Sunday, February 29, 2004

Technology and The Stars, My Destination:
An Eschatological Conjecture


I.
Technological advances have, of course, increased the destructive power of weapons. C-4 is more powerful than dynamite, fission bombs are more powerful than chemical explosives, fusion bombs are more powerful still. We aren’t really sure where biological weapons rank in this hierarchy of destructiveness, though with the advent of recombinant DNA technology it will probably become possible to create far more powerful biological weapons. It isn’t yet clear how much destructive potential nanotechnology might hold. And it is, of course, almost certain that there are destructive technologies we haven’t even thought of yet.

Until the end of the Cold War, the biggest danger seemed to be that of advanced nations developing and accumulating ever larger numbers of increasingly destructive weapons, including an unimaginable superabundance of nuclear weapons (The U.S. has the ability to destroy humanity about eighteen times over; Russia can do so about 30 times).

But there are two aspects of technological progress. First, the cutting edge is pushed farther and farther out, thus putting increasingly advanced, increasingly science-fiction-esque technology in the hands of the world’s most powerful governments. But, second, increasingly powerful technology trickles down, becoming more and more well-understood, mundane, and easily available to smaller and less technologically sophisticated groups and individuals. Even the most advanced government in the world could not have produced plastic explosives in 1885. Now they can be easily made by anyone with a gallon of bleach and an internet connection.

Presumably both of these trends will continue (though technological trickle-down will continue whether or not the cutting edge is pushed farther out). As the technologies become more complex, the pace of the trickle-down may slow, so that the time lag between the time a technology is acquired by the most advanced government and the time it is acquirable by sub-national groups and individuals will lengthen. Or maybe not. Some technologies involve bottlenecks that sub-national groups cannot easily squeeze through. Making nuclear weapons, for example, requires mining and refining uranium, which is a far cry from bleach and a hotplate. But some technologies are, as we might say, more information-based, involving fewer bottle-necks of this kind. The technology it takes to produce, say, antibiotic-resistant infections or crop-destroying diseases may be far easier for individuals and small groups to acquire and master. (And, of course, we haven’t even been discussing the possibility of such groups simply stealing some of the relevant technology.)

If these reflections are close to the mark, here is our conclusion: smaller and smaller groups are likely to acquire more and more destructive technologies in the future. The world will continue to produce its Stalins and Hitlers, of course. But it will also produce its bin Ladens and al Qaedas, its Charles Taylors, Aum Shinrikyos, Aryan Brotherhoods, and Timothy McVeighs. And in the future, not only the rogue nations but also the smaller groups and individuals will have far more destructive technology at their disposal.

II.
But smaller groups are more likely to be less deterable than nations, and more likely to have insane leaders and irrational agendas. Whereas even Stalin was held in check by the threat of retaliation, Shoko Asahara, for example, would not be. Neither would any number of other lunatics if they were given the power to unleash devastation on the world. Think about it this way: if making something as destructive as smallpox were to become as easy as making gunpowder or ricin, that would be the end of humanity. And the end would, I imagine, come in months not years. Certainly not decades or centuries.

III.
When I was a kid I devoured science fiction novels. The worst I ever read, by my youthful lights, was Alfred Bester’s The Stars, My Destination. (I’ve recently discovered that some people think very highly of the book; I don’t know what I’d think of it as a titular adult.) But one thing that stuck with me from the book—it was actually a novella as I recall—was a scene at the end of the book in which the protagonist teleports around the world distributing to all major cities hunks of a kind of super-explosive, more powerful than an H-bomb and ignited by mere thought. That is, if a single person in the entire world simply thought ‘I want that stuff to go off,’ it would. This omnicidal action was undertaken, as I recall, not because the protagonist wanted to destroy the world, but, rather, because he wanted to force the human race to mature or evolve. Empowering everyone with the ability to destroy everything was supposed to make the human race grow up. Even as a kid I didn’t think this idea plausible enough even for a science fiction book. Well, I thought, that would be the end of everything. And that’s what I still think.

But what I have been arguing, in essence, is that we are moving toward a The Stars, My Destination scenario, and that we will continue to move inevitably in that direction until it is—if nothing else has been by that time—the end of us. The human race has survived thus far because the weapons sufficient to destroy it have been too complicated for certain of its members to acquire. But as technology advances and trickles down, this may very well be changing. And how many days (or hours or minutes?) would we survive if everyone in effect had his finger on the button?

IV.
I hope it is clear that I’m not saying that I expect the The Stars My Destination scenario to be realized tomorrow or next year or in my lifetime. I know enough to know that I don't know enough to even speculate about a time frame. I’m just describing what we should expect to come to pass if current trends of a very general type persist. Presumably it goes without saying that I hope I'm wrong.



[Er, I hope it's clear that I don't mean that I really think there will be super-explosives controlled by thought...]

Friday, February 27, 2004

Justice for a Mass Murderer

via NGD via Pandagon, I learn that Shoko Asahara will actually get his just deserts. This increases my already considerable respect for Japan. The U.S. seems to execute so many people in such a haphazard fashion that it is apparently inevitable that we have killed and will continue to kill innocent people. On the other hand, many European nations apparently wouldn't even execute Hitler if he turned up. Between these two baffling extremes, Japan seems to get it approximately right. If there is no doubt that the accused is guilty and his crime is sufficiently heinous, then a proper respect for humanity demands the death penalty. Asahara richly deserves his fate.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Theocracy in America:
Judge Roy Moore, Shenandoah Valley Tour 2004


I.
On Friday night, February 6th, Judge Roy Moore spoke at JMU’s College Center. Now, I didn’t know about this, else I’d have probably managed to make it to Harrisonburg to hear the guy with my own ears. According to the school paper, The Breeze, 445 people listened to Moore speak, while 30-40 people protested outside. According to the extremely conservative local Daily News-Record, 520 people “packed” the “Grand Ballroom” of the College Center, “while a handful of protestors lingered outside.”

Here are some fascinating things Moore said, according to The Breeze:

> “The ACLU told us we can’t pray in school, can’t display religious symbols in public, can’t acknowledge God…”

> “I must acknowledge God, it says so in the Constitution of Alabama. It says so in the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

Also according to the Breeze, “throughout his speech, Moore urged the audience to acknowledge God as the State.”

I don’t know what the heck that means, but I don’t like it. Not one bit.

According to the DNR, Moore said:

> “It’s about the right to acknowledge God….Without acknowledging God, I cannot do my duty.”

> “paraphrasing Jefferson”: “God gives us rights, government’s job is to insure those rights and if government fails, it should be removed.”

> Allegedly paraphrasing Madison: “We are entitled to have a Constitution because of the laws of nature and nature’s God.”

One attendee asserted that “He [Moore] is the voice of our founding fathers.”

You may be interested to know that judge Moore is writing a book on God in public life, due out in the Fall. I’m sure it will be an enlightening and scholarly work, destined to take its place in the canon alongside Cicero and Voltaire.

II.
Let me end by saying that at least some of this conceptual cluster-fornication could have been avoided if not for some infelicitous phraseology and bad philosophy on the part of Mr. Jefferson—a great man and a great statesman, but not a philosopher of the first rank. Jefferson was apparently a natural law theorist, and natural law theory for all its proud history has an unfortunate association with one of the more disreputable of the moral theories, the divine command theory. Mr. Jefferson mistakenly asserts that “we are endowed by our creator” with rights. But rights, you see—fundamental rights, human rights (as opposed to, say, civil rights)—can be neither granted nor taken away. Not even by an omnipotent God, oddly enough. If people have such human rights at all, they have them intrinsically and necessarily. If people have such rights at all, then ‘Smith is a person but Smith has no rights’ is like ‘T is a triangle but T does not have three sides.’ And even God can no more make a person without rights than he can make a triangle without sides. Certain moral theories on the left as well as the right mistakenly entail that human rights can be granted and taken away. On the left, the grantor is usually the culture, on the right it is usually God. But neither of these positions has a snowball’s chance in Hell of working. In fact, Cultural Moral Relativism and the Divine Command Theory are, at root, the same kind of view, and they fail for the same kind of reason.

What is that reason? Well, that’s a long story for another day, a day when my neurons are not short-circuiting from sleep-deprivation.

For right now, I only have time for a conclusion and not the argument, though in this case the conclusion may be enough: Judge Moore may be about to put pressure on us to do something that it might have been better for us to do a long time ago: acknowledge that the moral theory hinted at in the Declaration of Independence is indefensible.

Friday, February 20, 2004

More on Right-Wing Lysenkoism

Among the many horrors of the Bush administration, perhaps the most alarming and irrational is their willingness to spin the evidence to give it the apprearance of conformity with their political commitments. These Lysenkoist tendencies seem to be getting a good bit of attention of late. Here's an interesting piece from The Nation by Robert Kennedy Jr. via lies.com. Far more importantly, here's the report "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking" by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report is signed by 19 winners of the National Medal of Science, 20 Nobel Laureates, and 3 winners of the Crafoord Prize. CalPundit also has a post on the subject here.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Don't Forget About the Other Crazies

About two weeks ago I started thinking that the right had finally gone too far, that we'd finally reached a tipping point. The Bush administration and the Republican leadership are just so unbelievably terrible that it's become rather hard for me to believe that they can win unless something really weird happens. Or the Democrats really screw up. (Note: that, of course, would not be an instance of something weird happening.) I mean you can only be so incompetent, irresponsible, and mendacious before even the American electorate starts to notice, right?

Now, I'm afraid that I may have given the impression on this blog that I'm a serious liberal in the contemporary sense of the term. I do consider myself a liberal, but lots of people don't consider me one. I own a firearm, for example, and think that most sane people should probably do likewise. I'm pretty hawkish about using military force to defend human rights. I'm torn about affirmative action. I'm in favor of the death penalty in principle, and in certain cases in practice. (E.g. I think that both Saddam and Milosevic deserve to die.) In many ways, I'm basically a libertarian who happens to have been born without an undying faith in the free market.

In other ways, I'm a neurotic centrist. So, as soon as I started thinking that our chances of getting rid of the evil Bush administration were pretty good, I started worrying about a leftist backlash. See, I have this pet theory that one thing that stoked the fires of the right wing during the '90's was the failure of liberals to speak out with sufficient force against the excesses of the crackpot left--located, dare I say, primarily in academia. And, in general, I think that liberals are more tolerant of left-wing crazies than they are of right-wing crazies. This might seem natural, since it might seem that liberals are doctrinally closer to left-wing crazies than they are to the right-wing variety. I've never thought that this was correct, however. The nuts of the left and of the right have always seemed equally distant, doctrinally speaking, from liberals to me. The more egregious examples of campus speech codes seem to me to be every bit as idiotic and alarming as efforts to put the Ten Commandments in courtrooms.

I mean, if you want to read about some nut cases--and I mean real, certifiable nut cases--nut cases that make even Rush Limbaugh seem sane by comparison--read Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education. And academic far lefties have said things to me that were so crazy they made Peggy Noonan sound like Kevin Phillips. I wish it weren't so, yet it is.

So, anyway, as soon as I start thinking that Bush may very well be toast, I start thinking about the possibility of a re-emergence of a prominent, nutty left. But then I thought...nah, I'm just being neurotic........and then, via Andrew Sullivan, a man who seems to be committed to bringing unhappiness into my life....THIS...

Yes, yes, it's only ten people. But it's not the only instance I've seen of late...I'm just too tired and lazy to link to others right now. Trust me. And no, I'm not freaking out about this. Yes, I realize that the dangers associated with wacky lefties in America pale in comparison to the dangers associated with BushCo... But that doesn't mean they're not kooky, and it just irritates the Hell out of me. And, don't forget my fascinatin' hypothesis: the real danger these folks pose is that they provide the right--which IS powerful and often dangerous--with a handy caricature of liberals.

Especially when liberals decline to call a kook a kook.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Does Any of This Stuff About Bush's National Guard Service Matter?

I've been messing around with an essay trying to answer the question 'does any of this stuff about Bush's National Guard service matter?' I think I can probably quit wrestling with it now. David Neiwert has done done a Hell of a job with the question over at Orcinus.

Oh, incidentally, the answer is 'yes.'

Rather, make that 'HELL YES'.
CalPundit on Bush's Military Records

Stop reading this blog right now and go read Kevin Drum's post on the hypothesis that the Bush military records were "scrubbed" (i.e., that potentially damaging information was removed from them).

At this point we can't say very many interesting things about these Bush-going-A.W.O.L.-related National Guard activities, but here are two things we can say:

1. None of the most serious charges against Bush have in any way been proven.

2. An objective assessment of the available evidence indicates that there is, prima facie, reasonably good evidence that something fishy went on at some point, either while Bush was in the Guard or afterward with regard to his records (that's an inclusive 'or', of course).

Nothing has been proven--that's the most important thing to emphasize here. But there is absolutely no doubt that there is sufficient evidence to warrant--in fact, to demand--further investigation.

Go read Kevin's post.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Have a Happy and Fatwa-Free VD
or
Why I Dislike the Saudi Government Even More Than I Dislike Valentine's Day


Dang, and I thought I disliked Valentine's Day...

But not compared to the Saudi Government. Check it out.

Hard to pick out a favorite 'graph from this story...it's an embarrassment of comedic riches. In fact, for a second I wondered whether I'd accidentally wandered over to Allah is in the House...

There's this gem, for example:

" 'A Muslim is prohibited from celebrating, approving or congratulating on this occasion,' said the ruling issued by the Fatwa Committee. Supporting others to celebrate the day such as buying or selling Valentine’s items, presenting gifts or making festival food falls in the category of approval."

Whoa, these guys are a barrel of laughs... Do you think they have a Committee For The Prevention of Gettin' Jiggy Wid It?

How about this one:

"The occasion seems trivial to youths in Qasim. 'I know it but I disdain it,' said a 23-year-old Ahmad Al-Mutairy. 'The Internet is full of such triviality. Only fools will fall into such traps,' he added."

If Ahmad really exists, he's apparently a Stepford Muslim...

Creepy as those are, though, I designate the following the most annoying passage:

“ 'You should also enlighten Saudi citizens on the danger of this custom, which is alien to our society, and make them aware of its negative effect,' Al-Madinah daily quoted the religious police chief as saying."

Ah, yes, the appeal to the sanctity of the society--meaning, basically, the customs a society already has. A textbook fallacy beloved by both the Back-to-the-Stone-Age Right and the Everything-Is-Relative-to-Social-Practices Left. This is the way we have always done it; ergo you are evil if you do it otherwise. As if mere repetition could ground moral obligation. We've been doing it in this stupid way a long time, so we'd better not stop now! What, have these guys been reading Bill Bennett or something?

So, screw those guys, and happy VD, even though I think it's a dopey-ass holiday. I'll take the goofy heart motifs manufactured by our Corporate Overlords to fill the holiday gap between Christmas and Easter over the decrees of the Fatwa Committee any day...

And we can take a bit of pride in the fact that, while the Fatwa Committee is keeping an eye on flower shops in Riyadh to make sure that no one is "approving or celebrating," over here, hundreds of same-sex couples are getting married in San Francisco. Check it out. At least until the American analogs of the Taliban get this little bit of progress squashed in the name of the sanctity of Having Done Things A Certain Way For A Long Time.

Oh, and I know what you're thinking, and no I'm not sitting around blogging bitterly about VD because I don't have a date. Rather, I've got one of those cool girlfriends who hates Valentine's Day, too. Heh heh. So there.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Bush's Newfound Obsession with NASCAR (Dads)

Er, this isn't the kind of thing I'd usually take the time to comment on...surely somebody else has noticed it, but I can't find anybody snarking about it...so: how about that Scott McClellan at this afternoon's press conference? He evaded every single question that was asked except for the one about NASCAR. He repeated the preposterous trope to the effect that Bush is too focused on policy to worry about the campaign a couple of times, but the only answer he responded to at length was the NASCAR one. Cripes, go listen to it. It's so ridiculous it creeped me out. If you were writing a novel about a bullshitting press secretary working for a bullshitter of a president, you couldn't include McClellan's comments, because they'd be too ridiculous. It's an homage to NASCAR and the proud tradition of NASCAR...and the noble drivers of NASCAR...they give back to the community 'n' stuff... And about how Bush is a NASCAR fan from...oh...WAY back... But then McClellan slips into talking about how many million NASCAR fans there are in the country, and it becomes patently obvious that that's the dog part right there, and the rest was just tail. President Rove--um, I meant BUSH, of course--is so focused on policy that he's now being made over into a NASCAR fan to capture the "NASCAR dad" vote.

Prediction: We'll see Bush reprise his role as Commander Codpiece, modified to go after the NASCAR dads. He'll emerge from the pace car at the Daytona 500 or somesuch, dressed up like a driver, helmet tucked under his arm...Budweiser and Viagra patches stuck all over him, couple of Coors Lights stuck down his drawers to caputure the NASCAR mom vote... To make it truly analogous to his last stunt, maybe he should do it in August and hang a banner behind him that says "Election Won!"

Too ridiculous, you say? Go listen to McClellan and then decide....

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Can Soliders Die in Vain in a War of Liberation?

(1)
In an earlier post I objected to a question Wolf Blitzer asked of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark last weekend on Late Edition. Specifically, when those candidates pointed out that Iraq posed no threat to the United States, Blitzer asked them whether that meant that they thought that American soldiers who died in the war had died in vain. Some people, including Ezra Klein, responded by arguing that they had not died in vain, since their efforts had freed the Iraqi people from oppression even if they had not made the U.S. safer. [oops. Turns out I misinterpreted Ezra (see comments section). My bad. Others made the same response though (see comments to first post.)] This is a plausible response. I didn’t discuss it in the earlier post since I thought that it was clear that the same kinds of considerations I discussed there applied to this response. Now I realize that’s not so obvious, so here I state the argument explicitly.

(2)
If our president tells us falsely that another country poses a threat to us and I believe him, go to war, and am killed in battle, then, although my intentions were good and my action was right, and although I acted in accordance with my duty, my death is pointless—it is a waste. It is not entirely clear what it means to say that a person has died in vain, but it seems to me that to die a senseless death of this kind would be to die in vain. If this is correct, then to say that a person has died in vain is not to draw a conclusion about that person’s moral status, it is to draw a conclusion about the efficacy of the efforts he was engaged in at the time of his death. A good person can die in vain—even while attempting to do the right thing—if he is, for example deceived into fighting for a futile cause.

(3)
But even if the threat to the U.S. was fictitious, the oppression of the Iraqi people was real. So there is a moral argument for the conclusion that our soldiers do not die in vain. Ezra’s argument is such an argument, and it’s an argument that I find plausible. However, considerations similar to those in (2) threaten the cogency of this argument. A war of liberation is just only if it has a reasonable chance of improving the lives of the people it aims to liberate. If we aimed to liberate an oppressed people knowing full well that they would all starve to death immediately after the war and we did not take reasonable steps to prevent this, then the war would not be just. But, more to the point--by reasoning parallel to our reasoning in (2)--any soldiers who died in such a war, no matter how heroic their actions, would have died to no effect. That is, they would have died in vain.

Is our war in Iraq such a war? It threatens to be. The administration did not plan adequately for the post-war period, and they seem to be intent on pulling our troops out of Iraq prematurely, apparently for political reasons. If Iraq descends into civil war, and if this is a foreseeable consequence of our actions, then it is likely that our invasion of Iraq will have been futile. If this turns out to be true, then one can make a plausible case that our soldiers have died in vain.

(4)
This is not a pleasant conclusion, and I take no satisfaction in drawing it. I direct your attention to this line of reasoning not simply in order to score points against the administration; in fact, I believe that many liberals have exacerbated the problem by putting pressure on the administration to withdraw from Iraq. Rather, I draw your attention to this argument in order to emphasize how profound is the decision to go to war, and how profound the consequences of doing so for ill-considered reasons. If we go to war unwisely, it is far more likely that we will do so to no good effect. And if we go to war to no good effect, it seems plausible that those who die in that war—Americans as well as non-Americans—die in vain.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The New Republican Fallacy Is Out!

Here it is, folks, the newest Republican fallacy. Atrios is sending readers to torture the Republicans again. But check out the wording of the poll:

"Do you find Sen. John Kerry's comments associating National Guard service with draft-dodging offensive?"

President Bush himself used this ploy on MTP last weekend. When Russert was asking him about the irregularities associated with his TANG service, Bush responded by saying (not an exact quote): Don't denegrate service in the guard.

But, of course, no one is denegrating service in the guard, and it's pathetic sophistry to suggest otherwise. Noting that Bush may have gone A.W.O.L. from his guard service is not "associating National Guard Service with draft-dodging," except in the sense of using the relevant terms in the same sentence. If we point out that he may have gone A.W.O.L. while stationed in Alabama are we thereby denegrating the state of Alabama or associating living in Alabama with draft-dodging?

This is despicable.

This ploy seems to transparent to succeed...but that's what the Dukakis campaign thought about Bush '41 campaigning in flag factories...

[HEY! Jeffrey Kramer's got a good objection to the above in the comments section. My bad--hadn't heard that Kerry quote. I thought Kramer was right at first, but then Dixie's response (just after his in the comment section) seemed right...oh...I dunno...I'm so confused... One thing's clear, though: that part isn't as clear as I thought it was when I wrote this. However, Bush's comment on MTP was clearly sophistical. Not that that gets me off the hook for the Kerry quote, though.]

Monday, February 09, 2004

Have Our Troops Died in Vain?
Or:
Do You Still Beat Your Campaign Manager?



Sunday on Late Edition, Wolf Blitzer interviewed both Howard Dean and Wesley Clark. Both candidates pointed out, as they are wont to do, that Iraq posed no significant threat to the United States before the war. And in both interviews, Blitzer asked the same alarmingly terrible question:

So, are you saying that our troops died in vain?

Both Dean and Clark handled the question fairly well, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the question is sophistical in the extreme and should never be asked in such a context. It isn’t a loaded question like ‘Do you still beat your spouse?’, but it’s every bit as confused and confusing.

Obviously the idea at the core of this question is this: if you think that we have initiated a war unwisely or unjustly, then you must think that any of our soldiers who died in that war died in vain. But apparently no one (no Democrat, at any rate) is allowed to say or think that any of our soldiers have ever died in vain. This would entail that no one is allowed to say or think that we have ever undertaken a war unjustly or unwisely. This may be the handiest way to stifle dissent since the Alien and Sedition Acts…

This is an absurdity of biblical proportions and an absurdity that could have real impact on our public dialog about war. You might think that the question is so transparently sophistical that no one could possibly be fooled by it; in which case let me remind you that no one has ever gone broke—or lost an election—by underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Furthermore, despite the shrill charges from both ends of the political spectrum, I just can’t detect any significant political bias in Wolf Blitzer, no matter how paranoically I attend to his reports and interviews. And by all indications, he asked this question sincerely, apparently thinking that it was fair and cogent. If he clearly understood what he was asking, then he is either evil or bucking for a spot on Fox News. (Needless to say: inclusive ‘or’.) But there’s significant evidence against both of those conclusions. So I conclude that Blitzer was fooled by the question, even though he presumably had time to think about it before asking it. So even reasonably intelligent people can be fooled by the question, even after giving it a bit of thought.

Although Clark and Dean both handled it fairly well, that doesn’t mean that we should underestimate the damage this specious question might do. Neither answer was excellent, because there was necessarily an element of evasion in each of them. If this question were asked at a crucial time (say, during a debate) and of an unprepared candidate, the results could be disastrous.

Clark’s response was the better of the two, though it wasn’t strictly speaking correct. The core of his reply was the claim that a soldier’s duty is to do what his country asks of him, and that a soldier who does his duty never dies in vain. But this isn’t clearly true. I assert that soldiers can die in vain even when following orders, if those orders are sufficiently unjust. For example, it seems clear enough that German soldiers in WWII died in vain. In fact, if to die in vain is merely to die to no good purpose, then the deaths of soldiers who are prosecuting an unjust war do not even rise to the level of vanity. These are deaths not merely to no good purpose, but to bad purpose. Presumably it goes without saying that my point is not that the current war is comparable to German agression in WWII; rather, the point is that soldiers can die in vain even while doing their duty.

Have our soldiers in Iraq died in vain? I suspect not, but I just don’t know. But if so, this is not the fault of Wesley Clark or Howard Dean or any other person who points out that this war was, for us, an elective war. If Americans have died in vain, then this is the fault of those who made the decision to go to war and not the fault of those who decry the decision and lament the futility of the resultant deaths. And if so, then the last things the press should be doing is helping to obfuscate the issues and vilify those who are speaking truth to power in an effort to prevent more such deaths.

But this answer or any reasonably complete answer to Blitzer’s question does not fit into a sound byte. And so a candidate who is confronted with the question must, it seems, employ at least a bit of evasion and hope for the best. No responsible journalist who understands the complexity of this question and its potential for mischief would ask it--at least not without explaining its complexity to his audience. But Democrats had better be ready to answer it, nevertheless.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Ten Short Arguments About Cyberbalkanization

I’ve got some interest in questions about civility in political discourse, especially on the internet, so I read with great interest a recent post by Jack Balkin of Balkinization concerning the alleged problem of “cyberbalkanization.” Below I quote some relevant passages from Balkin’s essay and comment on them. Balkin’s essay is sensible and I find myself inclined to agree with much, but not all, of what he writes. But without further ado:

[Passages tagged with numbers in square brackets are quotes from Balkin’s essay; my comments following each passage are numbered like so: [n/c] where ‘n’ is the number of the passage I’ve taken from Balkin.]

[1] “The development of the blogosphere mitigates, to a considerable degree, two key concerns about freedom of speech on the Internet. University of Chicago legal scholar Cass Sunstein made both of these points eloquently in his book Republic.com. The first concern was that the public sphere would become fragmented because there were so many speakers, no common sources that everyone was exposed to, and new filtering technologies allowed people to filter out the speech they did not like and only read the topics and opinions that interested them. The second concern was that people would become increasingly extreme in their views because there is no Internet equivalent to the fairness doctrine. Liberals would listen only to liberals, conservatives would listen only to conservatives, and the resulting ideological division would produce ideological polarization with increasingly extreme positions, further fracturing the public sphere and preventing democratic deliberation. For this reason, Sunstein at one point suggested requiring people with websites to include links to people with contrary views, or, if that posed constitutional difficulties (it would) at the least giving tax or other incentives for people to add links to others. Sunstein imagined a sort of Fairness Doctrine in Cyberspace. When it was pointed out that Cass didn't have any such links on his own site, he promptly placed a link to Richard Epstein and Catharine Mackinnon on his home page.

In hindsight, both of Sunstein's concerns about freedom of speech seem overstated and his proposed remedy seems not only ineffectual but beside the point because it misunderstood how the Internet differs from traditional mass media. The development of the blogosphere helps us see why this is so.”

[1/c] Two points:

First, I had never heard of Professor Sunstein or his book when I wrote posts on this subject. Which is not to say that the ideas were mine. They were all floating around in one form or another, and although I didn’t make that clear, that was because I took it for granted and thought that the ideas were fairly common and “in the air.” I certainly hope I didn’t suggest otherwise.

Second, let me just say that the idea of forcing people to include links on their sites strikes me as appalling. We’d have to be on the verge of cyber (or actual) civil war before I’d even consider anything like that.

[2] “Sunstein assumed that speakers on the Internet would in some respects be like radio and television broadcasters who could simply deny access to viewpoints they did not agree with. That is why he wanted to transpose the Fairness Doctrine into cyberspace. That is why he put links to Epstein and MacKinnon on his own website. He was working with the paradigm of broadcast television, a unidirectional non-interactive and non-participatory mass medium in which it is relatively easy to exclude speakers.”

[2/c] Good point, though it may be worth noting that it’s still easy to exclude speakers. One way is to edit your comments. Sure, it makes you a weenie, but some blogs do it. How many? I don’t know for sure (but there are quite a few weenies in the world…) I’d actually guess that few blogs edit comments. But—and here’s the first instance of the main point of this response—it’s an empirical question. Another way to balkanize is to form a community of commentors that is openly hostile to those who disagree with them. Some of us are not easily intimidated, especially by mere words, especially by mere words over the internet. But many people find such hostility so unpleasant that they shy away from such sites. This would have at least some effects of the relevant kind.

It seems like Balkin has got to be right about this part, though: blogs are almost always more permeable to opposing opinions than broadcast television. Is this enough to prevent balkanization? I don’t know. If I had to guess, I’d guess yes; but real data would be required to do anything other than guess about this issue.

[3] “But most bloggers who write about political subjects cannot avoid addressing (and, more importantly, linking to) arguments made by people with different views. The reason is that much of the blogosphere is devoted to criticizing what other people have to say. It's hard to argue with what the folks at National Review Online or Salon are saying unless you go read their articles, and, in writing a post about them, you will almost always either quote or link to the article, or both. Ditto for people who criticize Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, or Kos, or Atrios. If you don't like what Glenn said about Iraq, you quote a bit of his posting, link to it, and then make fun of him. These links are the most important way that people travel on the Web from one view to its opposite. (And linking also produces a good check on criticism because you can actually go and read what the person being criticized has said.).”

[3/c] True, but possibly irrelevant. When people worry about cyberbalkanization, I don’t think they are worrying that people will develop cyber-enclaves (e-nclaves?) in which they will be completely and totally shut off from people who disagree with them. Even Rush Limbaugh quotes his enemies. Yes, there’s lots of linking and quoting. Is this enough to prevent cyberbalkanization? Again, empirical question. Balkin’s points are important but, I believe, inconclusive. If we are really interested in this, we’ll have to collect some actual data.

But remember: I think that balkanization is a phenomenon of secondary importance. I’m primarily interested in the (potential) decay of public political discourse. Here Balkan notes that the primarily critical nature of blogospheric political discourse fights against balkanization. I have some doubts about that, but even if I didn’t I’d be worried that the primarily critical atmosphere of the blogosphere would do more discursive harm than good.

But again: at this point, we’re mostly guessing.

[4] “In addition, most bloggers have blogrolls which include a wide variety of different sources with very different ideological views. If you check my blogroll, you will see that it contains both lefties and righties, and among the righties, a fair dose of libertarians like my favorite freedom loving gang at the Volokh Conspiracy. Because I am a lefty, I probably have more lefties than righties on that blogroll, but what's important is not whether there's a perfectly proportional distribution but whether there's a substantial variety of different views. There is, and I would wager that my blogroll is not at all unusual in that respect. The customs of the blogosphere produce this pluralism.”

[4/c] I’d wager otherwise, but, again: empirical question. And I get the feeling that Balkan does not constitute a representative sample. Aside from the fact that he’s interested in this issue at all, he seems more reasonable than the average blogger to me.

Anyway: I have righties on my blogroll, too. But, to my great shame, I check those sites out far less than I check out the liberal sites. And I basically never check out sites on either extreme of the spectrum at all. That proves little, since without the web I’d pay little attention to the extremes anyway; so I doubt that the web makes that part worse. But, at any rate, I doubt that it’s true that “what’s really important…[is] whether there’s a substantial variety of different views” [on the blogroll]. What really matters is whether people are visiting the sites that express views they disagree with and staying around long enough to read anything. Or, rather: what really matters is whether they are getting more or less exposure to opposing viewpoints than they would get without the web (or than they would have gotten 20 years ago). Or, rather: what really matters is whether, despite their exposure to opposing opinions, people are becoming more ideologically balkanized because it's so easy for them to find communities of thought in which their opinions are confirmed without question.

[5] “The other fear often expressed is that Internet speech will become more extreme. There is a lot of extreme speech on the Internet. And there is a lot of personal invective, too. The Internet is not a debating society held in the Senior Common Room. It is often quite raucous and unpleasant. But the reason for this is *not* the group polarization mechanism Sunstein is concerned with-- the notion that people of different views aren't talking to each other so they gravitate to increasingly extreme positions. The reason why Internet speech is often sharp and unpleasant comes from the fact that people are talking to each other but are *distanced* from each other. It's very different saying something nasty to someone in a blog posting and saying the same thing to their face. (It's even easier to be nasty when one is anonymous, but even non-anonymous postings on the Internet give people greater license to vent than in-person interactions.).”

[5/c] This may be true. If so, then it is significant to the extent that we are primarily concerned with relatively more theoretical questions about balkanization. It is less significant to the extent that we are primarily interested in relatively more general and practical questions about the effects of the blogosphere on the civility of political discourse. Since I’m more interested in the latter question, it matters less to me whether it is the blogosphere’s impersonality or its (putative) balkanization that is more responsible for this lack of civility.

Which is not to say that the more theoretical question is of no interest, of course. For one thing, if anonymity is to blame, this may provide an argument (the only potentially cogent one I've encountered so far) against anonymous blogging. Andrew Sullivan raised (different) objections to anonymous blogging in his radio appearance with Atrios. Sullivan’s point was pretty clearly not a very well-thought-out one, and seemed to be primarily just a cheap shot at Atrios. But that doesn’t mean he might not be right about it; the point is at least worthy of some thought.

[6] “Even if Internet speech has its share of heated and unpleasant exchanges, the blogosphere has also shown, I think, that fears of group polarization produced by the Internet are overstated. It's important to distinguish distribution of viewpoints from polarization of viewpoints. The Internet allows for a much wider distribution of ideas to be expressed than in the traditional unidirectional mass media, but that is not the same as increasing group polarization. Indeed, wider distribution along multiple dimensions is the opposite of polarization, which is an increasingly tight bimodal distribution along a single dimension.”

[6/c] True and interesting points. But like many true and interesting points, these don’t show us that the alleged problem isn’t a problem, they allow us to understand the alleged problem more clearly. What Balkan shows here is that the terms ‘polarized’ and ‘balkanized’ suggest different phenomena in the context at hand and taken relatively more literally. (Both terms are being used at least somewhat metaphorically in this context, though.) We become polarized when we separate into two groups and move apart along one dimension. I suppose we become balkanized when we cluster in to enclaves, and there is a strong suggestion that the enclaves communicate little, and are at least somewhat hostile toward each other. But, again, if we are worried about detrimental effects on discourse, we can’t be comforted much by being told “don’t worry, we’re not getting polarized—we’re getting balkanized!” Separating ourselves off into ideologically cleansed cyber enclaves might not be as bad as becoming polarized (though it might, for all I know, be worse), but I don’t think it would be good. Again, we don’t know that it’s happening, but we don’t know that it isn’t, either.

[7] “We should also distinguish extremism among relatively small groups (like neo-Nazis) from society-wide group polarization. The Internet does allow like-minded people with extreme views to find each other. But that is not the same thing as group polarization in the Internet as a whole.”

[7/c] Good point.

[8] “If the concern is that *a small group of people* with extreme views will be able to meet others of similar views on the Internet and that their views will become even more extreme in the process, that may well occur. In that case, however, what you are really worried about is that people with extreme views might find each other in the first place and recruit other impressionable people, and preventing *that*, I would submit, is a blatantly unconstitutional goal.”

[8/c] True, but not relevant. Nobody should even be considering taking away any non-convict’s freedom of association. But that doesn’t mean that the internet isn’t making it easier for kooks to flock together, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about it. There are almost certainly certain kinds of kooks that are relatively harmless in ones and twos, and that are rare enough that, without the internet, they’d never come together in dangerous numbers. But in the internet age, these previously harmless kooks can come together and become dangerous. Perhaps very dangerous, perhaps not. We don’t know. But it might be worth thinking about the possibility and keeping our eyes (and minds) open. The printing press probably had a similar effect, though, so none of this means that the sky is falling.

[9] “If the concern, on the other hand, is that *society as a whole* will become more polarized as a result of Internet speech, I think the fears are greatly overstated. The blogosphere continually provides a check on people's more extreme claims. It continually throws people together who have clashing views. Its architecture allows a wide dispersion of views to contend, a phenomenon which should not be confused either with an echo chamber or with group polarization.”

[9/c] There are really two questions here: (a) is the blogosphere balkanized? And (b) does the blogosphere have an effect on discourse and society at large? Balkin’s argument is that the blogosphere won’t contribute to the balkanization of discourse and society at large because the answer to (a) is ‘no.’ Again, I suggest that Balkan is probably right but not obviously so, since it isn’t really clear that the blogosphere provides such checks, throws such people together with sufficient frequency and with the relevant effects, etc. The architecture of the blogosphere does ALLOW views to contend, but the question is: are they doing so? Or, rather, are they doing so productively? Or, rather: are they doing so at least as frequently and at least as productively as they were before the advent of the web and the blogosphere? And does the blogosphere have a positive effect, a negative effect, or no appreciably effect at all on discourse and society at large? I assert: unless no meduim of communication has an effect on society at large--which simply cannot be true--the blogosphere has some effect. (Not that Balkin woud disagree with that claim.) The question is: what kind of effect?

[10] “I'm not trying to be a Polyanna here. I'm not claiming that no group polarization effects could ever occur on the Internet, or that Internet speech is necessarily going to make the world a better, safer place for democracy and/or reasoned discussion. What I am claiming is that fears that the Internet was going to produce a significantly greater tendency toward group polarization seems wrong. I think, in fact, that people's fears and anxieties about loss of control over the traditional public sphere governed by mass media have been projected onto the Internet.”

[10/c] I hope Balkin is right and I suspect he is. But as I noted above, we may miss the forest for a tree if we focus overmuch on balkanization per se. Much of Balkin’s optimism is based on his claims that balkanization won’t produce polarization and that blogic hostility isn’t caused by balkanization. But even if he’s right (as, again, I suspect he is), that could still leave us with the problems of balkanization and increased hostility. But is Balkin right when he claims that there’s no cyberbalkanization at all? Maybe. But why speculate? We could get evidence by counting links on sites and analyzing traffic patterns on the web. My guess is that it won’t be too long before something like “web studies” comes into being in academia and elsewhere, and, so, it won’t be too long before we have some real data that bears on these questions. I have a knee-jerk reaction against such hip new hyperspecializations (and intellectuo-balkanization in general), but in this case I might make an exception.

Friday, February 06, 2004

What is to be done?

I've been trying to think of something to say about this but I can't. Just read it if you haven't already.

Via the indispensible Agonist:

Revealed: The Gas Chamber Horror of North Korea's Gulag

What is to be done about this? How can there be any news but this? I just don't understand... "Janet Jackson apologized again for revealing part of her body in public...and in other news, Holocaust II is underway in Korea..."

Something's got to be done, something's got to be done, something's got to be done...

What I don't understand is how anyone can say "never again" with a straight face... The Gulags...Cambodia...it can't happen again because it never stops. Why isn't every civilized country in the world turning its attention on this problem right now?
Speaking of the University of Infinite Evil...

Fellow Missourian Mark at Braving the Elements informs me that it has been suggested in the Missouri state senate that Southwest Missouri State University be renamed...are you ready for this? John Ashcroft University. (If you follow the link you have to scroll down a bit)

Now I wouldn't worry about this much if it weren't for, e.g., The Reagan Legacy Project, which, as you probably know, is working to get some kind of monument to Reagan in every county in the U.S., get his face on Mount Rushmore, the dime, the ten dollar bill, etc. I'm not sure what's behind this. At first I thought that it was just a cynical propaganda move, an attempt to manufacture a Great Leader for American conservatism. But then I started to worry that these people might really be deluded enough to think that Reagan was a good. President. Scratch that: I suppose they'd have to be deluded enough to think that Reagan was a great president. If you squint real hard at history, I think you might be able to make Reagan a mediocre president...but after that, you're fighting a losing battle against the facts. Iran-Contra alone is enough to relegate Reagan to the Presidential Hall of Shame. Although they had good motives, the Democrats, IMHO, made a huge mistake by not pushing to have Reagan impeached. I understand that the Democrats didn't want to put the country through such a thing again so soon after Nixon, but he did the crime and he should have done the time. I suspect that, by letting the Reagan administration's disrespect for the rule of law slide by unpunished, we prepared the ground for much of what is going on in the current administration.

Though, of course, if you think that Reagan was instrumental in winning the Cold War, that counts for a lot. I don't believe it, but I'm willing to listen to arguments on that score.

The right seems to have a serious problem with (anti-)hero worship and cults of personality. They've inflated the avuncular but unimpressive Reagan into a demi-god, they've not only tried to make Bush seem competent (a difficult enough task), but they even had a go at making him "Churchillian." Needless to say, that canis domesticus will not pursue prey... Even outright villians and--yes--traitors are not only spun into decent folk but into folk heroes. Ollie North. G. Gordon Liddy. What the heck is wrong with the right??? I don't see anything comparable among American liberals. Perhaps the heroification of Kennedy is comparable to that of Reagan? But the assassination accounts for a good bit of that I'd say...

So, anyway, I'm not sure I'd be too confident that the denizens of Springfield won't eventually find themselves driving past John Ashcroft U. some day... Or Ronald Reagan U...

Thursday, February 05, 2004

The Weekly Standard: Incorrigible


I have to say that it's really difficult for me to believe that The Weekly Standard has re-published the sophistical essay "Why We Went to War" by William Kristol and Robert Kagan on its front page. I've already discussed this essay at some length in "Not Why We Went to War." In their inaptly-titled article, Kristol and Kagan discuss some reasons why a nation might have gone to war against Iraq, but they give no evidence whatsoever that these were the Bush administration's reasons for going to war. In fact, the reasons they cite seem rather clearly not to have been the administration's reasons. I would have thought that Kristol, Kagan, and The Standard would have wanted to forget about this stinker... But there it is again, right on the front page...
Al Sharpton Sucks

Via Mark Kleiman I discover that via Nick Confessore we can discover that The village Voice has discovered that Roger Stone (a bad man; in fact, the bad man who was in charge of the GOP forces that stopped the recount in Miami-Dade county during Black November) seems to be running the campaign of the evil Al Sharpton.

This, if true, is such a moral cluster f*@# that I wouldn't know where to start. And I wouldn't know when to stop. I'm sure the Democrats and the Republicans will end up arguing over who this shows is worse, but what it shows is that they both suck. The Republicans suck because there seems to be no depth to which their dirty tricks squad will not stoop. And the Democrats suck because they were complicitous in this one. How on Earth is it that evil Al can appear on stage with all the Democratic candidates in debate after debate, and not a single one of those candidates sees fit to comment on evil Al's evilness? You know all the crazy, infuriating, irrational stuff about Republicans that drives Democrats crazy? Well, this is the kind of crap that drives Republicans crazy about Democrats.

Mark is on this one, and I don't have much to add. I do disagree with him about one thing, though. He thinks that it's not too late for one of the Democratic candidates to have a "Sister Soulja" moment, but I think that it is. Well, better late than never, of course. But the candidates have already shown that they're willing to share the stage with evil Al and pretend that the guy deserves to be treated with respect. Any denunciation of him now that he's turned out to be in cahoots with the GOP just won't carry the same moral force, IMHO. They've basically missed their chance.

I will now demonstrate my own virtue by linking to this post. [Er, apparently I won't, b/c the hardlink doesn't seem to work. I wrote, fascinatingly: "I mean, Al Sharpton? AL SHARPTON???? How can any self-respecting candidate even appear on the same stage with that guy after the Tawana Brawley business? Sure, the Republicans usually have their own cast of lunatics...but...AL SHARPTON?????" Eloquent, eh? anyway, at least I wrote it on September 15 2003, so there.]


Every now and then you can still see leftymobiles around Chapel Hill with those 'Tawana!' bumperstickers. I've often thought to myself that an alien linguist might hypothesize that 'Tawana!' means 'I am a damn idiot. And I need to wash my car.'
[Well somebody's a damn idiot all right...]

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Behold: My Site Feed

I said behold, dangit. No, not here, down there. To the right. No, down a bit more. There...yeah...that's the spot...oh yeah...

Due to repeated requests (technically, two counts as repeated, so wipe that incredulous look of yer face you) I have installed a SITE FEED!

Well, I have made the words 'Site feed' appear over there on the right, anyway...

What does a site feed do? Heck if I know. Apparently you can sign up or something and get notified when I deign to post jools of wisdom. This stuff is cool and all, but, as I was explaining to Peter, who prompted me to do this, I barely have enough time to write the occasional post for this thing, which leaves exactly no time at all to actually learn even the most rudimentary technical stuff about blogging.

Basically all my time is taken up by the ridiculously heavy teaching load here at the University of Infinite Evil. (I shouldn't complain--people at many other places have it lots worse.) That and interviewing job candidates, which we will be doing for approximately half of the semester here in the philosophy department since UIE has apparently decided that most of the teaching should be done by non-permanent people. So we spend much of our time reading dossiers and interviewing new temporary people to fill the slots abandoned by outgoing temporary people. About 2/3 of our classes are now taught by non-tenure-or-tenure-track people, and at one time 40% of our courses were being taught by adjuncts making less than $2000 per course. How can UIE get away with this? Volume! We got 190 applications for the last tenure-track job we advertised--I want to make it clear that that's for a single job--and that's about average in philosophy these days. This is a decent but by no means excellent place to teach, but it's not much of an exaggeration to say that lots of people would kill to get a job here. And then there's the publishing part, which is what you try to do when you get a break from the relentless teaching and committee work parts.

All of this, of course, portends the utter downfall of Western civilization...but I digress...

I just meant to tell you about my alleged site feed, and say a few words about why, technically speaking, I am such a dolt.

But make no mistake about it: academia is a god-awful F#@%ing mess these days. If you are getting ready to go to college or to help your kids pick a school, then, if you aren't already pretty familiar with the place, you should just call up some faculty members at random and ask 'em whether they'd send their own kids to the place. Don't listen to the propaganda the administration of the school pumps out. Christ, if you listen to the students leading the parents and potential students on tours around here, programmed as they are by the boys in the UIE marketing division, you'd think that this place was freakin' Oxford. (Note: it is not Oxford.) What it is is a radically underfunded institution that spends all its money on new buildings, technology, and amusements for the students, while relying more and more on the disastrously bad academic job market to provide it with the slave labor it uses to teach the classes. A very large minority of the students, rich beyond the dreams of avarice, spoiled rotten to the core, and caring nothing for learning, are unwilling to and incapable of doing college-level work but expect to receive 'A's in their courses nevertheless. They are incurious in the extreme, interested only in obtaining a piece of paper that will increase their earning potential. If they do not receive the grades they desire, or if their professors fail to entertain them, they will make their displeasure known on the end-of-semester student evaluations. And, since their instructor is likely to be of the temporary variety, low evaluation scores can mean the instructor won't be re-hired--and, in the current job market, that usually means the end of the instructor's academic career. Note that I'm not venting anger about personal failure here. I have one of the more semi-quasi-permanent jobs in the department, my publication record is fine, and so are my teaching evaluations (despite the fact that I refuse to play the entertainer, I'm proud to say.) But I've seen better people than me get the boot because they weren't amusing enough, or because they got on the bad side of some spoiled rich kid who had her daddy call the Dean. (Note: I'm not kidding. I know someone who was basically fired because he caught a kid violating the honor code by putting her (absent) boyfriend's name on the attendance sheet. The instructor counted the names, discovered that there were more names than people, and figured out who had done it. Because he embarrassed her in class by identifying her as the culprit, she raised a stink to the Chair and the Dean, and his contract wasn't renewed. He was, incidentally, an excellent teacher.)

O.k., that's enough. This place also has some of the best people I've ever met, and some of my students are so great that you just can't believe it. But the major trends in academia are mostly going very much in the wrong direction.

Or so it seems to me right now, dead tired and pissed off, looking at a stack of ungraded papers, at 11:21 pm on a Wednesday night...

Things'll probably seem less awful in the morning...

Oh, don't forget about that site feed thingy. That was the point of this post, anyway...

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

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Spooks and Scientism: David Brooks on Intelligence and Intuitions

David Brooks claims that political pressure from the Bush administration did not influence C.I.A. reports about Iraq and concludes—surprisingly, to say the least—that “this is precisely the problem.” Brooks laments the “scientism” that led “the U.S. intelligence community…[to propagate] the myth that it possesses analytical methods that must be insulated pristinely from the hurly-burly world of politics” and rely “on this aura of scientific objectivity for its prestige…” In support of his claim, Brooks cites Sherman Kent’s claim that “…the truth is to be approached through a systematic method, ‘much like the method of the physical sciences.’” But, Brooks asks rhetorically, “what kind of scientific framework can explain…suicide bombing?” Or “…the sadistic monster who was pulled out of the spider hole a few weeks ago?”

We are not sure how nor to what extent successful social sciences should emulate physical sciences, in particular with regard to employing straightforwardly causal explanations of human behavior. However, a few things are relatively clear. First, contrary to Brooks’s suggestion, causal social scientific (psychological or sociological) explanations of behavior are more, not less, appropriate when the behavior in question is non-rational. Such behavior stands opposed to free and rational action which is typically better explained in terms of reasons and ends. Second, Brooks seems to conflate two different ways of being scientific and two corresponding ways of emulating the physical sciences. One can emulate the physical sciences by offering physical, causal explanations of events, and/or one can emulate them by striving to collect data and analyze it as objectively and dispassionately as possible. Those who suggest that our intelligence agencies should inquire scientifically usually have the latter sense in mind. In this latter sense, even richly interpretive enterprises can be scientific.

Our intelligence services are engaged in social scientific inquiry broadly construed—they are trying to discern the beliefs, intentions, and actions of groups of people. The fact that many of the groups they study want to harm us doesn’t change the nature of these inquiries. Even if the Bush administration did not exert pressure on our intelligence agencies to alter their findings, they apparently accepted the conclusions that fit with their antecedently-held political beliefs and rejected those that did not. Given the administration’s virtual Lysenkoism about the hard sciences (revealed in treatment of expert consensus concerning global warming, drilling in the ANWR, and air quality in Manhattan after 9/11), its attitudes about social sciences like economics and intelligence analysis should surprise no one. Brooks comes dangerously close to saying that what we need now is more, rather than less, Lysenkoism--a suggestion that would be as frightening as it is baffling.

It is also worth noting that, while the hunches of experts are often the best indicator of the truth available to us, it seems unlikely that the C.I.A. eschews reliance on such judgments, though that is what the term ‘scientism’ suggests. (The term is vague, but is usually used to refer to a view according to which the only rational methods of inquiry are the methods of the natural sciences.) The “cold, formal, depersonalized jargon” of final reports is but the weakest of evidence to the contrary. “Judgment calls” usually play a role at some point in our inquiries; but inquiry is usually more successful when it is done systematically so that hunches and brute “judgment calls” are made with regard to relatively discreet, narrowly-focused, low-level questions (questions more like “are these tubes good for enriching uranium?”) rather than with regard to bigger, more complex questions (such as “Does Saddam have WMDs?”). The idea is not only that expert judgments are more reliable when the questions are more narrowly-focused, but also that political and theoretical preconceptions exert less influence on judgments about such relatively more technical questions. Inquiry tends to be more successful when the answers to big questions are based on the answers to smaller, less easily-politicized ones; when things go in the other direction, the process is more aptly described as ‘rationalization’ than as ‘inquiry.’ And, of course, the fact that relatively scientific intelligence analysis is imperfect in no way indicates that the intuitions of politicians are better. With regard to Iraq, in fact, it is likely that we will eventually prove that it was not the allegedly “scientistic” methods of our intelligence agencies that were most inaccurate, but, rather, the hunches and intuitions of our political leaders. This should, of course, come as no surprise. We develop systematic methods of inquiry because we are not particularly good guessers and our “intuitions” are notoriously unreliable—especially when there are conflicts of interest involved as there were in the assessment of the Iraq data. Even though the conclusions of our “scientistic” intelligence agencies concerning Iraq were sub-optimal, they were--by all indications and as any rational person could have predicted that they would be--more accurate than the hunches of less systematic, less knowledgeable, less objective, and less intellectually honest political leaders who had rather clearly made up their minds before they had even seen the bulk of the evidence. The idea, I suppose, is that when one has an intuitive belief that something is so there is no need to waste time with scientistic fetishes like analyzing data.
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Shorter David Brooks:

The real problem with our pre-war intelligence about Iraq is that it was too objective, scientific, and apolitical.


Shorter shorter David Brooks:

Think Russia's got any of those KGB psychics left they can loan us?


[Hey, and while they're at it, maybe the've still got some of those anti-Mendelian biologists hanging around who can come teach alternatives to evolution in American schools...]

[Actually, I think Brooks makes a good point or two, which I'll elaborate on here directly.]

[[Note: I take that back. I don't see any good points. Dunno what I was thinking.]]

[Hey, any chance Brooks reads this blog? Naaahhh.....]

Monday, February 02, 2004

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Some information on Ricin

Facts about ricin from the CDC.

Article from emedicine.com.

Short Q&A from the BBC

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Holy Crap

CNN reports ricin at the Senate office building.