deals with other people involved in conflicts. Article 3 of Geneva Convention IV says:

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat [i.e., out of the battle] by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
(b) taking of hostages;
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment;
(d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. (my italics)

This idea that there can be a whole class of people who have no rights whatsoever and to whom we can freely apply torture is a bizarre new invention, created for the purpose of excusing the acts of torture authorized and condoned by the US government.

[Retired Brigadier General John Adams] made clear that during all his years of service and training, including his tenure as a professor at West Point, what he learned and what he taught was consistent: the United States military always acts under the rule of law, in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and upholds the Constitution. What was not taught, or even discussed, were terms like harsh or enhanced interrogation techniques ("I never heard those terms used"), or arguments concerning what constitutes a so-called unique enemy ("In all my training, the current discussions are the first time I ever heard that argument used"). Said Adams: "I have never known anyone in a leadership position in the military who would condone torture. They would never do it. It would go against all the training we had, and against what we were trained to do, which is to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law."

It may be possible that legal 'brains' similar to the infamous John Yoo and Jay Bybee in the Bush Justice administration may be able to find some tortured interpretation of the law and treaties that allow a tiny legal loophole in these treaty obligations. But it is truly disgusting to watch people who do not hesitate to apply broad sweeping moral judgments when torture is done by others suddenly retreat into nitpicking legalistic defenses when torture is done by the US. They seem to then think that if everything is 'legal' then it is acceptable. Some people argue that the real 'mistake' that the Bush administration made was in not going to Congress and getting a law passed that would have made all these practices legal, rather than depend on internal memos by the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department.

That misses the point. A country cannot make torture legal by changing its internal laws. Torture is considered a crime so vile and inexcusable that it is beyond the pale of civilized behavior and thus cannot take refuge within national boundaries or jurisdictions. It is a crime against humanity and anyone anywhere can take action against any suspected perpetrators.

POST SCRIPT: Ventura ventures into the torture debate

Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura was once a Navy SEAL and underwent waterboarding as part of the SERE training. He says that waterboarding is undoubtedly torture and that torture produces worthless information. He tells Larry King, "I'll put it to you this way, you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders."

He further says, "I will criticize President Obama on this level; it's a good thing I'm not president because I would prosecute every person that was involved in that torture. I would prosecute the people that did it. I would prosecute the people that ordered it. Because torture is against the law."


May 20, 2009

On torture-5: The effectiveness argument

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let's continue with our look at the other excuses on the list put out by apologists.

Excuse 2: Even if it was torture, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

Once you accept this argument, then you are truly a barbarian, because you can use it to justify any action at all. If torture is justified to save the lives of others, why have any limits at all? Why not drive hot spikes through people? Why not cut off their limbs? Why not bring back the rack and other devices of the Inquisition? Why not torture the families and children of detainees? Why not torture and terrorize entire communities?

And why stop with alleged terror suspects? Why not allow police to solve crimes by routinely torturing suspects to get information and confessions? It would save a lot of time and money too.

Furthermore, the argument that torture was successful because no further attack occurred after 9/11 (ignoring the anthrax attacks for the moment) is meaningless.
"My magic baseball cap keeps lions away from the city."
"There are no lions in the city."
"See, it works!"

These kinds of arguments are mainly advanced by torture-lovers like the former vice president for torture Dick Cheney (a label given to him by the former director of the CIA Admiral Stansfield Turner) and have two self-serving purposes: they provide a justification for criminal acts and so that any new attack that might ever occur in the future can be blamed on the stopping of the torture practices. To substantiate such assertions, you need to provide specific evidence of an action that has been thwarted because of information gained that could only have been achieved by torture.

But an interrogator for the FBI Ali Soufan puts the lie to even the claim that torture garnered useful information that would not have been obtained otherwise.

Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present, I questioned [Abu Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.

We discovered, for example, that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Abu Zubaydah also told us about Jose Padilla, the so-called dirty bomber. This experience fit what I had found throughout my counterterrorism career: traditional interrogation techniques are successful in identifying operatives, uncovering plots and saving lives.

There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics. In addition, I saw that using these alternative methods on other terrorists backfired on more than a few occasions — all of which are still classified. The short sightedness behind the use of these techniques ignored the unreliability of the methods, the nature of the threat, the mentality and modus operandi of the terrorists, and due process.

Defenders of these techniques have claimed that they got Abu Zubaydah to give up information leading to the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a top aide to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and Mr. Padilla. This is false. The information that led to Mr. Shibh’s capture came primarily from a different terrorist operative who was interviewed using traditional methods. As for Mr. Padilla, the dates just don’t add up: the harsh techniques were approved in the memo of August 2002, Mr. Padilla had been arrested that May.

As George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley says, the torturing of Abu Zubayda provided nothing of value, and the Bush administration lied about the effectiveness of torturing him in order to excuse its actions.

The Bush torture program is a wonderful example of not just the time-proven junk that comes from torture, but also the value of legal process as a way to acquiring legitimate information in legitimate ways. Putting aside the obvious immorality of the program, the reports show how we tortured people for little more advantage than the visceral and political benefits of "getting tough on terrorism."

It is becoming clear that torture was used for more than just to show toughness. The Bush administration was desperately seeking to justify the attack on Iraq and was using torture to try get confessions to "prove" that a link existed between Saddam Hussein and al Qaida.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the interrogation issue said that Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld demanded that the interrogators find evidence of al Qaida-Iraq collaboration.

"There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," the former senior intelligence official said on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

"The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack (after 9/11). But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that (former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed) Chalabi and others had told them were there."

Similar reports are coming out elsewhere.

Khalid Shekh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in one month, an average of six time per day! If this most extreme form of torture is effective, why was it necessary to do it so many times? What made the torturers think that the 150th time would work better than the 149th time? Surely we can see that other motives must be at play. Either the torturers were seeking a false confession or anger, frustration, and sheer sadism had taken over from any intelligence gathering needs. What torture does best is produce false confessions and false information as the tortured person says anything at all just in order to make the torture stop.

As US airman Harold Fischer said about his experience at the hands of a Chinese torturer during the Korean war:

"[The torturer Chong] wanted me to admit that I had been ordered to cross the Manchurian border," Captain Fischer told Life magazine. "I was grilled day and night, over and over, week in and week out, and in the end, to get Chong and his gang off my back, I confessed to both charges. The charges, of course, were ridiculous. I never participated in germ warfare and neither did anyone else. I was never ordered to cross the Yalu. We had strict Air Force orders not to cross the border."

"I will regret what I did in that cell the rest of my life," the captain continued. "But let me say this: it was not really me — not Harold E. Fischer Jr. — who signed that paper. It was a mentality reduced to putty."

What torture does is produce "mentalities reduced to putty", people willing to say anything to escape the torment, hardly the source of good information. But even in the extremely unlikely event that proof were offered that torture produced useful information that could have been obtained no other way, I would still reject this utilitarian argument on moral grounds.

There are some things a civilized society should not do merely to save some lives. We cannot live in a risk-free world. We are all going to die someday. We have no choice in that matter. The only choice we have is whether we live with dignity and honor by upholding principles of civilized behavior or we become barbarians. Bush, Cheney, and all those who support and excuse torture have chosen barbarism.

POST SCRIPT: The bogus 'ticking time bomb' issue

The 'ticking time bomb' scenario so beloved by torture apologists and based on little more than fictional TV shows and films can hardly be used for torture that extends over a month as was the case of Khalid Shekh Mohammed. See Tom Tomorrow's cartoon parodying the absurdity of this argument.

May 19, 2009

On torture-4: Trying to excuse the inexcusable

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

These arguments that have been made to excuse the torture practices of the US have taken many shifting forms. In the next few posts, I list the top excuses for torture practices, followed by my responses.

Excuse 1: What was done by the US is not torture.

Excuse 2: Even if it was torture, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

Excuse 3: These actions did not violate any laws.

Excuse 4: Even if it did violate binding laws, it was justified because it worked to prevent another attack and thus saved lives.

Excuse 5: The people who committed torture should not be prosecuted because they were told it was legal and thus they were merely following orders.

Excuse 6: If we prosecute those who committed torture, then in future they will be "always looking over their shoulders" when conducting interrogations and hesitant to take strong actions for fear of prosecution.

Excuse 7: The people who told the torturers that it was acceptable to torture were acting in good faith and trying to protect the country, so they should not be prosecuted.

Excuse 8: If we prosecute those who authorized torture, then this would be for purely partisan reasons for retribution by Democrats against Republicans.

Excuse 9: Top Democrats were told what was going on and approved of it so that makes it ok.

Excuse 10: We need to focus on solving urgent problems like the financial and housing crisis and torture investigations will be divisive and distract us.

Excuse 11: Finally, the emotional appeal that takes various forms but one of the strongest is to invoke the extreme hypothetical: If your child was being held hostage by terrorists, wouldn't you want any suspects to be tortured if they had information that could save your child?

Excuse 1: What was done by the US is not torture.

This argument has been put forward in two ways. One is to suggest that what was done to the detainees was mild, even routine. Sleep deprivation? Who of us haven't had sleepless nights? Forced to stand for hours one end? Donald Rumsfeld used to wonder why the detainees were getting off so easy by being made to stand for only four hours when he often stands for 8-10 hours per day. And so on. The other is to suggest that since these torture techniques were used as part of the SERE program to train US personnel to resist torture, they cannot be torture since we wouldn't torture our own people, would we?

Do I really need to point out why these arguments cannot be taken seriously? There is a world of difference between experiencing something voluntarily or at the hands of people you know are on your side and do not want to harm you, and having the same thing done to you by your enemies who may want to kill you. To argue otherwise is like saying that since some people voluntarily participate in S&M sexual practices, then assault or rape cannot be crimes.

Torture apologist Charles Krauthammer actually put forward the argument that the above practices could not be torture because they were used to train US troops, to which an officer in the National Guard replied:

I have friends who have been to SERE and instructed SERE students and acted as interrogators. All agree that waterboarding and other such 'enhanced' techniques are good for training (in a strictly controlled environment) our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on what to expect in captivity. They also agree that it is torture to anyone outside that training environment. Finally, they all agree that torture rarely results in actionable intelligence, as the victim is willing to say most anything to end the torture.

But even beyond that, many people have been quite unequivocal about calling these practices torture. As John McCain asserted during the election campaign, the US executed Japanese soldiers in World War II for the same kinds of things that were done by the US interrogators, because they were considered torture and thus war crimes. McCain said "[F]ollowing World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding,"

Gen. Barry McCaffrey has called what was done by the US torture.

Gen Antonio Taguba, who was assigned to investigate the activities following the revelations at Abu Ghraib, has said that what was done by the Bush administrations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanmo constituted war crimes "when the Commander-in-Chief and those under him authorized a systematic regime of torture."

Brigadier General James Cullen (Ret.), former chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals said that giving these practices euphemisms such as "enhanced interrogation techniques" does not make it not torture. What was done was unequivocally torture. "We hear a lot of arguments to try to justify 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' but we know exactly what we're talking about. It's torture in different packaging."

In fact, the Senate Armed Services Committee said that the whole point of the SERE training that led to the abuses was to resist what was clearly identified as torture.

During the resistance phase of SERE training, US military personnel are exposed to physical and psychological pressures...designed to simulate conditions to which they might be subject if taken prisoner by enemies that did not abide by the Geneva Conventions. As one JPRA instructor explained, SERE training is "based on illegal exploitation (under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) of prisoners over the last 50 years."

It is really quite simple. At the very minimum, if something is torture when done by others to you involuntarily, then it is still torture when done by you to others.

Next: More excuses

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart talks with a torture apologist

Clifford May comes out with the usual pathetic excuses for why torture is ok if done by the US. May is the president of something called the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and nothing says that you love democracy more than advocating torture practices.

The full and unedited interview is shown below in three parts.

Part 1:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 1
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Economic CrisisFirst 100 Days

Part 2

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 2
Daily Show
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Economic CrisisFirst 100 Days

Part 3:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Cliff May Unedited Interview Pt. 3
Daily Show
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Economic CrisisFirst 100 Days

May 18, 2009

On torture-3: What was actually done to detainees by the US

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

An article by Mark Danner in the April 30, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books accompanied his release of the February 2007 confidential report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on what was done to detainees in US custody. It is truly horrifying. These are the methods that were used by the US on its detainees:

  • Suffocation by water poured over a cloth placed over the nose and mouth…[i.e., 'waterboarding']
  • Prolonged stress standing position, naked, held with the arms extended and chained above the head...
  • Beatings by use of a collar held around the detainees' neck and used to forcefully bang the head and body against the wall...
  • Beating and kicking, including slapping, punching, kicking to the body and face...
  • Confinement in a box to severely restrict movement...
  • Prolonged nudity...this enforced nudity lasted for periods ranging from several weeks to several months...
  • Sleep deprivation...through use of forced stress positions (standing or sitting), cold water and use of repetitive loud noises or music...
  • Exposure to cold temperature...especially via cold cells and interrogation rooms, and...use of cold water poured over the body or...held around the body by means of a plastic sheet to create an immersion bath with just the head out of water.
  • Prolonged shackling of hands and/or feet...
  • Threats of ill-treatment, to the detainee and/or his family...
  • Forced shaving of the head and beard...
  • Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food from 3 days to 1 month after arrest...

How did the US torturers even come up with the ideas for these methods? They were developed as part of the SERE ("Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape") counter-resistance program developed by the US military, to train their own people to resist what they themselves called torture when it was done to them by others. Danner quotes a Senate Armed Services Committee report that says:

The techniques used in SERE school, based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, include stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps and until recently, for some who attended the Navy's SERE school, it included waterboarding.

The progression is chilling. When done by the Chinese against US prisoners, these actions were unequivocally condemned as torture. These torture techniques were then used to train US personnel to resist torture in the event they were captured by countries that did not abide by the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions or the Treaty Against Torture. And then they were used as a how-to manual by the US to torture others.

There is no doubt that the US has tortured people in violation of the law. The question now is what should be done about it.

As Danner says:

One fact, seemingly incontrovertible, after the descriptions contained and the judgments made in the ICRC report, is that officials of the United States, in interrogating prisoners in the "War on Terror," have tortured and done so systematically. From many other sources, including the former president himself, we know that the decision to do so was taken at the highest level of the American government and carried out with the full knowledge and support of its most senior officials.

Once this is accepted as a fact, certain consequences might be expected to follow. First, that these policies, violating as they do domestic and international law, must be changed—which, as noted, President Obama began to accomplish on his first full day in office. Second, that they should be explicitly repudiated—a more complicated political process, which has, perhaps, begun, but only begun. Third, that those who ordered, designed, and applied them must be brought before the public in some societally sanctioned proceeding, made to explain what they did and how, and suffer some appropriate consequence.

And fourth, and crucially, that some judgment must be made, based on the most credible of information compiled and analyzed and weighed by the most credible of bodies, about what these policies actually accomplished: how they advanced the interests of the country, if indeed they did advance them, and how they hurt them.

But rather than following through on the logic that those who commit torture should face investigation and prosecution, what has been disgusting are the efforts to excuse and justify these actions in response to these revelations, simply because they were done by 'our' side.

Next: The parade of excuses for the torture committed by the US

POST SCRIPT: Hypocrisy

The Daily Show on the difference between the way Japanese torturers were treated compared to the US torturers for doing the same things.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
A Brief History of Torture
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May 15, 2009

On torture-2: When sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

In the previous post in this series, I invented a hypothetical example of two American journalists tortured by North Korea to argue that the reaction in the US is quite different when torture is done by other counties, in order to illustrate the hypocrisy of condemning those actions by others that we excuse in ourselves. It now turns out that this kind of scenario actually happened. Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, who is closely related to the ruling family of that country, was caught on videotape torturing people.

Particularly damaging was the apparent involvement of a policeman in the torture and the impunity with which Sheikh Issa could act, even after the tape emerged. He is a senior prince related to powerful members of the ruling family in Abu Dhabi.

Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan is now under investigation in the United Arab Emirates after the shocking tape showed him beating a man with a nailed plank, setting him on fire, attacking him with a cattle prod and running him over.

The UAE at first said that the matter had been privately settled between Sheikh Issa and his victim. They also added that UAE police had followed all their rules and regulations properly.

The fresh revelations about Issa's actions will add further doubt to a pending nuclear energy deal between the UAE and the US. The deal, signed in the final days of George W Bush, is seen as vital for the UAE. It will see the US share nuclear energy expertise, fuel and technology in return for a promise to abide by non-proliferation agreements. But the deal needs to be recertified by the Obama administration and there is growing outrage in America over the tapes. Congressman James McGovern, a senior Democrat, has demanded that Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, investigate the matter and find out why US officials initially appeared to play down its significance. (my italics)

Unlike the CIA, which earlier this year revealed as a result of a lawsuit that it had destroyed 92 videotapes of its so-called "enhanced interrogations", the prince was not savvy enough to do the same and it appears that there are over two hours of tape showing him torturing over 25 people. Now there are calls for investigations and prosecutions because of fears that otherwise his actions will create public relations problems in the US.

I don't know why the UAE is worried. If there is any country that should understand and sympathize with the prince and seek to excuse his actions and need to torture, it is the US. Aren't we the country that detains people indefinitely without trial, without access to lawyers, courts, and family, and subjects them to all manner of treatments that violate all norms of acceptable behavior and has led to death, permanent injury, and insanity?

As Glenn Greenwald, who has been one of the strongest voices for the investigation and prosecution of torture wherever it occurs says sarcastically:

But anyway, enough about all that divisive partisan unpleasantness -- back to this brutal, criminal UAE prince: let's watch more of those videotapes, express our outrage on behalf of international human rights standards, and threaten the UAE that their relationship with us will suffer severely unless there is a real investigation -- not the whitewash they tried to get away with -- along with real accountability. We simply cannot, in good conscience, maintain productive relations with a country that fails to take "torture" seriously. We are, after all, the United States.

A recent obituary in the New York Times of a US soldier who had been captured by the Chinese during the Korean war casually labels his treatment by the Chinese as torture. The obituary reads:

Col. Harold E. Fischer Jr., an American fighter pilot who was routinely tortured in a Chinese prison during and after the Korean War… From April 1953 through May 1955, Colonel Fischer — then an Air Force captain — was held at a prison outside Mukden, Manchuria. For most of that time, he was kept in a dark, damp cell with no bed and no opening except a slot in the door through which a bowl of food could be pushed. Much of the time he was handcuffed. Hour after hour, a high-frequency whistle pierced the air.

But when it comes to what the US has done to the prisoners it controls, the same paper gets all coy about using that harsh word and resorts to euphemisms. As Andrew Sullivan comments:

The NYT's incoherence and double standards, equally, are self-evident. But I would like to know if [NYT editor] Bill Keller will remove the t-word from this obit and replace it with "harsh interrogations" as he does when referring to the US government's use of identical techniques. If not, why not? Remember: these people won't even use the word torture to describe a technique displayed in the Cambodian museum of torture to commemmorate [sic] the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge - as long as Americans do the torturing.

Some apologists for US torture try to trivialize it by characterizing what was done as little more than the kinds of hi-jinks done by fraternities. Glenn Greenwald applies that same logic to what was done to Fischer:

So that's torture now? To use the prevailing American mindset: a room that doesn't meet the standards of a Hilton and some whistling in the background is torture? My neighbor whistles all the time; does that mean he's torturing me? It's not as though Fischer had his eyes poked out by hot irons or was placed in a coffin-like box with bugs or was handcuffed to the ceiling.

The new Obama administration seems to have joined the chorus of people are anxious to put all this 'nasty' business of our own torture behind us, to ignore all the acts of torture that have been committed and to "look forward and not behind" so that we can then lecture other countries on the evils of torture.

The hypocrisy on this issue is so widespread and reaches all levels that people seem to be blinded by it, as this Tom Tomorrow cartoon indicates.

Next: What exactly did the US do to its detainees?

POST SCRIPT: Please don't tell us about the bad stuff we do

The Daily Show says that what seems to really upset some people is not the fact that the US government tortures people but that the torture practices were revealed.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
We Don't Torture
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May 14, 2009

On torture-1: Torture is just flat-out wrong

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Some of you might have heard of the case of two American journalists who are to stand trial in North Korea for having entered the country illegally on March 17, 2009. They are accused of committing acts that were hostile to that country.

It was revealed that the two had confessed to being spies for the US and had entered North Korea in order to gain information to aid a military attack on that country. The confessions came after the two journalists had been subjected to solitary confinement, waterboarded repeatedly, kept in sleep-deprived and stress positions for days on end, confined naked in a small box with insects allowed to crawl all over them, and repeatedly slammed against walls, a process known as 'walling'.

When the US protested against this treatment of its citizens, arguing that such acts constituted torture and were a gross violation of international laws and treaties and that the confessions thus obtained were inadmissible as evidence, the North Korean government stated that President Kim Jong Il had personally authorized the actions and their Justice Department has said that all these methods had been deemed to be legal, especially in light of the imminent threat to the nation's security because of the hostile attitude of the US towards North Korea.

This urgency required them to act quickly to get information from the captives to find out US plans and defend themselves against an attack. They said that the captured people were not uniformed soldiers and hence were not entitled to the protections of the Geneva conventions, and that they had been declared to be 'enemy combatants', not prisoners of war or civilians. The North Korean government claimed that everyone who participated in what they referred to as 'enhanced interrogation techniques' was justified in these actions and so no action would be taken against them and they would oppose any international tribunal as well. They claimed that not only were these methods proper and legal because they had been authorized by the president and his legal advisors, but that they had also been successful, as evidenced by the fact that no attack had occurred so far.

As I hope most readers realize, only the first of the above four paragraphs is based on fact. I concocted the other three so as to make a point, because it is time once again to revisit the question of torture. I hate to do it because it is a disgusting topic and the very fact that we have to even debate whether it should be allowed shows how low we have sunk. I would have thought that it should be clear to any civilized person who claims to adhere to accepted principles of morality and ethics and law that torture is wrong and should not be allowed or condoned.

Almost everyone would be appalled at the treatment described above if it had actually being done to the American journalists now under captivity in North Korea, and would unhesitatingly reject these kinds of justifications for torture as the kinds of blatantly self-serving excuses that are routinely offered up by brutal regimes to justify the appalling treatment of prisoners in those countries. Yet these are the very same arguments given used to justify the actions taken by the US government in its torturing of detainees.

But thanks to the collusion of our media and some sections of the opinion-making classes in academia and the media and politics, what is a clear ethical issue has been made to seem difficult and complex, with those who seek to excuse torture when done by the US trying to occupy the moral high ground.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

[V]irtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking "excessive" measures. Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality.

But people like Goldsmith, Drezner, Douthat, and The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page can only see a world in which they -- Americans -- are situated at the center. They cite the post-9/11 external threats which American leaders faced, the ostensible desire of Bush officials to protect the citizenry, and their desire to maximize national security as though those are unique and special motives, rather than what they are: the standard collection of excuses offered up by almost every single war criminal.

This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression. Russia's four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation. Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs. Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness. Freedom is on the March.

[T]hose who view American Torture as a fascinating moral dilemma over which Serious People publicly agonize -- as Drezner put it: "if you're a national security person, you don't care about the legal niceties . . . it is a complicated question; it's not cut and dried" -- have actually convinced themselves that their refusal to make clear, definitive judgments is a hallmark not only of their moral superiority, but of their intellectual superiority as well. Only shrill ideologues and simpletons on either side believe that the torture question is "cut and dried." They actually believe that their indecisive open-mindedness on such clear moral questions is a sign of their rich and deep complexity, even though it's nothing more than an adolescent inability to assess the world through any prism other than their own immediate reflexive desires and self-interest.

Ultimately, though, the reason leaders torture is irrelevant. It's one of those few absolute taboos, and it's almost as immoral to seek to dilute that taboo by offering motive-based mitigations as it is to engage in it in the first place.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on ASU

Arizona State University must have expected some backlash from its statement that Barack Obama was not worthy of receiving an honorary degree when he delivered the commencement speech yesterday. But they may have not bargained on receiving the full Jason Jones treatment.

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May 13, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-9: The resurgence of natural selection and the resurgence of religion

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

I am going to conclude this series by arguing that it was more-or-less a coincidence that led to the deep-seated animosity towards evolutionary theory in America.

The early 20th century was the time when religious people in America became alarmed that they had perhaps gone too far in separating church and state in the public schools and decided to try and reverse the trend, and this movement coincided in time with the rise in acceptance of natural selection as the mechanism evolution. This theory, with its explicit rejection of a special divine plan for the human race, became seen as a potent symbol of an anti-religious way of thinking that had to be combated. Hence it was natural to use opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution as a vanguard action that would lead to the restoration of religious instruction in schools.

It is plausible that this was a significant reason for the seemingly belated rise of religious opposition to the theory of evolution that culminated in the Tennessee legislation of 1925 seeking to ban the teaching of evolution and which led to the famous Scopes trial. And ever since then, these the two issues have become inextricably linked in everybody's mind.

I suspect that if the attempts to restore religion in American schools had coincided with the rise of another materialistic theory that seemed to dethrone god (say Newtonian physics that introduced the idea of a mechanical universe), then religious people in America might have directed the same level of hostility to that theory that they now direct towards evolution. We might have seen battles to remove 'godless Newtonianism' from the school curriculum.

But because natural selection was the materialistic scientific theory that was gaining ground in the 1920s, religious people have invested a lot of emotional energy in fighting the theory of evolution and have even constructed an entire revisionist historical narrative to justify their opposition. This view is supported by the so-called 'Wedge Strategy', in the document put out by the Discovery Institute for getting religion (in the form of so-called 'intelligent design') back in the schools.

In a nutshell, the religious argument against Darwin put out by the intelligent design people is as follows:

1. The greatest achievements of Western civilization are largely due to the idea that human beings were created in God's image.
2. Things were just peachy until a little over one hundred years ago.
3. Then Darwin, Marx, and Freud dethroned this idea and instead introduced materialist ideas that spread into all areas of science and culture.
4. Everything pretty much fell apart after that.
5. If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings.

So the fight against Darwin is seen as the fight to restore morality.

When I ask supporters of intelligent design creationism why they focus their opposition on Darwin alone, the answer they give invokes the morality skyhook. Moral values are believed to come from god. If god has no role in the creation and lives of humans, then there is no reason to be moral. These religious people look around and see a country that they think has lost its moral compass and they blame the godless theory of evolution.

It becomes clear that the reason is that the word "morality" as used almost exclusively in relation to popular culture. Those who see us as currently living in a moral swamp use sex and nudity and profanity as the yardsticks for measurement. The do not see the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws and other forms of oppression and discrimination, improved protections for children, better working hours and safety measures, greater rights of women and gays, as signs that society is far more moral now than it has ever been.

But even taking their narrow view of morality, it is not clear that America is any less moral now than it was, say, fifty or more years ago. On the one hand, there is clearly a lot of public discussion now of sex-related issues and more nudity and sex in films and on television. But all that this might indicate is that things that were done and spoken in private in the past are now more in the open. In other words, we don't have more sex. We simply have less secrecy and hypocrisy.

The curious ambivalence in the US towards sexuality can be seen in many ways. I don't need to give the full list of all the politicians and religious figures who condemn sex and profanity while indulging in private in the very same things. One can see it in the way Fox News operates. It rails against sexuality while wallowing in gratuitous displays of it. Austin Cline has a good analysis of this phenomenon.

But even people who do not subscribe to this narrow view of morality worry that we need a god if people are to be persuaded to be moral. Some people think that if there were no god, there would be no reason for people to not commit murder, rape, and other heinous crimes. Sometimes I think that what religious people really want is not the god they say they pray to, but some kind of cosmic policeman and judge. It is not unlike the image of god that goes back to the ancient days of the Greek gods.

It seems like for some people there is a deep-seated psychological need for people to believe in a deus ex machina that is looking out for them.

POST SCRIPT: Avoiding the need to learn how to parallel park

In developing countries where cars are too valuable to junk, you find incredibly talented auto mechanics who can work seeming miracles. In addition to repairing cars, they can also make modifications that would never be considered here.

glumbert - How To Get Out Of A Tight Parking Spot

May 12, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-8: Alternatives to natural selection

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

In the half century after Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859, the idea of evolution gained considerable ground but the theory of natural selection was just one of several mechanisms that drove the process, and hence the anti-religious implications of the theory were somewhat muted.

Some of these alternative theories were modified forms of Lamarckism, the idea that characteristics that an organism acquired during its lifetime that enabled it to survive better were somehow transmitted to the entities in the body that carried inherited traits to their progeny, so that children inherited that acquired trait. These changes could either come about because of animals needing or desiring a change (the famous Lamarckian example of giraffes getting longer and longer necks as a result of having to strain to reach high leaves) or the 'use-disuse' theory, that body features that people used a lot would grow and become more common while those that they did not need or use would atrophy and disappear (the example here being the building of certain muscles in the body or the disappearance of fish-like features once they became land animals).

The difference between use-disuse theory and natural selection is subtle but important. In use-disuse theory, if an organism does not use some property, that property gets diminished in its offspring. So a parent who does not exercise is more likely to have children who are not athletic, because the parent did not exercise. In natural selection, on the other hand, it is the variations in genes that result in variations in the properties of organisms and those organisms that have features that provide a selection advantage are more likely to survive to adulthood and to parent offspring. Hence those genes tend to increase in the population. So whether a child has good eyesight or not depends (at least to some extent) on the parents' genes and not on the parents' lifestyle, except insofar as the parents' lifestyle influences the child's lifestyle.

Another alternative to natural selection was the theory of orthogenesis, that suggested that evolution followed a path determined by forces originating within the organisms themselves. This made it possible to think that the laws of evolution contained within them forces that guaranteed the eventual emergence of the human species.

The alternative theories such as use-disuse and orthogenesis had the reassuring feature that there was some sort of deliberate and directed progression in evolution, enabling their believers to still think of human beings as special and as the pre-ordained end point of the process. The idea that human beings were special in the eyes of god could thus be retained, giving religious believers the comfort that their lives had the external meaning that they sought.

The theory of evolution by natural selection offered no such assurances. But in the second half of the 19th century, even after the publication of Darwin's famous book On the Origin of Species in 1859, this disturbing idea was in the background. In fact, by the end of the 19th century, the theory of natural selection (though not evolution as a whole) seemed to be in full retreat.

The year 1900 saw the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's 1865 work on genetics. We now realize that this discovery removed one of the major objections to the acceptance of the theory of natural selection, which was the idea that children were thought to have the average properties of their two parents, so that even if one organism developed a favorable feature, that feature would become diluted in the next generation because that organism would most likely mate with another organism that did not have the favorable feature. There did not seem to be a good way for a positive feature to steadily increase from generation to generation in small incremental steps, the way that natural selection postulated. Mendel's theory allowed changes to remain in the population without getting diluted by mating.

But the implications of Mendel's work were initially misunderstood and theory was thought to work against Darwinian natural selection, further hastening its decline in importance. As a result of all these factors, the idea of natural selection as the fundamental mechanism for the evolutionary process went into an even greater period of decline that continued into the early years of the 20th century, even as the fact of evolution was increasingly accepted. (Peter J. Bowler, The Eclipse of Darwinism, 1983)

But beginning around 1910, the emergence of the new field of population genetics that correctly coupled Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian genetics, created what is now called the neo-Darwinian synthesis. The mathematical analyses of scientists such as J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and R. A. Fisher put natural selection on a solid theoretical footing and led to the resurgence of that idea as the prime mechanism for evolution. By around 1920, the reversal was complete. Darwin's theory of natural selection was ascendant and has remained so ever since, growing even stronger with time. (William B. Provine, The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, 2001).

But one consequence of this dominance was that the idea that human beings were somehow designed by god, and that the process of evolution was somehow guided to eventually produce them, was seen as incompatible with science. The idea that humans had a special purpose was no longer seen as credible.

Meanwhile, we saw that up through the end of the 19th century, there had been a consensus that it was good to keep religion and the state separate, and the use of religious teaching and prayers and the Bible in public schools had been steadily declining. But around the turn of the century, there were increased rumblings that perhaps this had been carried too far and efforts were made to restore the balance. And the start of the 20th century saw the beginnings of a push to bring back the Bible and religion into public schools.

This renewed interest in putting religion back in schools happened to coincide with the resurgence of natural selection and is, I believe, the reason that the US has had this seemingly unique obsession with, and hostility towards, the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Next: The resurgence of natural selection and the resurgence of religion.


Some time ago, I expressed my sense of frustration with the literary output of writers like James Joyce and William Faulkner for seemingly going out of their way to make their works difficult. The comic strip Pearls Before Swine seems to take a similarly dim view.

May 11, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-7: Early American reactions to evolution

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

The original question that started this series was why there is such deep-seated and long-standing hostility to Darwin's theory of evolution, especially in America. It is one that I am often asked and is not a question that can be answered briefly.

As I have suggested, part of the reason could be that the fact that even the human mind and consciousness may not be anything special but are the products of the working of the mindless natural selection algorithm and following the same natural laws is disturbing to some. Evolution, properly understood, rules out any non-material cause for the properties of living things, and this can be disturbing to religious and non-religious people alike who want to cling on to the romantic idea that humans are somehow special or that there is something transcendent that cannot be explained in terms of natural laws.

But what really begs for an explanation is why the US has seen a particularly hostile reaction from the religious community to Darwin's theory. After all, other theories of science such as the Copernican heliocentric model of the Solar system and the Big Bang theory of the universe also directly contradict the Bible and yet there is not the same level of antipathy towards them. Furthermore, all of science, not just the theory of evolution, has a materialist basis and demands methodological naturalism, so if one is opposed to evolution because one rejects those preconditions, then why not oppose all of science as well? Why is it that it is the theory of evolution that gets religious people's goat?

The answer has both general philosophical features that transcend nations and religions and cultures, and specific historical, political, and legal features that apply just to the US.

One general reason is that Darwin's theory deals with life and people think that life is especially close to god. Thus any theory like Darwin's theory of natural selection that makes god redundant in life's creation hits closer to home than one that makes god redundant in (say) the creation of stars and galaxies. Religious people seem to find it easier to think of the non-living world as obeying natural laws than to think of living things doing the same.

Another reason is that the other laws of science that suggested that we live in a law-driven mechanical universe in which we are not central arose much earlier, with Copernicus and Galileo and Newton, and religious people and institutions have had time to overcome their initial abhorrence and come to terms with it. Maybe with the passage of another hundred years or so, people will similarly accept Darwin's theory.

Those religious reasons for opposition of the theory are general and apply across the globe. But there is no doubt that the US has seen a particularly hostile reaction to the theory of evolution and this has puzzled many people. It is tempting to put this down to features that are peculiar to the US, that it has perhaps a greater number of vocal religious fundamentalists or that people here think that the US is somehow closer to god than other nations and thus special in his sight, and thus the implications of the theory of evolution are more disturbing.

As I argue in my forthcoming book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, I don't think there is anything particularly different in the American psyche that is the cause. I think that the reason for the excess hostility is due to a confluence of historical factors. The most important one is the recognition by the founders of the US constitution of the dangers of too much religious influence in the affairs of the state. They had seen only too well in the countries of Europe that they had left behind the religious persecutions that can arise when any one religion gains dominance in government. This led them to incorporate the Establishment Clause in the US constitution and to encourage the creation of a "wall of separation" (in Thomas Jefferson's famous phrase) between church and state.

Even though the early American colonists were religious and shared a largely unified Protestant doctrine, there were other groups (Jew, Catholics, Quakers, Baptists) who belonged to religious traditions that differed significantly, and the need to prevent dominance by any one led even religious people to see the benefits of keeping religion out of public affairs, especially the schools. The steady elimination of religious practices (such as Bible readings and prayer) in public schools had started in America long before Darwin's theory had gained notoriety.

Furthermore, is important to realize that the idea of evolution itself, that species can change, was not a fundamental threat to the idea of god. They could live in harmony by introducing various auxiliary hypotheses, such as the idea that god was guiding the process of evolution with the goal of eventually producing humans and all the other species. It was the mechanism of natural selection, with its crane-like unguided nature, that completely ruled out any skyhook-like role for god. This important element of Darwin's theory is the one that is particularly upsetting to religious believers and was not easily accepted even by the scientific community of his time.

But in the early days of Darwin's theory, the deeply anti-religious implications of natural selection were not fully appreciated. Many scientists (in addition to lay people) did not accept this lack of direction or purpose and proposed alternative mechanisms for evolution that retained them. Even Darwin initially thought that other mechanisms were also at play in evolution and as a result, although evolutionary ideas were gaining greater acceptance, natural selection did not rise to dominance along with them.

Next: Alternative mechanisms for evolution

POST SCRIPT: Did you remember to pray last Thursday?

Stephen Colbert is outraged at Obama for not publicly and ostentatiously celebrating the National Day of Prayer, so he puts on a much grander show.

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May 08, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-6: Why some atheist scientists support the morality skyhook

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

One can understand why the Pope and religious scientists want to promote the unsustainable idea that the world of morality and ethics lies in a separate domain outside the reach of scientific investigation and accessible only by religion. But what is puzzling is why so many nonbelievers, including scientists, also seem willing to give credence to religion the role of sole arbiter of morality and ethics

Stephen Jay Gould, who was not religious, was a strong advocate of this notion of separate domains for the physical and moral worlds and even gave this ridiculous idea the pompous title of NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria) and wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages (1999) to promote it.

Biologist Lewis Wolpert in his book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief (2006) says quite emphatically at the beginning (twice on the same page) that he is a reductionist materialist atheist (p. x). And yet, towards the very end of the book, after saying (rightly) that however much science advances there will always be unanswered questions and that we "must have the intellectual courage to live with such unanswered questions rather than invent answers that have no basis other than in mystical experience", he proceeds in the very next sentence to make the extraordinary assertion that "we must also accept that science can tell us nothing about ethics or morality." (p. 215, my italics).

Even the august National Academy of Sciences weighs in with support for this dubious proposition. In a 2008 publication Science, Evolution, and Creationism in response to the question "Does science disprove religion?" it says:

Science can neither prove nor disprove religion. Scientific advances have called some religious beliefs into question, such as the ideas that the Earth was created very recently, that the Sun goes around the Earth, and that mental illness is due to possession by spirits or demons. But many religious beliefs involve entities or ideas that currently are not within the domain of science. Thus, it would be false to assume that all religious beliefs can be challenged by scientific findings. (my italics)

Many scientists have written eloquently about how their scientific studies have increased their awe and understanding of a creator…. The study of science need not lessen or compromise faith. (p. 54)

The NAS is flat-out wrong. The study of science does (or at least should) lessen and compromise faith because the two are fundamentally incompatible. What exactly are the 'entities or ideas' that are presumed to be outside the domain of science? One can only assume that the phrase was thrown in as a sop to soothe the delicate feelings of religious people, who desperately want to find a role for skyhooks.

The reason for this effort comes down again to the goals and ends political issue. Those scientists who seek to advance some secular goal for which they think they need the support of religious people need to find something to offer them in return, since there seems to be the feeling that the public will turn away from science and may oppose the teaching of evolution (or, even worse, stop funding science) if they feel that it is basically an atheistic enterprise.

So scientists may have seized upon the morals/ethics realm as the crumb to give religion, since that area is currently the farthest away from direct scientific investigation. This also allows them to keep in the fold those scientists who are still religious. In a way, the moral issue plays the role of Miss Congeniality in beauty contests, the consolation prize that is meant to pacify religious people and make them allies, by making them think that religion is not totally useless. Since scientists want to keep religion out of their research areas, they may think that giving them the vaguely defined moral sphere to ponder will keep them occupied.

I think this is short-sighted. Far from having nothing to say about morality and ethics and altruism, this is a very interesting area of research. The pioneering work on kinship altruism by W. D Hamilton and reciprocal altruism by Robert Trivers laid the foundations for understanding why natural selection can result in people evolving to have cooperative instincts even though a simplistic understanding of natural selection might suggest that we should always be looking out for ourselves.

(For the foundational papers in this area of research, see The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I and II by W. D. Hamilton (1964) Journal of Theoretical Biology, vol. 7, p. 1-52, The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism by Robert L. Trivers, (March 1971) The Quarterly Review of Biology, vol. 46, no. 1, p. 36-57), and The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod and William D. Hamilton, (March 27,1981), Science, vol. 211, p. 1390-1396. For a readable summary of the research on how evolution explains the origins or altruism and cooperative behavior, see Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1989).)

In fact, what is becoming increasingly clear is that far from being born as blank slates on which god imprints moral laws on our minds, much of what we call human nature has evolutionary origins. It would not be wrong to suggest that understanding the biological basis of human nature, how evolution has shaped the things we believe and value, will be one of the frontier areas of research, bringing psychology within the ambit of biology.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on bogus issues

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May 07, 2009

American oligarchy-8: An update

I wrote a long series recently on the oligarchy in America, and since then came across some good articles that I thought others might enjoy.

Matt Taibbi reflects on the flip side of a society that tolerates an oligarchy, which is the peasant mentality that prevents people from seeing who their real enemies are and whose anger can be easily misdirected.

Actual rich people can’t ever be the target. It’s a classic peasant mentality: going into fits of groveling and bowing whenever the master’s carriage rides by, then fuming against the Turks in Crimea or the Jews in the Pale or whoever after spending fifteen hard hours in the fields.

Meanwhile Glenn Greenwald further elaborates on how the oligarchy operates.

[Michael] Paese went from Chairman [Barney] Frank's office to be the top lobbyist at Goldman, and shortly before that, Goldman dispatched Paese's predecessor, close Tom Daschle associate Mark Patterson, to be Chief of Staff to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, himself a protege of former Goldman CEO Robert Rubin and a virtually wholly owned subsidiary of the banking industry. That's all part of what Desmond Lachman -- American Enterprise Institute fellow, former chief emerging market strategist at Salomon Smith Barney and top IMF official (no socialist he) -- recently described as "Goldman Sachs's seeming lock on high-level U.S. Treasury jobs."

Meanwhile, the above-linked Huffington Post article which reported on [Senator Dick] Durbin's comments [that "The banks -- hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created -- are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place."] also notes Sen. Evan Bayh's previously-reported central role on behalf of the bankers in blocking legislation, hated by the banking industry, to allow bankruptcy judges to alter the terms of mortgages so that families can stay in their homes.

And that's not all. As the Wall Street Journal reports (via Washington Monthly):

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York shaped Washington's response to the financial crisis late last year, which buoyed Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and other Wall Street firms. Goldman received speedy approval to become a bank holding company in September and a $10 billion capital injection soon after.

During that time, the New York Fed's chairman, Stephen Friedman, sat on Goldman's board and had a large holding in Goldman stock, which because of Goldman's new status as a bank holding company was a violation of Federal Reserve policy.

The New York Fed asked for a waiver, which, after about 2 1/2 months, the Fed granted. While it was weighing the request, Mr. Friedman bought 37,300 more Goldman shares in December. They've since risen $1.7 million in value. (...)

Mr. Friedman, who once ran Goldman, says none of these events involved any conflicts. He says his job as chairman of the New York Fed isn't a policy-making one, that he didn't consider his purchases of more Goldman shares to conflict with Fed policy, and bought shares because they were very cheap.

Conflict of interest means nothing to the members of the oligarchy because they really think they own the country and the rules that apply to you and me are irrelevant to them. You know you are living in an oligarchy when the very rich get into fits of aggrieved rage when even the tiniest of their privileges are taken away. Here are some reactions from Wall Street executives, as reported in a fascinating article in New York magazine.

"No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?" e-mails an irate Citigroup executive to a colleague.

"I'm not giving to charity this year!" one hedge-fund analyst shouts into the phone, when I ask about Obama's planned tax increases. "When people ask me for money, I tell them, 'If you want me to give you money, send a letter to my senator asking for my taxes to be lowered.' I feel so much less generous right now."

You should read the whole article. The petulant sense of entitlement, their immense sense of self-importance, and their contempt for everyone else, is astounding. They really do live in a different world from you and me.

POST SCRIPT: The Onion on Trekkies reaction to new Star Trek film

Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As 'Fun, Watchable'

May 06, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-5: Darwin and morality

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

The final skyhook that is invoked is the one of morality. It is argued by some religious apologists that we cannot explain the universality of some ideas of right or wrong or the existence of altruism, without invoking something transcendent, some cosmic conscience. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project and of the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health and author of the book The Language of God, elevates this idea to something he calls the Law of Human Nature and is a strong exponent of this skyhook. To do so, he has to make the self-serving and unsubstantiated assumption that human nature is not only unexplained, it is fundamentally mysterious and inexplicable, thus requiring a skyhook and thereby foreshadowing his conclusion.

If the Law of Human Nature cannot be explained away as cultural artifact or evolutionary by-product, then how can we account for its presence? There is truly something unusual going on here. To quote Lewis, "If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse suspicions?" (p. 45, 46)
. . .
In my view, DNA sequence alone, even if accompanied by a vast trove of data on biological function, will never explain certain special human attributes, such as the knowledge of the Moral Law and the universal search for God. (p. 189-190)

I have discussed earlier the flaw in Lewis's (and Collins's) reasoning.

Collins claims that everyone around the world seems to have the same intuitive sense of what is right and wrong (what Immanuel Kant called the Moral Law) and that they all seem to yearn to believe in god and that this is evidence that these things must have come externally from god. He arrives at this conclusion by simply dismissing the possibility (as he did for the origin of the universe) that our sense of right or wrong or the ubiquitous belief in god may have perfectly natural causes, despite much research (which I will explore in future posts) that point to just such a possibility.

Note carefully his argument. He says that god is "outside the universe" and therefore we should not expect to find evidence for him "as one of the facts inside the universe." Collins says that the evidence for god must be what we find "inside ourselves as an influence or command trying to get us to behave in a certain way." Since we have such a thing in the Moral Law and also our yearning for god, we have the necessary evidence for god.

The logical flaw in this argument is obvious. If some thing is inside us, and we are inside the universe, then the basic logic rule of syllogism implies that this thing must also be inside the universe. So how can Collins claim that this thing that is inside us is outside the universe? The only way to do that is to invoke magical Cartesian dualism and assume that our mind (and consciousness) is also outside the universe, although it can somehow communicate with us enough to make our bodies do things.

In invoking the existence of a moral sense as a sign of god's existence, people like Collins are merely reintroducing in a different guise the idea that the mind is more than the working of the brain. The means for doing this is to promote the curious and logically contradictory idea that we can split the world into two non-overlapping parts, where science deals with the physical sphere while religion deals with the moral and ethical sphere.

Collins, being an evangelical Christian scientist, of course supports this:

In my view, there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes a personal interest in each one of us. Science's domain is to explore nature. God's domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul.

Pope Benedict XVI chimes in with his support for it in a Reuters report on Monday, January 28, 2008:

Scientific investigation should be accompanied by "research into anthropology, philosophy and theology" to give insight into "man's own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going", the Pope said.

The Pope's statement that "no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going" is one of those sweeping statements favored by religious people that have no empirical content whatsoever, with each of the three components in it being purely metaphysical. After all, if interpreted empirically, science has no difficulty at all in saying who man is (he is a biological system), where he comes from (he has evolved from other organisms in a fairly well-understood pathway), and where he is going (he will continue to evolve though we cannot predict what the changes will be since natural selection has an element of contingency).

While this appeal to the existence of morality and altruism as indicators of the need for skyhooks strikes me as hopeless grasping at straws, what gives this argument some durability is the curious fact that many people seem willing, even eager, to concede to religion the role of sole arbiter of morality and ethics, even though there is no reason to do so.

One can understand why religious people, scientists and non-scientists alike, find this argument appealing, despite all its logical flaws. It is an attempt to find a niche for religion that cannot be encroached upon by science. What is curious is why so many non-religious people, even scientists, also support it, though they must know that it makes no sense.

This will be examined in the next post in the series.

POST SCRIPT: Harman hypocrisy

Congresswoman Jane Harman is absolutely outraged that she was wiretapped, even though there was a warrant for it. She was the person who enthusiastically supported wiretaps when it was done without warrants to ordinary people, and even tried to prevent newspapers from breaking that story.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Your Government Not at Work - Jane Harman Scandal
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May 05, 2009

Spam comments dilemma

My policy with comments to the blog is to leave them unmoderated. So anyone can post any comment any time without getting prior approval from me. My feeling is that people have a right to express their opinion. So even though there seem to be some people who scan the web to find anything even remotely related to their pet topic and then post very long screeds about their pet theory that has only marginal relevance to my post, I have let those comments stand, not wanting to be in the position of censor.

But one problem with such an open-door policy is that it allows for spam comments to fill up the comments section. One of the curses of the internet is the amount of spam that goes around. Every day my mailbox contains a large amount of it that I have to delete but with the blog has come a new form of spam, in the form of comments that are generated by so-called spambots, automated devices that crawl around the web being a nuisance. The purposes of these are to either advertise a product (often sex-related) or to post hyperlinks that will boost the search engine ranking of a particular site.

Most of these comments are obviously spam, some consisting of random phrases or gibberish or even the alphabets of other languages, others fulsomely praising my entries with repetitive phrases, such as "Cool site", "I love this site!", "This site is cool/crazy", "I just discovered this terrific site and will bookmark it", "Nice design", and "I'm happy. Very good site."

Some reassure me that things are going well for them, saying things like "I'm fine" while others try to keep me up with popular trends by saying "Punk not dead."

Since the point of the blog is to generate meaningful conversation, I have to take steps to prevent the comments section from being filled with spam and discouraging genuine posts. The server that hosts my blog has some features built in that detects and prevents spambots from posting most of their comments. But some still sneak through and I have to go through all the comments a couple of times every day to eliminate those. If a comment looks robotic and has no relevance to the post, I delete it. I also use the opportunity to rescue and publish some genuine comments that the filter has wrongly eliminated

But spambots are getting cleverer. Sometimes I find comments that seem as though they are written by a real human because they are sort of relevant to the post, but yet seem vaguely familiar or slightly off. On closer investigation, I find that it is because the spambot has taken part of the text of a genuine comment by a real user, or even my own words in the post, and inserted them as its own comment, in order to get past the filter. I delete those comments too.

More recently, though I have encountered an even more difficult situation. This is where there is a brief comment that seems to be written by a genuine person, but which seems to be advertising a product. The comment feature has a space where people can insert their url and I have no problem with genuine commenters using that to link to their own website, even if that website is a commercial one.

But what is happening is that companies are apparently paying real people to visit blogs that have vaguely relevant posts and post comments that are mainly meant as advertisements. One of my posts has been especially hit by this phenomenon, generating 35 comments, most of which appeared to me to be of doubtful origin. Take a look.

This is apparently part of a trend called viral marketing where companies are using real people to create fake grass roots buzz about something, because it turns out that studies suggest that people trust word of mouth information, even from people they don't know, more than they do official sources and vastly more so than commercial advertising. So you may find 'friendly' people you meet in a bar or a coffee shop (they are called 'leaners' in the trade) talking about how great some product is, and you do not realize that they have been paid to go around doing this.

Andy Sernowitz, author of Word of Mouth Marketing, talks to On the Media host Bob Garfield about how this phenomenon is now being used on the internet.

ANDY SERNOVITZ: There's two big ways that people try to sneak past you: either they lie about who they are, so you think you're reading an honest comment on a blog and it's actually a marketer in disguise with 20 different logins, or they're paying other people to recommend something on their blogs or email or Facebook and not telling you that those people have been paid.

You usually see it most from either sort of low-end, sleazy, like, health remedies and get-rich-quick schemes and that end, or you see it from entertainment companies, from folks who are out there to hype a song or a movie.

BOB GARFIELD: Some of this is called pay-per-post, right – bloggers getting X number of cents for every time they post a favorable appraisal of a new song or something?

ANDY SERNOVITZ: Yeah, you see a couple of big operations. One company's actually called PayPerPost, and it pays you to write blog posts about stuff. There's a new one called Magpie that pays you to send stuff out over your Twitter account under your name.

And where it gets more interesting is the way things get repeated in social media. And this is what concerns me more, is that a company might pay through this pay-per-post service to get 200 people to blog something about them. And it says this was a paid placement in the blog post, so technically that's okay. They did say it was paid for.

But then those blog posts get repeated on their Facebook page and then on Twitter, and then someone else copies it, and suddenly 10 times more posts have the exact same paid review. Well, we've lost the disclosure that made it honest. I mean, really, the big idea here is this word "disclosure." And what it says is, it's okay to pay for coverage. That's called advertising. But you have to say, and now a word from our sponsors.

So what should I do when I suspect that a comment is being posted by a real person but for commercial reasons rather than for having a genuine conversation with other readers or with me? Should I delete them or give them the benefit of the doubt?

I am leaning towards this policy: If I suspect that a comment is either spam or being posted purely for the sake of advertising something, I will delete it unless the comment contains some redeeming features, such as advancing the discussion or providing relevant information.

What do you think?

POST SCRIPT: Corruption in medicine

The Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine is published by Elsevier, an outfit that publishes many leading journals. It is sent to many doctors. But the magazine The Scientist just revealed that this "journal" is not a real, peer-reviewed journal publishing original articles. Instead it is funded purely by the drug company Merck and contains reprinted or summarized articles favorable to Merck products.

George Jelinek, an Australian physician and long-time member of the World Association of Medical Editors, reviewed four issues of the journal that were published from 2003-2004. An "average reader" (presumably a doctor) could easily mistake the publication for a "genuine" peer reviewed medical journal, he said in his testimony. "Only close inspection of the journals, along with knowledge of medical journals and publishing conventions, enabled me to determine that the Journal was not, in fact, a peer reviewed medical journal, but instead a marketing publication for MSD[A]."

He also stated that four of the 21 articles featured in the first issue he reviewed referred to Fosamax. In the second issue, nine of the 29 articles related to Vioxx, and another 12 to Fosamax. All of these articles presented positive conclusions regarding the MSDA drugs. "I can understand why a pharmaceutical company would collect a number of research papers with results favourable to their products and make these available to doctors," Jelinek said at the trial. "This is straightforward marketing."

If there is one area of science where fraud and corruption will threaten to discredit the whole enterprise, it is medicine, because of the money and influence of the drug industry.

May 04, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-4: Understanding the mind

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

Currently people seem to be pinning their hopes for a skyhook on the workings of the human mind. This is not because the case here is stronger. In fact, there is no reason whatsoever to think that science cannot explain how the mind works because, unlike with origins of the universe, there are no extraordinary circumstances involved. There is every reason to think that the laws of science that apply outside the brain, and which we can study carefully under controlled conditions, also apply within the brain. There is no reason to suspect that there is anything more to the mind than brain activity.

The reason that skyhooks have a foothold here is because advocates can draw upon a strong human prejudice to want to think of the human mind as something mysterious and ineffable. We humans tend to be impressed by our ability to think and reason and be self-aware, and assume that there must be something very deep and mysterious going on.

But there is no reason to think that the normal laws of science do not apply to the mind although the sheer complexity of the system being studied and the restrictions on this type of research makes progress hard. But again, I think that with the new non-invasive techniques that are being developed for studying the brain, we have shifted the problem of consciousness from a mystery to a puzzle, and that is the first major step towards solving it.

But not everyone is happy with that development. People seem to want to avoid the conclusion that the mind is just the product of the physical brain, which in turn is purely the product of the evolutionary process. They seem to desperately want there to be something transcendent about the mind that cannot be reduced to material causes.

This desire for skyhooks for the mind is quite powerful and one sees even distinguished scientists falling victim to its siren song. Biologist Francis Collins, physicist Roger Penrose in his book The Emperor's New Mind, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, linguist and political scientist Noam Chomsky, and cognitive scientist John Searle, are among those who are skeptical that evolution can do all the work to create the mind by itself, and either implicitly or explicitly have looked to find some form of skyhook, even if it is not a religious one.

So if you are determined to believe that the mind could not have come about by the plodding mechanism of natural selection, how would you insert a skyhook to create the mind? In his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Daniel Dennett suggests some possibilities.

One way would be to espouse outright Cartesian dualism: the mind can't just be the brain, but, rather, some other place, in which great and mysterious alchemical processes occur, transforming the raw materials they are fed – the cultural items we are calling memes – into new items that transcend their sources in ways that are simply beyond the ken of science.

A slightly less radical way of supporting the same defensive view is to concede that the mind is, after all, just the brain, which is a physical entity bound by all the laws of physics and chemistry, but insist that it nevertheless does its chores in ways that defy scientific analysis. This view has often been suggested by the linguist Noam Chomsky and enthusiastically defended by his former colleague the philosopher/psychologist Jerry Fodor, and more recently by another philosopher Colin McGinn. We can see that this is a saltational view of the mind, positing great leaps in Design Space that get "explained" as acts of sheer genius or intrinsic creativity or something else science-defying. It insists that somehow the brain itself is a skyhook, and refuses to settle for what the wily Darwinian offers: the brain, thanks to all the cranes that have formed it in the first place, and all the cranes that have entered it in the second place, is itself a prodigious, but not mysterious, lifter in design space. (Dennett, p. 368)

This reluctance to accept the idea that there is nothing essentially mysterious or not understandable about the mind and soul is deep seated. As this article by Rich Barlow in the October 18, 2008 issue of the Boston Globe says:

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who researches why people are religious…has written that humans are "natural dualists," seeing our physical bodies as separate from our supposedly nonphysical minds and souls. It's a legacy in part of the great French philosopher René Descartes, a religious man who believed our thoughts survived the death of our brains, says Bloom.

The problem, Bloom believes, is that this dualism is inaccurate. Brain science increasingly shows that "the qualities of mental life that we associate with souls" - memory, self-control, decision-making - "are purely corporeal; they emerge from biochemical processes in the brain."

"I don't believe dualism is true, because there's a scientific consensus that hard-core dualism, which says that people can think without using their brain or that memories will survive the death of your body, is just flat mistaken. Your mental life is a product of your brain."

I too used to think that the mind was somehow special and distinct from the brain but that was because I had not really thought about it and simply accepted the conventional wisdom. I still recall the moment when, after thinking about it for a while, I came to the sudden conclusion that, of course, the mind had to be simply the product of the workings of the brain and nothing more. How could it possibly be otherwise? Anything else would require belief in an extraordinary mind-brain dualism, a non-material entity that we call the mind mysteriously existing separate from the material brain inside our skull and yet able to interact with it. That was patently absurd.

It was one of those realizations where the conclusion, once you have arrived at it, is so obvious that you wonder how you could ever have believed anything else. But accepting this has huge repercussions, which is why we tend to not want to go there, to resist pushing our reasoning to its logical conclusion.

A major consequence of accepting this conclusion is that all beliefs in god and the afterlife have to be also jettisoned and this is what happened to me. If there is no transcendent mind, if the material brain is all there is, then there is no god. Period.

Initially there was something disconcerting about this realization. I too shared the view that humans were somehow special and was reluctant to let go of that grand conceit. But now it seems the most natural thing in the world that we are just one branch in the grand evolutionary tree of life. While all species differ in many ways and in some ways are unique, there is nothing magical or especially mysterious about the human mind anymore than there is about the elephant's trunk.

POST SCRIPT: Daniel Everett's challenge to universal grammar

Daniel Everett is an interesting character. Working with his family as a missionary to the small Piraha tribe in the Amazon, he claimed that their language defied Noam Chomsky's widely accepted theory of universal grammar based on recursion. He also became an unbeliever and estranged from his still-religious family. Patrick Barkham profiles him in The Guardian of Monday 10 November 2008.

(Thanks to Machines Like Us.)

May 01, 2009

Skyhooks and cranes-3: The last four skyhooks

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

Some people simply cannot get over their childhood infatuation with magical thinking. They want and need to believe in skyhooks. They do not want science to fill in all the gaps in our knowledge. They want there to be some gap that they can only plug god into. Or as the TV character House says, "You know, I get it that people are just looking for a way to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. And they go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their holes. Climb out of your holes, people!"

In his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), Daniel Dennett adds,

For over a century, skeptics have been trying to find a proof that Darwin's ideas just can't work, at least not all the way. They have been hoping for, praying for skyhooks, as exceptions to what they see as the bleak vision of Darwin's algorithmic churning away. And time and again, they have come up with truly interesting challenges – leaps and gaps and other marvels that do seem, at first, to need skyhooks. But then along have come the cranes, discovered in many cases by the very skeptics who were hoping to find skyhooks. (Dennett, p. 75)

But what initially seemed to be promising candidates for creation by skyhooks (the eye and the wing for example) all turned out to be the products of cranes. With all the old macroscopic standbys falling by the wayside, the intelligent design people started pinning their hopes on microscopic things like the bacterial flagellum as needing a skyhook, but even those are increasingly seen to be the work of cranes.

There now remain only four candidates for the need for skyhooks: the origin of life, the origin of the universe, the human mind or consciousness, and the sense of morality.

There has been a lot of scientific progress on understanding the origin of life. While we do not yet know the exact sequence that led to the emergence of life, the problem has clearly shifted from the category of a 'mystery' (i.e. something about which we don't even know how to frame the research question) to that of a 'puzzle', where clear lines of research inquiry have been developed and progress is slowly being made. The book Genesis: The scientific quest for life's origins by Robert M. Hazen (2005) discusses the progress that has been made. Although important unanswered questions remain, there can be no doubt that this puzzle will be solved. It is only a matter of time.

It is significant that even Francis Collins, the biologist who recently retired as head of the National Human Genome Research Institute and is an evangelical Christian, in his book The Language of God argues against trying to use the origin of life as evidence of the need for a skyhook in the form of god.

Given the inability of science thus far to explain the profound question of life's origins, some theists have identified the appearance of RNA and DNA as a possible opportunity for divine creative action . . . Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps. Faced with incomplete understanding of the natural world, believers should be cautious about invoking the divine in areas of current mystery, lest they build an unnecessary theological argument that is doomed for later destruction. . . [While] the question of the origin of life is a fascinating one, and the inability of modern science to develop a statistically probable mechanism is intriguing, this is not the place for a thoughtful person to wager his faith. (p. 127-129)

So people who pin their hopes on the origin of life as a candidate for a skyhook are likely betting on a losing proposition.

The origin of the universe is a more difficult problem. Part of the difficulty is that the tools we have for scientific discovery are the laws of science that we have obtained by studying the world that is immediately available to us. We have no choice but to assume that these laws are universal and timeless or change in some regular manner but when it comes to studying the very origins of the universe, the density of matter is so large that the very nature of space and time become vastly different from what we have now. Hence the laws of science we are familiar with may not apply and extrapolating them into that region may not make sense. This makes research more difficult, though not impossible, and we have plausible explanations of how the universe evolved starting after the first few milliseconds of its creation. For a very readable account of what we know about how the universe began, it is still hard to beat The First Three Minutes (1988) by Steven Weinberg.

So any skyhook that is invoked for the origin of the universe has a very small window of time in which to act before it becomes unnecessary. This allows the option of deist beliefs in a god who set the universe in motion but did nothing thereafter. This might turn out to be the most durable of religious beliefs but is hardly satisfying to those who yearn for a god who still does things.

Next: Does the human mind need a skyhook?

POST SCRIPT: How the eye evolved

One of the earliest candidates for skyhooks, but no longer viable, as demonstrated by a younger Richard Dawkins. These kinds of examples formed the basis for his book Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), where he systematically demolished the need for skyhooks for a whole lot of candidates.