Sunday, July 31, 2005

Out of town

I'm going to be gone until either Wednesday or Thursday of next week, so I won't be able to blog until I get back. Until then, here are some links you can visit to pass the time.

Calvin and Hobbes
- This is one of my all time favorite cartoon strips. Did you know Bill Watterson got his undergraduate degree in political science and that John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes served as the inspiration for the name of the strip?
Doonesbury - Another favorite. I've read nearly every strip in this toon's 35 year history.
Project Censored - This site lists the tops 25 stories of the previous year which did not make it past the buzzsaw of corporate press and into the focus of the mainstream media. As you look at these stories, consider the significance of the issues they raise while contrasting this to the vacuous and sensational "news" that dominates the mainstream media, e.g. Laci Peterson, Janet Jackson nipple slip, M. Jackson trial, run-away bride, shark attack, Demi and Ashton, etc

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The neuroscience of ethics

This is an interesting article written by Carl Zimmer for Discover back in April '04. The subject of the piece is research being done by philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene at Princeton on the way our brains process ethical decisions, focusing on moral intuition and how some moral questions activate emotional areas of the brain while others active rational areas - even when the questions have the same ethical consequences!

Friday, July 29, 2005

Those who hesitate ...

Ever heard of Kevin Trudeau? He's the guy with the ubiquitous infomercial presence, the guy you always see on tv promoting various lines of junk products. After noticing that his latest book, "Natural Cures They Don't Want You to Know About," is being featured prominently at both my local Borders and Barnes & Noble as a bestseller I had planned on doing a post exposing Trudeau for the fraud and sham that he is. My working title was 'Things Kevin Trudeau Doesn't Want You to Know About'.

But I waited too long, apparently, as I see that Salon has a feature today called What Kevin Trudeau doesn't want you to know about. The Salon article details Trudeau's lack of scruples and his willingness to lie to people in order to steal their money. Trudeau is the worst kind of huckster - he's the kind that knows that what he's selling is garbage, he just doesn't care if its false or harmful (e.g. sunblock causes cancer.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Quote of the day: the purpose of education

"... the aim of liberal education is to produce people who go on learning after their formal education has ceased; who think, and question, and know how to find answers when they need them." - A.C. Grayling, "Education" from Meditations for the Humanist

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Good news! The war is over!

We're no longer involved in a "global war on terrorism". We are now instead involved in a "global struggle against violent extremism." Click here for a cynical take on this rhetorical switch.

To be fair, I never approved of calling our efforts to confront terrorism a war in the first place, and I do think this new slogan is more appropriate, but it still bothers me to see this change made more as a public relations move rather than as an acknowledgment that we need to rethink our strategy for confronting the threat of global terrorism.

The cost of delay - more news from Africa

Niger has been the topic of much discussion over the course of the last few weeks, but for the wrong reason. Niger has come back into focus due to the scandal surrounding the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative shortly after her husband Joseph Wilson wrote a op-ed piece in the New York Times about his trip to Niger which questioned the veracity of statements made in President's 2003 State of the Union address.

Amidst all the discussion it has been lost that Niger is currently going through a food crisis - a crisis that had been predicted months earlier but had gone ignored by the world community. A New Scientist news brief reveals that had the world taken notice earlier the cost of aid to Niger - which the world is now giving thanks to footage of starvation broadcast by the BBC - could have been drastically reduced. Nevermind that it would have saved lives.
In the days of the first appeal, just $1 per day per individual could have offset crisis. But now it will take $80 to save each starving person.

When television fails to inform

Nicholas Kristof, one of the few voices in the media who has consistently worked to bring attention to the on-going suffering of the people of Darfur, has another column up now at the NYT about the situation, except this time instead of being critical of our government, Kristof has focused his attention on the failure of journalism, and more specifically, tv news, to raise awareness of this important issue. It is truely shameful how much time is devoted to covering irrelevant soft news (such as celebrity gossip) while the plight of hundreds of thousands of people goes unnoticed. This point from Kristof's column puts it in perspective:
According to monitoring by the Tyndall Report, ABC News had a total of 18 minutes of the Darfur genocide in its nightly newscasts all last year - and that turns out to be a credit to Peter Jennings. NBC had only 5 minutes of coverage all last year, and CBS only 3 minutes - about a minute of coverage for every 100,000 deaths. In contrast, Martha Stewart received 130 minutes of coverage by the three networks.
In other Africa related news, the people of Zimbabwe may have something to be hopeful about, as a UN report released last Friday came out strong against Robert Mugabe. The report, which can be viewed in pdf format here, condemns the government's demolition of homes and businesses during "Operation Restore Order," which left some 700,000 people homeless, as a clear violation of international law.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

When words and actions do not seem to match: pt 2

The words
"Torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere. We are committed to building a world where human rights are respected and protected by the rule of law…The United States is committed to the worldwide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example." - George W Bush, June 26, 2003

"The non-negotiable demands of human dignity must be protected without reference to race, gender, creed, or nationality. Freedom from torture is an inalienable human right, and we are committed to building a world where human rights are respected and protected by the rule of law… America stands against and will not tolerate torture. We will investigate and prosecute all acts of torture and undertake to prevent other cruel and unusual punishment in all territory under our jurisdiction." - George W Bush, June 26, 2004

"The United States is a country that is -- promotes freedom around the world. When there's accusations made about certain actions by our people, they're fully investigated in a transparent way" - George W Bush, May 31, 2005

The actions
Via Washington Post
The Bush administration in recent days has been lobbying to block legislation supported by Republican senators that would bar the U.S. military from engaging in "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" of detainees, from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross, and from using interrogation methods not authorized by a new Army field manual.
Via Editor and Publisher
Yesterday, news emerged that lawyers for the Pentagon had refused to cooperate with a federal judge's order to release dozens of unseen photographs and videos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by Saturday.

Reminder - Guns, Germs, and Steel Pts 2 & 3

Part 2 of the PBS series Guns, Germs, and Steel based on the Jared Diamond novel of the same name will air Monday at 10 PM ET followed by the concluding Part 3 at 11 PM Et.

Here's a Wired News interview with Diamond about the series.

Terror strikes Egypt

From Yahoo
A rapid series of car bombs and another blast ripped through a luxury hotel and a coffeeshop in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik early Saturday, killing at least 83, a hospital official said. Terrified European and Arab tourists fled into the night, and rescue workers said the death toll could still rise.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Monkeys see themselves in the mirror ... sort of

From Scientific American:
Whether or not an animal can recognize itself in the mirror has long been used by scientists as a means of self-awareness. Apes pass the test, but monkeys have been thought to perceive a stranger in their reflection. The results of a new study suggest that what monkeys see is not so simple: although they don't recognize themselves, they also treat their mirror twins differently than they do real animals

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Freethought quote of the day

The phrase "think for one's self" is a pleonasm. Unless one does it for one's self, it isn't thinking
- John Dewey, Democracy and Education

Counting the dead

Mother Jones has a commentary up about the lack of certainty regarding the number of Iraqi civilian deaths. The article points out something that I had not realized, that Iraq Body Count only counts deaths resulting from coalition led forces, so their median estimate of 23000 dead does not even include all of those killed by insurgent/terrorist attacks.

Something else I misunderstood is that the new upper level estimate for civilian deaths reported to the UN of 39,000 is taken from the Lancet study, which included total Iraqi deaths rather than just civilians.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Thoughts about the invasion of Iraq

Last week I participated in an e-mail discussion about the invasion of Iraq with several friends. The views I expressed were:
1. The argument given for invading Iraq - WMD's and operational ties to al Qaeda - was bogus and thus did not justify the war.
2. Invading Iraq was not an effective means of addressing global terrorism
3. Removing Saddam for humanitarian reasons could not serve as legal justification for the war, and that even a utilitarian argument would still not necessarily justify the war.

For holding this general outlook I came out of the discussion being labeled as: an Islamic radical, a terrorist sympathizer, and, although not explicity stated, anti-American. I don't believe that these three accusations could be farther from the truth, but I suspect that my friends' views are representative of a large portion of the American population, so I will here attempt to articulate my position for the sake of clarity and in the hopes of possibly changing a mind or two.

The following response will be long (and if one actually takes the time to read all the provided links - very long), but it is long with the expectation that it is only by considering the evidence in its entirety can a coherent understanding of the invasion be developed. I will confine myself to defending the three points above, and I will take it as a given that the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq can not be justified by international law since such an invasion is a violation of the UN charter. Here goes:

1. This administration failed to justify the invasion

*The Bush administration knowingly oversold inconclusive intelligence while alleging Iraq had reconstituted its arms program. Also, former UN weapon inspector Scott Ritter estimated, in July 2002, that it was a 90-95% certainty that Iraq had dismantled its weapons program. Doubts were stripped from a public version of Iraq intelligence assessment used to justify the invasion and Senate Intelligence Committee member Bob Graham charged that CIA reports he was privy to did not establish a link between al Qaeda and Saddam. On top of this, 25 former CIA officers in March 2003 accused Bush of manipulating intelligence. And in the lead up to the war, experts who doubted the Iraq intelligence were silenced by the White House. What's more, nearly all of the intelligence purporting to link Iraq to al Qaeda has been demonstrated to be bunk.

Additionally, there is signifigant amount of evidence which casts doubt on this administration's motives for waging the war. Consider that: "two years before 9/11, candidate Bush was already talking privately about attacking Iraq, according to his former ghost writer," former Treasure Secretary Paul O'Neil charged that the Bush administration began planning how to remove Saddam almost immediately upon election (with similar charges being made by Richard Clarke and Bob Woodward), VP Cheney's energy task force mapped out Iraqi oil fields in March of 2001, in 2002 John Bolton "orchestrated" the firing of a UN official who sought to send chemical inspectors to Iraq, the administration has a built-in ideological drive for regime change in Iraq.

Then there is the leaked Downing Street memo and the subsequently leaked documents in which British senior officals and intelligence question both the legality of the Iraq invasion and the intelligence on Iraq. These documents also imply that efforts to justify the invasion through the UN were largely a pretense (a charge which is argued carefully in Peter Singer's President of Good and Evil.) To see this all in perspective here is a timeline with pertinent links.

Lastly, the administration claimed that it was interested in exhausting all possible options before resorting to military action in Iraq, but oddly, UN weapons inspectors were recalled (by Bush) before they were able to complete their mission. Hans Blix, the chief UN weapon inspector, has stated that they were not given a reasonable amount of time to finish their inspections, but that in the time they were there they were unable to find any evidence of a nuclear program, which has led to speculation that the administration recalled the inspectors because their lack of findings was undermining the case for war (with similar reasoning being suspected for the Bolton driven firing of the official seeking to send in chemical inspectors.)

This Reason article could easily go into the next section, but I will include it here since it shows how the American public was misled about the cost of war in Iraq, which I believe further compounds the
disingenuity of the given reasoning for invading.

In October of 2004, Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group, reported that the group had found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction produced in Iraq since the UN sanctions of 1991 were imposed and that ultimately, Saddam, despite wishing to reconstitute the program if sanctions were lifted, was "incapable of doing so,"1 thus confirming what many critics of the administration had said from the start, that Iraq did not have wmd's.

What I have here detailed does not exhaust the list of evidences of why the administration argument for invading Iraq was bogus, but I will rest my case on this point for now. For further exploration of the untruths contained in the administration's case for war in Iraq see David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush.

2. Invading Iraq did not make us safer

"Terrorism is not an enemy. It cannot be defeated. It's a tactic. It's about as sensible to say we declare war on night attacks and expect we're going to win that war. We're not going to win the war on terrorism." - U.S. Army general, William Odom

It is my opinion that the invasion of Iraq has increased the likelihood that America will be faced with terrorist attack rather than decreased it. By removing Iraq's government and military an unstable enviroment has been created that allows terrorists to function and recruit. Similar to the war on drugs, the war on terror appears to be a self-perpetuating self-fullfilling prophesy, meaning that the war itself is helping to create the conditions that make the war necessary.

Additionally, we are now diverting a significant amount of our resources to fighting in a country that previous to the invasion did not host terrorists, nor did it have weapons of mass destruction.

A list of more specific concerns follows:

- Troops might now be stretched thin, but we will be committed to Iraq for the forseeable future.
- The war has cost 200 billion, with a projected cost of 600 billion (see the Reason article linked above) yet we are operating at a budget deficit of 330 billion with a ten year projected deficit running anywhere from 1-2 trillion (various sources, try Google.)
- Global terrorist activity has increased since the invasion in March 2003.
- North Korea and Iran have proceeded with their arms programs while we were engaged with Iraq who had no such programs.
- al Qaeda is regrouping in Afghanistan and in Pakistan
- Our resources are limited, but the Coast Guard is underfunded
- Our borders are sill unsecure
- The threat that terrorist will come into possession of nuclear material - material such as that which can be found in significant amount in poorly secured facilities in Russia but which could not be found in Iraq - remains.
- 1800 dead American soldiers, 1500o wounded since fighting "ended" in Iraq.
- The occupation of Iraq is generating terrorists.
- Invading Iraq undermined the legitimacy of the UN, thus weakening the only international body able to legally authorize the use of force to settle global dispute, while concomintantly lowering world support for the US. International cooperation is , in my opinion, a vitally essential component of combatting terrorism, yet the US's unilateral approach in Iraq has taken us in the opposite direction. I also feel that the doctrine of pre-emptive aggresion creates an atmosphere where conflict is more likely, as nations might seek to attack in order to avoid being attacked first and since they can not be confident that the UN will be able to resolve the matter through diplomacy.

3, Humanitarian intervention did not justify the war

Saddam was certainly a terrible and ruthless dictator, but the fact remains that at the time of the invasion Saddam had become a tamed dictator who was not actively engaging in the atrocities (e.g. gassing of the Kurds) for which humanitarian intervention would have been rightfully justified.** Although not necessarily germaine to this argument, I can't fail to notice that several key members of this administration served in government at the time Saddam was engaging in said activities and not only were they content to not do anything about them, but they also to some extent helped facilitate them.

A key part of humanitarian intervention should be that there be good reason to believe that the people will be better off after the intervention than before, and at this point it is extremely difficult to honestly look at the situation in Iraq and say that the Iraqi people are better off now than they were before. Good faith alone is not reason enough to justify an invasion when the cost in civilian casualties can be anticipated to be high. And as it has been charged by O'Neil, Woodward, Clarke, Downing Memo, Singer, etc. this administration did not appear to properly consider what the costs to civilian lives might be, nor did it think through what to do after Iraq's military forces were defeated. If the people eventually achieve peace and a functioning democracy it will have been achieved as a lucky consequence, with the US having gambled with the lives of Iraqi citizens. But let's look at the situation now:

- "Iraq is now the global center of suicide terrorism"
About 400 suicide bombings have shaken Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003, and suicide now plays a role in two out of every three insurgent bombings. In May, an estimated 90 suicide bombings were carried out in the war-torn country -- nearly as many as the Israeli government has documented in the conflict with Palestinians since 1993
- Iraqi civilian deaths ranging from 20,000 to 39,000, with the Lancet study (done last year) putting the upper estimate at 100,000 deaths. I am unable to find a count of wounded Iraqi civilians, but one can speculate as to how high these numbers might go.
- Reports are starting to surface that Iraqi security forces are torturing detained civilians.
- Iraq is now close to civil war
- A signifcant portion of Iraq's cultural history has been lost or destroyed
- The region is being illegally polluted with depleted uranium. Though there is no conclusive medical evidence, the people of Iraq believe it to be responsible for the sharp rise of birth defects and cancer seen since the the first Gulf War. Afghanistan and the Balkans (regions where DU was used) have also seen a rise in birth defects.
- Regions of Iraq go without electricity and water due to lack of infrastructure. This blog entry from a resident of Baghdad gives an idea of what daily life is like there, while it also expresses discontent over the matter of the occupation.
Detentions and assassinations, along with intermittent electricity, have also been contributing to sleepless nights. We’re hearing about raids in many areas in the Karkh half of Baghdad in particular. On the television the talk about ‘terrorists’ being arrested, but there are dozens of people being rounded up for no particular reason. Almost every Iraqi family can give the name of a friend or relative who is in one of the many American prisons for no particular reason. They aren’t allowed to see lawyers or have visitors and stories of torture have become commonplace. Both Sunni and Shia clerics who are in opposition to the occupation are particularly prone to attacks by “Liwa il Theeb” or the special Iraqi forces Wolf Brigade. They are often tortured during interrogation and some of them are found dead.

*Much of the structure of this section was modeled after this Daily Kos blog entry.
**A common objection to this point is to cite Saddam's past atrocities as reason enough for his removal. Human Rights Watch answers this objection:
But if Saddam Hussein committed mass atrocities in the past, wasn’t his overthrow justified to prevent his resumption of such atrocities in the future? No. Human Rights Watch accepts that military intervention may be necessary not only to stop ongoing slaughter but also to prevent future slaughter, but the future slaughter must be imminent. To justify the extraordinary remedy of military force for preventive humanitarian purposes, there must be evidence that large-scale slaughter is in preparation and about to begin unless militarily stopped. But no one seriously claimed before the war that the Saddam Hussein government was planning imminent mass killing, and no evidence has emerged that it was. There were claims that Saddam Hussein, with a history of gassing Iranian soldiers and Iraqi Kurds, was planning to deliver weapons of mass destruction through terrorist networks, but these allegations were entirely speculative; no substantial evidence has yet emerged. There were also fears that the Iraqi government might respond to an invasion with the use of chemical or biological weapons, perhaps even against its own people, but no one seriously suggested such use as an imminent possibility in the absence of an invasion
1. Wikipedia entry, "Weapons of Mass Destruction," 2003 Invasion of Iraq

The terror of fanatacism

This (and all such acts) is heinous beyond description.

"From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step." - Diderot

Paul Krugman hits a nail on its head

"... we're not living in the America of the past, where even partisans sometimes changed their views when faced with the facts. Instead, we're living in a country in which there is no longer such a thing as nonpolitical truth." - Paul Krugman

I've been going over this very same thought for some days. Political debate is so partisan now, there seems to be hardly any objective discussion, with both sides bringing their own version of reality to the table. Pick your side and pick your reality is the approach; you're with us or you're against us is the mentality. Constructive discourse and compromise aren't possible in this sort of environment.

To see the words that Krugman wraps around the very astute point above click here.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Joseph Wilson - radical partisan Democrat?

I just read, for the first time, Joseph Wilson's op-ed piece that led to the leaking of his wife Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent. After a week of hearing pundits on tv and in the press talking about how Wilson's critique of the administration's pre-war intelligence was just a baseless partisan attack, I would have expected the article to be a vitriolic invective denigrating President Bush. It's not. Nor does it seem partisan.

Which leads me to agree with Frank Rich, who argues in his NYT editorial Follow the Uranium, that Wilson is:
a MacGuffin, which, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, is "a particular event, object, factor, etc., initially presented as being of great significance to the story, but often having little actual importance for the plot as it develops."
The Washington Post summarizes what this is really about.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Orwell, ever prescient - the quote of the day

"All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side ... The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them." - George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Bob Carrol comments on thimerosal

Bob Carroll, the author of the Skeptic's Dictionary featured in the Links section, has offered some strong criticism of Robert Kennedy's Deadly Immunity article which alleged that the government hid data revealing a potential link between thimerosal and autism. Skeptico blog provides the link and offers some commentary.

Reading through these critiques and looking into the matter more thoroughly I am reminded of the importance of not allowing personal bias to lead us to draw premature conclusions, something I think I myself was guilty of for posting a link to Kennedy's article without checking to see if his accusations had any merit.

Bush administration anti-science train rolls on

From the Washington Post:
A government Web site intended to help parents and teenagers make "smart choices about their health and future" includes inaccurate or misleading information that may alienate some families or prompt riskier behavior, according to a team of medical experts who reviewed the material.
Three physicians and a child psychologist analyzed the Bush administration's Web site and concluded it made many incorrect assertions about condoms, sexual orientation, single-parent households and the dangers of oral sex.
This isn't exactly new news, as Chris Mooney had written a piece on this three months ago, but this Post story forces my frustration to resurface. If you haven't caught on to this administration's attrocious record of distorting and politicizing science check out Rep. Henry Waxman's Politics and Science website.

The uncounted dead, counted

Apparently the New York Times shared some of the same questions about deaths in Iraq as I did, seeing as they've got a story in the Thursday edition about the increasing death toll of Iraqi civilians (they even cite Iraq Body Count.) I think I get to count this as me scooping the New York Times by a day.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The uncounted dead

While I was looking at Yahoo's report the other day on the current totals for deaths and casualties of American soldiers, 1,758 and 13,438 respectively, I noticed that while I often see updates of the number of American and foreign military lives lost in Iraq, its not that often that there are reports of the total number of Iraqi civilian deaths or casualties. This seemed odd to me, because while there are reports coming out nearly every day of some sort of suicide bombing or attack resulting in the loss of civilian lives, such as today's news that a suicide bomber targeted a crowd of children receiving candy from US soldiers, killing "up to 27 people," including one soldier and 18 children, there does not ever seem to be any official count of civilian deaths in Iraq.

So I did a search and I found a site, Iraq Body Count that has been totaling the number of Iraqi civilians deaths resulting from conflict during the invasion and occupation. Looking at their numbers, I think I see why the civilian deaths aren't being talked about - the numbers are staggering: an estimated minimum of 22787 and a maximum of 25814. And then I saw this report that a upcoming survey for the UN figures the number of civilian deaths to be 39,000 since the start of the invasion.

Why should these deaths remain uncertain? We must not shelter ourselves from the reality of war, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient the truth may be. To do otherwise would be to deny ourselves the ability to properly consider the prudence of our actions. And, ultimately, this lack of consideration dishonors the lives lost - be they American or foreign, military or civilian - lives that remind us of the importance of exhausting all possible options before going to war as a last resort.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Not enough troops?

A new Army study suggests that the US may have to rethink its military strategy do to limited troop resources
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has consistently rejected any contention that the Army is stretched too thin in fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a new Army study has concluded the service is so strained that the U.S. will soon "need to decide what military capabilities the Army should have and what risks may be prudent to assume."

And this article from Slate breaks down troop distribution with the author coming to this sobering conclusion:
The fact is, the U.S. Army has substantially shrunk since the Cold War ended 15 years ago—to the point where it simply cannot fulfill the Bush administration's global dreams.

From the world of the strange ... and gullible

This has got to be one of the weirdest hoaxes ever committed.
In September, 1726 Mary Toft began to give birth to rabbits. The local surgeon, John Howard, responded to her family's summons and hurried to Mary's house where, to his amazement, he helped her deliver nine of the animals. They were all born dead, and they were actually rabbit parts rather than whole rabbits. Nevertheless, this didn't lessen the amazing fact that she was giving birth to them.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Koko turns 34

July 4th was the 34th birthday of Koko, a remarkable gorilla who has learned American sign language (Koko has a vocabulary of over 1000 signs.) I had not noticed that Koko's birthday falls on the day Americans celebrate their independence, but it seems poetically fitting that a creature who provides the strongest case for granting gorillas greater "personal" rights, what we call liberty, would have a birthday that falls on this date. Anyone who has seen the footage of Koko mourning the loss of her pet kitten knows what I'm talking about.

For more information on Koko and the effort to protect gorillas from extinction check out the Gorilla Foundation. And something else interesting, to me at least, was this forum discussion at the Secular Web in which one of Koko's caretakers, under the moniker 'Biff the unclean', answered questions about his work with Koko.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Guns, Germs,and Steel on PBS

Monday at 10 pm ET PBS will begin airing a 3 part series on Jared Diamond's 1997 Pulitzer winning novel Guns, Germs, and Steel which offered an interpretation of human history that finds that much of the inequity among world societies has arisen as a result of geography and ecology rather than any innate difference between the people of these societies. The PBS website for the show is a good way to get familiarized with the subject if you haven't yet read the book.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Suggestions for elevating the level of political discourse

Much of what passes for political discussion in this country is not civil, nor is it constructive, but is instead rude, vitriolic, partisan, and divisive. This type of atmosphere is not conducive to cooperation, compromise, and finding the best course of action through open inquiry in the market place of ideas. In essence, it is not democratic.

What can we do to improve this situation? First, I believe one should always keep Sidney Hook's rules for democratic discourse in mind. Simply following these rules should in itself lead to dramatic improvement. Secondly, one should remember one's manners. Being rude and/or angry does not make for a stronger argument - an argument stands or falls based on its content, not because of the conviction of the person expounding it. But aside from these two points, I have some more specific suggestions that deal with the way we use language to frame political debate.

It seems to me that the divisive nature of debate arises when the debate is framed as Us vs. Them/out-group vs. in-group, e.g right-wing vs. left-wing, or, as is most common here in America, conservative vs. liberal. These terms are used more as perjorative labels than anything else, and often serve to shortcut the actual discussion of the content of a person's views when they are invoked.

So here are my suggestions:

1. A moratorium on the use of right-wing and left-wing. Political views are too complex to be pin-pointed on a linear plot. Besides, we no longer have any Jacobins sitting next to Girondins - it may be time to let the metaphor go.
2. Conservative and liberal may not be used as nouns.
3. Conservative or liberal may be used as adjectives to describe persons or ideas, but only within the context of what the words actually mean, not what they have come to be negatively associated with. Under no circumstance should either term be used as an insult.

To help with the third suggestion, see the Wikipedia entries for liberalism and conservatism.

In honor of the 50th anniversay of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto

Since today marks the 50th anniversary of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto I believe it only fitting to link to Roger Ebert's Great Movies entry on Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. With memorable performances from Peter Sellers, George C Scott, and Slim Pickens, this Stanley Kubrick directed black comedy lampoons the "logic" of mutually assured destruction.

And to tie this back to the theme of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, here is Carl Sagan's essay When Scientists Know Sin (don't ask me how it ended up on that site, I couldn't find it anywhere else) about the real life Dr. Strangelove, Edward Teller.
It is the particular task of scientists, I believe, to alert the public to possible dangers, especially those emanating from science or foreseeable through the use of science. Such a mission is, you might say, prophetic. Clearly the warnings need to be judicious and not more flamboyant than the dangers require; but if we must make errors, given the stakes, they should be on the side of safety.

Among the Kung San hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, when two men, perhaps testosterone-inflamed, would begin to argue, the women would reach for their poison arrows and put the weapons out of harm's way. Today our poison arrows can destroy the global civilization and just possibly annihilate our species. The price of moral ambiguity is now too high. For this reason-and not because of its approach to knowledge-the ethical responsibility of scientists must also be high, extraordinarily high, unprecedentedly high. I wish graduate science programs explicitly and systematically raised these questions to fledgling scientists and engineers. And sometimes I wonder whether in our society, too, the women - and the children - will eventually put the poison arrows out of harm's way.

Two new links in the Links section

I wouldn't expect anyone to notice, but I've updated the links section. I removed The Economist since I feel like too many of their articles require a subscription for it to be of much use to most.

One of the new links is The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy which I expect should be self-explanatory.

The other link is to RealClimate, "a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists." Of all the political topics being discussed at the moment it seems to me as if the issue of climate change is the one in which there is the most confusion and that is the most poorly understood. It is for that reason I consider this site a valuable resource since these gentlemen provide objective non-partisan commentary on climate science as it relates to stories in the media.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Casualty of war: Iraq's cultural heritage

In this piece Chalmers Johnson charges that the US has failed to protect Iraq's museums from looting and vandalism and as a result some of the world's most precious historical artifacts have been lost.
The Baghdad archaeological museum has long been regarded as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East. It is difficult to say with precision what was lost there in those catastrophic April days in 2003 because up-to-date inventories of its holdings, many never even described in archaeological journals, were also destroyed by the looters or were incomplete thanks to conditions in Baghdad after the Gulf War of 1991. One of the best records, however partial, of its holdings is the catalog of items the museum lent in 1988 to an exhibition held in Japan's ancient capital of Nara entitled Silk Road Civilizations. But, as one museum official said to John Burns of the New York Times after the looting, "All gone, all gone. All gone in two days."
I don't know if it was possible to protect these sites or not, but regardless, the loss of a part of the history of civilization is none the less a great one.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Absolutely terrible

In what can only be described as a despicable act of depravity, London was struck by terrorists today, with reported (yet unconfirmed) 40 dead and several hundred injured.

Update: The death toll is now estimated to be around 50. For those interested in keeping up to date on the aftermath of the bombings the Guardian is a good resource.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Scientology is receiving much attention at the moment, thanks in large part to Tom Cruise's anti-psychiatry views. What is frustrating is that the media has been more interested in framing this issue as being about Cruise's wackiness (possibly because of the Church of Scientology's history of legal and public intimidation tactics) than as an opportunity to inform the public at large about exactly how insidious a cult Scientology is. So I'm here to help, if you're in the media and/or are an interviewer, here are some talking points to bring up:

In Scientology doctrine, Xenu is a galactic ruler who, 75 million years ago, brought billions of people to Earth, stacked them around volcanoes, and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. Their souls then clustered together and stuck to the bodies of the living, and continue to cause people problems today. These events are known to Scientologists as "Incident II," and the traumatic memories associated with them as The Wall of Fire or the R6 implant
Body Thetans:
[Scientologists] are full of the Thetans (or souls) of murdered space-aliens. Roughly 2,500 of them. And they have to talk to them telepathically to make them go away. These aliens were once part of the local galactic confederation of 75 million years ago, ruled over by the evil galactic overlord Xenu (sometimes said as Xemu).
Scientologists claim the device allows people to "see a thought". In the hands of a trained auditor, they believe it can uncover "hidden crimes".
Dead members of scientology:
On December 5, 1995, Lisa McPherson died. Scientology had held her against her will for 17 days. During that time, she tried to leave, became violent, and refused to eat. At the time of her death, she had bruises and abrasions on her body, and she had lost over 30 pounds in just 17 days.
Not only, therefore, is brainwashing an appropriate social scientific term to use when describing the RPF, but also it is a term that coincides with Scientology's own descriptions about forcing attitude change within confined environments.

Deadly Immunity - a critical response

Deadly Immunity, the Robert Kennedy Jr. article about thimerosal and its purported link to autism which I linked to previously, has generated a fair amount of criticism from both the medical and skeptical community. Believing it important to consider all sides of an issue, here is a link to a fellow blogger and skeptic who responds critically to Kennedy's piece (and if you go to the main page you can find several further posts on the same subject.)

And for pertinent studies, go to Pubmed and enter this search: "thimerosal autism."

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

On Folly

"Folly, thou conquerest, and I must yield!
Against stupidity the very gods
Themselves contend in vain. Exalted reason,
Resplendent daughter of the head divine,
Wise foundress of the system of the world,
Guide of the stars, who art thou then if thou,
Bound to the tail of folly's uncurbed steed,
Must, vainly shrieking with the drunken crowd,
Eyes open, plunge down headlong in the abyss.
Accursed, who striveth after noble ends,
And with deliberate wisdom forms his plans!
To the fool-king belongs the world."

- Friedrich von Schiller
The Maid of Orleans, Act III scene VI

Former WV Department of Environmental protection spokesman says DuPont edited media reports

DuPont lawyer edited DEP's C8 media releases (requires free registration):

In early March 2002, state environmental regulators planned to warn Wood County residents that the toxic chemical C8 was spreading across the area through air emissions from DuPont Co.’s Parkersburg plant.“It is increasingly likely that the chemical is being spread in several ways — in groundwater, in the soil and now by air,” said a draft news release written by then-Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Andy Gallagher.But the public never got that news. The DEP killed its release after complaints from a DuPont lawyer, according to records obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Last week, Gallagher confirmed in an interview that Dee Ann Staats, a toxicologist hired as the DEP’s science adviser, insisted that DuPont review, edit and approve all C8-related statements issued by the state.
That's in addition to this previous news.

DuPont Co.’s toxic chemical C8 is a “likely human carcinogen,” a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientific committee has concluded.

Monday, July 04, 2005

A pledge of global patriotism

As we celebrate our nation's Independence Day, I believe it important to remember the principles on which America was founded and which it represents, and I believe that if we are to help spread freedom and democracy we must extend these principles out to the rest of the world. So with that I offer this pledge:

I pledge allegiance to Mankind,
And to the humanity for which it stands:
A planet of people living peacefully, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Secular humanism: a primer

Secular humanism is a life philosophy that holds that a naturalistic world view and the use of reason are the best tools humanity has to resolve problems of any sort. Generally, secular humanists detest fundamentalism, be it theological or ideological, and reject dogma in favor of free and scientific inquiry; they believe in the democratic ideals of individual liberty and universal equality. I've compiled here a list of articles/essays to serve as an introductory primer to the philosophy of secular humanism.

The Affirmations of Humanism:
This can be found on the inside cover of every issue of Free Inquiry, the official magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism. These affirmations are a collection of the most basic principles of humanism.

Humanist Manifesto(s) (I, II, III, 2000):
These manifestos are outlines of the scope, values, and purpose of humanism.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Adopted by the U.N. in 1948, this declaration represents the humanist ideals of basic universal liberties.

Re-enchantment: A New Enlightenment - Paul Kurtz:
Describes the original Enlightenment, its relevance to secular humanism, and calls for ideas presented in the humanist manifestos to be put forth into practice as a new Enlightenment movement.

Memorial and Remonstrance - James Madison:
This was written by Madison as an argument against a proposed bill to gather tax money for teachers of Christianity in his home state of Virginia. In this piece, Madison outlines the importance and necessity of the separation of church and state, a principle which he inherited from the Enlightenment and which is of central importance to the humanist (as it well should be to the theist, too)

A Skeptical Manifesto - Michael Shermer:
Shermer explains the importance of being a skeptic and how skepticism helps us to understand the world.

Methodological Naturalism and Philosophical Naturalism
- Barbara Forrest:
Warning: this an academic paper, so the prose may be a bit daunting. But if you can get past that this is an exemptional work delineating one of the foundational values of humanism: naturalism. Naturalism is important to the humanist since it is at the root of the scientific method.

Euthyphro - Plato:
One of the most commonly held beliefs is that without God there would be no morals. In this brief story Socrates argues that for there to be such a thing as good it must exist independent of divine fiat "Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?"

The Secular Spinx: The Riddle of Ethics without Religion - Michael Shermer:
Here Shermer explains what he calls "provisional ethics," a secular ethical system which draws upon common sense, moral intuition, and scientific reasoning.

Can the Sciences Help us Make Wise Ethical Judgements - Paul Kurtz:
This essay compliments Shermer's provisional ethics, with Kurtz arguing that science and reason can help inform our moral choices.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The face of America?

The picture below may become the face of America if we continue moving towards entering into an age of perpetual warfare.

The Face of War by Salvador Dali

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Revisiting the Russell-Einstein Manifesto

Last month I lamented that the 50th anniversary of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto had passed without much notice. It turns out that I was wrong, as I had thought the anniversary was on June 9th when it is actually on July 9th. Thankfully, this was brought to my attention by Sandra Ionno Butcher of Pugwash Online who also points out that "the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs will host a conference in Hiroshima, marking the 50th anniversary of the Manifesto, and also the 60th anniversary of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Butcher is the author of "The Origins of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto,"a splendid essay detailing the historical development of the manifesto up through the first Pugwash conferance. It is quite informative.

She also pointed me towards a recent op-ed piece by Joseph Rotblat, the last remaining signatory of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. Rotblat frames the significance of the manifesto poignantly:

Fifty years ago we wrote: "We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?" That question is as relevant today as it was in 1955. So is the manifesto's admonition: "Remember your humanity, and forget the rest."

Friday, July 01, 2005

Church State seperation: a proposed solution

This article from the New York Times is one of the most reasonable pieces of discussion I have seen on the topic of the tension between secularism and religion in America in quite some time, certainly more reasonable than any discussion that I have seen on television.

The author argues for a compromise between greater restriction of the use of public money for religious purposes and allowing more religion to enter into public debate:
Despite the gravity of the problem, I believe there is an answer. Put simply, it is this: offer greater latitude for religious speech and symbols in public debate, but also impose a stricter ban on state financing of religious institutions and activities.