Global warming-5: The emergence of a paradigm

The need to take global warming seriously is not slam-dunk obvious to most people. In my own case, over time I have slowly became convinced that there was an emerging consensus among scientists studying the issue that planetary warming was a serious matter. Like most people, I do not have the time or the expertise to have studied the question in detail, but I have enough respect for the scientific process and the way that scientists make collective judgments as a community that when I see a scientific consensus emerging on anything, I tend to take it seriously. In fact the global warming issue is a great example of seeing, before our very eyes, a transition in science from a pre-paradigmatic state to a paradigmatic state.

In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that during the early, pre-paradigmatic days of any scientific field, one has different schools of thought and different theories underlying them. These schools exist and function almost independently of one another. They investigate different problems, operate under different rules, and have different criteria for evaluating their successes and failures. Each develops along its own path and has its own adherents and practitioners. But at some stage, for a variety of reasons, the community of scientists coalesce around one school of thought and this becomes the dominant paradigm in that field, and all scientists start working within the framework of that paradigm.

This transition occurs at different times for different sciences. For optics, Newton’s corpuscular theory was the first paradigm. For electricity, it was Franklin’s theory. For geology, it was Lyell’s work. In biology, the Darwinian theory was the first paradigm in evolution. It should be noted that the adoption of a paradigm does not mean that the paradigms are true or that the problems in that field were solved once and for all. Newton’s optics paradigm and Franklin’s electricity paradigm were completely overthrown later, and the advent of molecular genetics resulted in the early Darwinian theory being modified to what is now called the neo-Darwinian synthesis. But the adoption of a paradigm significantly alters the way that the scientific community does its work.

Once a scientific community adopts a paradigm, the way its members work changes. Before the adoption of a paradigm, each school of thought challenges the basic premises of the others, examines different problems, uses different tools and methods, and uses different criteria for evaluation of problems. Once a paradigm is adopted however, there are no more controversies over such basics. The scientific community now tends to agree on what problems are worth focusing on, they tend to use the same terminology and tools, and they share a common understanding of what constitutes an acceptable solution to a problem. Scientists who do not adapt to the dominant paradigm in their field become marginalized and eventually disappear.

The conversion of the scientific community to a new paradigm is usually a long drawn out process with many scientists resisting the change and some never breaking free of the grip of the old paradigm. Historian of Science Naomi Oreskes gives an example:

In the 1920s, the distinguished Cambridge geophysicist Harold Jeffreys rejected the idea of continental drift on the grounds of physical impossibility. In the 1950s, geologists and geophysicists began to accumulate overwhelming evidence of the reality of continental motion, even though the physics of it was poorly understood. By the late 1960s, the theory of plate tectonics was on the road to near-universal acceptance.

Yet Jeffreys, by then Sir Harold, stubbornly refused to accept the new evidence, repeating his old arguments about the impossibility of the thing. He was a great man, but he had become a scientific mule. For a while, journals continued to publish Jeffreys’ arguments, but after a while he had nothing new to say. He died denying plate tectonics. The scientific debate was over.

So it is with climate change today. As American geologist Harry Hess said in the 1960s about plate tectonics, one can quibble about the details, but the overall picture is clear.

It should emphasized that adoption of a paradigm does not mean that scientists think that everything has been solved and that there are no more open questions. What it does mean, among other things, is that the methods used to investigate those questions are usually settled. For example, in evolution and geology, establishing the age of rocks and fossils and other things are important questions. Dating those items uses, among other methods, radioactivity. This field assumes that radioactive elements decay according to certain laws, that the decay parameters have not changed with time, and that the laws of physics and chemistry that we now work with have been the same for all time and all over the universe. This common agreement with the basic framework enables geologists and evolutionists to speak a common language and arrive at results that they can agree on and build upon.

Some creationists, in order to preserve their notion of the universe being 10,000 years old or less, have either rejected radioactive dating entirely or jettisoned parts of it, such as that the radioactive decay constants have stayed the same over time. In doing so, they have stepped outside the framework of the paradigm and this is partly why they are not considered scientists. Kuhn’s book discusses many other cases of this sort.

Kuhn argues that once a science has created its first paradigm, it never goes back to a pre-paradigm state where there is no single paradigm to guide research. Once a paradigm has been established, future changes are from thenceforth only from an old paradigm to a new one.

A key marker that a science has left a pre-paradigmatic state and entered a paradigmatic state can be seen in the way that scientists communicate with each other and with the general public. In the pre-paradigmatic stage, the book is the primary form of publication, and these books are aimed at the general public as well as other scientists, with an eye to gaining more support among both groups. As a result, the books are not too technical and there is an ongoing dialogue between scientists and the public.

But after a paradigm is adopted, scientists are freed from the need to explain and justify the basic premises of the field to a lay public, and no longer have to make a political case to justify what they are doing. They now tend to communicate only with each other. This results in them developing a more technical, insider, language and jargon that is opaque to nonscientists, and the chief means of communication becomes the technical paper addressed to similarly trained scientists and published in specialized journals. They start addressing their arguments to only those who work within their own narrow field of specialization. As a result of this increased efficiency in communication, science then tends to start making very rapid progress and the rules by which scientific theories get modified and changed become different. It now becomes much harder to overthrow an established paradigm, although it can and does still happen

But one consequence of this change in communication patterns is that, as in the global warming case, a disconnect can emerge between the consensus beliefs of scientists and the general public, and how to combat this is an interesting question.

Next: What happens to the public after a science becomes paradigmatic.

POST SCRIPT: Request for information

During the week of August 14, I will be driving with my daughter to San Francisco. Driving across the US is something I have always wanted to do to get a chance to personally experience the vastness of this country and some of its natural beauty.

We will be stopping near Denver to visit some friends on the way. I was wondering if people had any recommendations about the sights we should see between Denver and San Francisco. Here are some constraints:

1. I would like to see natural beauty as opposed to human creations. So suggestions about which national parks are worth a visit and what specific things should be seen in those parks would be most welcome.

2. We don’t have much time and I cannot hike, so the sights should be such that they are accessible using an ordinary car (not an SUV or other type of off-road vehicle).

Global warming-4: Is there a scientific consensus on global warming?

Is there a scientific consensus on global warming? Naomi Oreskes from the Department of History and Science Studies Program, University of California at San Diego, thinks so. She published a study in the journal Science (December 3, 2004, volume 306, p. 1686) which argued that the scientific community had arrived at a consensus position on “anthropogenic climate change.” i.e. that global warming was occurring, and that “Human activities . . . are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents . . . that absorb or scatter radiant energy. . . . [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”

Her study looked at the scientific databases of the Institute for Scholarly Information (ISI) and searched on the keywords “climate change.” She then examined the abstracts of the 928 papers that were returned and classified them under six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position.

Her results were that “75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.” (my italics)

She is careful to point out that some of the authors of the minority 25% may not have agreed with the consensus view but none of those papers explicitly took such a stand. She also pointed out that scientific bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme), the National Academy of Sciences (2001), The American Meteorological Society (2003) , the American Geophysical Union (2003), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) had all issued statements endorsing the consensus viewpoint.

This does not necessarily mean that there is complete unanimity among scientists about all aspects of this issue. Richard Lindzen, who is an MIT professor of meteorology and a member of the NAS panel on climate change that issued the report cited by Oreskes, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on June 11, 2001, that as far as he was concerned, all he was agreeing with was that “(1) that global mean temperature is about 0.5 degrees Celsius higher than it was a century ago; (2) that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen over the past two centuries; and (3) that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas whose increase is likely to warm the earth (one of many, the most important being water vapor and clouds).” But he went on “we are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in the future” and he argued that the case for reducing the level of carbon dioxide emissions, as called for by the Kyoto treaty in 1997, was not compelling. He argues that the process of warming we currently observe may be part of the normal cyclical variations of the Earth, and that other greenhouse gases (such as water vapor and methane) may be more important players in producing warming than carbon dioxide.

Lindzen repeated much of the same arguments in a critical review of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, that appeared in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal on June 27, 2006, where he also explicitly challenged Oreskes’ 2004 study.

In a previous post on belief preservation I wrote about the fact that there are many strategies that can be adopted to preserve one’s existing beliefs. The latest issue of Physics and Society, published by the American Physical Society (vol. 35, no.3, July 2006) illustrates this. It has a letter (p. 25) by a global warming skeptic who also argues for the “natural cycles” theory and also adds that the Earth is so big that human activity is unlikely to have an impact on it. Looking on the bright side, the author argues that some parts of the Earth are too cold now anyway, and that even if global warming should occur, we might be better off figuring out better crops that can be grown in warmer conditions, and taking steps to protect ourselves from the flooding that would ensue from the rise of ocean levels.

This raising of alternative speculative ideas against a scientific consensus is not uncommon and can confuse non-scientists into asking “Well, is there a scientific consensus or not?” This sense of confusion is encouraged by those industries (such as automobile and energy) that are the chief producers of carbon dioxide, and who oppose actions that would require them to reduce emissions. Such people know that if there is a sense of controversy over an issue, and especially if that issue has economic costs associated with it, the natural impulse of the general public is to wait until the dust settles and a clear policy emerges. So kicking up dust is a good strategy if you want nothing to be done. This is not unlike what was done by the tobacco industry concerning the adverse health effects of smoking (an effort which ultimately failed) and by intelligent design creationists concerning evolution (which is ongoing). These people take advantage of the media’s propensity to do “one the one hand, on the other hand” type stories, balancing the quotes of scientists warning of the dangers of warming with those of skeptics. This results in there being a much wider divergence in media coverage of the global warming issue than there is in the scientific community.

All these interests have used such strategies to dispute the conclusion that there is a scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is occurring. Oreskes addresses these arguments head-on in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed on July 24, 2006:

[S]ome climate-change deniers insist that the observed changes might be natural, perhaps caused by variations in solar irradiance or other forces we don’t yet understand. Perhaps there are other explanations for the receding glaciers. But “perhaps” is not evidence.

The greatest scientist of all time, Isaac Newton, warned against this tendency more than three centuries ago. Writing in “Principia Mathematica” in 1687, he noted that once scientists had successfully drawn conclusions by “general induction from phenomena,” then those conclusions had to be held as “accurately or very nearly true notwithstanding any contrary hypothesis that may be imagined. . . “

Climate-change deniers can imagine all the hypotheses they like, but it will not change the facts nor “the general induction from the phenomena.”

None of this is to say that there are no uncertainties left – there are always uncertainties in any live science. Agreeing about the reality and causes of current global warming is not the same as agreeing about what will happen in the future. There is continuing debate in the scientific community over the likely rate of future change: not “whether” but “how much” and “how soon.” And this is precisely why we need to act today: because the longer we wait, the worse the problem will become, and the harder it will be to solve.

The fact that you never run out of alternative hypotheses and explanations for anything is an important point to realize. Philosopher of science Pierre Duhem addressed this way back in 1906 in his book The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory when he pointed out that you can never arrive at a correct theory by a process of eliminating all the possible alternatives because “the physicist is never sure that he has exhausted all the imaginable assumptions.”

It is easy to come up with alternative explanations for any phenomenon. That is why evidence plays such an important role in evaluating theories and scientists use published research in peer-reviewed journals as indicators of whether an idea has any merit or not. And Oreskes’ 2004 (peer reviewed) study in Science, showing that in the technical (peer-reviewed) journals a scientific consensus exists on anthropogenic climate change, has to be taken seriously. As she says in that paper:

The scientific consensus might, of course, be wrong. If the history of science teaches anything, it is humility, and no one can be faulted for failing to act on what is not known. But our grandchildren will surely blame us if they find that we understood the reality of anthropogenic climate change and failed to do anything about it.

Sensible words. But if you prefer, you can always listen to George Bush’s ideas about global warming, courtesy of Will Ferrell.

Global warming-3: The science behind global warming

To understand the science behind global warming, it may be helpful to look at a simplified version of the science behind it.

Consider two objects, one that is luminous (i.e., an object that we can see without the aid of a light source) and another that is not luminous. Examples of luminous objects are the Sun (which generates energy due to nuclear reactions within it and sends a lot of that energy out as light) or a light bulb (that converts electrical energy into light energy). Examples of non-luminous objects are the Earth or a person in a room. The energy radiated by the luminous source spreads out in all directions and some of it will fall on the non-luminous object.

What is important to understand is that even what looks like a non-luminous object also radiates energy into space. In fact every object radiates energy. So in a sense, every object is ‘luminous’ in the sense that it sends out energy, but we usually reserve that term for objects that emit visible light. Not all radiated energy is visible. A human being radiates energy at a rate of about 500 watts, or the equivalent of five 100 watt bulbs, but the reason we do not “see” the radiation energy emitted by people is due to it being outside the visible range

The rate of energy emission of an object radiates depends to a large extent on its temperature (it actually goes as the fourth power of the temperature) and the nature of its surface (such as color, texture, material). So just as the Sun radiates energy into space, so does the Earth, except that the Sun’s radiation is much greater since it is at a much higher temperature.

The important thing about global warming is understanding what happens when the energy radiated by a luminous source (say the Sun) falls upon a non-luminous object (say the Earth). Part of it is immediately reflected back into space, and does not affect the temperature of the Earth. But the rest is absorbed by the Earth and, in the absence of anything else happening, will tend to cause the Earth’s temperature to rise. The relative amounts of the Sun’s energy that are absorbed and reflected by the Earth depends on the nature of the Earth’s surface. (As an example, a person in a room absorbs energy from the surroundings at a rate of about 400 watts, thus adding a person to a room is the net heat equivalent of turning on a 100 watt bulb.)

But as the temperature of the object rises due to it absorbing energy, the amount it radiates out again also increases, and at some point the object reaches equilibrium, which occurs when the energy absorbed by it from outside equals the energy it radiates away. Once an object reaches this state of thermal equilibrium, its temperature stays steady.

If for some reason we alter the ratio of energy absorbed by the Earth to the energy reflected, then the state of equilibrium is disturbed and the Earth’s temperature will shift to a new equilibrium temperature. If relatively more energy gets absorbed, then the equilibrium temperature will rise until the energy radiated again becomes equal to the energy absorbed. Conversely, if relatively more energy now gets reflected, then the equilibrium temperature will drop, i.e., the Earth will cool. The people warning of global warming argue that human activity is causing the former situation and they say that the reason for this is that we are changing the nature of the Earth’s surface, especially its atmosphere.

To understand what is happening at the Earth’s surface and atmosphere, we need to understand something about the energy radiated by the Sun. This comes largely in the form of “electromagnetic energy.” This is an umbrella term that encompasses X-rays, ultraviolet, light waves, infrared, microwaves, radio waves, etc. All these types of radiation are identical except for one single factor, which is called the wavelength of the radiation. The items in the list differ only in their wavelengths, with X-rays having the smallest wavelength and radio waves having the longest. (Similarly, all colors of visible light are also identical except for the wavelength, which increases as you go from blue to green to yellow to red.)

When this broad range of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun hits the Earth’s atmosphere, almost all of it, except the visible light portion, gets absorbed by the atoms and molecules in the atmosphere and does not reach us on the ground. Of the portion that does reach the ground, some of it gets directly reflected unchanged and escapes back into space. The remainder gets absorbed by the ground. It is the energy that is absorbed by the ground that is the source of concern.

Recall that the Earth, like any object, also radiates energy away. But since the temperature of the Earth is different from the temperature of the Sun, the distribution of the wavelengths in the energy radiated by the Earth is different from the distribution that we receive from the Sun (although the total energy involved is the same in both cases for an object in equilibrium). This affects how much is absorbed by the atmosphere as it passes through it. Some of the Earth’s radiation will get absorbed by the gases in the atmosphere (i.e., is trapped), while the rest passes through and goes off into space.

This is a crucial point. If the gases in the atmosphere change significantly, then you can change the relative amounts of the Earth’s radiated energy that escapes into space and the amount that is trapped by the atmosphere . The so-called ‘greenhouse gases’ (carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and others) are those that are very good at absorbing the energy at the wavelengths radiated by the Earth, preventing them from escaping into space.

Global warming scientists argue that human activity is increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere. Hence more of the energy radiated by the Earth is being absorbed and less of the energy is escaping into space. Note that the incoming visible light from the Sun is not affected much by the concentrations of greenhouse gases since they are at a different wavelength, and the greenhouse gases do not absorb them as much. As a result of this increase in the absorption levels of the outbound radiation, the equilibrium temperature of the Earth will rise.

At this point, there are various scenarios that can unfold. One is that we arrive at a new and higher but stable equilibrium temperature. If the change in equilibrium temperature is small, the consequences might not be too disastrous, although there will be some adverse effects such as some temperature-sensitive organisms (such as coral reefs) becoming destroyed or some species going extinct if they cannot evolve mechanisms to cope. If the change is large, then there could be massive floods and droughts and other catastrophes.

The worst case scenario is a kind of runaway effect, where a rise in temperature results in effects that cause an even more rapid rise in temperature and so on, in a series of cascading effects.

Some argue that we are already seeing some signs of runaway effects, and point to the melting of the polar ice caps and the general decrease in glaciers and snow coverage worldwide. Snow is white and thus reflects back unchanged into space almost all the sunlight that hits it at the Earth’s surface. When this snow melts and becomes water, not only is the amount of reflected energy decreased but water absorbs light energy. Hence the major loss of snow cover (apart from adverse environmental and ecological consequences) has a major effect on the reflection/absorption balance of the Earth, shifting it towards greater absorption. So more energy is absorbed by the Earth, resulting in even greater warming, resulting in further snow loss, and so on.

Another possible runaway factor is the amount of green cover. On balance, plants, because of photosynthesis, tend on average to be net absorbers of carbon dioxide and emitters of oxygen. Thus they reduce one of the greenhouse gases. If global warming results in less green cover of the Earth (say caused by prolonged droughts), then that would result in more greenhouse gases remaining in the atmosphere and causing yet more warming and more droughts. Human activity such as deforestation can accelerate this process.

Those are the basic elements of the science underlying global warming and the factors that go into building the models that try to predict long term climate change.

Next: The emerging scientific consensus over global warming.

POST SCRIPT: Colbert takes media apart again

As you may recall, the mainstream media did not take kindly to Stephen Colbert’s demolishing them at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. Now he takes them apart again.

Global warming-2: Understanding the problem

Understanding global climate concerns is not easy because it is a complex issue which involves many factors and theories, is based on data that span millennia and is not easy to extract, involves sophisticated theories and computer modeling, and requires long chains of inferential reasoning to arrive at conclusions. Compared to it, evolution, that other anathema of Bush and his anti-science Christian base, is a model of clarity.

At least with evolution, the progression shows a clear pattern, with life evolving from simple single cell organisms to the wide array of complex multi-cell systems we see today. If we started discovering anomalous organisms that seem to violate that temporal ordering, that would require a major restructuring of evolutionary theory.

With global warming, on the other hand, there isn’t such a steady progression. It is not as if global warming implies that the temperature at each and every location on the Earth rises steadily with time. If it did, then people might be more easily convinced. But that is not how it works. Instead, the relevant data always deal with averages that are calculated (1) over very long time scales (involving tens and hundreds and thousands and even millions of years) and (2) over the whole planet or at least large areas of it.

It is quite possible to have wide fluctuations over shorter time periods and in localized areas that go counter to the long-term trend. Unfortunately, this means that there are plenty of opportunities for those who either do not understand that only averages are relevant, or who are deliberately trying to mislead others, to seize upon these fluctuations to argue that global warming is either not occurring or is not a serious problem. I can surely predict that if, for example, the next winter is colder than average in Cleveland, there will be many snickering comments to the effect that this ‘proves’ that global warming is a myth. Similarly, the current heat wave in France and California cannot, by themselves, be used, to argue in favor of global warming either. Scientists’ conclusions will be unaffected since they know that data from a single year or location has only a tiny effect on averages.

These are the questions that need to be considered when we evaluate whether global warming is serious or not.

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

2. If so, is it part of normal cyclical warming/cooling trends that have occurred over geologic time or is the current warming going outside those traditional limits?

3. Are the consequences of global warming such that we can perhaps live with them (slightly milder winters and warmer summers) or are they going to be catastrophic (causing massive flooding of coastal areas due to rising ocean levels, severe droughts, blistering heat waves, total melting of the polar regions, widespread environmental and ecological damage)?

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

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

My own ideas on this issue have changed over time. I started out by being somewhat neutral on this issue, not sure whether warming was occurring or not. Like most people, I didn’t really understand questions about climate and tended to make the mistake of equating climate with weather. My understanding of weather was strongly influenced by the one feature about weather that we all grow up with, and that is its variability and unpredictability. This tends to create a strongly ingrained belief that we cannot really predict weather and I am sure this spills over into thinking that climate is also highly variable and so should not worry too much about warming since it might just as easily reverse itself.

But the key difference between weather and climate is that while weather systems are chaotic, climate change is not, at least as far as I am aware. In everyday language, chaos means just mess and disorder and confusion. But chaos, in science, is a technical term with a precise meaning. A chaotic system is one that progresses according to particular kinds of mathematical equations, usually coupled non-linear ones, such that the end state of the system is highly sensitive to initial conditions.

With non-chaotic systems, like a thrown ball, a small change in the initial conditions results in small changes in the final state. If I throw the ball slightly faster or at a slightly different angle, the end point of its trajectory will be only slightly different as well. This is what enables us to have expert athletes in any sport involving thrown or struck balls, because based on previous attempts, the professionals know how to make slight adjustments to hit a desired target. The reason that they can do so is because the ball’s trajectory obeys non-chaotic dynamical equations.

But with a chaotic system, that is no longer true. A change in the initial conditions, however small, can result in the end state being wildly different, with the divergence increasing with time. But in order to predict the future of any system, we need to specify the current conditions. Since we can never know the initial conditions with perfect accuracy, this means that reliable long-term predictions are impossible. An analogy of a chaotic system might be river rapids. If you place a leaf at one point in the rapids, it might end up at some point further down the river. But making even a tiny change in your initial position will result in you ending up in a completely different place, even if the river flow itself is unchanged.

For example, suppose the mathematical quantity pi enters into a calculation. We know that the value of pi=3.1415927. . . , a sequence that goes on forever. But in performing actual calculations we cannot punch in an infinite sequence of digits into our computers and need to truncate the sequence. Usually for most problems (which are non-chaotic) we can treat pi as being equal to 3.14 or 22/7 or even just 3 and get fairly good results. We can adjust the precision of this input depending on the required precision of the output. But if pi was a particular part of a chaotic system of equations, then using 3.1415927 or rounding up to 3.141593 would give wildly different results. This is why this kind of chaos is better described as “extreme sensitivity to initial conditions.”

Weather is thought to obey a chaotic system of equations. This is why, despite “Doppler radar” and other innovations that can give quite accurate measures of the state of weather-related parameters at any given time, weather forecasts become notoriously unreliable after three or four days, or even fewer. There is a reason that your local TV newscasts do not go beyond five-day weather forecasts. They are at the limits of predictability and already pushing their luck.

But the equations that drive climate calculations are not believed to be chaotic. Hence, given a model, one can hope to make reasonable predictions about global temperatures in the next century with some confidence in their reliability, even though one does not know if it is going to rain next week.

(In the terminology of chaos theory, sometimes climate is referred to as a “strange attractor” of the weather system, or a “boundary value problem,” whereas weather is an “initial value problem.” Basically, weather and climate are thought to evolve according to different kinds of mathematics.)

It is important to realize that the predictability of the results is possible only once a particular model of climate change has been chosen. One could get different results by choosing a different model altogether, although the range of possible models is strongly limited because they have to conform to the fundamental laws of science and be compatible with what we know about the behavior of related systems. The difference with weather is that with weather one can very different results while using the same model, simply because of our inability to specify exactly the initial values of the problem.

Next: The emerging scientific consensus over global warming.

Global warming

It is undoubtedly true that, while the increasing level of warfare in the Middle East in the immediate issue of concern, the question of global warning is the preeminent long term issue facing the planet today. It represents one of the rare situations when the health of the entire planet is at stake. The only other thing that has similar global consequences is an all-out nuclear war between major nuclear powers since that could also unleash an atmospheric catastrophe that could destroy the planet.

But while we can avoid a nuclear winter by simply doing nothing, i.e. not using the weapons, global warming is an issue where doing nothing is the problem. A strong case has been made that if we continue on the present course, the planet is going to suffer irrevocable harm, changing its climate and weather patterns in ways that will dramatically affect our lives, if not actually destroy them.

One would think that global warming is one scientific question where politics would play a minor role, and where the debate would be based on purely scientific evidence and judgments. Unlike issues like stem cell research and cloning where the scientific questions have to contend with religion-based arguments, as near as I can tell the Bible, Koran, and other religious texts are pretty much agnostic (so to speak) on the issue of whether global warming is something that god has strong views on. While god has a lot to say about things like the proper ways to sacrifice animals or how sinners should be put to death, he seems to not be concerned about the weather, expect for using it as a tactical weapon, like unleashing the occasional deluge to drown everyone but Noah and his family or creating a storm to chastise his prophet Jonah.

Hence it is surprising that some people (including the Bush administration) perceive the case being made that global warming is a serious problem as some kind of ‘liberal’ plot, tarring the proponents of the idea that global warming is real and serious as political enemies, seeking to somehow destroy truth, justice, and the American way. Glenn Greenwald argues that this is the standard mode of operation of the Bush administration, saying “What excites, enlivens, and drives Bush followers is the identification of the Enemy followed by swarming, rabid attacks on it.”

Once that bugle call of politics sounded, Bush devotees dutifully fell into line. They know the script and exactly what they must do and have rallied to the cause, trying to discredit the scientific case and the scientists behind it, arguing that the whole global warming thing is a fabricated crisis, with nothing more to be worried about than if we were encountering just a warm summer’s day. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) says “With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it.” And this man is the Chair of the Senate’s Committee on 
Environment and Public Works.

The administration and its supporters have gone to surprisingly extreme methods to suppress alarms about climate change, such as changing the wording of reports by government scientists in order to play down the threat of global warming and muzzling government climate experts, in order to prevent information from getting to the public.

Take another example in which the administration has sought to divert government’s scientist’s focus from global warming:

From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers. . .as only NASA can.”

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

David E. Steitz, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the aim was to square the statement with President Bush’s goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.

But the change comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the “understand and protect” phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

“We refer to the mission statement in all our research proposals that go out for peer review, whenever we have strategy meetings,” said Philip B. Russell, a 25-year NASA veteran who is an atmospheric chemist at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “As civil servants, we’re paid to carry out NASA’s mission. When there was that very easy-to-understand statement that our job is to protect the planet, that made it much easier to justify this kind of work.”

Several NASA researchers said they were upset that the change was made at NASA headquarters without consulting the agency’s 19,000 employees or informing them ahead of time.
. . .
The “understand and protect” phrase was cited repeatedly by James E. Hansen, a climate scientist at NASA who said publicly last winter that he was being threatened by political appointees for speaking out about the dangers posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

The attempts to downplay the extent of the problem, divert attention away from actions to study and remedy it, and distort the science behind the global warming issue has been helped by the fact that although the consensus conclusions of the scientific community are pretty straightforward (that global warming is occurring, it is largely caused by human activity, and that we need to take steps to reverse it or face disastrous consequences), the actual science behind it is complicated. This enables those who wish to blur the issue to find ways to cast doubt on that scientific consensus.

Next: Understanding the problem

Killing Lebanon

I had thought of moving on to other topics this week, away from the depressing news of the violence in the Middle East to the other depressing (but at least science-related) topic of global warming. But I simply could not ignore the news over the weekend about the destruction of Lebanon and its capital Beirut and have postponed global warming until tomorrow.

Lebanon is a country that was rebuilding itself after many, many years of civil war that killed over 150,000 people. What we see now is that the Israeli barrage of that country is destroying everything that was so painstakingly created. Veteran British journalist Robert Fisk who has made Lebanon his home and seen it go through good times and bad, walked through the now-deserted streets of this once-vibrant city that had been built from the ashes.

And now it is being un-built. The Martyr Rafiq Hariri International Airport has been attacked three times by the Israelis, its glistening halls and shopping malls vibrating to the missiles that thunder into the runways and fuel depots. Hariri’s wonderful transnational highway viaduct has been broken by Israeli bombers. Most of his motorway bridges have been destroyed. The Roman-style lighthouse has been smashed by a missile from an Apache helicopter. Only this small jewel of a restaurant in the centre of Beirut has been spared. So far.

It is the slums of Haret Hreik and Ghobeiri and Shiyah that have been levelled and “rubble-ised” and pounded to dust, sending a quarter of a million Shia Muslims to seek sanctuary in schools and abandoned parks across the city. Here, indeed, was the headquarters of Hizbollah, another of those “centres of world terror” which the West keeps discovering in Muslim lands. Here lived Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Party of God’s leader, a ruthless, caustic, calculating man; and Sayad Mohamed Fadlallah, among the wisest and most eloquent of clerics; and many of Hizbollah’s top military planners – including, no doubt, the men who planned over many months the capture of the two Israeli soldiers last Wednesday.

But did the tens of thousands of poor who live here deserve this act of mass punishment? For a country that boasts of its pin-point accuracy – a doubtful notion in any case, but that’s not the issue – what does this act of destruction tell us about Israel? Or about ourselves?

Alan Dershowitz, Harvard law professor, fresh from his earlier attempts to provide mechanisms to justify torture, now turns his talents to justify the killing of Lebanese civilians, arguing that many of those “tens of thousands of poor” did in fact deserve this punishment. Following his usual methods, Dershowitz carefully fine-tunes and calibrates his definitions and arguments so as to exonerate the actions of the US and Israel against others, while similar actions taken against the people of the US and Israel are treated as horrendous crimes. Dershowitz always provides fine examples of how to start with a desired conclusion and work back to the required premises, showing that there is no proposition, however execrable, that some people will not attempt to rationalize.

The BBC website has pictures of Beirut after the shelling began. These pictures are shocking in showing the level of destruction, but are not gruesome. Other sites (which I will not link to) are showing pictures of dead and mutilated bodies, many of them children, that are appalling and stomach churning, and these pictures are being seen all over the world. For those who are consoling themselves that what is happening is “precision bombing” that is not targeting civilians, it has to be realized that there can be no such thing in densely populated, highly built up areas. When you hit a high rise building in a city, you are targeting everything and everyone around it as well.

According to the BBC again, “The UN’s Jan Egeland has condemned the devastation caused by Israeli air strikes in Beirut, saying it is a violation of humanitarian law. Mr Egeland, the UN’s emergency relief chief, described the destruction as “horrific” as he toured the city.” The scale of the destruction of Lebanon has even caused “Bush’s poodle” Tony Blair’s government to break with the US. The British Foreign Office minister Kim Howell on a visit to Lebanon said “The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people: these have not been surgical strikes. If they are chasing Hizbollah, then go for Hizbollah. You don’t go for the entire Lebanese nation.”

Meanwhile, the Bush government is “rushing” a delivery of more missiles to Israel, which requested them after the bombing of Lebanon began, suggesting that even more of Lebanon is going to be devastated. The administration seems to see no irony in doing this while at the same time alleging that Syria and Iran are supplying Hamas and Hezbollah forces and condemning that support.

When this action is coupled with the US not calling for an immediate ceasefire and Condoleeza Rice’s lack of urgency in trying to find a solution or ceasefire, the rest of the world will simply take this as a sign that the US is doing Israel’s bidding, giving Israel all the time to wants to pummel Lebanon.

Glenn Greenwald argues that all these are signs that the neoconservative stranglehold on American foreign policy is not only complete, but it has lost all semblance of restraint, supporting reckless policies and cheering on further destruction and death with an abandon that should send chills down every person’s spine.

Apparently, it isn’t enough that the U.S. has been defending without reservation the wisdom of the Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon. Nor is it enough that we have been unilaterally blocking a cease-fire and other diplomatic solutions. Nor is it enough that the American taxpayer pays for enormous amounts of Israel’s military equipment — from the planes flying over Lebanon to the tanks entering it. Now we are handing Israel the very bombs that they drop in order to flatten more and more of Lebanon, on a bomb-by-bomb basis.
. . .
The terms they [i.e., neoconservatives] are using to describe their grand war visions are “annihilation” and “cleaning out.” They have had enough with restraint and limited strikes and a war that has been depressingly and weakly confined just to Iraq and Afghanistan. They want full-scale, unrestrained Middle Eastern war — they always have — and they see this as their big chance to have it.

And the more one reads and listens to neoconservatives in their full-throated war calls, the more disturbing and repellent these ideas become. So many of them seem to be driven not even any longer by a pretense of a strategic goal, but by a naked, bloodthirsty craving for destruction and killing itself, almost as the end in itself. They urge massive military attacks on Lebanon, Syria, Iran — and before that, Iraq — knowing that it will kill huge numbers of innocent people, but never knowing, or seemingly caring, what comes after that. And the disregard for the lives of innocent people in those countries is so cavalier and even scornful that it is truly unfathomable, at times just plain disgusting. From a safe distance, they continuously call for — and casually dismiss the importance of — the deaths of enormous numbers of people without batting an eye. And for what?

What is Lebanon going to look like — let alone Syria and Iran — once we decimate large parts of their infrastructure, kill, maim and render homeless thousands upon thousands of their citizens, and bring down their governments? Who cares. Let’s just stop whining and appeasing and get on with the action.
. . .
One can easily lose sight of how bizarre it is that we now so frequently debate whether we should attack countries who have not attacked us nor pose any real threat to attack us. As was true for the “debates” over whether we should use torture (or even “debates” over whether the President can break the law), when something is advocated openly and frequently enough, even the most reprehensible and previously insane ideas can become acceptable and mainstream. We have become a country that now casually and without much trauma debates which countries we should preemptively invade next.

Veteran Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member Uri Avnery argues that if the goal of punishment the entire nation of Lebanon is to weaken support for Hezbollah, then Israel has gravely miscalculated, which agrees with what I wrote last week.

Further support for this view comes from a CNN interview with the Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. The interviewer Nic Robertson kept pressing the prime minister to condemn Hezbollah and distance himself from them, and even suggested that he should order the Lebanese army to move against them. But Lahoud was having none of it and said that the Israeli invasion of his country is only going to unite the people of Lebanon. Here are some excerpts of the interview:

LAHOUD: Well, if you knew the interior politics of Lebanon, you will understand that in 2000 Hezbollah was the main liberator of our land. And at the time, the Lebanese army was and still is with what is happening on the frontier. Because, you see, what was happening was Israel with airplanes. . . but having the resistance, they think twice. And because of that there is no animosity between the army and the resistance [i.e., Hezbollah]. . . The resistance are Lebanese.
. . .
So our thanks comes when we are united, and we are really united, and the national army is doing its work according to the government, and the resistance is respected in the whole Arab world from the population point of view. And very highly respected in Lebanon as well.
. . .
Believe me, Hezbollah has done a lot for Lebanon in liberating this land. . . Hezbollah is part of the government.
. . .
ROBERTSON: Not everyone supports Hezbollah, and there are divisions in this community. And this country fought a 15-year civil war over those divisions. Those divisions are re-emerging below the surface of support of the attacks that are going on. Those figures could realistically grow bigger.

LAHOUD: Yes, but we’re not going to let them. Because the Lebanese have learned the lesson. Because when they fight between themselves it’s much worse than having someone come from outside. Because we’ve seen what happened in ’75 because we paid a very high price. Now, being united, whatever Israel can do we stay strong, because this makes the morale of the Lebanese stronger when they are united and no one can beat them.
. . .
But children are being killed, massacred. And we don’t see these pictures of these children in the international media because of political reasons. If you see them, well you can’t wait to talk about it and wait for these children and women with nowhere to go and live under bombs and shells. They just live outside. They don’t have a shelter. We can’t wait for the talks to go on. Meanwhile the aircrafts are bombing whatever they want in Lebanon. It never happened. . . I don’t see anything in history that has happened like what is happening now. Airplanes are hitting civilians all over the country and [there is no] retaliation on these airplanes because they are civilians.
. . .
Believe me, violence brings violence, and it will be a cycle that no one will be able to get out of and everybody will lose. If Israel thinks it’s going to win, it’s very mistaken. You cannot solve things and have peace in the region with violence. It might be now they have all this weaponry. But what about the children and the people who have brothers and sisters now dying? Well, they’re pushing them to, really, well, they don’t have anything to lose. For them, their life is nothing, so whatever will do to them. In the future they will seek revenge. So the only way [is] to stop the firing right now for the good of everybody.
. . .
ROBERTSON: How do you get the cease-fire? The Israelis want their soldiers back.

LAHOUD: There were three in Lebanon that have been in prison since 30 years. And there were many, and there was an exchange. So why now, suddenly, after taking two soldiers they have done such a retaliation? Because I believe all was planned from before and, unfortunately, they were waiting for the moment. And when the moment came and these two soldiers were taken, they had the plan of attack. It’s not for the reason that the soldiers were taken, it’s for other reasons. Because since 2000 they have wanted to take their revenge because they had to leave Lebanon.
. . .
Because they have a previous plan and they are executing that plan in that way thinking they will do what they did in ’82. But things have changed since ’82.

ROBERTSON: How?

LAHOUD: Because it’s not like ’82 that they can come in Lebanon and make a promenade until they reach Beirut. These people, underground Lebanese, are ready to die for their land.

ROBERTSON: Hezbollah?

LAHOUD: Not only Hezbollah, many people are ready to die for their land. Wouldn’t you do that if they go inside your country? You’d do the same. And the Lebanese army as well. We’re not going to let anyone take our land. We’ve done it in the past, we liberated our land. We’re not going to let them come back and take it from us. (my italics)

While much of Lahoud’s rhetoric may be just bluster and defiance (because the Lebanese army is no match for the US-supplied Israeli forces), Lahoud’s remarks are a sign that politically, Hezbollah has gained by this action, not only in Lebanon but around the region.

Larry Johnson, formerly with the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. State Department’s Office of Counter Terrorism says much along the same lines as Lahoud. Meanwhile Paul Craig Roberts argues that Americans should be concerned about allying themselves with neoconservative policies of “tooth and claw,” where might makes right, and Palestinians are treated as expendable. And Juan Cole also debunks the notion that this attack had much to do with the capture of two Israeli soldiers. He says “That this war was pre-planned was obvious to me from the moment it began. The Israeli military proceeded methodically and systematically to destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure, and clearly had been casing targets for some time.” Support for this view also comes from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

It all comes back to the problem of Palestinian statelessness. That is the key problem that must be solved if any progress is to be made on any of the other fronts. But it keeps getting deliberately ignored.

Power hubris in the Middle East

(See part 1 , part 2, part 3, and part 4 of this series.)

Politicians love power. They try to obtain as much of it as possible and think that the more they have, the better able they are to solve any problems and crush any opposition they encounter. But what frequently gets overlooked is that there is only a limited class of problems for which power can provide the solution, but success in this very narrow area often deludes leaders into thinking that they can apply power in all areas.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with military power. In conventional battles involving conventional armies, the side that has more troops, more planes, more weapons, more tanks, and so on, will win. Power works in such cases. This was why there was never any doubt that the US would succeed in overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, once it had committed itself to using its full conventional arsenal.

But raw military power fails to deliver the goods when it seeks to achieve more subtle political goals, such as creating stability and harmony among groups. But politicians seem to never learn this basic truth. Iraq is once again the prime example where power has failed to achieve a post-war peace.

Take, for another example, Sri Lanka. For decades, the Tamil minority had been complaining of discrimination by the Sinhala majority government. The Tamil leadership before 1980 were steeped in Gandhian nonviolent traditions and when it protested, the protests took the form of civil disobedience, such as ‘sit down strikes’, where large numbers of protestors blocked the entrances of government buildings. The protestors carried no arms and offered no resistance when the police or other authorities carted them off to jail.

The Tamils developed a reputation for non-violence to the point of being considered docile and passive, easily pushed around by the more powerful police and security forces. When a few young Tamils abandoned what they felt was this futile non-violence strategy and launched the movement known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or more commonly, Tamil Tigers) as an armed group willing to take on the Sri Lankan army militarily, it was not taken seriously at first, because the Tamils had never shown any inclination, let alone expertise, towards militaristic actions. When the Tigers launched their first significant military action in July 1983, a bombing that killed government 13 soldiers, they were still a small and seemingly insignificant group.

The Sri Lankan government reacted the way that governments tend to do in such situations when they are confronted by opposition from members of a different ethnic or religious group over which they think they have overwhelming military superiority. They try to exact revenge on the civilian population. The Sri Lankan government instigated attacks by mobs that killed Tamils in the streets, looted and ransacked and burned their houses, bombed Tamil areas, and arrested and imprisoned large numbers of Tamils, and murdered them in the prisons. The idea behind this massive show of force seemed to be to ‘teach the Tamils a lesson,’ and persuade the Tamil people that it was futile to resist the power of the government, that their best bet was to abandon any support for the Tigers and give up armed struggle in general and go back to pleading their cause the way they had done for decades, even though such methods had produced no meaningful results.

When those measures did not produce any immediate results of the kind they sought, the government then raised the stakes even more and that led to aerial bombing in the Tamil areas that killed and wounded many people, destroyed the infrastructure (roads, hospitals, schools, businesses), created huge numbers of refugees, and made ruins of large areas. (This is similar to what is being currently done in Lebanon, where estimates say that over 300 people have been killed, 1000 wounded and 500,000 displaced. United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland says that nearly a third of the Lebanese casualties are children.)

But the result of this approach was the opposite of what the government hoped. Support for the Tigers, instead of waning, actually expanded and solidified and the Tigers actually grew stronger militarily. Over time they became larger in numbers, more sophisticated in their tactics, and acquired better weapons. As a result we are now, twenty years later, in a virtual stalemate with the Tigers controlling significant portions of land and able to hold its own against the Sri Lankan military. Just last month, the Sri Lankan Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff was killed in a suicide bombing by suspected Tigers. (He was another victim of the war in Sri Lanka that I knew personally, since he went to the same school as I did and was just one year my junior.)

The examples can be multiplied. The US in Vietnam and the French in Vietnam and Algeria thought that their overwhelming military superiority could be used to inflict such pain on the civilian population that in despair they would abandon all support for the liberation forces and give up the struggle. The US used carpet bombing of huge swaths of land, defoliants to wipe out vegetation, and napalm, to terrorize villagers, all in an attempt to undermine support for the Vietnamese guerillas. But instead what happened was that the support actually increased, the opposition forces became stronger, and eventually both the US and the French militaries were beaten and had to leave ignominiously.

Overwhelming conventional power can win battles waged in conventional ways but cannot overcome the challenges posed by asymmetric warfare against a hostile population. The Tigers in Sri Lanka and the National Liberation Fronts of Vietnam and Algeria took care to position themselves as defenders of their own people, fighting an alien force, and provided the security, stability, and services that the people were looking for. More importantly, the fact that they were defending themselves and their own people militarily, and were no longer acting like patsies, instilled pride in the people. Thus these opposition forces won the political struggle, which enabled them to neutralize the military advantage of the major powers opposing them.

Israel is the predominant military power in that region but it faces a determined opposition in Hamas and Hezbollah, groups that remind me of the Tigers in their determination. What Israel seems to be doing is falling into the same trap as other powerful governments before them, seduced by their conventional military superiority into thinking that they can ‘teach the people a lesson,’ that by inflicting severe pain on the civilian populations of Gaza and Lebanon, the people in those regions will abandon support for Hamas and Hezbollah and rally round those political leaders who are acceptable to Israel and the US.

Perhaps there exist some historical examples where (overlooking for the moment its total immorality) this strategy of the military forces of one ethnicity/nationality/religion punishing civilian populations of a different ethnicity/nationality/religion has succeeded in cowing people and destroying support guerilla or insurgent or other resistance forces. I am at a loss of think of any. All the historical examples that I am aware of suggest that the opposite will happen. At most, what you get with such attempts at using military force is a temporary lull in hostilities, while the insurgency lies low and regroups. But they tend to return with greater vigor and more sophisticated munitions at a later time. Witness what is happening now with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the modern world, where all kinds of armaments are easily available in the global black market, the sophistication of the weapons used by the forces opposed to Israel will increase, just the way that the Tamil Tigers improved their weaponry over time and now seem have a wide array of advanced weapons at their disposal, despite living on a island which makes procurement difficult. We are already seeing that Hezbollah seems to have more sophisticated weapons than Israel had anticipated, able to attack Israeli navy vessels and penetrate deeper into Israel than before.

In Sri Lanka, the show of military force by the government resulted in the so-called ‘moderate’ Tamil leadership, those acceptable to the government and willing to talk to the government on the government’s terms, becoming completely marginalized and irrelevant. Eventually, the government was forced to negotiate directly with the Tigers, the very group it had condemned as terrorists and unworthy of being negotiating partners. In the case of Vietnam, the succession of Vietnamese leaders that the US wanted to see as representatives of the Vietnamese people (Nguyen Cao Ky, Nguyen Van Thieu, and Duong Van Minh) were seen as puppets by most of the Vietnamese people, as can be seen by the fact that their governments collapsed as soon as the US withdrew its support.

What amazes me is that this should be seen as at all surprising. After all, the same governments that think that ‘punishing’ civilian populations will lead to them withdrawing support for their representatives know that when they themselves are attacked, their own populations rally round them. In the US for example, we saw how the attacks of 9/11 caused George Bush’s support levels to soar. And he still routinely tries to use the terror threat to rally support for himself. Why would these governments think that the people they are fighting would think and act any differently? As Israeli academic Ran HaCohen says:

As often in war time, most citizens do flock together behind the army, no matter how much they suffer. What Israel fails to grasp is that this simple logic applies to the other side as well: devastating Gaza will only increase support for the Palestinian militants.

Arresting dozens of their Cabinet members and members of parliament is only going to increase Hamas’ support even more. In the case of Gaza, we have to remember that Hamas actually won the last elections. Commentator Pat Buchanan looks at what happened in the immediate aftermath of those elections:

To punish these people for the crime of electing Hamas, [Israeli prime minister] Olmert imposed an economic blockade of Gaza and the West Bank and withheld the $50 million in monthly tax and customs receipts due the Palestinians.

Then, Israel instructed the United States to terminate all aid to the Palestinian Authority, though Bush himself had called for the elections and for the participation of Hamas. Our Crawford cowboy meekly complied.

The predictable result: Fatah and Hamas fell to fratricidal fighting, and Hamas militants began launching Qassam rockets over the fence from Gaza into Israel. Hamas then tunneled into Israel, killed two soldiers, captured one, took him back into Gaza, and demanded a prisoner exchange.

Israel’s response was to abduct half of the Palestinian cabinet and parliament and blow up a $50 million U.S.-insured power plant. That cut off electricity for half a million Palestinians. Their food spoiled, their water could not be purified, and their families sweltered in the summer heat of the Gaza desert.

The fact that the US and Israel were dismayed by the election results and have since tried to destabilize the Hamas government will only serve to increase the suspicion that the attack on Gaza was meant to nullify the election results. Imprisoning the cabinet members and members of parliament of Gaza is an unmistakable signal that Israel wants to overthrow the elected authorities in Gaza. HaCohen suggests that such a move may have been planned well in advance and was simply waiting for a provocation that duly arrived in the form of the capture of the Israeli soldier.

If I may make a prediction, it is that I fully expect to see at some point in the future, after many, many more deaths of ordinary people on all sides and the consequent immense suffering, Israel (along with the US) sit down with Hamas to negotiate the future of the region, exactly as the Sri Lankan government ended up being forced to negotiate with the Tigers, and the US and French were forced to negotiate with the NLF in Vietnam and Algeria.

Instead of dragging the Palestinian and Israeli people through years and years of suffering, spilling rivers of blood, and destroying families and communities, just to end up negotiating with the people they are currently fighting, how much better would it be if far-sighted leaders skip that bloody intermediate step, save all that unnecessary suffering, and begin negotiating now on creating a just and viable Palestinian state, with security guarantees for all the people and states in the region.

POST SCRIPT: The warmongers are never wrong, are they?

Tom Tomorrow’s eerily prescient April 2003 cartoon.

The seductive illusion of power’s efficacy

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series.)

To understand the dynamics at play when governments take on guerilla groups and insurgencies, it requires a look at the role that perceptions of power play.

People often quote the Bible passage that “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) but I think Paul, the author of that document, was mistaken about this (as he was about so many things), and that it really should be the love of power to which we should assign blame. After all, beyond a certain point, money does not meet any actual physical needs and I suspect that it merely serves as a concrete and measurable index, a proxy measure for the more elusive and abstract concept of power. Except in highly circumscribed hierarchical organizations, it is hard to tell who has more power and who has less. But money provides a way. People with more money are usually perceived as more important, more powerful, and have more status, than those with less.

Power has the ability to seduce a person into thinking that acquiring more of it will enable them to more easily solve their problems and achieve their dreams. In seeking it, people lose all sense of proportion and reason, tempting them to overreach, and in the end, destroying them. Shakespeare’s explored these themes in two great tragedies, Macbeth and Richard III, showing how acquiring great power ultimately caused those two ambitious but flawed people to stumble and fall.

Power is so seductive that few can avoid succumbing to its allure. Is there any one of us who has not daydreamed of what we could do if we had total power over our circumstances and could make people do what we wanted them to? Even those people who want to do good easily fall into thinking that what they need is more power to achieve their worthwhile ends.

Fortunately, few of us actually possess much power over others but in those few situations where we mistakenly think we do, a little reflection would show us that depending on power to achieve our ends is actually harmful.

The first situation is that of parents and children. Parents think they have power over their children and in a limited sense they do, especially when their children are very young. They can make them eat their spinach, go to bed at designated times, sit in a corner when punished for doing something wrong, practice the piano, and so forth. But children can rebel, especially after they reach adolescence, and parents who try to over-reach and think that they can force their children to think in a certain way or to have certain values are deluding themselves. As soon as their children grow up and are no longer under their control, they will do what they want, often deliberately going counter to their parents’ wishes just to assert their independence.

Teachers are another group that sometimes think they have a lot of power. Because teachers are put ‘in charge’ of classes and can take disciplinary action and assign grades, they too tend to think that they have more power and influence over their students than they actually do. Yes, teachers can make students do certain things such as work problems, read papers, write essays, and so on. Teachers can even force students to parrot certain opinions and express a particular point of view. But teachers cannot force their students to change their minds about anything, and any teacher who tried to do so is, like a parent with adolescent children, acting delusionally.

I have taught for a long time and have realized that I have very little real control or power over students. The only influence that I have over them is what they are willing to voluntarily grant me and I believe that this is true of any relationship. We may be able to force people to take specific actions and to do certain things, but we cannot change the way people think or make them learn or like what we make them do.

This is why I am always amused by the efforts of those self-appointed protectors of students (like David Horowitz) who seem to see students as delicate hot-house flowers, and are fearful that ‘liberal’ college instructors are brainwashing these intellectually fragile and highly impressionable students away from ‘conservative’ values, whatever those may be. Such ideas about student naivete and impressionability could only be held by someone who has never really taught students or, more importantly, listened to them. It is quite possible that a few college instructors do try to do what he alleges, although Horowitz has a history of making such allegations without evidence to back them up, leaving him with no credibility. But has there been any evidence that even if these rare instructors do exist, that they are effective?

Let me be perfectly clear about this important distinction concerning power. We can, if we wish and had sufficient power over others, make them jump through hoops and we can demand external conformity (though speech and action) to whatever we want. But we have no control over people’s internal processes. We cannot force changes in their thinking and we cannot make them like doing whatever we force them to do.

Any experienced and reflective teacher knows that the more you try to force students to change their minds, especially over things they care about, the more likely you are to actually strengthen their existing beliefs. This is why the goal of my own teaching is not to change students’ minds about anything. My goals are instead (1) to make them understand and be able to articulate and use whatever knowledge serious scholars in the field have learned about the topic at hand, and (2) to help students better understand why they believe whatever they believe. In the process of achieving that deeper understanding of the subject and of themselves, students may change their minds (just as I may change mine due to my interactions with them), but that is an incidental outcome of the learning process.

In their book Power in the Classroom (1992) Virginia Richmond and James McCroskey emphasize that students have more power than we realize, and that the more we try to exercise direct authority, the more likely it is that they will devise ways to thwart us, leading to reduced learning. As they say “[P]ower can be used effectively to get people to do what we want, so long as (a) we are willing to watch them do it, and (b) we do not care what they think of us [or the task] afterward. Both of the above conditions are seldom present outside of prisons.” (p. 102)

This does not mean that teachers have no power at all. It means that they should realize that the power they have is not over students’ minds, but over the conditions under which students learn. Teachers can use their administrative power to create environments that are conducive to learning by, for example, giving students more choices and control over what they learn and how they learn. Teachers can also adjust their teaching styles to make the classroom more interactive and engaging and the material more interesting, while maintaining course requirements and standards. This is the only kind of power that teachers can use and should use. And used wisely, it can result in the only worthwhile goal of education, which is to make students more curious about the world around them, more able to pose meaningful questions about that world, and more adept at seeking answers.

We all have actually very limited power over other people. The more we realize this inherent limitation, the more effective we become in using that limited power to achieve worthwhile ends. Conversely, those who have an inflated sense of the power they have and what raw power can achieve, and seek to achieve results using power alone, are doomed to disastrous results.

Nowhere are the destructive consequences of following the siren song of power more visible than in the political arena.

Next: The consequences of power hubris in the Middle East.

The warmongers

(See part 1 and part 2 of this series.)

Most people are rightly appalled at the rapid escalation of war in the Middle East region, knowing that it will worsen an already bad situation. But not everyone is dismayed. Some people are actually pleased that this crisis has arisen.

It has to be recalled that it has long been the aim of the neoconservatives in the US to overthrow the governments of Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and replace them with regimes that are friendly to the US. This would give the US unparalleled control of the huge Middle East oil reserves, and strategic and military control of the entire region. For these people, the invasion of Iraq was seen as just phase one in this grand plan, to be rapidly followed by invasions of the other two countries.

Of course, that plan ganged agley in a major way in Iraq, with the Iraqis refusing to follow the script and play their designated role of being grateful for the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, throwing flowers at the US troops, and then allowing their country to be the staging ground for the attack on Iran. Iran, sandwiched between US forces controlling Iraq and Afghanistan, would supposedly fall like a ripe fruit.

As a result of this delay in advancing their agenda, these people have been chafing, even resorting to criticizing their former hero George W. Bush for delaying and essentially wimping out in the implementation of their grand plan. Neoconservative William Kristol, writing in the The Weekly Standard which he edits, says that as a result of not already taking military action against Syria and Iran “We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak.”

Such people see the current conflagration in Gaza and Lebanon as providing a golden opportunity to get their grand scheme back on the fast track by widening the war. Already allegations are being made that Iran and Syria are behind the Hezbollah and Hamas forces and directly instigating them, and it is clear that the groundwork is being laid to justify attacking those countries, just like the fake allegations of Iraqi WMDs and Iraq-al Qaeda links were used to stampede the American public into supporting an ill-conceived, illegal, and immoral attack on Iraq. For these warmongers, creating a sense of crisis and urgency is important because when people get frightened, they don’t think clearly and tend to turn towards authoritarian figures to ‘save’ and ‘protect’ them. The current state of hostilities in Gaza and Lebanon provides them with those conditions and they are quickly moving to take advantage of it. They know that advocates of negotiations and peace, both in Israel and elsewhere, have started to mobilize, and they want to quickly start these new wars soon before, god forbid, those groups start to have an effect and peace breaks out.

Glenn Greenwald describes the rhetoric used by warmongers such as William Kristol. He quotes Kristol saying:

The right response is renewed strength–in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?

The eagerness of these people to go to war is palpable. Of course, the US military is already stretched thin, bogged down in Iraq, limited largely to its bases there, while a civil war takes the lives of numerous civilians. So even a person who supports widening the war might reasonably ask where Bush is going to get the troops to engage in two new battlefronts. After all, even if the US military able to overthrow the governments of Syria and Iran by mostly using aerial bombardment, the most probable outcome are two more protracted insurgency and guerilla wars like the current one in Iraq. In fact, it is likely that the opposition in Iran will be even stronger than that faced in Iraq since the Iranian government is an elected government with considerable popular support, unlike the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Iranian people have long memories and know that in 1953 the US overthrew its popularly elected government of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh and replaced him with the deeply hated Shah Reza Pahlavi. They are not likely to welcome a rerun.

Kristol dismisses this possibility with the breezy “Yes, there would be repercussions–and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.” And what form might these things that that he coyly refers to as “repercussions” take? He does not elaborate but developments in Iraq mean that we can easily guess. Perhaps another decade of fighting in Syria and Iran? Another hundred thousand civilian deaths and injured in each those countries? Destruction of the economies and infrastructure of two more countries, setting their development back a generation and leading to widespread impoverishment and anger? Tens of thousands more US troops dead and injured? Another trillion dollars used for the purposes of destruction or to enrich the military industry and its civilian hangers-on? But, for Kristol, all that would be worth it because we would be projecting to the world that the US is “strong.” Is there no limit to this disastrous macho posturing, especially when it is others who are paying the price, never the speakers? Even George Will finds Kristol to be over the top, describing his comments as “so untethered from reality as to defy caricature.” And yet, Kristol and other warmongers are always invited back by the mainstream media to propagate this kind of dangerous nonsense.

The answer to this puzzle of whether the US should expand the war to three fronts when it is already bogged down on the first one is quite simple. Another protracted war against Iran and Syria is not something that can be sustained and would not be the choice of any rational policy maker or military leader. This becomes especially so when the other, forgotten, front in Afghanistan, that supposedly ‘successful’ war which was supposedly ‘won’ in 2001, has opened up again with a resurgent Taliban becoming more aggressive and regaining control of territory it had once lost.

What worries me is that the neoconservatives might try to escalate the current crisis in order to drag the US into it despite such an action going against its own interests. One has to suspect that they hope that the use of nuclear weapons would be envisaged as a possible option to provide a quick end, as Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker magazine.

As Greenwald says:

The mindless casualness with which such people blithely advocate starting a new war — like it’s no different that deciding what one will eat for dinner tomorrow — is breathtaking. There is an influential and determined minority out there craving U.S. intervention in this war. They are searching for any means to expand the war in Iraq to additional countries, all as part of our Epic War of Civilizations, and given their past success in inducing the U.S. to invade Iraq, I think it’s a mistake to assume that what they are advocating is too extreme and self-evidently disastrous to become a reality.

Stephen Colbert provides a quick compilation of pundits discussing how we are now in World War III. What is remarkable is how casually pleased they seem to be at this state of affairs. Their only point of disagreement seems to be whether we are at number III or IV. The reason they are so eager to hype this ‘world war’ label is that it frightens people, making them think that we are in apocalyptic conflict in which ‘our’ side must win or it would be disaster for humanity, when in actuality what we have is a regional conflict for which there can be political solutions. (James Wolcott skewers this overblown rhetoric in his inimitable style. Read his piece to get a laugh from an otherwise grim situation.)

While many people will be appalled at the idea of widening the conflict, there is one other particular group that is positively salivating at the prospect, and deliriously awaiting increased chaos and bloodshed. These are our old friends, those people who believe in the ‘rapture’ and think that the Armageddon that signals the second coming of Jesus should arrive any day now.

The signs of impending Armageddon are increased turmoil in the world, and so these people are ecstatic at the current turn of events. The Rapture Ready website had a forum titled “Is it time to get excited?” in which the people who posted were almost giddy with anticipation at the thought that the current round of bloodshed in the Middle East was the fulfillment of the rapture prophecy. That particular forum seems to have disappeared, perhaps because of the unwelcome attention it received from people making fun of it, but some of the discussion was captured and can be read here. Here’s a sample: “I too am soooo excited!! I get goose bumps, literally, when I watch what’s going on in the M.E.!!” The commenter is also pleased that the Boston tunnel collapsed killing a religious woman, and is delighted at the terrifying storms that hit nearby areas. All these events, which others would regard as tragedies, are for rapture lovers good things, because they signal that Jesus is coming. “But, yes. . .it is most indeed a time to be happy and excited.”

While it is tempting to dismiss and ignore such people as misguided crackpots, we must not forget that they represent a large fraction of the American people (with some estimates ranging as high as 44%) and provide mass support for the more cynical calculations of the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives and these Christian extremists may make an unlikely couple but they do represent a potent alliance that is a powerful driver for the madness of widening the conflict, and a significant obstacle to finding a peaceful resolution.

The drive for wider war in some quarters seems to have resulted in the complete abandonment of logic, such as can be seen in The New Republic magazine, which was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and now seems to be equally enthusiastic in urging wider war. One does not know whether to laugh or cry at the subheading of an article by Michael B. Oren in the July 17, 2006 online edition that says “To prevent a regional conflagration, Israel should attack Syria” (That subhead has since disappeared but Brad DeLong caught it.)

It seems like we have actually fulfilled Orwell’s 1984 prediction of someone seriously saying “War is Peace.” The real test will be in seeing how many people believe it.

Next: The seductive illusion of power

POST SCRIPT: First hand account from Beirut

Cleveland Peace Action has published an email from Michael Provence, a Cleveland native who is a historian at UC San Diego and is spending a year at the American University in Beirut. He describes what is currently happening in Beirut, and his efforts to leave with his family. It is an eye-opening first-hand account, giving the kind of details that you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

In the course of his email, he says: “There is some talk that the Embassy may be sending an aircraft carrier 
from the Red Sea to evacuate us to Cyprus. The email notice they have sent out states that citizens will be required to sign a financial 
release and apparently pay for the helicopter ride to the ship.” (my italics)

Apparently getting people to pay for their rescue is the law, irrespective of the level of danger and even whether the evacuee is alive or dead. The government, so profligate when it comes to spending money waging war on remote threats, and so cavalier about obeying the law in other areas, turns surprisingly frugal and law abiding when it comes to saving the lives of its own citizens from actual and imminent danger.

The warmongers

(See part 1 and part 2 of this series.)

Most people are rightly appalled at the rapid escalation of war in the Middle East region, knowing that it will worsen an already bad situation. But not everyone is dismayed. Some people are actually pleased that this crisis has arisen.

It has to be recalled that it has long been the aim of the neoconservatives in the US to overthrow the governments of Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and replace them with regimes that are friendly to the US. This would give the US unparalleled control of the huge Middle East oil reserves, and strategic and military control of the entire region. For these people, the invasion of Iraq was seen as just phase one in this grand plan, to be rapidly followed by invasions of the other two countries.

Of course, that plan ganged agley in a major way in Iraq, with the Iraqis refusing to follow the script and play their designated role of being grateful for the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein, throwing flowers at the US troops, and then allowing their country to be the staging ground for the attack on Iran. Iran, sandwiched between US forces controlling Iraq and Afghanistan, would supposedly fall like a ripe fruit.

As a result of this delay in advancing their agenda, these people have been chafing, even resorting to criticizing their former hero George W. Bush for delaying and essentially wimping out in the implementation of their grand plan. Neoconservative William Kristol, writing in the The Weekly Standard which he edits, says that as a result of not already taking military action against Syria and Iran “We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak.”

Such people see the current conflagration in Gaza and Lebanon as providing a golden opportunity to get their grand scheme back on the fast track by widening the war. Already allegations are being made that Iran and Syria are behind the Hezbollah and Hamas forces and directly instigating them, and it is clear that the groundwork is being laid to justify attacking those countries, just like the fake allegations of Iraqi WMDs and Iraq-al Qaeda links were used to stampede the American public into supporting an ill-conceived, illegal, and immoral attack on Iraq. For these warmongers, creating a sense of crisis and urgency is important because when people get frightened, they don’t think clearly and tend to turn towards authoritarian figures to ‘save’ and ‘protect’ them. The current state of hostilities in Gaza and Lebanon provides them with those conditions and they are quickly moving to take advantage of it. They know that advocates of negotiations and peace, both in Israel and elsewhere, have started to mobilize, and they want to quickly start these new wars soon before, god forbid, those groups start to have an effect and peace breaks out.

Glenn Greenwald describes the rhetoric used by warmongers such as William Kristol. He quotes Kristol saying:

The right response is renewed strength–in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait?

The eagerness of these people to go to war is palpable. Of course, the US military is already stretched thin, bogged down in Iraq, limited largely to its bases there, while a civil war takes the lives of numerous civilians. So even a person who supports widening the war might reasonably ask where Bush is going to get the troops to engage in two new battlefronts. After all, even if the US military able to overthrow the governments of Syria and Iran by mostly using aerial bombardment, the most probable outcome are two more protracted insurgency and guerilla wars like the current one in Iraq. In fact, it is likely that the opposition in Iran will be even stronger than that faced in Iraq since the Iranian government is an elected government with considerable popular support, unlike the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Iranian people have long memories and know that in 1953 the US overthrew its popularly elected government of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh and replaced him with the deeply hated Shah Reza Pahlavi. They are not likely to welcome a rerun.

Kristol dismisses this possibility with the breezy “Yes, there would be repercussions–and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.” And what form might these things that that he coyly refers to as “repercussions” take? He does not elaborate but developments in Iraq mean that we can easily guess. Perhaps another decade of fighting in Syria and Iran? Another hundred thousand civilian deaths and injured in each those countries? Destruction of the economies and infrastructure of two more countries, setting their development back a generation and leading to widespread impoverishment and anger? Tens of thousands more US troops dead and injured? Another trillion dollars used for the purposes of destruction or to enrich the military industry and its civilian hangers-on? But, for Kristol, all that would be worth it because we would be projecting to the world that the US is “strong.” Is there no limit to this disastrous macho posturing, especially when it is others who are paying the price, never the speakers? Even George Will finds Kristol to be over the top, describing his comments as “so untethered from reality as to defy caricature.” And yet, Kristol and other warmongers are always invited back by the mainstream media to propagate this kind of dangerous nonsense.

The answer to this puzzle of whether the US should expand the war to three fronts when it is already bogged down on the first one is quite simple. Another protracted war against Iran and Syria is not something that can be sustained and would not be the choice of any rational policy maker or military leader. This becomes especially so when the other, forgotten, front in Afghanistan, that supposedly ‘successful’ war which was supposedly ‘won’ in 2001, has opened up again with a resurgent Taliban becoming more aggressive and regaining control of territory it had once lost.

What worries me is that the neoconservatives might try to escalate the current crisis in order to drag the US into it despite such an action going against its own interests. One has to suspect that they hope that the use of nuclear weapons would be envisaged as a possible option to provide a quick end, as Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker magazine.

As Greenwald says:

The mindless casualness with which such people blithely advocate starting a new war — like it’s no different that deciding what one will eat for dinner tomorrow — is breathtaking. There is an influential and determined minority out there craving U.S. intervention in this war. They are searching for any means to expand the war in Iraq to additional countries, all as part of our Epic War of Civilizations, and given their past success in inducing the U.S. to invade Iraq, I think it’s a mistake to assume that what they are advocating is too extreme and self-evidently disastrous to become a reality.

Stephen Colbert provides a quick compilation of pundits discussing how we are now in World War III. What is remarkable is how casually pleased they seem to be at this state of affairs. Their only point of disagreement seems to be whether we are at number III or IV. The reason they are so eager to hype this ‘world war’ label is that it frightens people, making them think that we are in apocalyptic conflict in which ‘our’ side must win or it would be disaster for humanity, when in actuality what we have is a regional conflict for which there can be political solutions. (James Wolcott skewers this overblown rhetoric in his inimitable style. Read his piece to get a laugh from an otherwise grim situation.)

While many people will be appalled at the idea of widening the conflict, there is one other particular group that is positively salivating at the prospect, and deliriously awaiting increased chaos and bloodshed. These are our old friends, those people who believe in the ‘rapture’ and think that the Armageddon that signals the second coming of Jesus should arrive any day now.

The signs of impending Armageddon are increased turmoil in the world, and so these people are ecstatic at the current turn of events. The Rapture Ready website had a forum titled “Is it time to get excited?” in which the people who posted were almost giddy with anticipation at the thought that the current round of bloodshed in the Middle East was the fulfillment of the rapture prophecy. That particular forum seems to have disappeared, perhaps because of the unwelcome attention it received from people making fun of it, but some of the discussion was captured and can be read here. Here’s a sample: “I too am soooo excited!! I get goose bumps, literally, when I watch what’s going on in the M.E.!!” The commenter is also pleased that the Boston tunnel collapsed killing a religious woman, and is delighted at the terrifying storms that hit nearby areas. All these events, which others would regard as tragedies, are for rapture lovers good things, because they signal that Jesus is coming. “But, yes. . .it is most indeed a time to be happy and excited.”

While it is tempting to dismiss and ignore such people as misguided crackpots, we must not forget that they represent a large fraction of the American people (with some estimates ranging as high as 44%) and provide mass support for the more cynical calculations of the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives and these Christian extremists may make an unlikely couple but they do represent a potent alliance that is a powerful driver for the madness of widening the conflict, and a significant obstacle to finding a peaceful resolution.

The drive for wider war in some quarters seems to have resulted in the complete abandonment of logic, such as can be seen in The New Republic magazine, which was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and now seems to be equally enthusiastic in urging wider war. One does not know whether to laugh or cry at the subheading of an article by Michael B. Oren in the July 17, 2006 online edition that says “To prevent a regional conflagration, Israel should attack Syria” (That subhead has since disappeared but Brad DeLong caught it.)

It seems like we have actually fulfilled Orwell’s 1984 prediction of someone seriously saying “War is Peace.” The real test will be in seeing how many people believe it.

Next: The seductive illusion of power

POST SCRIPT: First hand account from Beirut

Cleveland Peace Action has published an email from Michael Provence, a Cleveland native who is a historian at UC San Diego and is spending a year at the American University in Beirut. He describes what is currently happening in Beirut, and his efforts to leave with his family. It is an eye-opening first-hand account, giving the kind of details that you are unlikely to find elsewhere.

In the course of his email, he says: “There is some talk that the Embassy may be sending an aircraft carrier 
from the Red Sea to evacuate us to Cyprus. The email notice they have sent out states that citizens will be required to sign a financial 
release and apparently pay for the helicopter ride to the ship.” (my italics)

Apparently getting people to pay for their rescue is the law, irrespective of the level of danger and even whether the evacuee is alive or dead. The government, so profligate when it comes to spending money waging war on remote threats, and so cavalier about obeying the law in other areas, turns surprisingly frugal and law abiding when it comes to saving the lives of its own citizens from actual and imminent danger.