Why scientific theories are more than just explanations

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

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

(I will be away on travel this week so will be reposting an old series, edited and updated, that discusses the nature of science and the difference between science and religion. New posts start again on Monday, April 21, 2008.)
In a previous posting, I pointed out that if one looks studies the history of science, all the theories that have been considered to be science are both (1) naturalistic and (2) predictive. Thus these two things constitute necessary conditions for a theory to be considered science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is science?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The propaganda machine-12: Thinks tanks and the media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POST SCRIPT: Cuba after Castro

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

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

Food and energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POST SCRIPT: William F. Buckley vs. Noam Chomsky

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

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

Part 1:

Part 2:

The propaganda machine-11: Becoming a think tank ‘expert’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: How think tanks influence the media

POST SCRIPT: The role of US military bases abroad

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

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

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

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

For more information about the speaker, see here.

Strolling into geezerhood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POST SCRIPT: An atheist call to arms

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

The propaganda machine-10: How some think tanks operate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POST SCRIPT: They are just job applicants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Lakoff says:

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

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

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

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

And thus is born a pundit.

Next: How think tanks operate

POST SCRIPT: April Fool’s day hoaxes

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

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

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

Hotels

I hate staying in hotels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

POST SCRIPT: War, Inc

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

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