Global warming-7: The current status of the scientific consensus

So what is the scientific consensus about the answers to the key questions concerning global warming?

The British magazine New Scientist gives a review of the state of affairs concerning climate change, along with a handy summary sheet of the main points, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report (thanks to Brian Gray of the Kelvin Smith Library who runs the blog e3 Information Overload for the link) provides more detailed information. Here are some tentative answers to the five key questions I raised in a previous post.

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

Here we have to distinguish between the more recent period (starting in 1861) when we have direct measurements of temperature and the prior periods, for which we have to infer temperatures using proxy measures such as using tree rings or bubbles trapped in ice cores that date back 750,000 years.

For the recent past, the IPCC report says that “The global average surface temperature has increased by 0.6 ± 0.2°C since the late 19th century”.

For the period prior to that, the report says “It is likely that the rate and duration of the warming of the 20th century is larger than any other time during the last 1,000 years. The 1990s are likely to have been the warmest decade of the millennium in the Northern Hemisphere, and 1998 is likely to have been the warmest year.”
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Global warming-6: The public and the paradigm

In the previous post, I discussed how after a paradigm is adopted, scientists tend to communicate only with each other. They are now 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. This results in them developing a more technical, insider language and jargon that is opaque to nonscientists, and the technical paper addressed to similarly trained scientists and published in specialized journals becomes the chief means of communication.
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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.
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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”.
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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.
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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.
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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.