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

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Glenn Greenwald says:

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

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

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

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

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

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on ASU

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

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

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

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

The early 20th century was the time when religious people in America became alarmed that they had perhaps gone too far in separating church and state in the public schools and decided to try and reverse the trend, and this movement coincided in time with the rise in acceptance of natural selection as the mechanism evolution. This theory, with its explicit rejection of a special divine plan for the human race, became seen as a potent symbol of an anti-religious way of thinking that had to be combated. Hence it was natural to use opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution as a vanguard action that would lead to the restoration of religious instruction in schools.
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Skyhooks and cranes-8: Alternatives to natural selection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Skyhooks and cranes-7: Early American reactions to evolution

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

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

As I have suggested, part of the reason could be that the fact that even the human mind and consciousness may not be anything special but are the products of the working of the mindless natural selection algorithm and following the same natural laws is disturbing to some. Evolution, properly understood, rules out any non-material cause for the properties of living things, and this can be disturbing to religious and non-religious people alike who want to cling on to the romantic idea that humans are somehow special or that there is something transcendent that cannot be explained in terms of natural laws.
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Skyhooks and cranes-6: Why some atheist scientists support the morality skyhook

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

One can understand why the Pope and religious scientists want to promote the unsustainable idea that the world of morality and ethics lies in a separate domain outside the reach of scientific investigation and accessible only by religion. But what is puzzling is why so many nonbelievers, including scientists, also seem willing to give credence to religion the role of sole arbiter of morality and ethics.
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Skyhooks and cranes-5: Darwin and morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

POST SCRIPT: Corruption in medicine

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

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

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

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

Skyhooks and cranes-4: Understanding the mind

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

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