Sudoku and scientific research

I have always liked logic puzzles. They exercise a curious fascination for me, extending even to my choice of reading. From the time I was very young, I was drawn to mystery novels of the Agatha Christie variety, which are essentially logic puzzles where the identity of the culprit is unknown until the end and the author lays out clues which the careful reader can use to solve the puzzle.

Needless to say, this extended to my choice of board games too, Clue and Master Mind being some of my favorites at one time. I also enjoy chess and card games like bridge, both of which contain a considerable element of puzzle solving.

So it should be no surprise that I have recently become addicted to doing the daily sudoku puzzle in the Plain Dealer. For those of you unfamiliar with this new craze, it is basically a logic puzzle consisting of 81 squares arranged in a 9×9 square grid in which about one-third of the squares contain numbers 1 through 9 from already filled in. The reader is required to fill in the rest containing subject to rules that are simple and can be found here.

The daily newspaper puzzle is labeled gentle, moderate, or diabolical, to indicate the expected level of difficulty, although the labeling does not always match my experience with the occasional diabolical being quite easy and the moderate quite hard.

The sudoku puzzles do not require any mathematics or even arithmetic to arrive at a solution. One could just as well do the puzzle with nine different fruits or symbols or whatever. But there is a lot of interesting underlying mathematics, and Brian Hayes has an interesting article in the January-February, 2006 issue of the American Scientist with a fascinating discussion of the mathematics of sudoku. involving such questions as how many different puzzles there are (Answer: 3,546,146,300,288) and what is the minimum amount of filled squares that must be initially provided so that there is a unique solution. It turns out that the latter question remains unsolved. “[T]he minimum number of givens is unknown. Gordon Royle of the University of Western Australia has collected more than 24,000 examples of uniquely solvable grids with 17 givens, and he has found none with fewer than 17, but a proof is lacking.” So there’s a nice challenge for the mathematically ambitious. Published problems usually have between 25 and 30 givens, with no simple correlation between the number of givens and the advertised level of difficulty.

One interesting question that the article does not answer is how the constructors of the puzzles know when they have given enough information so that there exists a unique solution. Do they have to work through the puzzles themselves and keep adding initial data until they have a unique solution? That seems tedious. In yesterday’s (January 31, 2005) Plain Dealer puzzle, it seemed to me that there were at least two solutions.

(The sudoku problems belong to a more general class of math problems associated with the term NP but there are some disagreements about whether it is NP or NP-hard or NP-complete, which I will leave to the more mathematically informed to figure out.)

After doing a few, it struck me that these puzzles are a good analogy for the way science research is done. Thomas Kuhn in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that normal scientific research within a paradigm is largely a puzzle solving exercise in which there is an assurance that a solution exists to the problem and that it is only the ingenuity of the scientist that stands between her and a solution. The sudoku problem is like that. We know that a solution of a particular form exists and it is this belief that makes people persevere until they arrive at a solution.

Most of the sudoku solution strategy is deductive. One starts by filling in those empty squares with numbers that can be arrived at deductively, by rigorously ruling out all but the correct number. But in the more difficult puzzles, one reaches a stage where there may be two (or rarely) three possibilities for a crucial square and deductive logic alone cannot determine it. At that point, one has to resort to ‘hypothetico-deductive’ or ‘if-then’ reasoning. This kind of reasoning is an essential element of the scientific process. In scientific research one never knows exactly all the information needed to solve some problem. Hence one has to make reasonable assumptions about some things in order to proceed further and arrive at conclusions. And those assumptions can change in the light of new information.

Sudoku provides an example of this in that when one reaches such an impasse, one simply chooses one of the possible options and proceed to fill in all the rest of the squares using the standard deductive reasoning until either the puzzle is completed satisfactorily, confirming the correctness of the initial choice, or one runs into an obvious contradiction, indicating that one’s choice was mistaken and that one should have chosen the other option at the branch point.

In yet harder puzzles, one might encounter nested hypothetico-deductive situations, where after making one choice, one might encounter yet another impasse requiring another choice. Those are the hardest puzzles because they involve selecting between many possible options, each resulting in a different final solution. (As an aside, the mechanism of evolution by natural selection works similarly to this, with the choice options being provided by random genetic mutations and the choice being ‘made’ by natural selection.)

Scientific research is a lot like these harder sudoku puzzles, involving long chains of inferential reasoning, with assumptions being made along the way. One rarely arrives at solutions purely deductively, hence the popular notion of scientific truths being “proven” to be true is largely a mirage. There are always choices that have to be made at intervening stages. One has to make decisions as to what one assumes to be true and can be used as a basis for further investigations. Being able to do hypothetico-deductive reasoning is essential for science, and yet it is not skill we focus much on in our science teaching.

In doing this kind of hypothetico-deductive reasoning one also has to use one’s judgment and select which of the various possibilities is likely to be the most fruitful. Science also requires one to make such judgments and good scientists are those who, over time, develop a good ‘nose’ for which situations are best suited.

The extra wrinkle in scientific research that is not present in sudoku puzzles is that the correctness of the choice is also time-dependent. What may be a satisfactory choice at one time may turn out, in the light of subsequent research in a related field, to have been the wrong choice later. It is this kind of thing that causes the scientific community to sometimes reverse itself and declare that what was considered wrong once is now right and vice versa.

The hardest problems in science are those that challenge the very paradigm itself because then one is not guaranteed that a solution even exists. It is like working on a sudoku puzzle in which the data given may not be sufficient to guarantee the existence of a unique solution, or one in which the rules have changed but you are not aware of it. It takes a strong will and a great deal of perseverance to take on such problems. But it is just that kind of problem that leads to scientific revolutions.

POST SCRIPT: Warrantless wiretapping

Tom Tomorrow’s take on the NSA wiretapping story.

Revisiting The Manchurian Candidate

Some time ago, after watching awful remakes of The Manchurian Candidate and Charade, I went on a rant against Hollywood remaking films that were excellent in the original. What was the point, I asked? How could the remakes not come out looking worse than the originals?

Calming down from that exhilarating bout of righteous indignation, I wondered if I may have been too overwrought and overestimated the quality of the original Manchurian Candidate. After all, I must have been in my early teens when I first saw it and I have often had the experience of revisiting books and films that I enjoyed when younger to find them disappointing the second time around. I had no such qualms about Charade, having seen it several times, most recently a few years ago. It is a certifiable classic, a must-see for anyone who loves films.

So I checked the original Manchurian Candidate out again to see if my memories were reliable. I can report that the original is still excellent and far superior to the remake. But it was interesting to me that my appreciation of it was very different this time around.

The first time, I saw it as a straightforward thriller and enjoyed it as such. This time around, I was much more taken by the political elements that it portrayed. This change in sensibility is understandable, given that in my teens I was not as interested in politics as I am now.

The politics were satirized by having the main political characters be somewhat over-the-top. The Communist brainwashers were portrayed as cold-blooded villains who had no sense of decency at all and killed without compunction, laughing while doing so. In one scene, the Communist brainwashers want to test the effectiveness of their brainwashing by having the brainwashed person kill someone. The Chinese person asks the Russian head of the spy program in America to have one of his agents killed in the test. The Russian head refuses, not because he is horrified at the thought of sacrificing one of his own people, but because he is already currently understaffed and doesn’t know if he can get a replacement!

The complexities of the cold war are also brushed over by having the Russians, Chinese, and Korean Communists portrayed as one big happy family engaged in evil against the US, ignoring the ideological tensions that existed between those countries at the time.

Meanwhile, on the American side, one of the evildoers was a parody of Senator Joseph McCarthy, portraying him as more of a buffoon and less sinister and malevolent than the senator who went on the witch hunt.

I had forgotten how good Laurence Harvey was in the original, giving depth and complexity and even sympathy to his character in a way that the sequel did not. Harvey was often criticized as a somewhat cold and wooden actor, but here he managed to turn that to his advantage and actually eke some good comedic moments from that persona.

What I mainly liked about the original was that all the gaping plot holes in the sequel that made it absurd were explained away by a few lines of dialogue here and there in the original. I hate it when films don’t take the trouble to make the plotlines coherent and believable, and assume that audiences won’t notice when things don’t make any sense.

The only area in which the sequel was superior was in the motivation of the character (played by Janet Leigh in the original) who was the love interest to the Sinatra/Washington character. In both films, the initial meeting of the two was mysterious and seemed to hint at some secret motive for the woman to force her attentions on the man. But in the original that storyline was abandoned and not developed the way that the sequel did.

So after examining the replay, my original verdict stands: Remaking The Manchurian Candidate was a colossal mistake.

POST SCRIPT: Putting the terrorist threat into perspective

Glenn Greenwald over at Unclaimed Territory has another good post supporting my contention (see here and here) that we need to look at the terrorist threat rationally, and not be swayed by the irrational hysteria that is being pumped up.. Greenwald says “The cause of this irrationality, this inability to view the terrorism threat with any perspective, is not a mystery. Terrorists like Al Qaeda deliberately stage attacks which are designed to instill fear in the population far beyond what is warranted by the actual threat-level posed by the terrorists. That’s the defining tactic and objective of terrorists. Fortunately for the terrorists, in the United States, Al Qaeda has a powerful ally in this goal: the Bush Administration, which for four years has, along with Al Qeada, worked ceaselessly to instill in Americans an overarching and excessive fear of terrorism.”

He quotes historian Joseph J. Ellis who in a New York Times op-ed says: “My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic…Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.”

The rapturites among us

After I wrote about the rapture letters, I viewed the film The God Who Wasn’t There (thanks to Aaron Shaffer (Manager of the Freedman Center) who loaned me the DVD) and the filmmaker included an interview with the creator of that letter writing site. He seems like a nice guy who sincerely believes that the rapture is going to occur in his lifetime. The film also says that an astounding 44% of the American public, like him, are either certain or think it very probable that the rapture will happen in their lifetimes! You can see the relevant clip from the film here.
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The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-2

Blogs are highly idiosyncratic and so hard to talk about except in terms of our own personal response to them. Clearly there are different types of blogs: those that dwell on the personal lives of the authors, those that highlight particular issues (e.g., evolution and intelligent design), those that seek to provide perspective and commentary on current events, those that provide longer, more analytical pieces, those that just provide an avenue for venting, those that provide an outlet for creative talents, such as fiction, poetry, and art, and other reasons to numerous to mention.

Why do people blog? What is the benefit? Again it is hard to generalize but here are my reasons. (I should note that I did not start a blog with these benefits in mind. I started it simply out of curiosity and the challenge of trying something new. I discovered these benefits only after the fact.)

The main benefit for me personally is that writing regularly forces me to sort out my ideas and clarifies my thinking The truth of E. M. Forster’s remark “How can I know what I am thinking until I see what I say?” becomes more and more apparent to me the more I write.

The blog also provides me with practice for improving my writing. I have been focusing in the past on clarity and logical thinking, but more recently I have been trying to see if I can write with better style, with more wit and humor, with better choice of words and structure. If readers have not detected any improvement in these areas, it just shows how far I have to go!

The blog also acts for me as a repository for ideas and sources that may be otherwise forgotten or misplaced. When I want to recall some fact that I have written about, the blog is the first place for me to look and it provides me with a place to direct people to look. In my TV appearance (see below), I spoke about the accuracy comparison between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica. When asked for the source of the study, I could not recall it immediately but it took only a few seconds to find that post on my blog with the relevant link, and send that information to the other panelists.

The blog also provides me with the first draft of writing for many topics. When the Dover trial verdict was announced, I was able to cobble together an op-ed piece from my blog entries in just a little over an hour because I had been writing about it already. The information was there, all I had to do was work on editing it for appropriateness. Because of the speed of the writing, it enabled me to get it published in a timely manner. I am planning on writing a few other pieces for publication, using the blog entries as initial drafts.

But perhaps the biggest benefit for me as a blog author is that I have been able to connect (and reconnect) with people whom I would have never met otherwise.

One obvious advantage of blogs in general is that it provides a much larger potential readership for people with ideas. I now read a much wider range of writers and cartoonists than I ever did before.

In my role as a reader of other people’s blogs, the advantages are huge. It saves time in reading newspapers and watching TV. I almost never watch TV news or the talk shows, but thanks to sites like Crooks and Liars and onegoodmove I get pointed to just the bits (both serious and funny) that interest me.

The blog provides me with access to knowledgeable people who write well on important topics. The mainstream columnists like David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or most of the other people who are published in the op-ed pages of the Plain Dealer hardly ever have anything interesting or new to say. I can read the first paragraph and guess the rest. But blogs like Informed Comment, Unclaimed Territory, Talking Points Memo, and Justin Raimondo mix sharp and perceptive commentary with useful information. And they write well too.

Finally the blogs provides knowledgeable and specialized information on topics that I am interested in and alerts me to news I might have missed, often gleaned from the foreign press or less well known sources.

In my appearance on Feagler and friends, we had a cordial discussion about blogs but I sensed some skepticism about the value of blogs from the editor of the Plain Dealer and the host Dick Feagler, who is a traditional newspaper columnist. I don’t if I managed to persuade them otherwise, but we did have some follow up email communication after the show and I think Dick Feagler started to become more open to the potential benefits of blogs.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25’s Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-1

Today marks the one year anniversary of this blog. I had no idea when I started it with a very tentative posting on January 26, 2005 where it would go or that it would take the shape it currently has. I had no idea, though, that it would be as much fun, as useful (to me at least), or require as much time and effort as has turned out to be the case. One thing that it has done that surprised me is that it has made me almost addicted to reading, researching, and writing about the things that I care about and that, I believe, is a good thing.

(Sandy Piderit and Vincenzo Liberatore gave me some welcome encouragement on my first feeble attempt. Jeremy Smith’s comments on my first posting had some excellent advice which I have followed and would recommend to others thinking about blogging.)

This personal anniversary coincides with some local media attention on the role of blogs in the new media age. Two weeks ago I appeared on the Cleveland NPR affiliate WCPN 90.3 to discuss this question and then last week I taped a show for the local PBS affiliate WVIZ channel 25 program Feagler and friends with Doug Clifton (editor of the Plain Dealer) and Denise Polverine (editor-in-chief of Cleveland.com). (See below for details about its broadcast on Friday and Sunday.)

In preparing for both these shows, I started thinking about the role of blogs. What role are they likely to play in the media of the future and what uses do they serve for the authors of blogs and the readers of blogs? It seems a bit strange to be pontificating about blogging after doing it for just one year. But blogging is one of those fields where the cliché “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” applies. Most people are surprisingly unaware of what blogs are so even someone with relatively slight experience (like me) is perceived as an “expert.” So in this two-part series, here are my opinions on the topic, for what it is worth.

Some of the more obvious benefits of blogs are the following:

  • They can focus and maintain attention of stories that the major media do not highlight or follow up (Like the plan to bomb al-Jazeera during the attack on Falluja in April 2004, or the Downing street memos of July 23, 2002 of the meetings between the US and UK governments to fix the intelligence in order to support the attack on Iraq, or the story of US and UK complicity in Uzbekistan torture.)
  • They can immediately correct the record when there are attempts by interested parties to mislead the public about important facts and the mainstream media does not act (example: NSA wiretapping, who benefited from the Jack Abramoff payoffs, the war on Christmas)
  • Can clarify complicated issues like the Valerie Plame leak.
  • It can be a rich source of material for future historians. In the past, people wrote a lot of long letters to each other and historian have used these to get an idea of what people really thought, as opposed to what they formally published. Such voluminous letter writing is rare now, but blogs probably will give historians a good idea of how ideas germinate and propagate.

But there are other benefits as well. It enables many more people to resurrect an older model of news and commentary, that of political pamphleteers and political newsletters like the one created by iconic journalist I. F. (Izzy) Stone. Victor Navasky writes that although Stone

“never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world. His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

“But Izzy also got and made news by reading the dailies, the wire services and such, and then following up where others had not thought to tread. He once told David Halberstam that the Washington Post was an exciting paper to read “because you never know on what page you would find a page-one story.”

Most modern day newspapers and journalists don’t do that kind of close reading of documents, focusing instead on reporting on what people say at news conferences. Perhaps they lack the resources or it isn’t glamorous enough for them to do this kind of painstaking work. It requires a certain kind of passion and attention to detail to do that and bloggers are the people who are filling that niche, with individual bloggers specializing in their chosen areas of expertise. The internet enables such people to access an audience without going through all the hassle of printing and circulation, and we, the general public, can easily benefit from their research, quickly and efficiently.

For example, in its heyday, the weekly circulation of Stone’s newsletter IF Stone’s Weekly was 70,000. The top blogs, like daily Kos now get a half million visits a day! If I. F. Stone were alive today, I think he’d be the top-rated blogger too. It would have been a perfect fit for him.

This success of blogging has ruffled a lot of feathers in the mainstream media. As Glenn Greenwald comments:

The principal benefit from the emergence of the blogosphere is that it has opened up our political discourse to a much wider and more diverse group of participants. Previously, establishment journalists and their hand-picked commentators were the sole vehicle for the dissemination of political opinions. The only commentators and opinions which received any real attention were the ones which establishment journalists deemed worthy of attention. Those who were outside of the club of established journalists were ignored and unable to have their opinions heard.

All of that has changed with the blogosphere. The blogosphere is a hard-core and pure meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your pedigree is. You either produce persuasive arguments and do so with credibility, or you don’t. Whether someone has influence in the blogosphere has nothing to do with their institutionalized credentials and everything to do with the substance of what they produce. That is why even those who maintain their anonymity can be among the most popular, entertaining and influential voices. The blogosphere has exploded open the gates of influence which were previously guarded so jealously by the establishment journalists.

For precisely that reason, many establishment journalists have raging contempt for the blogosphere. It is a contempt grounded in the fallacy of credentialism and a pseudo-elitist belief that only the approved and admitted members of their little elite journalist club can be trusted to enlighten the masses. Many of them see blogs as a distasteful and anarchic sewer, where uncredentialed and irresponsible people who are totally unqualified to articulate opinions are running around spewing all sorts of uninformed trash. And these journalistic gate-keepers become especially angry when blogospheric criticism is directed towards other establishment journalists, who previously were immune from any real public accountability.

As I said on the TV show on the relationship of blogs to newspapers in the new media age, there will always be a place for traditional journalists who actually go out into the field and collect the primary information. Most bloggers cannot do that. Although an increasing number are attempting to do this kind of journalistic function, they lack the financial resources and official credentials that can get them in the door of official functions.

The people who are endangered are the columnists and the writers of op-ed opinion pieces. Because what blogs have revealed is that there are a very large number of articulate, literary, informed, clever, and sharp-witted writers out there who are worth seeking out, much better than the ones delivered to my doorstep every morning.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25’s Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

David Horowitz busted again

Most people are by now aware of David Horowitz’s publicity-seeking gimmicks, where he runs around the country trying to scare everyone with lurid tales of left wing academics gone wild, abusing their power by terrorizing conservative students. As long-time readers of this blog know, I became part of this story when I wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in the March 4, 2005 issue of Plain Dealer about one such tale that I looked into and could not substantiate. This story was picked up by Media Matters and went national, and Horowitz supporters (and he has some supporters who seem to verge on the fanatical that seem almost cult-like) posted nasty comments, even threatening legal action against me, which was rather funny. I think Horowitz’s supporters are hoping I’d be eaten by bears, the fate of the children who made mock of the Prophet Elisha.

(For those of you not familiar with the Elisha story, you can read it in the Bible in 2 Kings, Chapter 2, verses 23 and 24. Elisha was on his way somewhere when “there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.” You might think that merely being called “baldy” by little children is hardly something that would faze a prophet of god, but Elisha, showing the same kind of peevishness as Horowitz, gets mad, murderously so. “And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.” This act of horrific vengefulness against forty two little children for their childish insensitivity is attributed by the Bible to God, which should give pause (but won’t) to those who argue that the Bible is the source of all morality.)

As a result of my op-ed, the publication Inside Higher Ed investigated the charges I made and found that the facts of the story were far from what Horowitz had alleged. Horowitz acknowledged that he had not checked the facts of his story before making it public. For all the details of this somewhat bizarre episode, see my earlier posting The strange story of David Horowitz and the “Bush-as-war-criminal” essay.

You would think that after that episode, Horowitz would be careful to carefully check his stories in the future before going public. That would be the path taken by a prudent person. But you would be wrong. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed finds him being, if possible, even more cavalier with facts. (Thanks to commenter George for alerting me to this.)

On Tuesday, January 11, Horowitz testified at a Pennsylvania legislative committee in favor of his pet project, the so-called Academic Bill of Rights, and told another two stories of academic abuse. But as Inside Higher Ed editor Scott Jaschik writes:

David Horowitz, the conservative activist who has led the push for the hearings in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, admitted that he had no evidence to back up two of the stories he has told multiple times to back up his charges that political bias is rampant in higher education.

For example, Horowitz has said several times that a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University used a class session just before the 2004 election to show the Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, but he acknowledged Tuesday that he didn’t have any proof that this took place.

In a phone interview, Horowitz said that he had heard about the alleged incident from a legislative staffer and that there was no evidence to back up the claim.

The other example Horowitz was forced to back down on Tuesday is from the opposite end of the political spectrum. He has several times cited the example of a student in California who supports abortion rights and who said that he was punished with a low grade by a professor who opposed abortion. Asked about this example, Horowitz said that he had no evidence to back up the student’s claim.

In the interview, he said that he didn’t have the resources to look into all the complaints that he publicizes. “I can’t investigate every story,” he said.

Fair enough. None of us have the resources to investigate every story either. That is why one should only write and speak about the stories that one can investigate, or for which one has at least some documentation. Or, failing even that, to at the very least say that what you are saying is based on a rumor. Most people assume that people have some basis for whatever they say and one has to respect that trust and make it clear when one is merely guessing or passing along a rumor. What is inexcusable is to do what Horowitz did, and go round making wild charges and acting as if you have supporting evidence, all the while knowing that you do not have anything to back it up.

But Horowitz’s reasoning is so bizarre one has to really wonder as to the level of his contact with reality. Here’s his defense:

Horowitz noted that when he publicizes such stories, he does not print the names of the professors involved, and that he has stated many times that a professor involved in such an incident would be welcome to write a rebuttal that he would post on his Web site. “I have protected professors. I have not posted their names and pilloried them. My Web site is open to them,” he said.

So he publicizes stories of doubtful veracity about anonymous people and then expects those people to rebut them! And when no rebuttals appear, he assumes that the stories must be true?

That’s a great journalistic innovation. Let me try it: I have heard that there is a professor in Ohio who forced a student to kneel on the ground and hit his head on the floor repeatedly, at the same time singing the Beach Boys hit song “Good Vibrations.” Okay, the story is on my website. If I don’t get any rebuttals, I’ll assume that it is true and will thus have a terrific scoop. See how easy it is?

But Horowitz has one last defense, the one that is always resorted to by those caught in such embarrassing retractions: that although the stories may be fake, they represent “deep” or “essential” truths.

Even if these examples aren’t correct, [Horowitz] said, they represent the reality of academic life. “Is there anybody out there who will say that professors don’t attack Bush in biology classrooms?” he said.

This was also the defense adopted by James Frey whose life story in his memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed by the website The Smoking Gun to be to be filled with fabrications and falsehoods. In an interview with Larry King, Frey accepted that he had altered details of his life, but defended its “essential truth.”

It won’t work for Frey and it won’t work for Horowitz. If academic abuse is so rampant, then it should not be hard to find documented cases of it. You cannot make up stories, unless you are a writer of fiction and label it as such. To do so and claim it as reality is simply wrong.

Okay, all you Horowitz fans out there who prowl the internet seeking to defend your dear leader from people who question his veracity, it’s your turn. I have seriously dissed your leader again. Show your fealty to him. Let’s hear some more legal threats!

Or at least unleash the bears.

POST SCRIPT: Capote

I recently saw the film Capote and it was excellent. It was a fine portrayal of how author Truman Capote essentially sacrificed his soul in order to get the right ending for his groundbreaking “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood. It is a sobering reminder of what I read sometime ago, that writers will often be driven to sell even their grandmothers for the sake of their craft.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and the rest of the case were terrific. I have yet to see a performance by Hoffman that is not first-rate. Although he usually plays a supporting role in films, the first film I saw in which he had a major role was Flawless in which he plays a female impersonator lounge singer saving up for a sex-change operation who ends up having to give voice lessons to a hard-bitten, macho policeman played by Robert De Niro. There’s a film premise you are not likely to see every day. Although this film did not get much publicity, it is well worth seeing on video.

Philip Seymour Hoffman seems to be like John Cusack, having the ability to select scripts that are complex, interesting, and original.

The threat of terrorist attacks – 2

The recent release of an audiotape by Bin Laden offering a truce in the war may be used to kick off the election year season of ratcheting up the fear of terrorism.

In his message bin Laden points to attacks in other countries and promises a new attack on the US and explains the reason for not doing so earlier:

As for the delay in carrying out similar operations in America, this was not due to the failure to breach your security measures. Operations are in preparation, and you will see them on your own ground once the preparations are finished, God willing.

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The threat of terrorist attacks-1

I have posted in the past about how the current administration likes to keep the populace in a state of constant fear. Succeeding in that task, persuading them that each one of us is under imminent threat enables the administration to undertake the systematic dismantling of the hard-won rights and civil liberties that underly societies that are truly free. It also enables them to rally voters to their side. I argued that we should fight this fearmongering.

Some of you may have noticed, for example, that since the elections were over in November 2004, we have not seen any dramatic announcements of terrorist plots, changes in the color-coded alert system, etc. (Quick quiz: Do you know what the current color is? Do you even care?) But there will be congressional elections this year and I anticipate that there will be an increase in the reporting of vague threats against major cities as those campaigns get underway. The rising bellicosity about Iran seems to be the preamble.

I should emphasize that in making this assertion, I am not underestimating the threat of future terrorist attacks in the US and elsewhere. Sadly, I think that future terrorist attacks are not only highly likely, they are almost inevitable. The recent release of the bin Laden audiotape (more on this tomorrow) only confirms this pessimistic view. What I am arguing is that you cannot fight this kind of terrorism with bluster and attacks on countries like Iraq that, as needs constant repetition, had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and nothing to do with al-Quaeda.

Terrorists seek to frighten ordinary people. They do that by hitting ‘soft’ targets (places where people just congregate, without any special military or political or economic significance that warrant extra security) as dramatically as possible, so as to frighten people into thinking that they are not safe anywhere.

What complicates matters for anyone planning such a major attack and can deter them, just like for any ordinary criminal, is how to escape undetected after the act has been committed. It is this that largely restricts the options and opportunities for criminals to create a dramatic and deadly event.

But once a group has crossed a threshold and feels its grievances to be strong enough to be able to recruit people for suicide missions, and that soft targets of civilian populations are worthy targets, then the biggest deterrent against attacks is gone, and society is utterly vulnerable. Once people don’t mind, and even seek, dying for a cause, you have little defense against them and one’s safety options become highly limited.

This happened in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. Once the sense of grievance among the Tamils was high enough that the Tigers could recruit members for suicide missions, they were able to attack targets, even highly guarded ones, with impunity. They were able to kill high ranking politicians and military figures, even the Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, as well as high profile targets like the parliament, the Central Bank, and the main airport. And the Tigers were patient, another important weapon in their arsenal. As one can imagine, after all these attacks, there was a tight wall of security around the President of Sri Lanka. But the Tigers patiently planned and waited for years while one of their cadres established an innocent identity that enabled him to get close to President Premadasa and one day he exploded a device that killed him and the President, among others.

It strikes me that what is going on with al-Quaeda is similar. The sense of grievance among their members is huge enough that they seem to have no trouble recruiting people for suicide missions. This is especially so since they have the added incentive (that the Tigers do not use) of claiming that god is on their side and approves of their actions. The US attack on Iraq also seems to have become one of their best recruiting messages, enabling them to convince their followers that the US has evil designs on the entire Middle East and the Muslim world and its resources. They seem to be also very patient. And they are not hesitant to attack ‘soft’ targets if need be.

If I think that an attack is almost inevitable, why am I saying we should not live in a state of fear? Because the threat is random, and should be placed in the context of other random threats and we should respond accordingly. For example, I know with certainty that large numbers of people will die in car crashes this next year, many of them due to no fault of their own. It will be just a random event. I know with certainty that many people will die in other kinds of accidents or be murdered. Many people will die due to hurricanes and earthquakes. And again it will be due to no fault of their own. Another random event.

Any one of those people who die in such random events could be me. In fact, the probability that I will die due to one of these causes is much greater than that due to a terrorist attack. And they will all be random. So why should I live in fear of a terrorist attack more than these other things? It does not make any rational sense.

The administration argument that we should be willing to give up all rule of law and to effectively declare Presidential actions to be above the law is going to be successful in the court of public opinion only insofar as we are driven to a state of almost panic-like fear about death by terrorism. It may be true that by creating an almost police-like state where anyone can be arrested, detained indefinitely, tortured, and even killed without recourse to law we might marginally improve the chances of avoiding a terrorist attack. Is that a deal we want to make? At least shouldn’t we have a say in whether such a deal is made?

All of us make trade-offs involving risks, costs, and benefits. For example, we are told that eating certain foods, avoiding others, getting lots of exercise, stopping smoking, and doing a whole host of other things may increase our lifespans. But there is no guarantee. We are instead talking about very small changes in probabilities and we all decide which ones are worth doing and which ones are too onerous and take the fun out of life.

Extra safety can almost always be obtained, but often at an extreme price. How much are we willing to pay? Some people (Jonah Goldberg and his ilk come to mind) are willing to let other people pay the high price to increase their sense of safety, but I am assuming that most of us have not sunk to that level. (This cartoon by August J. Pollack captures the Goldberg mindset exactly. Pollack follows it up with a survey sent to Bush supporters asking them how far they are willing to go in their support for Bush.)

This does not mean that I think we can do nothing about terrorism. Tomorrow I will look at other options.

POST SCRIPT: Fighting bad science reporting with actual data

George Mason University’s STATS website is doing a valuable service. It is looking carefully at sensational science-related news stories and checking if the data actually match the claims of the reports.

See, for example, its 2005 Dubious Data Awards where they set “The Record Straight on the Year’s Biggest Science Reporting Flubs,” which include the meth drug scare, poison popcorn, and today’s teenagers supposedly alarming obsession with illicit drugs, alcohol, and sex.

Religion and respect

Last month I posted a tongue-in-cheek article about the “rapture letters”. Most readers found it amusing but I was gently upbraided by one who said that I was making fun of the deep and sincere beliefs of many people and not being respectful of them.

It is undoubtedly true that I was having fun at the expense of the believers in the rapture but that exchange with the commenter caused me to think about the relationship of religion and respect.

In some respects, all the major religions are in principle fundamentally disrespectful to those of other faiths. For example, most Christians and Jews and Muslims believe that there is some special benefit that accrues to them from their beliefs that is not available to members of other religions. This benefit may be in the form of entering heaven or being raptured or whatever. Such people may not go out of their way to publicize this special benefit but it is there nonetheless. Members of each religion believe that those with other beliefs are simply wrong.

Is such a view disrespectful of the faiths of other people? I believe it is. If I believe that god likes my religious group specially and is going to give us a big reward when we die, while sending members of other religious groups straight to hell or someplace equally unpleasant, that belief inherently disrespectful of the beliefs of others, even if I don’t explicitly and openly declare it.

Actually, it could be argued that the atheist approach is the most respectful to all because the future that the atheist envisages is exactly the same for everybody, atheist or otherwise. In the atheist framework, there is no preferred group at all. There is no advantage to being an atheist, except the intellectual peace of mind that comes with not having to worry about how to reconcile the workings of the natural world with existence of a supernatural deity.

I have often wondered why (say) some religious people are so touchy about anything that they see as disrespectful towards their religion. I remember in Sri Lanka there would be periodic uproars because some business in the West had adopted the image and name of the Buddha to market some product or service. There would be demonstrations and protests and marches. I could never see the point of it. If you are happy with your own religion, why do you care what other people say about it?

All this phony fuss about the so-called war on Christmas is another example of this. If I was a born-again Christian (or the equivalent in Judaism or Islam or any other theistic religion) and believed that when I die I was guaranteed to go to heaven or be raptured or the equivalent, then frankly I would feel pretty content and not care one whit what other people say or believe about my religion. After all, my own future is secure, and it is the people who are sneering at me that are sure of going to hell. One should feel sorry for them, rather than annoyed and angry.

Conversely, since I am an atheist, it does not bother me in the least if some people think that I am heading to eternal damnation. The effect on me is the same as if they say they believe in unicorns or the tooth fairy. I would have the same lack of reaction if people should mock atheism.

While writing the last sentence, I tried to think of a concrete example of what someone might say to mock atheism, and failed. I realized that it is hard to actually mock atheism since it does not have a belief structure that can be parodied or ridiculed. It is simply the absence of belief in a god. One can reject it, but it is hard to ridicule it.

POST SCRIPT: Appearing on TV tonight (See update below)

UPDATE: At the taping today, I was told that the broadcast of this show would be at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29.

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on TV tonight (Friday, January 20, 2006). It will be at 8:30pm on WVIZ channel 25’s Feagler and friends. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton will also be on the program.

The taping is this afternoon and I am assuming that the show will be broadcast tonight and not next week.

Morality exists independently of, and prior to, religion

There were some very thoughtful and lively comments to yesterday’s post on the topic Should atheists come out of the closet?

It was suggested that one of the other reasons that atheists might feel uncomfortable about revealing their point of view is because of the common perception that morality is derived from religion and that to say one is an atheist is to run the risk of being thought to have no moral standards and be capable of any atrocity.
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