Foreign news and foreign correspondents

In July 1983, I lived through a major upheaval in Sri Lanka where rampaging mobs raged through the streets looking for the homes and businesses and members of the minority Tamil community, killing and destroying everything in their path, with the government and the police just standing by doing little or nothing. There was strong speculation that the government had actually instigated and guided the events to serve their own political agenda, but since the government itself was doing the subsequent investigation, one should not be surprised that nothing came of it.
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Scientists’ Achilles heel

I was reading an article the other day about how, during the World War II, the US government assembled a team of anthropologists to investigate whether there were any fundamental differences between the Japanese “race” and white people which could be exploited to wage biological warfare that would harm them only.

The anthropologists found no differences and that particular war plan was abandoned. This is consistent with our modern scientific consensus that “race” has no biological markers and only makes sense as a social and cultural construct.

But the interesting point is that the anthropologists were told to not consider the ethical implications of their work, and that ethical issues would be taken into account by others when decisions on implementing the biological weapons were made. And presumably, the anthropologists went along with that.

This is the Achilles heel of science, the fact that so much of our work can be easily twisted to serve ends that we might not approve of. And yet we do it anyway. The allure of science is such that it draws in people to work on problems that could, with a few slight modifications, be used to harm innocent people.

Physicists are perhaps the most culpable. After all, we have been responsible for the invention and development of atomic weapons that, in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulted in the deaths of a quarter of a million people. And when one counts the deaths from ore conventional weapons that physicists have helped bring into being, the numbers run probably into the tens, if not hundreds, of millions.

(Some physicists have refused to go along with this. Physics Professor Charles Schwartz at the University of California, Berkeley felt that university federal-funded science (especially physics) was so closely tied to the Pentagon that he refused to ask for grants and started to advise physics students on how to avoid getting sucked into making the Faustian bargain with the military machine. This seriously hampered his career but he stuck to it.)

How can physicists do our research and still sleep at night, knowing the purposes for which it might be used? I think we do the same thing that the anthropologists did. We avoid thinking about the ethics of our actions and hope that others will take ethics into account in due course at the appropriate time. We hope that policy makers will not take advantage of the science we develop for evil purposes, although time and again that hope has proven to be ill-founded. Or we persuade ourselves that while we may be doing something evil, we do it in the cause of preventing an even greater evil. Or we say that on balance science does more good than evil and has saved millions of lives in other ways. (A few of us may actually believe that developing weapons is a good thing and suffer no angst at all.)

All these things are true and they do provide some consolation. But they never quite wash away all the blood on our hands and I think that we physicists justifiably bear a burden of guilt that academics in other disciplines such as (say) history or English or music do not.

In his memoir A Mathematician’s Apology, written in 1940, G. H. Hardy takes pride in working on pure mathematics because he felt that it was “useless.” By this, he did not mean that it was of no value (he loved the beauty of the subject) but that he felt that, unlike applied mathematics, his field could not be used for evil purposes, that it had no applications at all to the outside world. But time has proved him wrong, and mathematics results that might have been considered too esoteric to have any real usefulness then are now being used in all areas.

It is probably safe to say that there is no area of science or mathematics that is immune from potential misuse. Apart from avoiding science altogether, perhaps our only option is to simultaneously work to prevent governments from using our work for destructive purposes.


The Knight Ridder newspapers say that President Bush has endorsed the teaching of “Intelligent Design” in schools. This should not be too much of a surprise. He has been saying similar things in the past.

Harry Potter, Karl Rove, and the allure of puzzles (safe to read – no spoilers!)

Those of you who have followed the series know that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the penultimate book. There are clearly many ways in which the saga can proceed to its conclusion and there are heated discussions as to the various ways that the story could end. I myself have had a series of discussions with people where we compared our various predictions of where the stories would go. The people I was arguing with had carefully read all the books and had noted all kinds of details, which they insisted were hints at the author’s intention. Since I am told that J. K. Rowling had mapped out the entire plot line in advance, these hints had to be taken seriously.
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Harry Potter’s school life and mine (safe to read – no spoilers!)

One of the appealing things for me personally about the Potter books are the similarities with my own education, which results in waves of nostalgia sweeping over me as I read the stories. I went to a single-sex private school in Sri Lanka that was modeled on the British boarding school like Hogwarts, although about half the students (including me) commuted from home. We were called ‘day-scholars’ which, looking back now, seems like a quaint but dignified label when compared to the more accurate ‘commuters.’
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Harry Potter’s school life (safe to read – no spoilers!)

I just finished reading the latest episode of the Harry Potter saga. I cannot claim to be a rabid fan since I have read only book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) and book 6 (Half-Blood Prince), although I have seen all three film versions, but they have all been enjoyable.

Reading these books reminds me of my own school days and of much of the British schoolboy literature I read as a child, especially the Billy Bunter series and the Tom Merry series, both written by the same author Frank Richards. (These books were produced at such a prodigious rate that there were suspicions that ‘Frank Richards’ was the pseudonym of a whole stable of authors just churning out the stuff.)

There was a rigid formula to these books, the main features of which the Potter series largely adheres to. The schools were all boarding schools, and the stories started with students arriving at the beginning of the academic year and having various adventures that fortuitously ended just at the end of the school year. (There was a complementary series of children’s books by Enid Blyton which took place during the summer, with a group of friends arriving at their home town from various boarding schools, and having an adventure that ended just in time for them to go their separate ways the next academic year.)

The big difference between Harry Potter and the earlier Billy Bunter and Tom Merry series is that although the context of a British boarding school is the same, the Potter books are far better written, with complex plots and characters developed realistically, dealing with important issues of good and evil, and real human emotions. The books I read as a child had stereotypical characters (the smart student, the bully, the figure of fun, the lisping aristocrat, the athlete, the sarcastic one, etc.) who all behaved in highly predictable ways. Those characters were two-dimensional and never changed, never grew or matured. This was reassuring in some ways because you knew exactly what you were getting with the books, but you cannot enjoy them as an adult the way you can with Potter.

The earlier books and schools were also single sex and we young boys only read the books about boys’ schools, while girls only read equivalent books dealing with girls’ boarding schools. The only members of the opposite sex that appeared in the books were siblings who made cameo appearances. For all we knew, the books written for the boys may have been identical to those written for the girls with just the genders (and sports) of the characters switched, such was the rigid separation between what boys and girls read when we were growing up. There was no romance whatsoever in any of the story lines. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is co-ed, a major difference.

Another similarity between Potter and the earlier books is that the educational practices in all the schools are pretty conventional. The classes are run in an authoritarian way. As someone pointed out, Hogwarts seems a lot like a trade school, with students learning very specific skills involving potions, hexes, and the like, mostly by rote memory and repetitive practice, similar to the way the earlier books had students learning Latin and Greek. There does not really seem to be a theory of magic or even any interest in developing one. Some magic works, others don’t, with no serious attempts to discover why. There is little or no questioning of the teachers or class discussions, or inquiry-oriented teaching.

Rowling is mining a very rich vein of British school literature. As we will see in the next posting, the world she creates is probably very familiar to anyone (like me) who grew up in an English-language school anywhere in the British colonies. What she has done is added magic (and good writing) to a tried and true formula. But since that tradition of boarding school-based fiction is not present in the US, it is interesting that she has managed to strike such a chord in readers here as well.


An anonymous commenter to an earlier post gave a very useful link to the various shades of meaning attached to atheism and definitions of atheism and agnosticism.

How governments lie

I am sure all the readers of this blog would be aware of the shooting of an innocent Brazilian electrician by British police in the wake of the second attempt at bombing the British underground.

The question of how police should deal appropriately with fast moving events is a complex one and is beyond the scope of this posting. But this incident does provide a good example of how governments use the media to get their version of events into the public consciousness first, knowing that this is what most people remember.
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Agnostic or atheist?

I am sure that some of you have noticed that you get a more negative response to saying you are an atheist than to saying that you are an agnostic. For example, in a comment to a previous posting, Erin spoke about finding it “weird that atheism is so counter-culture. Looking back at my youth, announcing your non-belief in God was a surefire shock tactic.” But while I have noticed that people are shocked when someone says that he/she is an atheist, they are a lot more comfortable with you saying that you are an agnostic. As a result some people might call themselves agnostics just to avoid the raised eyebrows that come with being seen as an atheist, lending support to the snide comment that “an agnostic is a cowardly atheist.”

I have often wondered why agnosticism produces such a milder reaction. Partly the answer is public perceptions. Atheism, at least in the US, is associated with people who very visibly and publicly challenge the role of god in the public sphere. When Michael Newdow challenged the legality of the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that his daughter had to say in school, the media focused on his atheism as the driving force, though there are religious people who also do not like this kind of encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

In former times, atheism was identified with the flamboyant and abrasive Madalyn Murray O’Hair whose legal action led in 1963 to the US Supreme Court voting 8-1 to ban “‘coercive’ public prayer and Bible-reading at public schools.” (In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as the most hated woman in America.) I discussed earlier that the current so-called intelligent design (ID) movement in its “Wedge” document sees this action as the beginning of the moral decline of America and is trying to reverse that course by using ID as a wedge to infiltrate god back into the public schools. Since O’Hair also founded the organization American Atheists, some people speculate that the negative views that Americans have of atheism is because of the movement’s close identification with her.

I think that it may also be that religious people view atheism as a direct challenge to their beliefs, since they think atheism means that you believe that there definitely is no god and that hence they must be wrong. Whereas they think agnostics keep an open mind about the possible existence of god, so you are accepting that they might be right.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is a bit ambiguous. For example, if we go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

Atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

Agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable. I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative. It is like claiming that there is no such thing as an extra-terrestrial being. How can one know such a thing for sure?

The definition of agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to me to be too soft, as if it grants the existence of god in some form, but says we cannot know anything about she/he/it.

To me the statement that makes a good starting point is the phrase attributed to the scientist-mathematician Laplace in a possibly apocryphal story. When he presented his book called the System of the World, Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

If you hold an expanded Laplacian view that you have no need for a god to provide meaning or explanations and that the existence of god is so implausible as to be not worth considering as a possibility, what label can be put on you, assuming that a label is necessary? It seems like this position puts people somewhere between the Oxford Dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic. But until we have a new word, I think that the word atheist is closer than agnostic and we will have to live with the surprise and dismay that it provokes.

Simplifying difficult texts – 2

To illustrate the problems of simplifying original texts, we can look at examples from Shakespeare and the Bible. I came across a site that seeks to make Shakespeare’s plays easier to understand by re-writing them:

Here is the original text from HAMLET Act III, Scene i, lines 57-91

To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Here is the simplified text:

The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?


Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all.

Do the two passages have the same meaning? They convey different senses to me.
Or take the famous passage from Ecclesiastes 9:11 of the Bible. Here is the familiar King James Version:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

And here is the simplified modern language of the New Living Translation:

I have observed something else in this world of ours. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise are often poor, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being at the right place at the right time.

Again, does the simplified passage capture the meaning of the original?

I am not criticizing the quality of the simplifications, although there may be better ones around. If you asked me what Shakespeare’s passages mean, I probably would have come out with a more confused meaning than what was given above. But the point is that it is in the process of struggling to understand the author’s original meaning that we make individual sense of the passage. I think that the best we can hope for is a shared consensus of the meaning, and we can never hope to exactly enter into the author’s mind.

This problem is always present when the US Supreme Court tries to rule on the constitutionality of present day issues using a document written over two hundred years ago. People who call themselves “strict constructionists” say that the constitution should be interpreted according to the text and the intent of the frames. But how can you glean intent? The text of the document, by itself, is not sufficient, because words can never capture exact meanings. Literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish has an interesting article that is worth reading. In it he says:

It follows that any conclusion you reach about the intention behind a text can always be challenged by someone else who marshals different evidence for an alternative intention. Thus interpretations of the Constitution, no matter how well established or long settled, are inherently susceptible to correction and can always (but not inevitably) be upset by new arguments persuasively made in the right venues by skilled advocates.

This does not mean, however, that interpreting the Constitution is a free-form activity in which anything goes. The activism that cannot be eliminated from interpretation is not an activism without constraint. It is constrained by the knowledge of what its object is – the specifying of authorial intention. An activism that abandons that constraint and just works the text over until it yields a meaning chosen in advance is not a form of interpretation at all, but a form of rewriting.

This is why I am so much a fan of collaborative learning and discussions to tease out meaning. I think you get more out of having a group of people reading the original, (difficult) text, and then arguing about what it means, than by reading a simplified text alone, however ‘clear’ the latter might be.

Here is a Zen koan:

Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water vase on the ground, he asked: “Who can say what this is without calling its name?”
The chief monk said: “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”
Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the vase with his foot and went out.
Hyakujo smiled and said: “The chief monk loses.” And Isan became the master of the new monastery.

What is the message this koan is trying to convey? The words are simple but the ideas are deep and captured succinctly. I think that it illustrates the point I am making here and I can try and tell you what it means to me, using a lot more words than in the original. But what does it mean to you?

Simplifying difficult texts

Some time ago, Aaron Shaffer in his blog expressed his disappointment with the texts he was reading in his philosophy class, particularly the fact that the writers seemed to not take the trouble to be concise, with individual sentences running as long as paragraphs. He felt that this poor writing diminished them in his eyes, since the ability to express one’s ideas briefly and concisely demonstrates intellect.

I have been thinking about his comment for some time. I too, on occasion, try to read some philosophy and tend to find it heavy going. The somewhat dense and obscure style of some branches of the arts and humanities (especially the post-modernist philosophers and the area known as cultural studies) led to a notable hoax being pulled by physicist Alan Sokal, who deliberately wrote a paper whose conscious meaninglessness was disguised using dense language and the jargon common to the field of cultural studies. His article Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity was published in the journal Social Text on the same day he wrote a newspaper article exposing his hoax. (I will write about the Sokal hoax in a later posting. As is usually the case, the issue was more complicated than it might first appear, and raises serious ethical issues.)

Of course, physicists are not in a good position to throw stones at philosophers because it has long been the case that physics papers have stopped being intelligible to anyone other than those in the same sub-sub-field. But the reason for this is that scientists long ago made the transition from writing for the general public in the form of books, to writing for fellow scientists, using the form of the short paper. Once the link to the public was broken, there was no necessity to try to make oneself intelligible since other scientists know your jargon. Some argue that scientists have carried this too far, which is why the public generally has such a poor idea of what scientists actually do.

But philosophers are still, by and large, writing for a general audience, so why is their writing so hard to understand? Part of the answer is that philosophers are dealing with a difficult subject, very abstract, and this requires very skilful writing to make clear to the non-specialist. Bertrand Russell was pretty good at this but he was an exception.

Some people have tried to tackle this problem by rewriting philosophical works to make them easier to understand. Some time ago, I received an email from a professor of philosophy about his project to simplify the works of philosophers by rewriting them, to remove redundancies, simplify language, etc. But this raises the issue: Can you rewrite someone else’s work without introducing distortions?

If we look at the path that ideas take, we can start with an idea in an author’s brain. The author’s meaning is translated into words, then the words are read by the reader and their meaning recreated in the reader’s brain. Ideally we would like the process:

author’s meaning —> written words —> reader’s meaning

to occur with no loss of precision. I think that this ideal cannot be attained because it is intrinsically impossible for words to exactly capture ideas. At best they come close and make a good approximation. The reason that an author may think he/she has expressed an idea exactly is because of the implicit meanings we individually assign to words, in addition to the explicit and agreed upon meanings that we all share.

The reader also uses implicit meanings of words in reconstructing the ideas but there is no guarantee that the reader’s implicit meanings are the same as that of the writer’s. Hence we end up with distortions. The author, if conscientious, tries to find the words and phrases that minimizes the amount of implicit meaning and best captures the idea, but this cannot be done with 100% accuracy. The more you try to replace implicit meanings with words, the wordier the writing gets.

So when someone tries to “clarify” the ideas of another author, that introduces a third filter of implicit meanings, and possibly greater distortions. This does not mean that it is not a worthwhile exercise. A good translator might be able to infer the original meaning of the author better than the novice reader can, and render those ideas in a form that makes it easier for the novice reader to understand. But there will always be some element of ambiguity that is intrinsic to the original work. And there is always the danger that the “simplified” work introduces new ideas that the original author did not intend.

In some areas, revisionist writings completely replace the original. For example, in teaching science, we almost never use the original papers of (say) Newton and Einstein. We use textbooks instead that explain the ideas originated by them. The difference for this may be that in modern science, the community works with consensus meanings. The original idea is usually elaborated on and expanded by many others before it becomes the paradigm which the community accepts. This paradigm then represents a kind of consensus scientific view of the field and people can set about trying to present the ideas in a simplified form, suitable for novices, which is how textbooks originate. We just give a nod to the originator of the idea but the idea has ceased to be his or hers alone. When we talk of “Newton’s theory” or “Einstein’s theory”, what we are referring to is not usually exactly what those people may have intended.

But in other areas (such as philosophy) there is no consensus paradigm to the field so there is no consensus belief structure. Hence we keep going back to the original sources, trying to tease out what the author intended. So while in physics, we never refer to someone using quantum mechanics as an “Einsteinian” or “Bohrian” (two people who had competing interpretations of quantum mechanics) but simply refer to the current consensus view, in other fields such as philosophy it is quite common to refer to someone as a “Kantian” or a “Lockian”, and this implies adherence to that person’s original views.

I’ll write more about this tomorrow.

Will the real Americans please stand up?

Once in a while, the media decides to find out what the “real” America thinks about some major issue that is consuming the national media.

I can immediately predict what they will do. They will send a reporter out to somewhere in the mid-west, say Ohio or Iowa or Nebraska, and that reporter will go to a small town or rural area, and interview some people there. And typically, the person interviewed will be white, middle-aged, middle-class, religious and church-going, and having a conventional occupation (teacher, home-maker, small businessperson).

These are supposed to be the “real” Americans, who represent the true values of the country.
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