Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hard Times for Science Literacy

The unprecedented pace of scientific discovery has diluted the meaning of "facts" for a scientifically illiterate populace.

Not long ago, facts could be agreed upon. They were written down. They were observable-- in an encyclopedia, if needs be. And because facts were timeless, they must be learned. Mr. Gradgrind from Charles Dickens' Hard Times (1854) extolled the virtues of facts and a fact-based education:
Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.
But what happens when facts change? When Facts no longer are facts?

The twentieth century saw an unprecedented acceleration in the pace of scientific discovery. From aeronautics to astrophysics to animal husbandry, one hundred years of human history has completely revolutionized our understanding of the natural and designed worlds. We've gone from the Wright Brothers to the Mars Curiosity rover. From the Rutherford model of the atom to the Higgs Boson. Each decade bringing forth scientific discoveries that washed away the previous generation's Facts, banishing their beautiful understandings to the history textbooks.

With the pantheon of established Facts being discarded at an ever increasing pace in favor of newly agreed upon facts, what then is the value of a Fact? Why learn facts if they are repudiated just as soon as they are discovered? In short, why even consider a fact a Fact?

I saw this in action recently. I was having breakfast at my trusted haunt, reading my book in the same spot I always read my book, when one of the owners of the diner came over-- as usual-- and struck up some friendly banter. We were talking about my book (Neil DeGrasse Tyson's new collaborative book, Welcome to the Universe) when he said something along the lines of, "Why do you read this stuff anyway? They don't know the real reasons. They change their story every few years."

Herein is the problem. If people are educated to believe that science produces new Facts, they can lose trust in the very institution of science with each new success. When old models are discarded in favor of new models, the very idea that we "understand" anything is called into question. Basically, Facts are diluted as new facts emerge.

The remedy here is to realize and appreciate that science does not always produce facts, nor do scientists claim such (at least good ones don't). Science, rather, brings us an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the world, rather than a series of new immutable and received Knowledge of it's inner workings.

This reminds me of a trend in science education: stop teaching "the scientific method". The idea that science is a scripted linear process of developing a theory, then collecting data, and then formulating a hypothesis, is seriously misleading. Science is far more messy than that. For example, not all scientists go out into the field with pick and shovel and collect hard data. Some scientists spend their entire career without collecting a shred of laboratory or field data, but rather dedicate their lives to theory and critiquing existing understanding through mathematical models. By teaching the scientific method, however, we are lead to believe that each new discovery is the result of a linear progression of steps, delivering us to a new Fact at the process's denouement.

Which brings me back to Facts. In a world where the scientific method is churning out new Facts each week, sending old Facts to encyclopedia, why would we trust anything we hear about new discoveries? Scientists "change their story every few years", so why should we believe them?

Because we do not seek new Facts. We seek new understandings. Better understandings. And that's a messy business.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Good Morning Fallujah!


We thought that Vietnam was a struggle between communists in the north and anti-communists in the south.  But it wasn't.  It was a civil war, a struggle with decolonization, and a struggle against American efforts to maintain a chosen regime.  As Robert McNamara later pointed out, this was a failure of empathy on the part of United States's foreign policy.  We failed to empathize with "the enemy" and consequently were unable to address the root causes-- and potential political solutions-- of the conflict.

Thomas Friedman makes a solid case that we are doing the same with ISIS. The basic question of how ISIS has made such rapid gains in the region (or at least they did a few months ago) is perhaps best answered by addressing ideas of nationalism and Sunni regional pride rather than jihadist ideology.

The Shiites in Syria and Iraq, in this analogy, are Diem's regime: brutal, corrupt, and propped up by foreign powers-- Iran for the former, and the US for the latter.  No matter how much the US bombed the North, the Southern regime could never stand on its own nor gain much popular support.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Following the Abstract

I'm currently reading two books: Moby Dick and The Irony of American History.  Separated by 101 years, one fiction and the other a meditation on then-contemporary history and culture, I've discovered a weakness I have as a reader.  When reading fiction, I'm able to construct mental images of the text that I read.  I can see Ahab.  I can see the whaling ship.  I can smell the ocean breeze, touch the splintered rails, and hear the flapping mainsail.

The act of recalling a particularly vivid work of fiction is as easy as recalling a favorite movie.  We remember the scenes well because we were there with the characters, experiencing each scene a little differently than all other readers, but in no less vivid or accurate terms.  Think of Heart of Darkness, or Darkness at Noon for that matter, and you can remember the scenes because they were so well written.  We were there.

Compare this to a fine work of non-fiction such as The Irony of American History.  The slim book deals with weighty topics such as nuclear weapons, the lies of communism (and the delusions of capitalism), tyranny, and other subjects that aren't discussed all that much in the 21st century.

Here's the problem I have, as a reader: I can't see communism.  I can't see mutually assured destruction.  Sure, there are images commonly associated with those ideas, but when reading the book and grappling with those topics in the abstract it seems silly to reflexively imagine Stalin's mustache or Marx's beard every time he mentions communism.

How do I remedy this situation?  How do I become a better reader of abstract concepts?  The answer, I've found, is to write.  Writing my thoughts, making comparisons, and drawing parallels to today help concretize the abstract concepts.

It is in that spirit that I write my next post.  "Reflections on the Irony of American History"...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Malaysian Airline over Ukraine: A Prediction

My predictions for the Malaysian airliner that just went missing in Ukraine:

  • Ukraine shot it down, mistaking it for a Russian cargo plane, in retaliation for their jet that was shot down yesterday. 
  • Separatists shot it down in the hopes of drawing Russia in and escalating the conflict. 
I believe it's the latter, using the former for cover.

The Russians have no reason whatsoever to have shot this plane down.  Plus, their military hardware is too sophisticated to mistake a civilian airliner for, well, anything but a civilian airliner.  Let's be clear: this is not KAL 007.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Putin Isn't Hitler, But His Justifications for Invasion Are The Same

The headline reads "Hillary Clinton compares Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine to Adolf Hitler's in Nazi Germany".   Right away, that headline is misleading.  She did not compare Putin's actions in Ukraine to Hitler's in Germany.  She compared Putin's action in Ukraine to Hitler's tactics in Czechoslovakia and other countries.  Here's the quote:
"All the Germans that were ... the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they're not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that's what's gotten everybody so nervous."
Her historical analogy is accurate.  Both Putin and Hitler used similar pretexts to justify the invasion of another sovereign country, namely, protecting ethnic Russians and Germans respectively.  To her credit, Clinton rightfully avoided the trap of comparing Putin to Hitler.  She compared their justifications, not their character or policies.  Her point is that the given justification is dangerous and illegal.

Reading the comments from multiple news sources' coverage (always depressing), there are those who are criticizing her for:

  1. Disrespecting the Holocaust by even mentioning the Hitler analogy. (Citing Hitler as a historical analogy does not demean or disrespect Holocaust remembrance. Insisting that Hitler is off limits for discussion is a dangerous idea.)
  2. Disrespecting the Russians who died fighting Hitler in WWII. (Red herring.)
  3. War mongering.  (No calls for war here.)
  4. The US did the same thing in Iraq.  (Good point, but completely irrelevant.)

Quote Stanley:

But was Clinton right? Mostly no. It is true that Putin's justification for intervention in Ukraine is similar to Hitler's, that is, threatening to invade a sovereign territory to defend his ethnic brethren. But the situation is complex, and the historical comparison is tenuous at best.  After all, in the eyes of many ethnic Russians, it is the Ukrainian nationalists -- not Putin -- who are the Nazis. The Russians have asserted, quite accurately, that the revolution that overthrew a pro-Russian, democratically elected leader has resulted in the elevation of Russophobe fascists into key government positions...

We're not discussing who is most like the Nazis.  Clinton compared Putin's justification to Hitler's.  Stanley's tangent on ethnic Russians thinking Ukrainian nationalists are Nazis is a distraction from Clinton's point, and fails in any way to disprove it.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Listen, I'm a no-name blogger of no importance.  I'm okay with that.  I do this because it gives me an outlet for my thoughts on the region, and it allows me to write as often as possible.

That being said, I like it when I'm right, and I like it when famous people say the same things that I say.  Call it intellectual vanity if you will.  I call it "being on the right track".

Read Thomas Friedman's recent op-ed in the New York Times:
 Yes, the various Muslim Brotherhoods have exploited the opening created by these uprisings because they were the most organized parties. But if the Islamists don’t respond to the real drivers of this revolution — that yearning for education and jobs and the dignity they bring — they, too, will eventually face a rebellion.
And from me:
Egypt's next elections will prove my point.  If the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists do not satisfy the Egyptians expectations by the time of the next election, they will be voted out of office.  It was no surprise when they were recently elected: they were well organized (thanks to their semi-underground status) and presented an alternative vision for Egypt.  Logistically and organizationally, nobody else was in a position to be voted into power.  That won't, however, be the case in the next round of elections: other parties will have had the chance to organize, form a strategy, and present a case to the Egyptian people.  This upcoming presidential election is another story.  Stay tuned for developments to come-- as dictated by the ruling military council.
So how about we stop being stupid? How about we stop sending planes and tanks to a country where half the women and a quarter of the men can’t read, and start sending scholarships instead?
Concerning Pakistan, my thoughts are that the US has to stop dangling the military assistance carrot and instead focus on civilian development.  Brandishing the stick won't help either.  In essence, the US has to fundamentally change the way it has been dealing with Pakistan for the past 30 years (since Zia, at least).  No more guns and bombs.  Pakistan has got plenty of those (and just tested a nuclear-capable missile last week).  What Pakistan lacks, and what the US wants, is the desire to stop militants from attacking the Afghani and Pakistani government and people.  That's the issue.  Listen, Pakistan isn't going to change overnight, and the US can't simply abandon it either.  Therefore, pick a strategy and a goal and go for it.  Giving guns isn't the right strategy, and it isn't going to attain the desired goal either.
If anything, I need to be less verbose.  Otherwise, in a funny kind of way, I feel validated.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Summary of the Situation

Let's take a step back.  It is important to periodically emerge from immersion in the pool of politics and intrigue, shake off the excess propaganda and barb-slinging, and dry oneself off in the warm embrace of self-reflection and thought.

Let's outline what's happening in the region:
  • Ongoing conflict in Syria; more violence; seemingly failed ceasefire; frustrations from inaction.
  • Islamists in Egypt, with disqualified candidates aplenty; Mandated secularism in politics in Libya; and more-of-the-same in Tunisia.  All relatively quiet in Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.
  • Continued, often bloody, protests in Bahrain.
  • Fruitful talks between the US and Iran.  Less chance that World War III will break out.  Less vitriolic shouts from extremists in the US and Israel.
  • Continued soured relations between the US and Pakistan.  Pakistan says "no more drones", and the US responds with more drones.
  • Afghanistan is in limbo, with a recent high-profile Taliban attack in Kabul, and a US president looking for an honorable exit.
From the outlook of US policy, what common themes can we identify?  Well, not many.  The US approach is on a case-by-case basis.  Example: support the Syrian opposition, don't support the Bahraini opposition.  Both wish for more rights, less oppression, etc.  However, the US doesn't have a fleet stationed in Syria-- it does have one in Bahrain.

The US/Pakistan relationship is much like my relationship with my last girlfriend: we're just on different levels.  We don't want the same things, and those things that we do want we want to acquire in different ways.  Can the US breakup with Pakistan, but still be friends?  Friends with benefits, maybe?  It can happen.  But-- and this is no reflection on my ex-- Pakistan has "issues" that it needs to resolve before it can develop meaningful relationships.  Namely, the courts and the executive have to play nice with each other, and the ISI needs to learn how to share, and there's high-level corruption, and... never mind.

Concerning Pakistan, my thoughts are that the US has to stop dangling the military assistance carrot and instead focus on civilian development.  Brandishing the stick won't help either.  In essence, the US has to fundamentally change the way it has been dealing with Pakistan for the past 30 years (since Zia, at least).  No more guns and bombs.  Pakistan has got plenty of those (and just tested a nuclear-capable missile last week).  What Pakistan lacks, and what the US wants, is the desire to stop militants from attacking the Afghani and Pakistani government and people.  That's the issue.  Listen, Pakistan isn't going to change overnight, and the US can't simply abandon it either.  Therefore, pick a strategy and a goal and go for it.  Giving guns isn't the right strategy, and it isn't going to attain the desired goal either.

Before this turns into a dissertation, let's conclude with a broad summary: Multilateralism and regional groups are playing the leading role in ongoing developments.  The US has, and should continue, to pay attention to that information.  Overall, less is more.  Overexposure and over deployment is expensive, dangerous, and harmful to all.  The US needs to pick its battles carefully-- and I use "battles" figuratively.  Hopefully it stays that way.